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The Crowd and the Law

In Romania, after five straight nights of mass demonstration in Bucharest’s main square, the government agreed to withdraw an emergency decree that decriminalised various abuses of political power (on the grounds that the jails were too crowded). If you defrauded the state of less than $47,500, under the new rules, you might have to pay it back, but you wouldn’t go to jail.

More to the point, those already serving sentences or facing charges for stealing, say, $47, 499 would be released from jail or see the charges dismissed – including the leader of the governing Social Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, who was convicted of stealing only $27,000. (That’s not necessarily how much he stole; just how much they could PROVE he stole.)

Romania used to be one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, but since it joined the European Union in 2007 it has been under great pressure from Brussels to clean up its act. There was also huge domestic pressure from ordinary Romanians who are sick of their venal politicians, and the anti-corruption drive was making real progress.

Then last Tuesday Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu’s government issued its decree freeing hundreds of jailed politicians, officials and even judges. It was due to go into effect next Friday, but right away the crowd came pouring out into the streets in Bucharest and all the other big cities.

After five nights of mass demonstrations, the government cancelled its decree on Saturday. The Crowd won, and both justice and democracy were well served.

The other very dodgy decree of recent days was in Washington, where President Trump signed an “executive order” imposing a 90-day ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries seeking to enter the United States (even if they were legal US residents or had been issued visas after vetting by US embassies) and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.

Like the Romanian decree, its legality was doubtful. As in Romania, the protesting crowds came out in large numbers in the United States (though proportionally in much smaller numbers, and certainly not for five successive nights). But what really brought Trump’s plan grinding to a halt, at least for the moment, was a judge.

U.S. District Senior Judge James Robarts of Seattle issued an order suspending the Trump ban – and even President Trump obeyed it (although he did refer to Robarts, with typical graciousness, as a “so-called judge”). The whole machinery of government went into reverse, entry visas are being re-validated, and even Syrian immigrants are being admitted to the United States again. The rule of law has prevailed.

Two crises in two democratic countries, and two reasonably satisfactory resolutions. It was the Crowd that did the heavy lifting in Romania, and the Law that did the crucial work in the United States. But they should not be seen as alternatives; sometimes you need them both.

Robarts was not required to make a full legal case for his action at this stage in the proceedings: he simply ordered the ban suspended to avoid serious harm being done to individuals by an executive order that may contravene the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

When the case goes to the appeals court, and possibly then to the Supreme Court, the argument of those opposing the ban will doubtless be that it flouts the First Amendment requirement that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.

This may persuade the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court in San Francisco, which is relatively liberal, and even to the Supreme Court, which will continue to be split evenly between liberals and conservatives until Trump’s nominee for the ninth seat on the Court is approved by Congress. Or it may not.

Even if the appeal courts ultimately rejects Robarts’s argument and reimposes the ban, the Law will have successfully curbed the abuse of executive power. It always has to be curbed, because even with the best of intentions those who hold power will inevitably try to expand it – and sometimes they do not have the best of intentions.

The US Constitution has won the first round of the battle against Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Full marks to James Robarts (who was nominated, by the way, by George W. Bush’s Republican administration).

But four years is a long time, and there will be occasions when lawyers won’t be enough. The Crowd will be needed as well: demonstrations as large, as disciplined and as patient as those in Romania. And as suspicious of being betrayed once they have gone home.

The night after the Romanian government cancelled its “emergency decree”, there was the biggest demonstration of all: half a million people in Victory Square in Bucharest. Why? Because the government had muttered something about addressing the same “issue” of allegedly crowded jails through normal legislation in parliament, which would still really be about getting crooked politicians out of jail.
So they won’t go home until Prime Minister Grindeanu promises not to bring the subject up again.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Two…Constitution”)

Twenty-Five Years of Non-Violent Revolution

12 June 2011

Twenty-Five Years of Non-Violent Revolution

By Gwynne Dyer

The “Prague Spring” of 1968 was a gallant attempt at a non-violent democratic revolution, but it was crushed by Soviet tanks. Eighteen years later, in the Philippines, the first “people-power” revolution succeeded, and since 1986 non-violent revolutions have driven a great many dictators from power. The most recent was in Egypt, in February – but there never was a guarantee that these revolutions would turn out well.

