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Understanding the Romanian Diaspora: A Strategically Important Network 

Article by Andra-Lucia Martinescu

November 4, 2019

Understanding the Romanian Diaspora: A Strategically Important Network 

The Political Geography of In-betweenness

There is often a complex relationship between Diasporas and their homelands. This issue was previously examined in the first paper of the ‘Understanding the Romanian Diaspora’ series,[1] particularly explaining how civic activism increasingly shapes the organisation of Romanian communities abroad. Surfacing in response to social and political dynamics affecting the home country such forms of political mobilisation are only beginning to shape diasporic identities. Protests across Europe brought to the forefront the civic and political demands and aspirations of those who decided to migrate towards better economic opportunities, or simply, where stability helped them build more manageable livelihoods, comparatively free from uncertainty. The effects of this widespread mobilisation echoed transnationally, and helped internationalise otherwise localised, domestic issues.

During the 2019 European elections (and national referendum on anti-corruption laws),[2] as Romanians yet again queued for hours on end outside embassies expecting to cast their ballot (a great many did not vote)[3], I was frequently asked about more viable alternatives to the long and frustrating wait (voting by post, for example). Why were there so few voting stations across the country? Were Romanian authorities oblivious to the turnout? Was the poor organisation intentional, with bureaucratic hurdles deliberately imposed so as to hamper the process? Unaccustomed to such exasperating voting practices other citizens were baffled by our democratic enthusiasm. Almost every passer-by asked if the turnout was to be attributed to the Communist, authoritarian legacy, with people now eager to exercise a previously denied constitutional right. Such instances always make for interesting conversations because they open host societies to political, historical or even cultural realities, which in absence of transnational mobility would have remained peripheral. They also show how host societies tend to perceive and understand the multifaceted political contexts in which Diasporas are anchored, in relation to the state of origin, but also as a strategic constituency within countries of destination. Voting extended the participative space beyond the homeland into the very fabric of host societies, but perhaps more insightful to external audiences was the way in which the (voting) process itself was sanctioned and conducted by Romanian authorities.

The mismanagement of polling stations abroad amply demonstrated how Romanian state institutions and a government captured by a ruling, but largely contested coalition[4] wilfully acted to disenfranchise this foreign-resident segment of the population. It also showed how homeland institutions tend to perceive the diaspora, thus exposing a fraught relationship and amplifying a tension that at the same time consolidated the political and civic identity of those abroad. Asked about the failure to foresee such a substantial turnout, the Minister of Foreign Affairs[5] deflected accusations by stating that ‘nobody knows how many Romanians live abroad’.[6] Over the years, there has been no consistent, institutionally-driven effort to gather data or engage in a nation-wide, informed conversation about migration. The statement is also revealing, because it epitomises a deeply entrenched institutional bias that governs official attitudes towards the diaspora. The more the diaspora becomes instrumental to regime change, demanding political accountability, the more officially sanctioned discourses curtail its actual influence. Consequently, lacking a knowledge basis, homeland engagement policies mostly stem from transitory, politicised interpretations of what the diaspora constitutes.

Yet, the rift between homeland institutional narratives and the shared, transnational reality of the many who decided to migrate persists. The fracture is also visible in Romania’s pivotal strategy towards its diaspora, which centres on repatriation (relocation to the home country). The diaspora’s supposed return is incentivised through different schemes of relocation, spanning from business opportunities and tax rebates to funding for start-ups. There may be some nominal benefits attached to this, but even so there are no official statistics to help us gauge the effectiveness or merit of such policies. Despite the much-invoked nostalgia for the homeland, often subject to opinion polls and emotional populist pleas, structural impunity and systemic corruption continues to socially disempower and drive people away. As mentioned in our previous brief,[7] the diaspora is perceived as a financial resource, and depending on electoral cycles, either as a threat or an opportunity. This myopic view seeps into official narratives and political actions.

