Leap of Desperation The Protest that Shook Romania
Last December, a Romanian man made headlines when he leapt off a seven-meter-high balcony in the parliament in Bucharest. Adrian Sobaru's protest against the country's austerity measures has made him a hero for some and sparked a debate over Romania's future. But what did his gesture really mean?
He got up at three in the morning, but without telling his wife why. He took out a white T-shirt and, with a dark marker, wrote on it: "You have gunned us down. You have killed our children's future. You can take away our money and our lives, but not our freedom."
He put on a shirt over the T-shirt and went to work. On this particular day, his job as a lighting technician with the state-owned television station took him to the parliament in Bucharest, as it often did. He waited on one of the balconies, 7 meters (23 feet) above the assembly hall, and when the prime minister had stepped up to the podium Adrian Sobaru, a slim, 42-year-old man, climbed onto the balcony railing, tore open his shirt, looked down at the government, and jumped.
"Like an airplane," says opposition politician Eugen Nicolaescu. "He spread out his arms as if he were trying to fly. He landed on a bench in the back."
"I can still see it happening in front of my eyes," says Finance Minister Gheorghe Ialomitianu. "It's hard to forget."
It happened on Dec. 23, 2010, in the last session at the end of a messy political year. Since then, political and business leaders in Romania, a financially ailing and relatively recent European Union member, have been arguing over the meaning of Sobaru's act. Everyone -- from politicians in the administration and the opposition, to union officials and business leaders -- has an opinion about it. Should it be interpreted as a strange aberration? Or as an act of revolt, a symbolic act of protest that will remain lodged in the collective memory and forcibly bring about political change?
'Tough but Necessary'
Finance Minister Ialomitianu, who has been in office since late 2008, receives us in the crescent-shaped Finance Ministry. He is wearing the sort of dark, understated pinstriped suit often seen in the world of high finance. He is looked after by a staff that has seen many finance ministers come and go.
On this day, Ialomitianu is speaking on behalf of a government that has already taken many of the steps that are still to come in Greece and Portugal: the center-right government of Emil Boc, which cut pay for government workers by 25 percent in 2010, slashed pensions and social benefits and raised the rate of value-added tax from 19 to 24 percent. These were "important decisions to secure economic and business stability," says the minister. "Some affect certain segments of society. This is tough, but necessary. There was no alternative. We had to do it."
Ialomitianu is referring to Romania's austerity program, the harshest in Europe.
It was implemented in a country that often attracts less attention than others, a country that is part of Europe, but not yet entirely. It is still not part of the Schengen zone or the euro zone, although it aims to become a member. It is also a low-wage country that experienced a boom for many years as an international production site, followed by a sharp crash during the financial crisis. Notorious for its shadow economy, tax evasion and illegal employment, Romania, together with Greece and Bulgaria, ranks among the most corrupt European countries in Transparency International's annual ratings. The country is deeply in debt -- with the EU, the World Bank and, most of all, the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
When it issues its loans, the IMF has a habit of pressuring borrowing nations to impose austerity measures, privatize government-owned industry and clean up their national budgets. Sitting in his ministry, Ialomitianu stresses that he speaks on behalf of a government that makes its own decisions, and that the IMF or the European Commission are not the ones calling the shots in Bucharest. The government, he says, is responsible for the drastic austerity measures that drove Adrian Sobaru to jump from a balcony in the parliament building and drove protesters into the streets in the previous fall. The finance minister has already had to seek shelter in the safety of his office, fleeing from angry employees resentful over the cuts. He insists that he remains undaunted, however, and that the Romanian economy is making headway. Future governments, he adds, will be grateful for the current administration's decisions.
'A Terrible Moment'
Ialomitianu has a degree in finance from a university in Transylvania and has also studied in various European countries. He would like to see Romania fulfill the criteria to become part of the euro zone as quickly as possible, although 2015 is usually mentioned as the target year. He also hopes to attract more foreign investment to Romania, and his words suggest a willingness to accommodate the markets. He says: "Of course it's difficult for people. No one likes to see his income reduced." Ialomitianu clearly interpreted Sobaru's jump as an act of criticism.
The minister was there, and witnessed how reality suddenly burst into the protected realm of the parliament from the world outside. "It was a terrible moment. No government that makes decisions wants something like that to happen." The minister clears his throat, searching for the right words to convey both sympathy and outrage, and then he says: "I don't think this is the appropriate way to demonstrate one's dissatisfaction."
A few days before jumping from the balcony, Sobaru wrote a letter in red ink on lined paper. In the letter, which was never sent, he wrote: "You have sold the country and its people. Do you expect all of us to dig through the garbage? Romania is falling apart. We have been lied to and deceived, every day." He wrote that he loved his family more than his own life, and he wrote about his autistic son Calin, who needs special treatment that the family can no longer afford. "I'm tired," he wrote. "We have no dreams left."
"He was standing up here," says opposition politician Nicolaescu, as he looks down at the assembly hall from the balcony, "and he landed on that bench over there. The doctors came quickly."
The parliament meets in the former "People's House" built by former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, an extravagant structure that was not designed with small dimensions in mind. Seven meters is a long way to fall -- that is very clear when one looks down into the chamber.
When it happened, there was turmoil among the members of parliament. Some saw the blood, and some wept. The prime minister rushed from the podium to Sobaru's side. Paramedics carried the severely injured man through the hallways of the palace. The speaker of the senate cut the session short. Ironically, a vote of no confidence against the government had been on the agenda that day.