When thousands of citizens took to the streets of Bucharest and other major cities in Romania in January 2012, many analysts believed they were protesting the austerity measures introduced by the International Monetary Fund, European Union and World Bank. Although the cuts to public-sector wages and the increase in the value added tax were indeed harsh, the protests did not cease even after the ostensible igniting spark – a health bill designed to privatize emergency health services and the concomitant firing of an immensely popular health official – was extinguished through the withdrawal of such legislation. To the south, in Bulgaria, elections in May 2013 have not served to placate protestors calling for the ouster of the current Socialist-led government, and daily demonstrations in the capital, Sofia, are now in their second month. In both Romania and Bulgaria, the protestors' cries have given voice to the frustrations many individuals across Eastern Europe feel toward their political class, an entity which oftentimes seems more interested in consolidating its control over the states' levers of power and in appointing corrupt officials to senior positions, than it does in seeking to address the very real grievances affecting the people it governs.
First Romania. In the aftermath of the 2012 protests, the center-right coalition of Emil Boc was forced to resign, ushering Victor Ponta to power as prime minister of a new coalition in May 2012. Hopes were initially high that the 40-year-old politician – the youngest person to hold a national premiership role in the European Union – would transcend the political infighting and blatant power grabs that have plagued the state since the overthrow of communism more than two decades ago. Instead, Mr. Pontu launched an aggressive, ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to impeach President Traian Băsescu, replaced the country's ombudsman (the only official with the power to overrule parliament's decisions in front of the Constitutional Court) with a party loyalist, and ignored the court's ruling on who should attend official EU meetings to represent Romania. Combined, these events weakened Romania's already delicate democratic institutions, calling into question the country's commitment to the rule of law and judicial independence. Additionally, these moves raised eyebrows in Brussels, with the European Commission issuing a stern warning to Romania's leaders not to take steps that would undermine the rule of law. Germany's parliament went so far as to raise the possibility of suspending Romania's voting rights in the European Union, an action so severe it has only been effectuated once.
The developments that have taken place since Mr. Ponta came to power further the belief amongst Romanian citizens that greedy politicians are more interested in amassing power once assuming office than in serving the needs of the electorate. And politicians' focus on winner-take-all politics overshadows the dire socioeconomic situation facing many Romanians. For instance, according to a recent European Commission report, youth unemployment in Romania stood at 22.7 percent in 2012, and 40.3 percent of the population was at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Even more disturbing, 16.8 percent of young people are neither in employment, nor in education and training. This last figure is particularly troubling and will likely have long-term implications as the country's youth fails to acquire skills, find jobs, and contribute to the government's coffers. Limited progress by elected politicians to tackle these serious issues exacerbates an already deeply rooted cynicism concerning the political class' ability to address the societal ills facing the entire country.
Across the Danube River in Bulgaria, frustrations with the political establishment have also spilled over into the streets of the capital, as well as in other major cities such as Varna and Burgas. The protests, however, were not sparked by austerity measures imposed by international creditors; rather, they began as a response to the nomination of Delyan Peevski as head of the powerful national security agency. The 32-year-old media mogul, who had been prosecuted on corruption and extortion charges, was quickly removed from consideration by the prime minister, Plamen Oresharski, as the protestors' ranks swelled in numbers. Mr. Oresharski was also forced to dismiss his new deputy interior minister shortly after his appointment for alleged links to organized crime syndicates, and he withdrew the nomination for of Kalin Tiholov for cabinet minister, due to Mr. Tiholov's involvement in a construction scandal.
Mr. Oresharski's expulsions, however, represent a misdiagnosis of the protestors' motivations, as those who took to the streets are dissatisfied with the political elite more generally and its inability to fight organized crime and corruption, to reform the judiciary, and to change the electoral law so as to allow for smaller political parties to gain seats in parliament. Withered down by useless bureaucracy, public and private sector mismanagement, and poverty and high unemployment, many young, talented Bulgarians are uninterested in entering politics and sometimes resort to extremes to illustrate the impossibility of their situation. For example, at least six people have self-immolated since the beginning of the year. The readiness to take one's own life, in many instances as a sign of protest against the current political situation, highlights the desperate situation many Bulgarian face on a daily basis. More than 22 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the average monthly wage, of just above $500, provides little financial security. This is a not a situation that can be solved through opaque government appointments and the private sector's dubious exertion of control over state institutions. Indeed, the intensity of the protests has only grown stronger recently, as more than 100 politicians, journalists and other parliamentary staff were forcefully trapped inside Bulgaria's parliament by angry protestors for several hours last week. Noting the unrest, the European Union has sided with the protestors, with a top official's recent comments lending additional credibility to the demands for an end to corruption.
Whereas anti-government protests in southern Europe in response to recent austerity measures imposed by the troika – the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank – have highlighted the deteriorating economic situation in the Mediterranean, the crises in Romania and Bulgaria reflect long-standing disillusionment with a dysfunctional political system that has shown little improvement since Communism. Indeed, "Nations in Transit" – Freedom House's widely respected annual report on democratic governance in the former communist-sphere – has downgraded Bulgaria and Romania, considering both "semi-consolidated democracies," on par with non-EU member countries such as Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro.
Although much of Europe's anxiety stems from the fear of fiscal contagion spreading throughout the continent, leaders should be wary of the non-democratic contagion that seems to be spreading across its eastern periphery along Europe's second longest river.
Zach Scott is a humanitarian affairs and human rights blogger for Foreign Policy Association. Follow him on Twitter @ZachDScott.