Democracy on the Brink: A Coup Attempt Fails in Romania

Twenty-three years after the bloody uprising that freed it from the grip of the Ceausescu dictatorship, Romania seemed to have become a consolidated democracy, boasting membership in NATO and the European Union. Then came the summer of 2012, when the southeastern European country, already a cause of concern to Western Europe because of reports of creeping lawlessness and political corruption, tried on a more authoritarian political identity, as a second Belarus or a second Venezuela. Officials in the EU and US winced and unequivocally called upon the new Romanian government to abide by its commitments.

The country’s summer of discontent actually started in January, when street riots challenged the country’s leadership. Partly spontaneous, partly organized by the left-leaning, populist, anti–International Monetary Fund (or IMF) opposition, including the Romanian equivalent of “Occupy Wall Street,” the winter demonstrations may have failed to produce a robust social movement with coherent goals and a credible strategy, but they did preview the serious political tensions that would explode later on.

President Traian Basescu, a former sea captain twice elected to five-year terms in 2004 and 2009, has received the lion’s share of blame for drastic IMF-required austerity measures adopted in May 2010 and has suffered steady declines in popularity among voters. A reformist government headed by a former foreign minister and head of foreign intelligence, Oxford-educated historian Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, was voted down in April and a left-center coalition, the Social Liberal Union, formed the current government in May. The new prime minister, thirty-nine-year-old socialist Victor Ponta, is a self-proclaimed admirer of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara. Writer and Nobel laureate Herta Müller, who was born in Romania, called Ponta’s party “fake Social Democrats” and the new governing style “a play of crooks.”

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After Ponta’s ascension as prime minister in June 2012, Nature magazine published a devastating article showing that his Ph.D. thesis contained more than one hundred plagiarized pages. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Le Monde, and many other European newspapers picked up the story. The Romanian Ministry of Education’s Council on Ethics was about to condemn Ponta when its membership was suddenly expanded to include a majority of his supporters. The reconfigured body exonerated the prime minister, although the Ethical Commission of the University of Bucharest, Ponta’s alma mater, unambiguously condemned him for plagiarism. To counteract the effects of the scandal, Ponta and his closest ally, Liberal Party leader Crin Antonescu, touched off an outburst of xenophobic and anti-Western attacks about the motivations of the foreign media reporting on the story, while also announcing a populist program of wage and pension increases.

The political situation in the country became further inflamed in June when former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (a Social Democrat luminary, law professor, and also Ponta’s Ph.D. adviser) was sentenced to two years in jail on charges of corruption and reportedly attempted suicide at the time of his arrest. Once perceived as an omnipotent figure, Nastase, who amassed a large fortune during and after his years in office, became the first post-Communist premier, not only in Romania but in any EU country, to go to jail. Whether or not he actually tried to kill himself—he has maintained the suicide version from prison, where he continues to blog about his unjust imprisonment and political ambitions—he has whipped up a national soap opera monopolizing Romanian television.


Following Nastase’s conviction, attacks on the rule of law in Romania escalated. The embryonic, independent judiciary, encouraged by the EU, was getting too bold for the oligarchs who had gotten rich in the post-Communist period, including some with roots in the old Securitate, Nicolae Ceausescu’s secret police. This newly consolidated kleptocracy, as most Romanians saw it, launched a campaign to undermine the concept and practice of judicial independence and transparency, attacking several institutions whose mission involves documenting the Communist past of the country and buoying pro-Western cultural policies. The director of the National Archives, a young historian who had opened to the public these long inaccessible resources, was fired.  Another target was the prestigious Romanian Cultural Institute, involved in promoting the new wave in Romanian cinema and modernist trends in other fields. Philosopher Horia-Roman Patapievici and his team resigned in protest over drastic budget cuts and strong ideological pressures. The new leadership radically changed the institute’s strategy and espoused a parochial approach reminiscent of Ceausescu’s propaganda.

By July the center-left Social Liberal Union (or USL) leaders felt strong enough to remove President Basescu and restructure the judiciary. To achieve these goals they used parliamentary migrations (i.e., members switching parties) to obtain an overwhelming majority. Next, the chairs of the two chambers of Parliament and the ombudsman were replaced. An extraordinary parliamentary session followed that voted to impeach Basescu and to organize a national referendum to sustain this action. Crin Antonescu, the USL co-chair and chair of the Senate, became Romania’s interim president, substituting for the now twice-impeached Basescu.

