Embracing the Orbán playbook: Romania’s illiberal turn and assault on civil society
By Tudor Brădățan, Director of Declic, a good governance and environment campaign group in Romania with over 1 million members.
"The Romanian government has launched an unprecedented attack on civil society, akin to the actions of Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party, in Hungary. Nicolae-Ionel Ciucă’s government coalition will shortly pass into law three bills that will erode the space for organizations such as Declic, the NGO I have led since its founding eight years ago. The beneficiaries of these changes will be some of Romania’s most unscrupulous businessmen and key loyalists of the government.
This move, by Ciucă, follows an assault, last year, on the authority of Romania’s judiciary, and seeks to shrink the space in which civil society organizations can operate. The attack bears striking resemblance to the actions of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who has constantly rallied against the presence of NGOs in his country - particularly those that seek to provide relief to refugees fleeing persecution - and will see limits placed on non-governmental groups to challenge court permits, including environmental agreements. This law will undermine the ability of NGOs to use litigation to ensure that the rule of law is enforced, and, if carried, would make legal claims, such as one successfully put forward by NGOs against a proposed gold mine at Rosia Montana - now a UNESCO World Heritage site - an impossibility.
A key component of these proposed laws is that NGOs will need to submit a bond of 10.000 euros for the mere ability to contest a permit in court. Simply put, NGOs would be forced to pay for access to justice, and, in turn, become effective outliers in the judicial system. If an NGO subsequently loses a case, too, the legal changes would see its board of directors held liable for costs, which could be reclaimed not only through petitioning organizations but from the personal assets of named-employees. This procedure would make NGOs an alien grouping, with respect to legal recourse, and separate them from other legal claimants, including business owners.
While Ciucă’s efforts to quash civil society, through these legal changes, mirror much of the playbook of Hungary's Viktor Orbán, there are also parts that align with the sort of behavior we see on a near-daily basis in autocracies. One particular example centres on the ability, for law courts, to send citizens to prison for insults or reported slander towards public servants. If two or more citizens are arbitrarily considered to have insulted any such employee, or disturbed the public order at a public gathering, there is scope to charge, and sentence, them for a period of two to seven years in prison. The definitions of ‘insult’, ‘slander’ and ‘disturbing the public order’ are currently vague in the government’s legislative text, and, if put into law, could mean that a mere verbal confrontation with an MP would be regarded as an ‘insult’ and could be potentially fall within grounds for legal reprisal.
The most troubling for me and my organization, though, is that these proposed changes could inhibit our ability, and that of other NGOs, to stand up to lobbied interests, which have repeatedly sought to undermine Romania’s natural environment. As readers may be aware, a gigantic cyanide-based gold mine was proposed in the village of Rosia Montana in early 2000s. This gave rise to a successful movement known as "Romania’s autumn” that brought NGOs and local communities together to challenge developer permits, and which ultimately saved the village and laid the groundwork to it becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There are many other cases where NGO-led interventions have succeeded for the public good. Just last year, a Romanian court canceled the environmental permit for a dam, which would have caused the Bâsca river in Buzău county to dry up, as a result of civil society efforts; while Bankwatch Romania, a non-for-profit organization working to prevent environmentally and socially harmful impacts of international development finance, also recently secured the cancellation of a permit for the highly controversial Jiu Gorge hydropower facility, originally granted in the 1980s.
The government’s tri-package of laws will make taking comparable cases to court impossible. It would stipulate that any legal action to contest a permit would need to be taken within 30 days of its issuance, and mean that any permit that is older than 30 days cannot be contested. This could ultimately pave the way for government-allied developers to disregard environmental and social concerns, and revive already obtained permits - including those that stretch back to the Ceaușescu regime.
Romania is governed by a coalition of liberal and social-democrat MPs, with almost no serious political opposition. They have no one to hold them to account in parliament, and they can effectively limit the space for NGOs without incurring any domestic pushback. This makes the role of the European Commission - and its safeguarding of EU values and bloc-wide regulations regarding the environment - paramount in this case. With rule-of-law violations already rampant in Hungary, the potential for further spillover is alive and well, unless checked.
Having an open and flourishing civil society is fundamental to Romania, and to the wider European bloc. Yet, here we are, in danger of being censored and marginalized. We don’t want this path for our country. We fought hard for our dignity, our freedoms, and partnership with the EU. In 2013, I was among the hundreds of thousands of Romanians who took to the streets, chanting "united we will save Rosia Montana!”, and because the law was on our side, we succeeded. That win gave us hope and the confidence to imagine a better future here in Romania. It was the revolution of our generation.
Ten years on, we need our European brothers and sisters to unite with us in solidarity and send a strong message that the rights and freedoms of Romanian citizens will not be trampled on".
* Tudor Bradatan is the executive director of Declic, Romania’s largest digital campaign community. Declic is an online advocacy platform, created in 2015, campaigning for good governance and the protection of the natural environment. The organization has over 1 million members, from all walks of life.