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 Mindbomb.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.rosiamontanainimagini.ro/tag/daniel-vrabioiu

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/news/world/rampant-corruption-massive-protests-is-eastern-europe-coming-undone-1.2187464
Dan Mercea, “Exploding Iconography: the Mindbomb Project.” EastBound, 1/2006: 246 http://www.eastbound.info/journal/2006-1/