Cornel Ban in the Financial Times: Eastern Europe must heed Romanian canary in the mine

Eastern Europe must heed Romanian canary in the mine
From Dr Cornel Ban.

Sir, Stefan Wagstyl is right to argue that calm electoral calculus rather than panic in the face of popular protests powered the resignation of the Romanian prime minister Emil Boc, a man with a known dossier of party loyalty and discipline (“Basescu rolls the dice”, FT.com February 6). But this event has a broader significance as it may be the canary in the mine for the region.

First, Mr Boc’s resignation may signal that the social costs of austerity and privatisation of once universal services can no longer be ignored by eastern European politicians, now that credit and migration no longer represent viable exit routes for post-communist citizens. Citizens began to wonder whether the focus on corruption, the hallmark of the past decade, should not be complemented by a focus on formerly ignored issues of distribution.

Second, the protests served not only as a vent for anti-government frustration, but also as sites of deliberation about what kind of economic reforms are needed, or whether further privatisation and deregulation reforms should be adopted at all. After years of almost automatic endorsement of the market, the protests showed that the hunger for public goods is not a western European luxury but a legitimate claim in a democracy. Crucially, these deliberations enabled the emergence on the civil society scene of Romania’s first grassroots leftwing organisations and networks whose variegated but nevertheless vocal critique of Romania’s variety of capitalism has taken the establishment by surprise.

Should this new political phenomenon become more robust, in the next few years, the old post-communist settlement in which generally pro-market mainstream political parties could count on an economically liberal and elite civil society is bound to enter a major crisis. The resolution of this crisis will depend, as always, on what political entrepreneurs and what ideas will mobilise these legitimate demands.

Cornel Ban, Fellow, The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, Providence, RI, US

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