Glo­cal­iz­ing the Occu­py Lega­cy in East­ern Europe: Save Roșia Montana

A Visu­al­ly Inspired Polit­i­cal Commentary

By Oana Godeanu-Ken­wor­thy, Mia­mi Uni­ver­si­ty, Ohio

Cour­tesy of Save Rosia Montana

In a Sep­tem­ber 3rd piece for the online issue of CBC News, Cana­di­an ana­lyst Dan Mur­ray mused on the grim future of East­ern Europe shak­en by mass protests over the past year: “It has been less than a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry since these coun­tries cast off the Com­mu­nist yoke. But whether it's the cen­tral­iza­tion of all pow­er… or the dead hand of cor­rupt elites, the ways learned in the days of Sovi­et dom­i­na­tion per­sist. The Wild East still thrives.” A clos­er look at the sto­ry behind the Roman­ian protests dur­ing the fall of 2013 con­tra­dicts these glum pre­dic­tions, and illu­mi­nates the par­a­digm shift slow­ly tak­ing place in the region; one where Sovi­et-style ways of doing things are inter­sect­ing with the lessons of the Arab spring and of the Occu­py move­ment, with unex­pect­ed results. The “Roman­ian Fall” comes alive in the strik­ing images that cir­cu­lat­ed via the social media net­works with­in and with­out the ter­ri­to­r­i­al bound­aries of the coun­try, ener­giz­ing street protests that had con­crete polit­i­cal consequences.

© Daniel Vrabioiu

On Sep­tem­ber 1, 2013, thou­sands of Roma­ni­ans took to the streets through­out the coun­try protest­ing the open-pit gold and sil­ver mine that the Cana­di­an cor­po­ra­tion Gabriel Resources (oper­at­ing local­ly as Roșia Mon­tana Gold Cor­po­ra­tion) is plan­ning to open on a 2,400-hectare site in the Apuseni Moun­tains in West­ern Roma­nia. The long sto­ry of Gabriel Resources’ involve­ment with the Roman­ian gov­ern­ment is an all-too-com­mon sto­ry of gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion and glob­al cor­po­rate depre­da­tion in the new “Wild East,” as one arti­cle in Der Spiegel chron­i­cles here. Inci­den­tal­ly, it is also a tale of a civ­il soci­ety (re)born and of a cre­ative and per­sua­sive visu­al cam­paign car­ried out main­ly in social media. Behind the street protests and polit­i­cal entan­gle­ments lies a sophis­ti­cat­ed PR cam­paign that illu­mi­nates the cru­cial role of images in the new forms of demo­c­ra­t­ic activism tak­ing shape in East­ern Europe.

©Daniel Vra­bioiu

For the past ten years, resis­tance to the min­ing project has been going on strong, but stayed rough­ly under the radar of pub­lic opin­ion, only to explode in vibrant street protests in Sep­tem­ber last year. While the eth­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and con­sti­tu­tion­al argu­ments against the min­ing plans have not changed, it is the envi­ron­men­tal dimen­sion of the sto­ry that has gal­va­nized pub­lic opin­ion, begin­ning in 2013. The first protests on Sep­tem­ber 1st were fol­lowed by a sus­tained wave of activism that swept the inter­net and the streets of Roma­nia spurred by a cre­ative visu­al cam­paign; every Sun­day since then (although small­er in size since Decem­ber), sit-ins and flash mobs have been tak­ing place at key sym­bol­ic loca­tions, from Bucharest to Toron­to to New York, Paris, or Lon­don. The pro­test­ers focused their ener­gies on the social media net­works. The result has been a flow of images whose vis­cer­al imme­di­a­cy engages read­ers in a per­son­al way, push­ing for an emo­tion­al reac­tion, as well as for polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion, in a civ­il soci­ety noto­ri­ous­ly apa­thet­ic over the past two decades. Many of the movement’s strik­ing posters were cre­at­ed by the artists behind the Mind­bomb project, an adver­tis­ing col­lec­tive bare­ly a decade old, whose avowed polit­i­cal goal is to “hack into the dom­i­nant dis­course of main­stream pol­i­tics, mass-media and the adver­tis­ing indus­try” in an effort to cre­ate social posters that would get peo­ple to become active par­tic­i­pants into civic con­ver­sa­tions and actions (Mer­cea, 246).