It depends partly on how bad the ethnic and religious cleavages are in a country: Bulgaria and Romania were okay, but Yugoslavia was a blood-bath. It depends to some extent on how poor and illiterate the population is, although even very poor countries have made a successful transition to democracy. And it depends on good leadership and good luck, too. But it is the dominant political phenomenon of our time.

The revolution in the Philippines succeeded because by the late 80s, everything was happening in real time on global television. Oppressive regimes that had never had much compunction about killing people who challenged them didn’t feel confident about doing it before a global audience. They no longer felt free to use massive force unless the protesters gave them an excuse by resorting to violence themselves.

The Marcos regime that was overthrown in the Philippines in 1986 was a mere kleptocracy with little ideology beyond a vague “anti-communism”. When the infection spread to China in 1989, the outcome was different, because a disciplined Communist dictatorship WAS willing to kill large numbers of its own people in front of the television cameras. It understood that if it failed that test, it would not survive.

Less ruthless Communist dictatorships in Europe, longer in power and ideologically exhausted, did fail the test. The non-violent revolutions that began in East Germany in November, 1989, and ended Communist rule in the old Soviet Union itself by late 1991, could have been stopped if the local Communist regimes had been willing to follow the Chinese example, but none of them had the stomach for killing on that scale.

So about 350 million Europeans got their freedom and almost nobody died. At almost exactly the same time, the apartheid regime in South Africa released Nelson Mandela and began the talks that led to majority rule in 1994. A very well-connected African friend of mine told me later what had actually happened.

In late 1989, after the East German, Czech and Romanian regimes had fallen with scarcely a shot being fired, the head of the National Intelligence Service, the South African secret police, went to State President F.W. de Klerk and warned him that if the African National Congress put half a million people on the street in Johannesburg, he would only have two options: to kill ten thousand of them, or to surrender power unconditionally.

If he didn’t like either of those options, he should start negotiating the transfer of power now. So Mandela was released, and eventually there was a peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule.

Then there’s a long gap, perhaps partly explained by the fact that the number of dictatorships in the world had already shrunk considerably. An attempted non-violent revolution in Iran in 2009 was mercilessly crushed. People worried that repressive regimes might have finally figured out how to counter non-violent revolution. And then along came the “Arab spring.”

So the technique is still alive, and it worked in Tunisia and in Egypt. On the other hand, it has been stamped out in Bahrein, whose fate resembles that of Prague in 1968. And while the revolt in Yemen has probably displaced the old regime, it has been very violent, and the new regime may be no more democratic than the old.

Same goes for Syria, and of course for Libya. There are no one-size-fits-all techniques for revolution or for anything else. But the desire for democracy, equality and fairness survives everywhere, and the least bad technique for trying to achieve those things is still non-violence. Even if sometimes the revolution succeeds but the aftermath doesn’t.

The original “people power” revolution in the Philippines was followed by two decades of political turbulence. Yugoslavia splintered into half a dozen warring fragments. Russia, though it escaped mass violence, is not exactly a model democracy.

On the other hand, South Korea, Indonesia and South Africa are now all democracies. So are Poland, Romania and Taiwan. The aftermath may not be what most people hoped for in Egypt, and it probably won’t be in the case of Syria. But non-violent revolution works often enough, and its results are positive often enough, that it is still the most hopeful political development of the past quarter-century.

The glass is half-full, and getting fuller. Even the most wicked and ruthless rulers must now take world public opinion into account, and we expect them to behave much better than dictators did in the bad old days. They may disappoint our expectations, but that is the standard by which they will be judged, and they know it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“It depends…time”; and “So…happened”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Making Moldova Vanish

4 May 2009

Making Moldova Vanish

 By Gwynne Dyer

Most people have trouble finding Moldova on a map, and it isn’t getting any easier. A growing number of people are dedicated to making the country vanish from the map — and most of them are Moldovans.

