An English version of an article on the Rosia Montana mining project, Romanian version here: http://www.contributors.ro/editorial/ce-se-intampla-daca-protestatarii-castiga-impotriva-proiectului-minier-de-la-rosia-montana-se-duc-acasa-sau-raman-pe-strazi-inarmati-cu-sticle-de-plastic-si-pompe-de-bicicleta/
On 8 September, the protest in Bucharest against the multibillion-dollar Rosia Montana gold-mining project in Transylvania was reaching the city’s central business district of Piata Victoriei, home of the Government assembly.
I raced to be at the head of the crowd to see how the 10,000-strong mass would react to facing the hub of their leaders. A few gendarmerie were creeping around the bushes in front of the building where the Cabinet meets. The main body of the protestors did not know which direction to take. Organisers on megaphones were telling the people to go to Obor – a shabby nexus of cheap and semi-legal markets. But when you have thousands of youngsters high on the confidence of the mass, it is hard to persuade them to walk four kilometres to a market that sells Turkish jeans, counterfeit cigarettes and fresh carp, when they have the seat of Government in their range. A bearded man about 30 years in age ran forward carrying a giant Romanian flag, hoping to lead a charge of some kind. The thin line of Gendarmerie were stunned. They could not form a cordon. He slipped through their grasp. More people followed him, breaking through the loose ranks, with nothing to stop them. The gendarmerie were scattered, frantic, moving from place to place, unsure of where to stand, looking no more fierce than a team of amateur volleyball players.
Around a hundred were standing in the space between a disorganised militia and the HQ of their elected representatives. Unsure of what to do. But knowing that, if there had been more of them, only a few hundred more, it would have been easy to storm the Government.
It made me realise that, here in Romania, power is nothing but a paper curtain drawn between the people and an elite. It takes a second to expose. So far this protest, without even trying, has managed to force a fracture in the leading coalition, by seeing National Liberal Party president Crin Antonescu taking a sympathetic line with the protestors – believing this to be in his own interests as a Presidential candidate in 2014 – and Prime Minister Victor Ponta flip-flopping between passion or dispassion for the project.
If in the UK or France, 20,000 people took to the streets, it would be a footnote, even in Liberation or The Guardian, which Hollande or Cameron could ignore, but in Romania, the Government quakes.
This is partly due to the non-violence. When protestors break apart the city’s paving stones and throw rocks at the gendarmerie, power in Romania knows how to react – with a baton to the face and belly. When protestors collect on the same streets and put those same rocks in a plastic bottle and shake them like a pair of maracas, the Government teeters on the brink of self-destruction.
But it is too early to call this a victory. Even if the Government agrees to postpone the project, the protestors know that a verbal agreement in Romania is worth nothing – they will not stop until the cancellation of the gold mine is written in blood.
But what happens to a community of thousands of dissident youth? The organisers have drawn up a shopping list of demands which the protestors repeated to me ad verbatim. They want to remove the mono-industrial status of Rosia Montana, which reserves the area only for ore mining, and make it open for business. To ensure the welfare and prosperity of the Rosia Montana people should be the responsibility of every protestor – and this needs to be more than buying a square metre of land on a hill in a place they will never visit. They also want to make Rosia Montana a UNESCO heritage site to protect it from future exploitation – but UNESCO may argue this is too much of a politically motivated decision for them to take.
Many protestors believe shale gas exploration in Romania is the next target. With big energy names like Chevron spiking the ground, pumping in water and cracking the minerals to release energy, this is a controversial business which can poison drinking supplies – but some protestors argue shale gas does not have the “romance” of Rosia Montana. There is no gold or cyanide. It does not glitter or kill. It is only dirty water and grey rock.
Will this be the base of a new political movement? With many protestors calling for party leaders to resign, it may be possible that Rosia Montana could break apart the current coalition. But another election would only see a rearrangement of positions in a tired elite, rather than a new political force. Some political faces on the protest told me they were reluctant to stand for election right now – if their campaign invokes their part in the downfall of Rosia Montana, the protestors will reject them as opportunistic. It was our protest, they will state as a collective, not yours.
One option would be a new political network of independents standing for European Parliamentary Elections in 2014 – a slate of candidates who have the spirit of the protest, but do not exploit its achievements as their own. But this requires leadership and organisation. Getting 20,000 people on the streets is easier than getting them to ballot box.
Right now the protestors know what they don’t like – they are just not sure what they do like. This is a start. If they win, they may go back home to work or study or just to get some sleep.
But the next time the nation’s leaders try to pass a similar law, they will be back and they will be pissed. Because those demonstrating are decisive, well-informed and without fear – three qualities the Romanian leadership is not showing.
“They know they can’t fuck with us again,” one protestor told me, “that is enough for now.”