It is also reminiscent of the Streetlight effect, an observational bias that ensues when individuals only search for something where it is the easiest to look. In the same way, institutional actors (in Romania) opt to perceive migration as temporary, and the diaspora through the benign prism of its ethno-cultural identity. Strategies of repatriation appeal to this affective component of belonging, the return to the homeland, without much consideration to the root causes that drive the ‘exodus’ in the first place. Diaspora engagement policies also lack an informed basis, a knowledge gap that became evident when we started researching the phenomenon.

If migration is considered to be temporary then entire spaces of exclusion emerge, with home institutions negating the capacity or the will of certain segments of the diaspora to fully integrate and partake in the political and civic lives of their host societies. Evidently, not much is being done in terms of assisting with the process of integration,[8] or even encouraging political participation, apart from sporadic volunteer-based initiatives, both underfunded and localised. Consequently, despite its considerable demographic presence across Europe (but also North America) the diaspora’s transnational impact, reach and influence remain limited. The Romanians’ representation and participation in the politics of host countries are equally modest.  

However, the two spaces inhabited by the diaspora, that of origin and of destination, are not mutually exclusive, but profoundly intertwined. As we have often witnessed in the many instances of mobilisation abroad, homeland-oriented politics are very much a reality lived and breathed within host societies; and perhaps more importantly, a reality that is continually mediated and conveyed through dialogue, albeit informally. Diasporic advocacy thus creates a hybrid political geography, an ‘in-betweenness’, where identity and agency are constantly negotiated. However, protests as repertoires of social action[9] are, in Charles Tilly’s words, cycles of contention. Civic mobilisation does impact governance in both countries of origin and destination, but it essentially remains an act of contestation, since institutions may or may not take heed, as is often the case.

The Strategic Dimension of Diaspora Communities

This is precisely why, we set out to explore new structures of opportunity that could enable a deeper engagement with host societies, by enhancing the civic and political participation of (Romanian) diaspora communities. We also investigate whether the diaspora itself can effectively advance Romanian foreign policy and strategic interests (as a non-state/ transnational actor), and to what extent bilateral relations (between countries of origin and destination) can be mediated through diaspora initiatives. In a nutshell, the upcoming publication and network analysis,[10] examines the strategic dimension of diaspora communities, as a means of bridging civic activism with national interests, pertaining to both the homeland and the countries of residence. This work aims to achieve several objectives.

Firstly, we hope to challenge home country institutional attitudes and induce a strategic shift in policymaking. If repatriation has been the main objective so far, how can we broaden these assumptions to encapsulate other types of diaspora contributions that nonetheless benefit the homeland (through expertise, know-how, work ethos and professional networks to mention but a few)? The institutional willingness to formulate policies beyond the requirement of geographical presence (in the state of origin) and innovatively utilising this vast social capital will certainly pose challenges.

Such a shift would require dismantling the centralised approach and entrenched patronage structures that govern the relationship between state and diaspora. Moreover, inter-institutional coordination, especially integrated funding mechanisms[11] that support capacity building for Romanian associations abroad ought to replace the bureaucratic processes that lack in transparency and hamper initiative. The institutions of external representation (embassies, Romanian cultural centres, etc.) are often passive, thus failing to meet the specific needs of diaspora communities. The preferred mode of engagement is mainly focused on the promotion of cultural and traditional events that, on the long term remain largely inconsequential. The cultural-populist model of engagement promoted by homeland institutions reduces otherwise complex and heterogenous diasporic communities to mere appendages of an ethno-linguistic/religious identity.

