Romanian Artists Fight for a Civil Society

06/26/2012 11:03 am ET | Updated Aug 26, 2012

Ten years ago, most of what the world knew about Romania could be summarized by the following list: Nadia Comaneci, vampires, gypsies, HIV-infected orphans living in deplorable conditions, and that a dictator of certain but unspecific notoriety was executed around the same time that the Berlin Wall fell. But since 2005, an emerging Romanian culture, most prominently in the form of the Romanian New Wave Cinema, has been opening windows to a more nuanced view.

Maybe more importantly, the recognition of its culture has given Romania a flashing glimpse of itself as a civil society, all of this, almost 20 years after the controversial revolution of 1989, wherein the execution without legal trial of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu did quite the opposite (no one would argue that the structure in place needed dismantling, but the way in which it was dismantled did little to restore and affirm the humanity of the people oppressed by the communist regime, and raised complicated questions for those growing up in the "new" Romania).

In the last 10 years Romania has been a place where artists are making good use of the freedom to articulate their own desires and frustrations, even if that means criticizing each other, their mothers, themselves, their health care system, history, government; or, let's say especially when it means criticizing the government, since open, public dialogue is an important part of a civil society. As has been clear in the last 10 years, not only have Romanian artists been criticizing and complicating Romania home and abroad, they have been doing it with talent, skill and profound acuity. So, they have also been enriching it.

In order to develop and promote their work, Romanian artists need an active, effective, forward-thinking cultural body that respects, supports and brings attention to their efforts. The Romanian Cultural Institute has been that cultural body for the greater part of the last decade.

On June 13th of this year, the Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta (elected after a no-confidence government collapse in April) passed an "emergency ordinance" that would, within two weeks of its passing, restructure the command and mission of the Romanian Cultural Institute and its 17 world branches, led by the writer and philosopher Horia-Roman Patapievici since 2005. It's important to understand, however, that the purges that threaten the Romanian Cultural Institute are happening in a broader context; Victor Ponta's two month-old administration (three of whose cabinet members have already been dismissed over integrity issues, and now Victor Ponta himself has been accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis) is in the process of passing a series of non-democratic and abusive measures that reach all levels of state administration.

It's also important to understand that this particular "emergency ordinance," passed undemocratically, with no Parliamentary debate, is believed by many to be an act of personal vendetta on the part of PM Victor Ponta, against President Traian Basescu, who was until now nominally in charge of appointing the tutelage and mission of the Romanian Cultural Institute, and against Ponta's Basescu-appointed predecessor Emil Boc, who resigned in February amid protests over austerity cuts. The language of the ordinance passes control of the RCI from the president to the Senate, whose collective concept of the cultural body's function is that of a nationalistic propaganda machine (some prominent members of the Senate have recently publically criticized Cristi Puiu, for "offending Romania" with his depictions of "bad Romanians").

It's also important to understand that it's not Traian Basescu who is defending the RCI. It's artists and cultural leaders. Filmmakers such as Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Cornel Porumboiu (Police, Adjective) and Andrei Ujica (The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu); the theater director Andrei Serban, the writer Norman Manea, and hundreds of young Romanian artists have been speaking out and demonstrating against this ordinance in the week following the takeover, essentially fighting for the right to a civil society. Victor Ponta's administration has already been forced to respond to the pressure of the demonstrations, and it is to be hoped that this ludicrous, destructive and backward-thinking diktat will be reversed, allowing the Romanian Cultural Institute to continue promoting real Romanian culture, instead of token "Romanianness." This is what cultural institutions are supposed to do, promote artists and not a nationalistic agenda.

The threat to the RCI is a threat to the future of a country still trying to find its way to a functional democracy. People outside of Romania should care about this because it's a threat to freedom of expression in the most real sense, and the implications are profoundly offensive. It's easy to recognize the ultimate evolution of this threat; it's Romania of less than 30 years ago, or, worse, Mexico, Syria, any number of places where voices are silenced through government-sanctioned (whether official or not) repression or terrorism. Here is the beginning. This regressive seed must not be allowed to sprout and take root.