On October 12, Decebal Bilan, who went by John while he was in the United States, first visited Occupy Wall Street with his comrades from around the world and fell in love with it. He and his friends, all in the United States as part of a student cultural exchange set up by the State Department, had received national attention a few months earlier for staging a sit-down strike at the candy warehouse where they worked in Hershey, Pennsylvania. On his first visit to Liberty Plaza Park, Bilan remarked to me, “I want to learn about what's going on here so that I can bring it back to Romania.”
When he got home in November, he and some friends created Occupy Romania, and by January, anti-austerity protests forced Prime Minister Emil Boc to resign. Boc told the AP that the move was meant “to ease the social situation.” Initially, Romanians had rallied in support of Raed Arafat, the Palestinian-Romanian doctor who resigned from his government post over Boc's European Union (EU)/International Monetary Fund (IMF)-imposed neoliberal health care proposals. But even a withdrawal of the plan didn't quell the protests, which turned into riots, expanding both in scope and focus. One protester told Al Jazeera: “We are here because there is no more life in this country. We have no food, nothing to put on our table. Our kids left Romania. This is unbearable.” Corruption, cuts to social services and the livelihood of public labor, middle-class tax increases, frozen wages – all the same complaints as in Athens or Madison.
After a few days of protests, Bilan wrote in an email [edited for clarity]: “Today, for the first time, I was on the streets here in my capital, and I saw a lot of people, maybe 500, maybe more (on other days, there were thousands). But I didn't like one thing – there were a lot of groups, like NGOs, student groups and football fans (they are aggressive, and cops have beaten them in recent days), so it is not one united group.”
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Bilan lives in a small city, but spent several days at the heart of the protests, Bucharest's University Square. “I saw there,” he wrote, “people who are awake and who realize what is happening in this country and this world.”
Unfortunately, the factionalism had only increased by February, when Bilan wrote, “The biggest problem here is that the square is not united, and there are a lot of people more preoccupied with promoting their organization or their own interest.” John had hoped an overnight occupation could help unify the movement, as he'd seen in New York, but, “[P]eople are not staying overnight. They protest for a few hours in the afternoon. (The weather is very bad these days). So we can't speak of a real occupation, but … we hope when the weather gets better, people will start to gather again.”
Apparently, the numbers were sufficient, because three days later, Boc resigned. Bilan wrote, “The Prime Minister quit, and half an hour ago, our President, Traian Basescu, announced that the new Prime Minister will be Mihai Razvan Ungureanu…. He was in charge of the SIE, the Romanian Foreign Intelligence Service, like our CIA, and between 2004 and 2007, he was Foreign Minister. From tomorrow on, he and the parties who have a majority in the government will decide who will be the ministers.”
But Ungureanu's insider résumé does not discourage Bilan. Before the prime minister stepped down, he wrote, “Politicians try to buy us by giving some good laws, but they were equal to 0 in my opinion.”
But the day it was announced that Basescu would be replaced by Ungureanu, he was displaying a (slightly) more hopeful outlook. “Protesters,” he wrote, “have taken this resignation as a victory, and I believe the same, because it can't be worse. Now it is unsure what the new government will change or do, but we hope that the new Prime Minister will listen to the protesters, solve some of the issues and make Romania a prosperous country.”
John's aims are reformist, not revolutionary: “Politics is politics, and it comes first. So, as much as we people want to believe that we can change politicians and laws for a better life, just protesting on the streets is not the simple solution we want it to be.”
Nevertheless, for John it is an indispensable component: “If people do not protest when they believe that our representatives haven't done their job right … nothing will change from mother nature. We people are the spark for the fire.”
That certainly was true in the United States, where the strike waged by Bilan and the other students, who worked at Hershey on visas know as J-1, actually induced the State Department to ban the Council for Educational Travel, USA, the sponsor that brought them to the United States, from the student exchange program. “This is a clear victory for J-1's,” Bilan celebrated.
From the Pennsylvania plant to the New York City plaza to the Romanian streets, Bilan has helped transform the world over the last year. Luckily, he has promised to keep me updated as events unfold.