By electing Iohannis, the Romanian middle class votes for stability


Iohannis in the election night (photo: YouTube)

The wretched of the earth lost again

Interview realised by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat

The Polish site interviewed the founder of the blog ”The Bridge of Friendship” Vladimir Mitev about the Romanian presidential elections. The Bulgarian journalist commented what explains the support for Klaus Iohannis, how it should be interpreted in international and internal plan, the role of France in Romania and the region and the expectations from the Romanian-Polish relations after Iohannis’ reelection as head of the state. 

What follows is the text of the interview:

Like most of the commentators predicted, Klaus Iohannis has won the second presidential term in Romania. You have commented for Bloomberg Television Bulgaria that Romanians chose to „emit a message of euroatlantic loyalty” by voting this way. Is geopolitics and international politics really that important for majority of citizens of Romania?

There are many reasons for Romanian euroatlanticism. One of them certainly is related to security, as Romanians and especially Romanian elites feel threatened and challenged by Russia. But there are also cultural issues – related to certain national complexes inside the Romanian elite, that it is by its definition a Latin, ”Western” nation, which they believe has been strongly influenced and undermined by Oriental and Eurasian cultural influences. Also, Romanians still seem to share the concept that they are „an island” in a sea of Slavs, which makes them want to escape the poor and corrupted region they are placed in by a direct link and subordination the the Western interests.

However, in the last years in Romania there was also a current that the country is an economic colony of the West. Romanians realise that their national resources, banks and energy companies are owned by foreign capital.

Why, then, no serious protest movement emerged? Why no one tried to organize citizens’ anger around these issues, with demands of real economical liberation and searching for partners and not colonizators? In Eastern Europe, both left and right-wing parties successfully gained votes thanks to such discourse.

There is rising criticism that because of the strong foreign business interests Romania cannot depart from its position of a country of cheap labour, which creates a lot of social problems – like poverty and emigration. But nevertheless, the ordinary Romanian might be simulteanously pro-Western – for cultural reasons – and to feel that Romania’s relation to the West is unequal and injust for his nation.

Also, the ordinary Romanian – just like the ordinary Bulgarian – looks for accessible and possible solutions to his problems and needs within the system he lives in. In this sense, I do not think that geopolitical reasons are the only explanation for Iohannis’ victory, although it will be perceived so and cannot be perceived differently in international context.

Still, there must have been certain people behind Iohannis’ success. Someone who profited from his governance over the previous years.

The Romanian middle class, the Romanian elites, including the security establishment found sense in supporting Iohannis’ candidature. There are winners from the transition, which took place in the last 30 years. They are more interested in the business environment, in the anti-corruption fight, which changes the old elites of transition with new ones and they do not want big changes and new painful restructurings to the Romanian political and economic model. They vote for stability. Iohannis embodies this stability. And he embodies a Romanian stability, which is pro-Western without nuances and without local colouring. With his re-election the urban middle class, which protested against the social democrat’s redefinition of anti-corruption, will feel empowered.

Were there any particular achievements during Iohannis’ first five-year tenure?

In fact, he did not do a lot. He was considered withdrawn, unemotional, lacking passion and slow in his political reactions. But he also did not try to do a lot, so maybe he did not fail a lot too.

The first major thing he did was to gather all the political leaders behind „defence pact”, meaning that all the political parties accepted and applied that 2% of GDP be allocated for the military. As a result Romania has been arming itself. Multi-billion defence contracts are being realised in partnership with NATO allies. Then Iohannis tried to launch a visionary initiative with the rank of national project, called „Educated Romania”. The initiative was criticised for being mostly nice talk of experts or of public persons, who are more politicians that educators.

After the parliamentary elections of December 2016, won by the Social Democratic Party, Iohannis was on the defensive. He couldn’t avoid and block his own signing the order for the dismissal of Laura Koveşi as head of the anti-corruption prosecution. It was only after the European elections of May 2019, when the social democrats did bad, that Iohannis felt empowered and started blocking more actively the activities of PSD. Most of his first mandate Iohannis played the role of „the European”, of the anti-PSD force in Romanian politics, which guarantees that the country remains loyal to „European values” in justice and in general. In fact, articulating the anti-PSD position of the urban middle class was his essential task. And here, he did well.

