The Romanian Diaspora as an Unlikely Opposition
Diasporas have long been seen by scholars and practitioners of international relations as an important diplomacy tool. A large, active, and politically engaged diaspora can often be used to influence another country’s politics, culture, and economy in ways that benefit the homeland. Conversely, diasporas can also manifest themselves simply through political apathy. In some cases, the concept is turned on its head, and a new structure emerges: a diaspora opposition. Romania, with its large diasporic community, serves as a prime example not only of diaspora dynamics, but also of how diasporas can influence geopolitics.
Currently, Romanian’s first-generation diaspora is approximately 3.5 million people and growing, with the vast majority residing in other EU member states. The diaspora represents 17% of Romania’s total population and carries clear financial implications resulting from emigrants’ earnings. In 2016, Romania received $3.4 billion in remittances, the equivalent of nearly 2% of its GDP. But, what about this diaspora makes it politically active and oppositionist? The answer lies in the clear discrepancy between government goals and strategies, and the needs and wants of Romanians living out of the country.
The Romanian diaspora has always been categorized as right-leaning on the political spectrum, a preference clearly exemplified by the 2014 run-off presidential election, where the Liberal Party candidate Klaus Iohannis won almost 90% of the diaspora vote. Even more revealing is the 2016 parliamentary election, where the newly formed Save Romania Union (USR) received approximately 27% of the vote among Romanians abroad, the Liberal Party won 26%, and the Social Democrats only 10%. By comparison, within Romania the Social Democratic Party was favored by 45% of voters, while only 9% chose USR.
These votes are significant beyond showing political leanings: they show that this community often chooses the oppositionist, protest vote. In 2014, they did not just vote for the Liberal candidate, but they voted against the sitting Social Democratic prime minister. Similarly, in 2016 the diaspora did not just vote for a centrist party, but they voted for a nascent, untested political movement.
The discrepancy between what the diaspora wants, and what the Romanian government offers, seems to be the main political motivator for its political opposition. Understanding that Romanians chose to leave their country of birth for better living conditions is essential, a fact that Romanian governments have understood, but either choose to ignore or don’t know how to address. In one of the most recent polls, more than half of those living abroad claim they do so because of financial difficulties at home and the prospect of better employment abroad. What is clear is that those in the diaspora wish to return (over 60%), but only once issues of corruption, healthcare, bureaucracy, education, and economy are being appropriately addressed.
In the short- to medium-term, Romania is likely to witness an increase in activities that oppose the policies of the current government. 75% of those that have taken part in the poll mentioned above can claim recent political activity. Meanwhile, the government’s strategy regarding this section of its citizens is vague and ineffectual at best. The main objectives of the Ministry for Romanians Abroad for 2017-2020 focus on maintaining and promoting national identity, promoting diasporic associations, and aiding with the integration process of Romanians in their new host communities. These objectives are far removed from what the diaspora has listed as priorities they wish to see fulfilled. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition led by the Social Democrats is continuing to pursue measures that strike many as fiscally unsound and as abetting corruption. At some point, those that have been politically active abroad through votes and protests will shift their attention to another type of involvement: fiscal activism.
In such a case, the Romanian economy could be poised to take a great hit, as would any political party deemed responsible. Any political entity that could capitalize on the power of Romanian emigrants, both in numbers and in finances, could become a force to be reckoned with on the political scene. While USR tapped into this demographic for the 2016 elections, it has not succeeded at harnessing this dynamic in the long-term. For the power of the diaspora to be effective, a party would have to not only rely on it during election season, but throughout the entire governing process.
The repercussions to Romania’s geopolitical standing as a result of the diaspora’s activities have thus far been minimal. But, if the diasporic wave of political involvement keeps growing and Romania’s government consistently ignores the priorities of those living abroad, Romania’s elite could be in for a rude awakening with Europe-wide implications. Diasporic attitudes could play a great role in 2019, both in the next round of presidential elections and in the elections for European Parliament. Combining this with Romania’s presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2019, diasporic political involvement as opposition has the potential to influence Romanian foreign policy and its relationship with Europe for years to come.