Basescu’s last hope, and that of the continuation of an independent judiciary in Romania as well, rested with the Constitutional Court, which the USL leaders intended also to immediately reshuffle and pack. Unexpectedly, the court appealed for help to the consultative Venice Commission on constitutional regulations in Europe, an emergency initiative unprecedented in the EU’s short history.

Efforts by Prime Minister Ponta, interim President Antonescu, and their allies to dismantle the court, the last fortress of legality in Romania, produced tough and sustained reactions from EU President José Manuel Barroso, justice commissar Viviane Reding, the US State Department, and the international media. Speaking abroad or to foreign media, Ponta pledged to acquiesce to the EU’s requests, but at home he spoke from the other side of his mouth. Likewise, Antonescu, inebriated with power, made defiant statements against foreign interference in Romanian affairs, oblivious to the bridges he was burning. Meanwhile, Romania’s civil society and independent media mobilized against the onslaught on democratic values.

The referendum on Basescu’s fate took place on July 29th. The referendum’s organizers, however, did not manage to get the participation of a quorum of fifty-one percent of all registered voters, as required by law in Romania, to sustain the stacked Parliament’s coup.

Ponta, Antonescu, and the parliamentary majority were not ready to give up, however. After they failed to mobilize a voter quorum in the referendum, they pointed out that the majority of those who had cast a ballot (roughly forty-six percent of the electorate) had voted to dismiss Basescu. Romanian democracy, after all, is all about majorities and not systems or procedures, right? Unswayed by foreign and domestic media reporting that Basescu had survived impeachment, the referendum’s organizers applied all pressure and tried every possible legal maneuver to persuade the Constitutional Court to recognize Basescu’s ouster.


Under these extremely tense circumstances, the assistant US secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, Philip Gordon, arrived in Bucharest and spelled out the unequivocal support of the US for rule of law in Romania. Ponta reluctantly acknowledged that he had gotten the message, but Antonescu, Ponta’s closest collaborator, didn’t bother to play nice. Instead he recklessly attacked US Ambassador Mark Gitenstein, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Barroso, the EU president, as “enemies of Romania.” Antonescu’s erratic, embarrassing behavior—he is given to martial gestures, pompous speeches, and Mussolini-like megalomania—turned him into an object of media scorn at home, making him perhaps the most ridiculed politician in Romania today. For many Romanians, the performance of these two boys of summer is utterly disquieting: even some critics of Basescu began to say that Ponta and Antonescu had succeeded in ruining Romania’s international reputation and financial credibility (the leu, Romania’s currency, continually lost value against the euro during the crisis).

Finally, on August 21st, a majority in the Romanian Constitutional Court declared the referendum invalid, and on August 28th Basescu returned to office, his charisma in tatters. A pair of power figures who had stood behind the efforts of Ponta and Antonescu to oust him and oust democracy as well—Ion Iliescu, a former Communist apparatchik and the first democratically elected post-Ceausescu leader, and media mogul and former Securitate collaborator Dan Voiculescu, who owns Romania’s powerful TV station Antena 3 and whom Le Monde has called the Rasputin of Bucharest—have continued to insist that Basescu is extinct as a political force. As Basescu’s term will end in December 2014 and parliamentary elections, due in December 2012, will likely result in a USL victory, the forecast is for further political and social turbulence, not excluding the possibility of violence. So far, Romania’s political class has shown little understanding of the challenges of co-habitation. Ponta, Antonescu, and their supporters will continue the onslaught on the Constitutional Court and independent justice.

While acknowledging, largely for foreign consumption, the validity of the Constitutional Court resolution, those who tried to stage a coup against Romanian democracy have continued to agitate for Basescu’s resignation as they stoke voter anger and frustrations, and try to build support for alternative regional and Romanian identities at the expense of its EU membership. They have the backing of Vladimir Putin’s quasi-official Romanian-language radio station “The Voice of Russia,” which has persistently attacked Basescu and endorsed his opponents. The Romanian public straddles the two extremes, aware that another, perhaps a final, chance to decide between genuine democracy and Putin-style “managed democracy” will come at the end of the year. With an USL government validated by national elections, Romania’s democratic future looks quite bleak.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor of politics at University of Maryland, College Park, and author, most recently, of The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century. In 2006, he chaired the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania and has frequently visited the country since then.

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