You said that president ’embodies a stability’. What does it exactly mean? Is president an influential figure in Romanian political system?

The Romanian president has the power to give mandate for government to a leader, who he chooses on the basis of consultations with the parliamentary parties and leaders. In this sense, he can be a powerful figure, especially, when he manages to have parliamentary support for an affiliated government – and this is basically what happened in Romania shortly before the presidential elections, when Ludovic Orban from National Liberation Party, Iohannis’ party, became prime minister. Also, as president Iohannis has nominated the head of the secret service SRI, which is a strong technocratic institution in Romania.

Prime minister, government and president coming from one political party – that means shaping Romanian political life in whatever way they want to. Given their political background, does it mean that from now on, the needs of pauperized citizens will be utterly ignored?

As I said, Iohannis’ reelections means stability in the sense that those who won from transition will continue to be unchallanged in their dominant social position. Also, he guarantees to the urban middle class and to the euroatlantic partners that justice will be cured from the social democrats’ crusade for its redefinition. He guarantees that Romania will not move away from „the correct road”, prescribed by its euroatlantic partners.

The public discourse will be increasingly about balanced budget, about having good macroeconomic data, about foreign investment, etc. and less about allocating money to pensioners or public sector employees. Needless to sąy that they feel threatened by the rise of PNL and the fall of Social-Democratic Party (PSD), which managed to increase significantly the incomes of the citizens of smaller towns, old men and state servants. Iohannis’ reelection means that social policies will not be supported by the president’s office. Shortly before the installation of the Orban government the parliament approved a bill, which stipulated that the minimal salary be increased in function of the increase in the value of the minimal consumer basket for a decent life. Iohannis vetoed this bill. He also returned to the parliament for reexamination the legislative modifications, which obliged the employers to pay any overtime hours of their employees.

Viorica Dancila of PSD made it to the second round, even though many commentators (including you) were not sure about her capacities. Had she the chance to win the vote? Perhaps, if her program was differently written, or if she did better during the campaign…

No, I do not think she ever had the chance to win. There is strong stigma upon the PSD, upon „communists” (even though they do not have anything to do with communist idea), upon what middle class Romanians call „red plague”. The urban middle class has disdain for this party, because it represents the people from smaller towns and villages, poorer and less educated voters. Viorica Dancila represents the classical middle class’ image of a PSD politician. Great waves of hate have been pouring upon her ever since she became prime minister. She made a lot of gaffes and Romanians kept on mocking her. It must be noted, however, that Iohannis also attracted disdain. He avoided having debate with Dancila. He gave a preelection press conference within controlled environment with comfortable, general questions.

The secret of Dancila’s success at the first round was the PSD governments’ policy of raising the salaries in the public sector and of pensions. A lot of unprivileged people realised that in spite of this party’s disadvantages PSD did something for them and they voted accordingly. Curiously, both PNL and PSD, both Iohannis and Dancila are conservative and seem to be Romanian leaders, set for the Trump times. But Iohannis has the trust of the Western partners, speaks foreign languages. In this sense Dancila is unelectable. The state does not need her at the top. Iohannis is what the elites opt for.

Another important candidate was Dan Barna. You called him Macron’s man in Romania – does it mean that France is seeking to enlarge its connections with Romania and gain more influence in the region?

I made this affirmation as I noticed that USR and Plus – the parties, which support Barna, are part of the group of the Macronists (Renew Europe) in the European Parliament. Also, among their ranks is a Romanian MEP of French origin – Clotilde Armand. I notice a rise of France’s profile not only in Romania, but also in Serbia, where Macron made a state visit in the summer of 2019 and in Greece, where the prime minister Mytsotakis is French-speaker. Maybe Bulgaria positions differently, as one can feel jealousy in the Bulgarian foreign policy circles over Macron’s presumed support for Serbia in the region.

