THE BLOG
11/12/2013 10:21 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Rosia Montana: Of Roman Mines, Eco-Anarchists, and Corporate Power

Yesterday, the stock of Gabriel Resources plummeted twenty percent on news that a special parliamentary commission had voted to recommend that the Romanian parliament reject a bill that would push forward the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation's approval for the largest open pit cyanide gold mine in Europe. Later in the day, the stock rose again before leveling off at a ten-percent drop in value.

Gabriel Resources is, of course, the parent company of the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation. With such dour news, one might be scarcely surprised should the stocks have tumbled down by 50% given that both Gabriel Resources and RMGC's sole reason for existing is to extract all of the gold out of the ancient Roman mines of Rosia Montana.

If there is an explanation for how Gabriel Resources stocks managed to recover half their losses yesterday, I suspect it was the words of Dragos Tanase, general manager at RMGC, spoken yesterday. As reported by Mediafax, Tanase had the following response to the commission's findings: "the state participation increase to 25 percent was done under the conditions of the Rosia Montana project as it is structured now. It is possible [for] our board to not maintain this offer if the project is changed into a much different form." Tanase is referring to Romania as a shareholder in Rosia Montana Gold Corporation. Ahead of a final parliamentary vote, he is essentially saying that Romania will suffer the consequences if it fails to approve a series of legislative overhauls of the mining laws that the company has worked so assiduously to have drafted and passed in its favor. In other words, "do not bite the hand that feeds you."

How did it come to pass in the first place that a project set to inject billions of dollars into the Romanian economy over the course of the next fifteen or so years was imperiled in the first place? For over two months, thousands and often several tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of the capital city of Bucharest, and across the country--indeed across the world--in protest of the project. Who are they? By my own eyes I have seen a wide array of types: preachers and children, old men in old suits, and, of course, the proverbial 'hipster' (which I've come to suspect does mean quite what it does back in the States). But if one watches the television and listens to the politicians and pundits, there is the overwhelming sense that the protesters are misinformed, George Soros-funded 'eco-anarchists' who wish for nothing more than the demise of the System.

As no definition of eco-anarchist has been provided, and I doubt the Minister of Culture, Daniel Barbu, was referring to one of the intellectual legacies of Henry David Thoreau, I assume this term is a place-holder for anti-development, anti-capitalist Occupy types resolutely opposed to anything that would fell a tree, let alone four mountains, the oldest Roman gold mine in existence, and so forth.

Apparently, those civil servants--from geologists to archaeologists--who found serious infirmities with the project and were subsequently sacked had succumbed to the siren song of the anti-capitalists. In turn, each time one of the protesters takes to the stage of public discourse--a thought that might cause the heart of the incumbent politician to quaver--they are gradually cycled through a spin machine until they appear to be the very avatar of eco-anarchy.

The irony is that most Romanians are deeply pessimistic of government, particularly given that many Romanian politicians had vibrant political lives in a Dictator's government and yet a younger generation less burdened by the complicities and path dependencies of history are dismissed as misinformed or uninformed.

As for the George Soros / New World Order narrative, when a foreign corporation, the mainstream press, and the government act (more or less in concert) to delegitimize an emerging civic movement in a country in desperate need of civic participation, one would hope that civil society actors (who are the natural foil to the private interests of corporations) would step in. The fact that foreign NGOs are painted as meddling and buying out protesters is striking given the role--financial and otherwise--that Gabriel Resources and RMGC have played in shaping the opinion of the public and of lawmakers and the press. This effort suggests that while an emerging economy should clamor for foreign direct investment in the private sector, it should shrink away from foreign investment in civil society, no matter how scant are the resources of domestic NGOs. Imagine what the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act in the United States would look like today had they not been defended for decades by civil society actors from a gradual erosion into token words on a page.

Thus while the press / government machinery appears to be waging a proxy war for the project on the domestic field, RMGC appears to be publically bullying the sovereign state of Romania. And, apparently, investors took a deep breath when hearing those words and Gabriel Resources' stock value ticked up. With the specter of international arbitration and trade law at its back, the company is saying that if Romania does not pass the public law that the company wants, there will be consequences. If Tanase is to be believed, Romania will get less out of a gold mine project with RMGC, and will invariably expropriate for a lesser share of profits for a public interest whose very definition is already strained under the proposed share in profits as it stands.

Recently, after several hundred protesters blockaded a road to a shale gas site, Chevron backed out of its exploitation. No doubt Chevron's long-term vision of that land is unchanged. But here, a Canadian company that has never once carried out its primary business purpose demands full-faith and credit while essentially blackmailing a government in all its branches.

If parliament accepts the Rosia Montana Commission's ruling, the next step for the eco-anarchists on the street is to push for UNESCO Heritage Status. Naturally enough, the head of arts, architecture and audiovisual activity of the Romanian Academy, Razvan Theodorescu told the special commission that there was nothing unique about the oldest standing Roman gold mine in the world and suggested they laugh at the concept. If Rosia Montana were to gain UNESCO status, Romania would be forced to embrace another model of economic development; one that implicates sustainable development, European Union highways, tourism, heritage, and a long-term vision of its own wealth and national patrimony.

There are two competing visions of Romania's future battling over this small mountain town and, while it remains to be seen how parliament will act in the next weeks and months at hand, it is clear that Romania is undergoing a sea change and that a new political space is being carved out, despite the best efforts of incumbent powers. In the meantime, the protest movement will continue to evolve and Gabriel Resources will certainly play a full hand in drafting the next round of legislation should Parliament follow the Rosia Montana commission's advice.