It began when about 15,000 people, almost all of them young, came out onto the streets in Chisinau, the capital, a month ago to protest against the outcome of the recent election. They claimed it had been stolen by the Communist party, but that wasn’t their only complaint. When the scene turned ugly on 7 April and the crowd stormed both the parliament and the president’s offices, many of them were chanting “We are Romanians” and carrying Romanian flags.

The buildings were looted and partly burned, and President Vladimir Voronin’s government arrested several hundred of the rioters (although almost all have now been released). He also accused Romania of backing the protesters, expelled its ambassador and imposed visa requirements for Romanians. In reply, Romania’s President Traian Basescu declared that he would not tolerate a “new Iron Curtain,” and changed Romanian law to give Moldovans easy access to Romanian citizenship.

Since Moldova is Europe’s poorest country and Romania is a member of the European Union, a Romanian passport that allows visa-free travel to all 27 EU countries is a very attractive asset. Moldova already has one-third of its working-age population working in EU countries (mostly illegally), and depends on their remittances for over a third of its national income.

The Romanian embassy in Chisinau has received 650,000 applications for citizenship, says President Basescu, many of them covering several people. He suggests that up to one million Moldovans (a quarter of the total population) have already decided to seek Romanian citizenship.

Vladimir Turcanu, a member of parliament for Moldova’s ruling Communist Party, told the BBC that “This mass granting of Romanian citizenship is a way to assimilate the Republic of Moldova. We see it a threat to the statehood, a threat to the integrity and sovereignty of our country.” He is quite right, but it’s likely that a majority of the population in both Romania and Moldova see that as a good idea.

Moldova was part of the old Soviet Union, and Russia has already condemned the Romanian action. There are still Russian troops in a breakaway part of Moldova, the so-called “Transdnistrian Republic,” that illegally declared its independence in 1990. Are we heading for another confrontation like the Russian-Georgian one that exploded into war last year, only this time right on the borders of the European Union instead of on the far side of the Black Sea?

Probably not, although the situation is both tangled and fraught.

For one thing, landlocked Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, has no common border with Russia. For another, the pressure to unite Moldova and Romania comes mainly from within Moldova itself, although most Romanians feel sympathy with it. Because, as the rioters succinctly put it, most Moldovans really are Romanians.

Moldova, also known as Moldavia or Bessarabia, was one of many former Balkan principalities that re-emerged from Turkish rule as the Russian empire drove the Ottoman empire south in the course of the 19th century. Most got their independence, including what is now Romania — but Moscow decided to keep Moldova even though it had always been Romanian-speaking. After the Russian revolution in 1917 Moldova did manage to unite with Romania for a couple of decades, but the Soviet Union took it back as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939.

There was a good deal of deliberate Russification in the following decades, and the narrow, industrialised, densely populated strip east of the Dniester River (“Transdnistria”) wound up with a two-thirds majority of

Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 they fought a small civil war and broke away from Moldova, fearing that the Romanian-speaking majority in the rest of the country would unite with Romania.

That didn’t happen: the European Union wasn’t interested in expanding that far east, and Romania didn’t want to sabotage its own chances of joining. But now Romania is safely in the EU, so that is no longer a consideration — and things are getting rough in Moldova.

The Moldovan government is not a tyranny. It is an elected government that is Communist in name only, and the most recent election was certified free and fair by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Older people, nostalgic for the stability of the Soviet past, vote Communist because they think their pensions will be safe

— and a high proportion of younger people have left the country in search of work.

The protesters claimed electoral fraud, but the split is really more generational than political, with younger Moldovans believing their future would be brighter as Romanians. In theory, the solution is easy: let Moldova west of the Dniester join Romania, leaving the Slavic majority in “Transdnistria” to become another outlying enclave of Russia.

But this is “post-Soviet space,” so nothing is easy and theory doesn’t work. This one will run and run.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Since…income”; and


EU: The Halo Eff

20 December 2004

EU: The Halo Effect

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Islamic world, the Islamic extremists, even bin Laden, rejoice for the entrance of Turkey into the European Union. This is their Trojan horse,” warned Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy on 17 December. The EU’s decision on that day to open membership talks with Turkey would eventually lead to Muslim domination of Europe, he explained.

