Resisting Intimidation Between 20,000-30,000 people demonstrated in Bucharest against the government on 26 November 2017, the largest protest of the autumn - civic organizations were for the first time joined by trade-unions. (Photo: facebook.com/InstitutulPoliticiPublice)

Resisting Intimidation

Amidst the daily news of high-ranking politicians breaking the law, anti-democratic drafts of justice laws, and the incoherence of the ongoing ‘Fiscal Revolution’, the war declared by Romania’s government and two ruling parties on green and critical civil society organisations (CSOs) may seem insignificant. But activists, who recently fell victim to coordinated media bashing, legislative and fiscal pressure and assaults on their organisation’s offices, feel it is an attack on the very basis of Romania’s democracy.

“I just arrived back home from a debate on new ways to regulate the Abuse of Office, when I got this text message on my phone: ‘Turn on the TV, you’re on Antena 3’”, recollects Codru Vrabie the evening of 24 October, 2017. “To my surprise, I heard my name along with that of a colleague, Elena Calistru, and of Laura Ștefan, from Expert Forum. Apparently I had been funded by George Soros with a huge amount of money, USD 770,000. They kept repeating that message for several days, evening after evening. I took the decision not to answer directly, but gave a public answer on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.”

Vrabie wrote that since 1999 he received small payments for his work from the Soros Foundation, the Centre for Legal Resources, the Institute for Public Policy, ActiveWatch and CEE Trust and never received more than USD 250 a month when employed full-time. He also won two scholarships from the Soros Foundation for his studies abroad: a Summer School organised in Cortona, Italy, by the Institute for Human Studies and a four-year BA in Political Science at the American University in Bulgaria. The total amount of his scholarships, according to Vrabie, is probably USD 50,000. He signed an agreement with the Soros Foundation that he would return home and work in Romania for 10 years, which he did after his graduation in 1998. “I brought money to Romania, I paid taxes in Romania, so what’s the problem”, asks Vrabie.

Prime time public lynching – unfair and impossible to thwart

Ovidiu Voicu, director of The Center for Public Innovation, has his own explanation on Facebook. Vrabie and his colleagues “are the victims of a prime time public lynching campaign on Antena 3. Their ‘guilt’ is that they spoke clearly about corruption cases in the political camp supported by the said TV station. The method is a classical one: facts are taken out of context and interpreted to fabricate the accusation that people such as Codru Vrabie and Laura Ștefan have received hundreds of thousands of euros to denigrate their country. It is not only unfair but also almost impossible to thwart. The legal means of response are slow and hard to initiate. For example, The National Audiovisual Council, who could sanction the wrongdoing, hasn’t met for several weeks due to a ‘lack of quorum’. A lawsuit may take several years.”

Codru Vrabie, from Funky Citizens. “His guilt is that he speaks clearly about corruption”, says Ovidiu Voicu about him. The logo of Funky Citizens refers to I.L. Caragiale, the greatest Romanian satirical playwright. Photo: Al. R. Savulescu

A week after the first mention on TV, the anchor of Antena 3, Mihai Gâdea, attacked Vrabie again, launching an opinion poll on his Facebook page: “Mister Codru Vrabie, representative of many NGOs funded massively by George Soros, says that Romania should accept one million refugees, but that he would be pleased even with only 350,000. Would you agree that Romania should accept between 350,000 and 1,000,000 refugees? Voice your opinion on the poll.”

In a previous TV show on the local public channel, Vrabie referred back to his own Republica article “We are the refugees” from one and a half years ago in February of 2016. In the article, he argued that due to bad economic policies, Romanians have become “economic refugees” in their own country. Among other figures, he quoted the Projected Old-Age Dependency Ratio in 2060 (number of persons aged 65 as a percentage of number of persons aged between 15 and 64) calculated by Thomson Reuters in 2013, where Romania appears in an extremely vulnerable position, having the second highest ratio of elderly people in Europe of 64.8%. At the same time, Vrabie notes in the article that Romania has officially accepted only 1,785 refugees, while the European Commission has asked for 6,300 and the German Institute for Economic Development calculated that the country could take as much as 35,000 refugees. Maybe a solution to revive the economy would be to accept 350,000 or even 1,000,000 refugees, asked Vrabie rhetorically in the article.

“Why these attacks now? I don’t know”, says Vrabie. “Maybe to distract the public opinion from the real issues of Romanian society: Justice Laws, ‘Fiscal Revolution’, Budget Deficit, etc.”

But media campaigns are not the only way civil society is attacked.

Tightening the financial screw on NGOs

“We were planning to celebrate twenty years of activity in February 2018. Instead, we will probably have to close by that time”, says Lavinia Andrei from Terra Mileniul III, an NGO dealing with energy issues, mainly climate change. “We already cut our salaries by half in the hope that we can resist till the Ministry of Regional Development, Public Administration and European Funds (MDRAPFE) will re-evaluate our grant proposal”, adds Andrei.

Many applications for the 2017 Operational Programme Administrative Capacity (POCA 2017) of the MDRAPFE have been rejected on a controversial eligibility issue, says Andrei: “We found out on 23 October that the proposals were rejected because the applicant’s contribution was not exactly 2%, but… higher. Our own application included a 2.0078% contribution. We appealed against the rejection, and we now wait for the answer.” There is a 30-day term to submit appeals, and then another one of 30 days for receiving the answer. If the terms are observed, the application process will amount to nine months. The previous application of Terra Mileniul III for European Funds took 13 months to approve, and the organisation also needed to appeal after being initially rejected. The trick which excluded them this time was a minor change introduced by a ‘Corrigendum’: the word ‘minimum’, regarding the required 2% contribution by the NGO itself, which had previously existed in the guidelines, disappeared. “As a result”, adds Andrei, “as many as 64% of the proposals were rejected without evaluation, just for having a contribution larger than 2%. Sometimes the difference was as little as only 0.0001%, obviously an approximation of the MySMIS online system. Of course, I suspect that certain NGOs were warned, so they didn’t fall into the trap. Looking at the approved applications, one can find NGOs with absolutely no previous experience and websites of only one page. But their applications were successful, as they included a precise 2.0000% contribution.”

