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In Romania, ‘funky’ citizens are fighting against government corruption

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Translation by:

Melisa Laura Díaz

ImpactYo TambiénEducation

Early in 2017, Romania was shaken by one of the largest demonstrations since the fall of the communist regime. The target? Corruption that plagued the country and its elected officials. A year and a half later, the government is still accumulating scandals. It’s a status quo that the organisation Funky Citizens intends on changing by rousing the spirit of citizenship in each of us. Including mine.

For our YoTambien project, we dove into the themes of Yo!Fest @ the EYE2018, Europe's largest youth-led political festival, to explore the issues that matter to young people the most. This article focuses on the theme "working out for a stronger Europe".

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“So, surely you know that Romania is a democracy.” “In theory,” a young boy snaps back. He's no older than 13, and his is the only voice heard in the garden of the Aida restaurant. A handful of kids between the ages of 10 and 12 listen attentively to Alina and Livia, both members of the Funky Citizens association and organisers of this civic education workshop. The group is creating their own country, an island they call “Ţara Copiilor” (the Country of Children), and setting out the rights and duties that govern their little piece of land: “freedom of expression,” “the duty to protect nature and animals,” “the right to vote,” “the duty to pay taxes,” and even “the right to chocolate and candy consumption.”

Some of them already look like future politicians or lawyers, something Livia finds reassuring: “The educational system in Romania is lagging behind. Civic education courses stopped being taught when the country became part of the EU, which was more than 10 years ago! It is understandable that teenagers tuned out altogether.” Through Funky Citizens, which was founded in 2012, these two young women hope to inform citizens of government abuses and to train the country’s “future leaders”, because “current politicians are incompetent and know nothing about the law,” Alina adds. Alina studied law, and is shocked by the multiple budgetary and legislative changes proposed by the PSD (Social Democratic Party), which has been in power since the legislative elections in December 2016.

“They're just saving their own skin”

One month after the elections, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets after a decree was passed in the middle of the night. That decree – which was repealed after several days of protests – would have exempted certain members of the party that had been accused of corruption from being punished. Among those in question was their powerful president, Liviu Dragnea. Ever since, between the dismissal of an anti-corruption prosecutor (annulled by President Klaus Iohannis), salary reforms, budget cuts for major universities, and the implementation of a referendum that would prevent the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the country has been taking a disturbing turn. “It’s like they haven’t listened to a word we’ve said. Nothing has changed, and it’s just getting worse,” Alina says, clearly discouraged.

Once the workshop is over, I leave the bar and realise that we are next to the Palace of the Parliament (a.k.a. the People’s House), a building as monumental as it was expensive, reconstructed by dictator Ceaușescu after the 1977 earthquake. It now houses the Parliament and its members, who Funky Citizens do not spare. “They're just saving their own skin, while there are more important things to deal with: inflation, potholes in the streets of Bucharest... the list goes on.”

Next door, a huge construction site lurks over the People's House. At about 120 metres high, the future People’s Salvation Cathedral will be the tallest religious building in southeast Europe. The project has been heavily criticised: tens of millions of euros derived from public funds have been invested in it, while hospitals and schools cruelly lack resources and doctors, who earn no more than 400 euros a month, prefer to settle in Western Europe.

Two days later, I run into the members of Funky Citizens at “Colivia”, an old building from the early 20th century that has now been converted into a collective space. There are dozens of buildings just like this throughout the Romanian capital. The heat is unusual for the end of April. Livia, Alina and Sergiu are working in the small backyard, while Elena, the president of the association, is busy in her office. “Normally, we are seven people including those who are in charge of communication,” explains Alina. With Factual.ro, the first fact-checking platform in Romania, along with workshops and computer graphics, the small team has successfully established itself as a reference point for young civil society in Romania. “Elena is my sister, and we have known Livia since secondary school. We decided to quit our jobs to create Funky Citizens. There was no platform, which was also appealing and fun, that explained what was going on inside the government or Parliament,” continues Alina.

Connecting people

Using new technologies and social media, members of the organisation managed to reveal the lies of politicians and the flaws of Romanian institutions. During the 2017 protests, their Facebook posts were hugely successful and were shared hundreds of times. It was then that Sergiu decided to quit his job in the United States, where he had been living for 20 years, to go to Romania for a year: “I was frustrated at not participating in the demonstrations. I decided to become a volunteer for Funky Citizens and to make good use of my accounting skills.” Having left at the age of seven, he rediscovered a country profoundly divided between urban and rural areas. “The citizens of Bucharest are generally politicised and very connected, which is not the case in rural areas.”

