Columns, Opinions

Vilsan ’19: West doesn’t know best

Staff Columnist
Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We’ve all heard the soapbox speech before: The politically precarious governments of Eastern Europe have a lot to learn about organized democracy from established Western states. Throughout the 20th century, Western democracies inserted themselves into the communist bloc like fatherly figures to fix governmental inefficiencies and preach the virtues of political freedom. Yet, as governments across the globe experience political instability, it seems that citizens of the Western world have a lesson or two about democracy to learn from an unlikely teacher: Romania. In the first months of 2017, the Romanian people have proven themselves far more capable of overcoming political allegiances to confront corruption — no matter what side of the aisle it may come from.

While the American media was busy analyzing President Trump’s first weeks in office, the new government in Romania unleashed a unique set of scandals. Not unlike the United States, the Romanian governmental transition has had its fair share of turbulence. After officials released an emergency ordinance legalizing small-scale governmental corruption in the middle of the night on Jan. 31, Romanians took to the streets in protest.

Political division is a fact of life in Romania, as the public is generally split into five major political parties with very different visions for the country. Political corruption, unfortunately, is similarly well established, partly as a result of the nation’s tumultuous recovery from its communist past. But, this month, Romanians proved that they can look beyond party lines and unite to move beyond a history of political violence and corruption.

While American televisions lit up with images of protests in airports and state houses, Romanian media outlets scrambled to cover one of the nation’s largest revolts since the fall of communist rule. Citizens organized an inspiring and unifying movement against the abuse of governmental power. It became clear that, regardless of their political affiliations, Romanians are unwilling to let corruption run its course in the dead of night.

The emergency ordinance was repealed within days of the large-scale public outrage, and Minister of Justice Florin Iordache resigned from his post. But this reversal did little to appease protesters, who continue to demand governmental accountability and a permanent governmental re-organization that would prohibit the creation of future corrupt ordinances.

This national uproar has deeper roots than momentary anger at a legislative misstep. Overnight, citizens decided that, above all, they are Romanians with a shared interest in promoting national success and political progress. Put simply, they’re fed up with a system that allows the political elite to take advantage of laws and pull strings when they think no one’s watching. The protests in Romania this month are perhaps the most inspiring examples of modern democracy at work: a people united by a common cause, acting in the interest of their nation.

So what can the West learn from the Romanian example? Isn’t this just a case of a formerly communist nation still struggling to expel corruption from its top levels of government? After all, Romanian political analyst Sorin Ionita believes that, unlike the West, “Romanian political cleavage is not left against right, it is corruption versus anti-corruption.”  Are the Romanian people lagging behind in internalizing the lesson that nobody is above the law, or is it leading the way in outspoken, fiery demands for accountability? I would argue the latter.

As American politicians extend their concerns and best wishes to Romania, they would be well-served to look internally before brushing the Romanian example off as an Eastern European phenomenon. Throughout several administrations and election cycles, the political elites on both sides of the aisle have been able to dismiss suspicious ties and criminally tainted pasts with a sequence of vague press conferences and diversion tactics. It may seem as though politics in the West are consumed entirely by partisan issues and that Westerners have transcended the fundamental flaws of democratic governance. But, upon closer inspection, some issues aren’t subject to ideological opinion — they belong on the right versus wrong spectrum.

From the manipulation tactics of the Democratic National Committee in the election of Hillary Clinton to Trump’s undisclosed tax returns, politicians in both major parties have provoked scandals deserving of bipartisan condemnation. In the 2016 Democratic primary, high-level members of the party obviously favored a Clinton win and acted on this preference. Outrage over this meddling should not have been limited to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT. Meanwhile, Trump has admitted to taking advantage of loopholes in tax laws to avoid paying his fair share for years. It is the responsibility of American citizens as a whole to protest this evasion, regardless of political affiliation. Yet, throughout the election, voters and politicians were willing to excuse the indiscretions of their own parties while denouncing the opposition for its oversteps. It is clear, from these examples, that the American democratic system is far from squeaky-clean. Corruption and political dishonesty continue to be a real problem, not a matter of partisan subjectivity, and they should be treated as such.

In an increasingly divided political climate, we’ve learned to brand ourselves according to the political niches that separate us. We’ve begun treating issues that should be on the right versus wrong spectrum as matters of personal opinion and party alliance. All is forgotten once the necessary votes are won. It is easy to cast stones across the pond and blame other governments for stepping out of legal bounds, especially when you’re sitting on the Western side. However, before stepping back up on the soapbox, it is worthwhile to reexamine the American political culture and whether political scandals are the partisan phenomena they are made out to be.

Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to