Pho­to cour­tesy of Save Roșia Montana

Their cre­ations, such as the poster fea­tur­ing the Roman­ian prime min­is­ter, his face cov­ered with a gold mask and wear­ing a lapel pin in the logo of the Cana­di­an min­ing cor­po­ra­tion, or the mined-up map of Roma­nia scat­tered with signs of haz­ardous mate­ri­als, use humour and pathos simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, and speak to the pro­found pub­lic dis­con­tent with both Roman­ian insti­tu­tions and politi­cians and with the inroads of glob­al cor­po­rate capitalism.

The Save Roșia Mon­tana cam­paign sig­nals the vibrant reasser­tion of local belong­ing placed in a glob­al con­text, and illu­mi­nates the mul­ti­ple ways in which glob­al activism can thrive in, and adapt to new local polit­i­cal ecosys­tems. By plac­ing the envi­ron­ment at the heart of its mes­sage, the move­ment cat­alyzes patri­o­tism and envi­ron­men­tal­ism, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly taps into the glob­al ethos of sus­tain­abil­i­ty ani­mat­ing sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives. But in the con­text of post­com­mu­nist Roma­nia, the con­ven­tion­al terms of the glob­al vocab­u­lary of involve­ment and resis­tance inevitably acquire new mean­ings and are used dif­fer­ent­ly than, say, in the U.S, France, or Spain, as to fit local cul­tur­al expec­ta­tions and polit­i­cal needs. For instance, the Save Roșia Mon­tana move­ment departs from the Occu­py Wall Street tem­plate in sev­er­al sig­nif­i­cant ways.

Pho­to cour­tesy of Mind​bomb​.org

First, the phe­nom­e­non is far from the obsti­nate hor­i­zon­tal­i­ty of its Amer­i­can coun­ter­part; the hub of the events is clear­ly the NGO Albur­nus Maior, which has been coor­di­nat­ing the legal and PR bat­tles against the project since 2002. No occu­pa­tions are tak­ing place, and the move­ment is unfold­ing nation­al­ly and glob­al­ly. Sec­ond, the Roman­ian move­ment has man­aged to ener­gize a strik­ing­ly diverse pop­u­la­tion. March­es rou­tine­ly fea­ture par­ents with chil­dren in tow, or push­ing babies in strollers, the urban edu­cat­ed youth (iron­i­cal­ly dubbed hip­sters here, as else­where), but also retirees, work­ers and farm­ers, peo­ple who are less like­ly to even know own a com­put­er, let alone use Twitter.

Pho­to cour­tesy of Save Rosia Montana

This suc­cess is due to the campaign’s mixed approach that com­bines a strong pres­ence on social media (com­plete with a free down­load­able “smart protest app,”) with more tra­di­tion­al aware­ness-rais­ing ini­tia­tives such as art exhibits, round tables, street con­certs, as well as uncon­ven­tion­al oper­a­tions, like the urban gueril­la cam­paign that placed stick­ers read­ing “Cyanide-free (for now)” on food prod­ucts in supermarkets.

©Daniel Vra­bioiu

Third, the glo­cal­iza­tion of the Occu­py reper­toire of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence in East­ern Europe does not include a dis­en­chant­ment with the work­ings of democ­ra­cy. The Roșia Mon­tana activists are talk­ing about the envi­ron­men­tal impact of the min­ing project while edu­cat­ing Roman­ian vot­ers in the basics of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy. Their cam­paign dou­bles as a les­son in civics, in the basics of democ­ra­cy, as well as a les­son in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, com­plete with con­crete legal tools to fight police abuse.

In a sym­bol­ic ges­ture, on 21 Sep­tem­ber 2013, thou­sands of Roma­ni­ans held hands form­ing a human chain around the for­mer palace of dic­ta­tor Nico­lae Ceaușes­cu that now hous­es the Roman­ian Par­lia­ment. In oth­er words,  what start­ed as a pop­u­lar cam­paign against a dubi­ous min­ing project has evolved into a move­ment to reclaim the demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions Roma­ni­ans fought for back in 1989, and to fight against a tra­di­tion of polit­i­cal apa­thy that has informed Roman­ian pol­i­tics for the past two decades.