It was an encouraging outburst, in a way, for Gadafy is almost always wrong: if the Sage of Tripoli is predicting disaster, then it should be all right in the end. Turkey’s eventual membership (still ten or fifteen years away) will not transform the EU; rather, Turkey will be transformed by its membership. The influences travel outwards, not inwards.

There is a kind of halo effect around the European Union. Even though the EU doesn’t actively push its values on its neighbours, the mere fact that a majority of Europeans already lives in this zone where democracy works and civil and human rights are genuinely respected is transforming expectations and behaviour in the rest of Europe. Take Turkey, for example.

The 70 million Turks have practically turned themselves inside out in their effort to meet the standards on democracy, human rights, and legal and fiscal propriety demanded of countries seeking to open membership negotiations. Turkey has changed more in the past three years than in the previous thirty, and almost entirely for the better.

Or consider the re-staged second round of the Ukrainian presidential election next Sunday, which will almost certainly be won by reformist candidate Viktor Yushchenko. The weeks of non-violent mass protests in Kiev that forced the cancellation of the rigged election results and a re-run under intense international scrutiny would probably not have happened without the hope of eventual EU membership for Ukraine.

The EU has done nothing to encourage this hope. It has just taken in ten new members, another three countries in the Balkans will probably be joining in 2007, and most EU leaders would have dodged a decision on Turkey’s candidacy this year if they were not trapped by promises made long ago. No EU government wants to start entry negotiations for 50 million impoverished Ukrainians on the borders of a resentful Russia any time soon — but Ukrainians simply ignored that.

A majority of Ukrainians, who have lived for the past thirteen years in a post-Soviet morass of arrogant corruption, brazen election-rigging and sold-out media, took to the streets because they believed that there could be an alternative future for their country in the EU. Ukrainian entry into the EU may be even further away than Turkey’s, but it was that vision of honest government, free media and fair enforcement of the law glimmering on the horizon that made the Orange Revolution in Ukraine possible.

The same was at least partly true for the Rose Revolution in Georgia last year, and it was wholly true for the other “Orange Revolution” of the past month — the one that happened in Romania. In every case the initiative came from local people demanding the same rights and values that EU citizens enjoy, not from the EU trying to export its values to the east. In fact, if it had been left to the governments that are allegedly the guardians of the EU’s democratic values, it wouldn’t have happened at all.

Romania had the most oppressive Communist party in eastern Europe before 1989, and the revolution there in December of that year was largely a fake. Leading regime members, seeing which way the wind was blowing, launched a coup, stood dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife against a wall, and shot them. But then they just renamed themselves Social Democrats and went right on ruling the place.

They have been in power for most of the past 15 years, enriching themselves shamelessly and manipulating the media and the electoral system to stay in charge. Corruption is so bad that an estimated ten percent of the average Romanian’s income goes to bribing public officials. Romania was much less qualified for EU membership than Turkey — it even has a lower per capita income — and yet the EU was pushing entry negotiations through to an early conclusion.

The 22 million Romanians are not Muslims, so there was no popular anxiety in existing EU members about letting them in. EU officials were deeply cynical about the possibility of real reform in Romania, and decided to let it in anyway. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, once a fervent supporter of Ceausescu, seemed to be cruising smoothly to another term after the first round of elections in early December, although monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported multiple voting frauds. (The EU did not bother to send monitors.)

In effect, practically everybody had written off democracy in Romania — except the Romanians. In the second round of voting on 12 December, with much closer monitoring of the polls, they voted Nastase out and elected Traian Basescu, a former ship’s captain with no links to the ex-Communist oligarchy. It will take Basescu years to loosen the grip of the oligarchs on Romania’s economy and its media (as it will for Yushchenko in Ukraine, too), but the Romanians have decided that if they are going to be in the EU, they want the whole package.

Given the choice, people know what they want.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1, 2 and 6. (“The Islamic…inwards”; and “The EU…ignored that”)