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The AUR and the rise of Romanian nationalism – a new beginning or the remnants of the past?

After the December 2020 parliamentary elections, the subject of nationalism resurfaced in Romanian politics. Even though the topic has been a key issue across the rest of Europe over the last decade, it only entered the public stage in Romania after the recent elections.

March 26, 2021 - Alexandru Demianenco - Articles and Commentary

Protest organised by Alliance for the Unity of Romanians. Photo: Alianța pentru Unirea Românilor, facebook.com

Last year’s Romanian elections introduced a new nationalist party into its parliament – the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR). With the arrival of the AUR in popular politics, Romania now aligns with wider trends in Europe. Considering nationalism’s historical role in the country, however, its rise is a sensitive, if not tragic, phenomenon.

Introduction to Romanian nationalism

Romanian nationalism is rooted in events that led to the foundation of the nation in the 17th to 19th centuries. Since the union of the Romanian principalities in 1859, nationalism became a permanent feature of national politics. This development is quite similar to Germany and Italy, where larger nations were created following unification within one state. During the so-called Greater Romania era (1918-46), the goal of creating a united Romanian nation became a particularly difficult task for the country’s leadership. This is because a large number of ethnic minorities needed to be assimilated. In the interwar period, only two thirds of the population were Romanians. As a result, minorities represented a considerable part of society. In addition, after the union of Bessarabia, Bucovina and Transylvania within the Kingdom of Romania, national pride inevitably grew across the country. This contributed to the rise of nationalism in Greater Romania, which was often used and fuelled by politicians for electoral purposes. During the Second World War, Romanian nationalism was increasingly influenced by fascism. Marshal Ion Antonescu seized power and forced the country into what is perhaps the most contradictory chapter of its history (see here and here). After the closure of this dark chapter in Romanian history, the country entered yet another difficult period. Romania’s communist period saw the birth of a new era of nationalism.

Nicolae Ceausescu, who came to power as Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965, nurtured the nationalist spirit of the Romanians in order to increase his popularity and build his personality cult. One of his key beliefs was that the Romanian Socialist Republic drew its legitimacy from the antique Dacians. This suggested that communism was predestined for Romania since the dawn of civilization. To strengthen this association with the Dacians, Ceausescu even gave several cities old Dacian names. For example, Drobeta was renamed Turnu Severin and Napoca became Cluj. In his thirst for legitimacy, the communist leader appropriated the most prominent symbols from the history of the Romanian people. This included associating himself with historical personalities, such as Mircea the Elder and Michael the Brave. By interpreting history to the liking of the Communist Party and its leader, Ceausescu fed the nationalist spirit of Romanians right up until the fall of the regime in 1989. This only provided a foundation for the rise of future nationalist movements in the country.

After the 1989 revolution, nationalist politics was monopolised by Corneliu Vadim Tudor’s Party of Greater Romania (PRM). The party promoted an ultra-nationalist and highly divisive agenda. For example, it adopted a harsh stance on the status of the country’s Hungarian minority and even denied the Holocaust. In 2000, the PRM took almost 20 per cent of the popular vote. This decreased to 14 per cent in 2004 and by 2008 the party failed to get enough votes to enter the parliament. After several scandals and the death of Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the party totally disappeared from the public’s attention. Despite this, it was not long before another vocal nationalist party rose to prominence. After the December 2020 parliamentary elections, another nationalist party gained enough votes to enter the legislature for the first time in 12 years – the AUR.

Today’s main nationalist movement – Alliance for the Unity of Romanians

The Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) is an openly nationalist, Eurosceptic party with an ultra-conservative agenda. According to Oliver Jens Schmitt, the party “brings together some people whose history is linked to the late period of communism. Its candidates are experts in propaganda, intellectuals with more or less open sympathy for legionnaires and legionary or pro-legionary intellectuals, businessmen and itinerant politicians who wander from one radical party to another”. The president and founder of the party, George Simion, began his political life as an activist in Moldova, where he founded several unionist youth organisations. In 2018, the Moldovan authorities declared that they would deny him entry to the country for a period of five years due to concerns over national security. Unlike the PRM or other European nationalist parties, the AUR is not willing to share national sovereignty with transnational forces such as the EU or NATO. According to its manifesto, the party’s main mission is to unite Romanians from all over the world. As a result, its main focus is the unification of Romania with the Republic of Moldova.