And last, but not least, this poten­tial­ly post-eth­nic envi­ron­men­tal move­ment in East­ern Europe allows for the cre­ation of emo­tion­al and orga­ni­za­tion­al ties with oth­er mem­bers of the glob­al civ­il soci­ety through whom Save Roșia Mon­tana taps into the larg­er transna­tion­al net­works of envi­ron­men­tal activism. In one of the more orig­i­nal projects inspired by the protests, Lon­don-based Roman­ian artist Emma Mar­cu is turn­ing these con­nec­tions into art. “Echo for Roșia Mon­tana,” a col­lec­tive art­work inspired by Yoko Ono’s instruc­tion paint­ings, is intend­ed to cre­ate a col­lage of can­vas­es from around the world, to be hand­ed in to UNESCO, in Paris, accom­pa­nied by a glob­al peti­tion to include Roșia Mon­tana in the World Her­itage List. The de-cen­tered and flu­id aes­thet­ics of this project engages par­tic­i­pants while aim­ing for the cre­ation of a mate­r­i­al object that can poten­tial­ly bring about a polit­i­cal out­come. So far, Emma Marcu’s echoes are being cre­at­ed in cities across Europe and North America.

Pho­to cour­tesy of Emma Marcu

The protests against the Cana­di­an min­ing com­pa­ny, far from sig­nal­ing the demise of East­ern Europe, are in fact carv­ing a space in the pub­lic space of post­com­mu­nist Roma­nia where dif­fer­ence and moder­ni­ty are explored along new lines. Visu­al­iz­ing the Roman­ian Fall online and beyond undoubt­ed­ly played a cru­cial role in ener­giz­ing Roman­ian pub­lic opin­ion; per­haps the Roșia Mon­tana move­ment is mere­ly paving the way for future new grass­roots move­ments in the region, as glob­al trends are being local­ized and adapt­ed to region­al cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal idio­syn­crasies, one share at a time.

© Lau­ra Mureșan

About the author:

Oana Godeanu-Ken­wor­thy teach­es in the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Pro­gram at Mia­mi Uni­ver­si­ty, Ohio. She works on glob­al­iza­tion and nation­al images in lit­er­a­ture, film and pop­u­lar cul­ture. She received her PhD in Roma­nia, with a dis­ser­ta­tion on rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Unit­ed States in ear­ly Eng­lish-Cana­di­an fic­tion. Her work has been pub­lished in Ear­ly Amer­i­can Stud­ies, the Jour­nal of Euro­pean Cul­ture and in BAS—British and Amer­i­can Studies.
Daniel Vrăbioiu is a Roman­ian pho­tog­ra­ph­er liv­ing in Bucharest. He has been involved with the Save Rosia Mon­tana project since the begin­ning. You can find more about his work at http://​www​.rosi​a​mon​tanain​imag​i​ni​.ro/​t​a​g​/​d​a​n​i​e​l​-​v​r​a​b​i​oiu

Works cit­ed:
Don Mur­ray “Ram­pant cor­rup­tion, mas­sive protests. Is East­ern Europe com­ing undone?” CBC online edi­tion, Oct 24, 2013. Avail­able at http://​www​.cbc​.ca/​n​e​w​s​/​w​o​r​l​d​/​r​a​m​p​a​n​t​-​c​o​r​r​u​p​t​i​o​n​-​m​a​s​s​i​v​e​-​p​r​o​t​e​s​t​s​-​i​s​-​e​a​s​t​e​r​n​-​e​u​r​o​p​e​-​c​o​m​i​n​g​-​u​n​d​o​n​e​-​1​.​2​1​8​7​464
Dan Mer­cea, “Explod­ing Iconog­ra­phy: the Mind­bomb Project.” East­Bound, 1/2006: 246 http://​www​.east​bound​.info/​j​o​u​r​n​a​l​/​2​0​0​6​-1/