I can’t say much on France’s influence in Romania, but certainly some big French corporation operate in Romania and do well. Renault Nissan owns the automobile brand Dacia, which is a huge success in Romania and the region. Curiously, Barna poses as an entrepreneur, as a pro-business politician, who also fights for the replacement of the transition elites with new, younger elites. His party – Union Save Romania, really empowers the young Romanians. So, one can make a guess that time is working to the benefit of Barna’s supporters – if they don’t destroy their political project with internal clashes and external scandals.

You mentioned certain pro-social measures introduced by Viorica Dancila’s and the PSD government. Do you believe that the new government will revoke these changes, switching their policies to classical austerity? Aren’t they afraid of people’s wreath?

The new government announced that the budget figures are worse than expected and that the budget needs to be rebalanced. But I think they indeed fear public anger in the case that pensions and salaries are cut. So on 20 November the vice prime minister Raluca Turcan said that there will be no cuts to the salaries and pensions, as the gossip tends to claim. Earlier, the prime minister Orban announced that the next year’s rise of pensions by 40% will remain in force. In spite of that, the financial minister Florin Cîţu, who comes from the financial sector, claims that growth can and should happen through austerity. So, at the end of the day, I am pessimist – I believe that if financial data worsen and if people’s sensitivity to their social right falls, the government could indeed cut salaries and pensions.

There were some massive protests in Romania in last few years. Do you believe that Romanian society gets tired with antisocial policies, do the people seek some alternatives?

Unfortunately the alternatives to the anti-social policies are too weak. They lack media support, they lack leaders and they lack public support. People are manipulated into thinking that PSD is the greatest problem, therefore Iohannis or USR should be given support. There are political options such as the small party Demos, which position itself as a modern, young, European social-democratic party. But it was not even able to collect enough signatures in order to participate in the latest European and presidential elections.

There is a strong stigma in Romanian society upon socialism, upon the left. I think the alternatives, which exist, are not in the field of political parties, but more in the NGOs, in the publishing houses, social centres, initiatives such as the summer school of Telciu, cultural genres such as the political theatre, etc. Having worked for a left-wing media, which publishes in Romanian language, I am very happy to have had interaction with these underground or low-profile alternatives, which really allow for the formulation of alternative thinking and action in Romania. I guess intellectual, cultural and university spheres are places where alternatives are being searched for. Maybe they need to be popularised not only in Romania, but also in our region, so that those of us who look for alternatives in Poland, Bulgaria or elsewhere understand that we are not alone and become part of a bigger society.

While we are talking about Poland… strong euroatlantic views are also typical for Polish ruling spheres. Do you believe that election of Iohannis would have some impact on Polish-Romanian relations?

Romania just like Poland insists on having its special connection to the USA. Romanians feel that Poland could be a model country for them. A lot of Romanians believe that the Polish people are honest, ethical, religious, fight for their rights and traditions. Also, Poland scored recently a few successes, which were distributed and discussed upon in Romania: the American visas for Polish people were eliminated, the country entered the group of developed nations, and announcements were made that Poland will be no longer country of the cheap labour as a result of plans for salaries’ increase. Romanians feel that Poland is a country of their magnitude and significance in the region. Therefore, what Poland does well serves as ground for self-criticism, but can also mobilise the Romanians in their demands for development.

In this context, I believe Iohannis’ reelection keeps the positive momentum in the Romanian-Polish bilateral relations. Let me remind that in September the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki met with Iohannis in Bucharest. The corresponding message at the site of the Romanian president speaks about the strategic cooperation between the two countries, about their common foreign policy priorities with regard to the Eastern Neighbourhood and within the B9 group, which is focused on defence and security in the Central and Southeastern Europe. It is also significant that on 1 October 2019 there was an event at the Romanian embassy in Warsaw, which celebreated 100 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries and 10 years of strategic partnership between them. The event, passed under the motto – „Two countries, one destiny”, and at it a message from Iohannis was read by the top Romanian diplomat Bogdan Aurescu. Aurescu became the foreign minister in the Orban government. I think these two events speak sufficiently about the importance Poland has for the new old Romanian president and for its present foreign minister.

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