While Romania has the highest download speed in Europe – worldwide, even – it's also one of the countries in the EU with the largest digital divide. And it's exactly there, in rural, poor and isolated areas, where the PSD has managed to push on strategy. I ask Elena how they can reach those people. “It's one of our biggest dilemmas at Funky Citizens,” she admits. “We mainly work online, so we can't reach everyone. Half of the Romanian population lives in rural areas and 30% live in big cities, so there is a risk of ignoring 80% of the population. If we had millions of euros, we could hold workshops all over Romania, but that is not the case. That’s why we try to do the best for the remaining 20%, and then they can talk to their acquaintances.”

As a first solution, the association exports its workshops for children outside of Bucharest and suggests teachers to use a Constitution for Children, elaborated with the help of illustrators. They have also created collectable cards with the faces of corrupt politicians. It's a way of “talking about the political situation in a nice way,” Elena continues, “because these issues are complex and people do not necessarily have the energy to get involved. I honestly think that a person's participation in public life must be part of their everyday life.”

She insists particularly on the importance of creating a solid community around the association. “We surround ourselves with volunteers and experts who help us on diverse subjects. We try to meet with the people who follow us. For example, two weeks ago, we set up our offices in a bar where clients can come and talk to us,” she tells us. The rooms of Colivia are also used for events, parties and exhibitions. It was during the Night of the Houses, Noaptea Caselor, that I discovered Colivia and the activities of Funky Citizens in 2014. For Alina and Livia, who spent the first years working inside the room of an apartment, having a set location is a considerable advantage: “We can interact more, people can come and have coffee with us and ask us questions. Being online is not enough,” explains Livia.

“The European dream was not well managed in this country”

Since the beginning of 2010, several media and non-profit projects, such as Funky Citizens or Casa Jurnalistului have favoured the emergence of an increasingly influential civic society. These organisations survive thanks to donations or funds allocated by foreign institutions. But the absence of resources and political alternatives when it comes to dealing with great parties adds an enormous pressure. As Alina explained, many citizens, including politicians, expect them to play the role of the opposition. “That's not our job,” she declares. “Associations should be at the centre. However, after three years, we don't have a choice.” Political parties with roots in civil society like the USR (Save Romania Union) have, nonetheless, entered the Parliament. “They do interesting things, but there's still a lot of work to do. They don't know if they're left or right-wing parties, they don't have a position on certain topics. In any case, other parties are popping up and that is good news,” says Alina.

Livia, Alina and Sergiu go inside and concentrate on the big task of the next few days: to analyse the changes in the penal code and explain their impact. “The more I discover, the more I realise to which degree they really stink,” says Alina. “For example, one article suggests that, if anyone stole public funds and transferred them to the account of a family member, the latter can pretend not to know anything about it, and so they can keep the money.”

Despite warnings from the EU, the government seems to do exactly as it pleases. “There is a side that thinks: 'Who are they to tell me what I must do in my own country?' in Poland and Hungary,” Elena explains. If Romanians are mainly pro-Europeans, then disenchantment with European values is making its way into society. “The European dream was not well managed in this country. People had high hopes, but no one told them that it would take decades before western European standards could be achieved,” she says. The president of Funky Citizens meets regularly with members from Polish and Hungarian associations, and their meetings are increasingly becoming 'group therapies'. “These three countries have proved that they had very pro-European civic societies, but unfortunately, European institutions communicate only with governments. We feel a bit neglected.”

In a more serious tone, Aline tells me of a “general exhaustion” that affects young Romanians and pushes them to leave. According to a UN report based on data from 2000 to 2015, Romania is the second country after Syria where the migration rate per year increases the most drastically. Recently, some of my friends have either left or are thinking of leaving the country. Alina tells me that she too wanted to leave last year: “I was under the impression that everything I was doing meant nothing. But I decided to continue.” With their workshops, she intends to give back hope to teenagers. “There are so many teenagers who want to leave the country when they finish school,” she says.

Her sister, Elena, had thought about leaving. But in her capacity as an “optimistic cynic”, she will continue to hope as long as there are solutions. “The day there are no more ways out, I'll quit.” Meanwhile, the members of Funky Citizens wait impatiently for the upcoming elections: the 2019 European and presidential elections. “For now, President Klaus Iohannis acts as a safety net,” explains Elena, "but if the future president is elected from the PSD, we'll be in a difficult situation. We'll wait and see what happens.”

Audio: Children setting out the rights and duties for their 'Country of Children'

--- Cafebabel is a media partner of Yo!Fest, the annual political youth-led festival organised by the European Youth Forum that mixes political debates and workshops with live music and artistic performances. The festival is once again being organised as part of the European Youth Event - EYE2018 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The #EYE2018 provides a unique opportunity for over 8,000 young Europeans to make their voices heard and shape a vision for the future of Europe. This series will explore the event's five core themes: Keeping up with the Digital Revolution, Staying Alive in Turbulent Times, Working out for a Stronger Europe, Protecting our Planet and Calling for a Fair Share. Follow the EYE and Yo!Fest on social media.

Translated from En Roumanie, des citoyens « funky » contre les dérives du gouvernement

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