“The European Funds distributed through POCA 2017 are our last chance for survival, as there are no other available funds, and from next year the existing fiscal facilities for NGOs will disappear”, says Andrei.

Lavinia Andrei, from Terra Mileniul III: “From next year the fiscal facilities for NGOs will disappear”. (Photo: Al. R.  Savulescu)

Indeed, the Emergency Ordinance 79/2017, published on 8 November, changed the Fiscal Code, dramatically reducing the revenue sources of NGOs. Starting on 1 January, 2018, Small and Medium Enterprises with a turnover of less than EUR one million will lose all of their previous fiscal facilities for NGO donations. The law keeps the right of deduction to 2% of the income tax for private individuals, but the actual donated amount will be reduced by 25%, as a result of the reduction of the tax itself.

Other legal changes are also foreseen for civil society. The Romanian Senate has tacitly adopted the so-called “Pleșoianu Law” on 20 November, named after one of the two MPs who initiated it. Among other provisions, the new version of the law obliges NGOs to publish a list of the donations through which they are funded every six months in Monitorul Oficial. If an NGO doesn’t abide by this rule, it can automatically be dissolved.

Absurd legal provisions, disproportionate penalties

“This is an absurd provision and a disproportionate penalty”, says Violeta Alexandru from The Institute for Public Policy (IPP), a respected think-tank. “Romania owes a lot to NGOs. Instead of recognising their value and supporting them, the Parliament is trying to weaken them. We are the witnesses of a campaign which started months ago. I doubt that the changes to the NGO law are done in good faith. It is true that the law is almost two decades old and that it needs changes. But they must be done in good faith, by people familiarised with the sector. At the end of last year, before leaving office, I presented to the new minister a series of proposals thoroughly discussed and fully agreed upon with the civil society”, adds Alexandru, who was the Minister for Public Consultation and Civic Dialogue in the technocratic cabinet led in 2016 by PM Dacian Cioloș.

Violeta Alexandru, from the Bucharest based Institute for Public Policy, is one of the NGO representatives who were granted ministerial positions in 2016 by the Cioloș Cabinet (Photo: Steluța Popescu)

“Nevertheless, the year 2017 ends with at least one positive result”, says Alexandru. “All the public pressure coming from the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats Party (ALDE), campaigns trying to affect third-sector credibility with bills initiated to intimidate the critical voices within the civil society, etc. succeeded to coagulate the various NGOs into a single voice, something which wasn’t previously possible”, she adds, referring to one of the main slogans of the anti-government protests: You succeeded, you united us!

Indeed, civic organisations calling for protests were joined for the first time on 26 November, 2017 by two major trade union confederations. The most important protest of the autumn brought to the streets of Bucharest some 20,000-30,000 people. And many more thousands protested against government in other Romanian cities, such as Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca, Brașov, Iași and Craiova.

Hashtag “You succeeded, you united us!” calling for a public protest on 26 November 2017. (facebook.com/600000pentruRezistenta)

Following the public outcry on the change of the NGO law,  the current Cabinet Minister for Public Consultation and Social Dialogue announced immediately after the tacit passing of the modifications in the Senate, that “in two weeks a more relaxed proposal on transparency” will be presented.

You succeeded, you united us!

But pressure on NGOs has lately run high. On 4 October, an NGO, MagiCamp, was broken into by burglars. Such things happen, but in this case something else curious occurred: money and other valuables were left untouched, the main interest of the thieves being laptops with information. MagiCamp is an NGO dealing with children with cancer. One of its founders is Vlad Voiculescu, a Vienna-based economist. Although an NGO representative, he served as Minister of Health in the Cioloș cabinet.

Later, on 23 November, it was the turn of the Institute for Public Policy to be broken into by burglars, who again stole mainly information not money or valuables. Coincidentally or not, one of the founding members of the IPP is Violeta Alexandru, who was another NGO representative serving in the Cioloș Cabinet as Public Consultation and Civic Dialogue Minister.

Break-in at the Institute for Public Policy Bucharest, 23 November 2017. Only information went missing, not valuables. (Photo: facebook.com/InstitutulPoliticiPublice)

These developments abruptly reverse a positive trend noticeable last year. According to the Civil Society Organizations Sustainability Index 2016, published in June 2017 by the Civil Society Development Foundation (FDSC), “in 2016 civil society in Romania was heavily influenced by the reformist agenda of the technocratic government… which included a series of experts and activists of Civil Society Organizations… The CSOs’ sustainability was consolidated in 2016 with improvements regarding the advocacy capacities and the public image of CSOs. The CSOs decisively influenced public policies, and – despite having to deal with an increased number of accusations of influence from abroad – they obtained better visibility in the media and more appreciation from the government. Additionally, the process of registering an NGO was simplified in 2016, and the prospects of CSOs for higher revenues was improved by the passing of bills defining social enterprises…”

According to “Romania 2017. The Nongovernmental Sector – Profile, Trends, Challenges”, another FDSC report published in April of 2017 using the latest available data from the National NGO Register 2015, Romania has almost 90,000 NGOs, of which 79% are associations, 19% are foundations, and federations and unions are each 1%. The main interest of Romanian NGOs is in social/charitable activities, followed by sports and education. NGOs generate 1.6% of the GDP and employ a substantial number of people, having created around 100,000 new jobs solely in 2015.