Even though it was created only in December 2019, the party has experienced a rapid rise in popularity. In just one year it managed to gather nine per cent of the popular vote in the parliamentary elections. For many journalists, analysts, politicians and citizens alike, the AUR’s success came as a surprise. Nevertheless, several factors have hinted at the rise in popularity of nationalist movements in the country. There are five main reasons for the AUR’s recent success. These include disappointment with the old political elite, the ongoing pandemic, the political void left after the PRM’s demise, the rise of religious conservatism and the role of social media. It is worth having a more detailed look at each of these issues.

Disappointment in the old political elite

Since 1989, Romania has been largely ruled by three parties (sometimes in coalitions with smaller parties): People’s Movement Party, Social Democratic Party and National Liberal Party. The PSD are the oldest of these parties, with over 23 years of experience in parliament. Throughout these years, the party was repeatedly accused of corruption, abuse of power and even connections with the Romanian Communist Party. In May 2019, following several years of anti-PSD street protests, its former leader Liviu Dragnea was sent to prison for abuse of power. Naturally, this significantly damaged the reputation of the party. The National Liberal Party has also been in the political arena for a long period of time. Even though it became part of the governing elite much later than the PSD, many of its members have been shown to have integrity issues. In addition, the PNL’s previous decisions to form controversial coalitions with the PSD have negatively impacted the party’s image. In the latest parliamentary elections, Romanians also had the choice of alternative candidates from the USR Plus Alliance (a coalition of two parties with a strong anti-corruption agenda). Despite this, internal problems and a lack of a charismatic leader meant that the alliance received only 15 per cent of the vote last year. Essentially, Romanians had to choose between three scenarios in December 2020. They could vote for the existing political class, vote for an anti-system party or ignore the polls entirely. Exactly 535,828 (9.08 per cent) Romanians chose to back anti-system groups, giving the AUR enough votes to get into parliament. Although the group’s success is not necessarily linked to the poor performance of the other parties in the electoral campaign, it can be attributed to the fact that many voters just wanted to show their contempt for the old political class.

The pandemic crisis

Romania has been severely affected by the COVID pandemic. Out of a total population of around 20 million people, 780,000 became infected with coronavirus. The pandemic crisis certainly played a significant role in reducing popular trust in the governing parties. The crisis affected these parties’ image and created new opportunities for populist manipulation. Romania has been affected by both internal and external disinformation regarding COVID-19, which has only facilitated the discourse and agenda of populist and nationalist parties. Several public figures from the AUR built their discourse on anti-vaccination and anti-mask messages during the electoral campaign. These quickly became popular among COVID deniers and sceptics. Even after the elections, one of the senators from the AUR declared in the first parliamentary session that “the vaccine destroys the DNA of Romanians”.

The void left after the PRM’s demise

After the demise of the Greater Romania Party in 2008, the supporters of the nationalist movement were unrepresented in the parliament for about 12 years. This absence was partially caused by a lack of charismatic leaders and parties within Romanian nationalism since 2008. In 2017, three nationalist parties united in a single bloc with the goal of participating in the 2019 European elections and 2020 parliamentary elections. However, this alliance did not win any seats. Meanwhile, the people’s appetite for a stronger nationalist party grew across the country. An IRES survey carried out in 2019 showed that approximately 48 per cent of Romanians thought that a nationalist movement was needed in Romania. It is somewhat symbolic that in the same year, on December 1st, 2019 (Romania’s national holiday, Unification Day), the AUR party was registered with the electoral authorities.

 The rise of religious conservatism in Romania

The growth in the number of Orthodox believers in Romania is a unique phenomenon in Europe. In the 2011 census 86.5 per cent of the population identified as Orthodox. Now 87.2 per cent claim this identity. For a long time, no political party in Romania took notice of this rise and responded to the specific priorities and expectations of this rapidly expanding electorate. However, AUR quickly noticed this deficiency and capitalised on it. The party learned from the experience of Poland, where the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) party gained significant support from Catholics through its conservative pro-church messages. In Romania, the AUR enjoys the support of the Orthodox Brotherhood, a neo-legionary, ultra-faithful organisation. This group forms a part of an Orthodox counterculture that has grown popular in recent years. It should also be noted that the Romanian clergy has enjoyed significant support from the Russian patriarchate. For instance, the Putna Monastery recently received bells from Moscow and an increasing number of Russian theological literature and hagiographies are now available in Romanian translation in monasteries. This has raised suspicions that the Russian government may be indirectly supporting the AUR. Although the party’s leaders actively deny it, it is clear that Kremlin-supported media sources like Sputnik have tended to present the AUR in a positive light. Considering the fact that the population has remained largely sceptical of these broadcasters, this suspicion has to be taken with a grain of salt.

The role of social media

In the 21st century, winning elections is impossible without a comprehensive and well-developed social media campaign. The AUR seems to have understood this lesson very well and has subsequently done its homework. The party used the same ‘Nation Builder’ software that Macron and Trump used in their electoral campaigns. Since the December 2020 parliamentary elections occurred during a global pandemic, a big part of the parties’ campaigning had to be carried out online. The main hub of the AUR’s online campaign was the Facebook account of its leader George Simion. The party leader’s page has over 700,000 followers, a decent audience by Romanian standards. While the AUR spent much less than other parties on their social media campaign (for the last three months, the party’s promotion expenses amounted to only 820 euros), public engagement with Simion’s posts proved to be incredibly high. This success can be explained by the topics tackled by Simion in his posts. He has discussed scandalous issues such as illegal deforestation, the politicisation of public institutions and corruption among the political class. This third problem has remained a central issue for the public over the last 30 years. Many posts capitalised on people’s frustrations with the pandemic restrictions, the need to wear masks or the closing of restaurants and markets. In an interview with Radio Free Europe, the coordinator of the AUR’s social media campaign said that “I delivered to people what they felt, what they asked for, I did exactly as requested”. Even with a relatively small budget, the AUR managed to carry out an exceptional social media campaign. Posts with tens of thousands of interactions and videos with millions of views on Facebook can be deemed impressive for any party or media institution in Romania. This is especially true for a party that was founded only one year ago.

The evolution of Romanian nationalism

Low voter turnout and the exploitation of people’s frustrations with the pandemic have facilitated the rise of a small anti-system party in Romania. However, is the AUR’s rise an indicator of a new beginning for Romanian nationalism, or should we seek a more historical explanation for its success? Overall, it seems like the party has benefited from both modern and past developments. Romania is a country with a turbulent history of politicians who capitalised on history and manipulated it to suit their needs. This practice has paved the way for the nationalist parties that are emerging today. There have been signs that nationalist attitudes have been on the rise in the last few decades. Extreme nationalist discourse, xenophobia, antisemitism, racism and Euroscepticism have proven common even among politicians from mainstream political parties. The outdated education system in Romanian schools and the lack of a healthy national consciousness has only facilitated nationalist sentiments among the population. Dissatisfaction with the political elite has further strengthened this feeling. The AUR did not need to invest millions in its electoral campaign. Overall, it was enough for them to tackle the most sensitive issues for Romanians, such as corruption, national identity and frustration with the pandemic restrictions. This is a very telling example of the importance of political messaging in the 21st century.

At the same time, the rise of nationalism in Romania cannot be separated from the larger wave that has emerged across Europe over the last decade. Conservative parties are growing all over the continent (see their evolution in the European Parliament) and this is especially true in Central and Eastern Europe. The liberal and progressive trends promoted by Western Europe have often produced a conservative backlash in countries such as Poland, Hungary and Romania. Conservative and populist parties are learning fast to capitalise on these developments. The AUR was particularly inspired by the success of the PiS party in Poland, which knew how to take advantage of present realities.

It is still hard to determine how long AUR’s popularity and success will last. On the one hand, it looks like the party’s rise could simply be the result of the people’s protest vote. On the other, if it learns to properly play Romania’s political games, the AUR could stick around for much longer. Romania is now at a crossroads. Everyone in the country understands that this is the last chance for the ruling parties (PNL, USR Plus and UDMR) to bring much needed change to the country and avoid the Italian scenario (after the 2018 parliamentary election a nationalistic party participated in the formation of the Italian government). The current government is very fortunate as the beginning of their mandate coincides with the approval of a new EU budget, which has provided a record amount of 80 billion euros for Romania. This certainly strengthens the coalition’s position within national politics. However, much still depends on its capacity to implement reform. It should also be noted that popular support for Romania’s EU membership is still high (around 60 per cent), a fact that limits the popularity of the AUR. Nevertheless, this situation could still change. After all, PiS is also a Eurosceptic party but this did not stop it from becoming the most important party in Poland. Charisma and messaging still remain crucial tools for nationalist parties across Europe.

Alexandru Demianenco is a graduate of the “Hannah Arendt” Promotion at the College of Europe in Natolin, currently working as a consultant in an international organisation accredited in Moldova.

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