This reductionist view from Romanian institutions also confines bilateral dialogue to mandated tropes, official discourses frequently disconnected from the grievances and aspirations of those seemingly represented. It is no wonder then that the voting queues create a more effective space of critical dialogue and exchange with host societies than most government endorsed public diplomacy efforts. How can bilateral dialogues, even the culturally oriented ones, have any meaningful impact in absence of legitimacy? How can diaspora communities wholeheartedly act on behalf of the same homeland institutions that repeatedly curtail its democratic freedoms?  Both aspects require first and foremost engaging in a process of building trust. Therefore, a failure to acknowledge and empower the diaspora as a political, strategic and civic actor, will only perpetuate a sense of disenfranchisement from national aspirations, in both Romania and host countries. Instead, diaspora communities will continue to engage in this dynamic of contestation, attuned to the homeland, through protests and civic mobilisation, but incapable of fully contributing towards its development (from wherever they may be).

Secondly, through our vast mapping study of the Romanian diaspora, we hope to provide an institutional resource for host societies. Although the geographical scope is global, each analysis is tailored to reflect specific online as well as offline interactions in each country of residence. We analyse the different modes of association, the networks that emerge and their impact, whether local, national or transnational. We look into the scope and outreach of Romanian diasporic associations[12] not only in countries of destination but also in relation to the homeland, by examining financing patterns and evaluating the effectiveness of diaspora engagement policies so far. The networked approach also helps us visualise levels of political and civic participation in host societies and thus, the extent to which Romanian communities, access and navigate the structures of opportunity available to them.

Findings from the Network Analysis

Most importantly, we depart from the monolithic view that anchors Diasporas in the emotional rhetoric of identity politics. Our findings show a complex web of interactions, albeit fragmented. The overall network is centralised in its relationship to the home country, particularly with diaspora funding bodies, such as the Ministry for Romanians Abroad. The institutional preference for cultural engagement centred on folklore and traditions is also reflected in the financing trends. Associations purporting to organise culturally themed events have been the main beneficiaries of funding.

We are not dismissing altogether the significance of cultural capital as an instrument for social cohesion (amongst members of the diaspora), as well as public diplomacy. Promoting and preserving the culture, language and traditions of the homeland are indispensable in mediating an understanding of national identity. However, so long as state-sponsored discourses focus exclusively on the cultural dimension to define and structure the relationship between the homeland and the diaspora, then the latter’s de facto influence will remain limited.

The implications are far-reaching. Despite its considerable demographic presence, the diaspora’s associative models so far have had a limited impact. Besides its sporadic political mobilisation, transnational influence remains modest, which could also be attributed to reduced organisational capabilities, low visibility and online presence. The disproportionate interaction with host country institutions and low participation in the public sphere show that diaspora communities are not a fully-fledged political actor. As a consequence, the diaspora’s strategic dimension is yet to be realised. Part of the solution resides in changing the political geography of scope and aspirations. The diaspora is politically and civically anchored in the homeland, but institutions have done little to absorb and utilise its potential. In effect, its capacity to act has been limited to the repertoire of protest and contestation.

These forms of political communication are undoubtedly useful and necessary, but they ought to be expanded. Homeland institutions (so far influenced by the different parties’ priorities and interests) have duplicitously politicised the diaspora, capturing initiatives through patronage, and often weakening the autonomy of diaspora associations by preferentially allocating funding to those most amenable. The centralised network also shows increased dependency on government support, which in turn (and given the circumstances) encourages a tactic of subsistence. As a consequence, since their priorities are misaligned, many diaspora organisations become disengaged from their communities, embroiled instead in a competition for political favours, or the outright syphoning of public funding. Leadership rivalries within and amongst associations further erode legitimacy and discourage participation from public life. The impetus to collaborate or even seek commonalities of interest remains low, and so does the impact. In many instances, diaspora communities tend to perceive associations as an interface with their host societies and public institutions. However, in absence of more structured support, people primarily rely on personal, mutual assistance networks. Provided their priorities are not misaligned, diaspora organisations can and should be viewed as a gateway towards active engagement and participation in the civic and political spheres of host countries, because they are uniquely placed to enable access to these structures of opportunities.

For example, in the UK civic initiatives with a transnational impact (across multiple states or even continents) are more prominent than in other countries. This means that certain associations, even if volunteer-based, seek collaborative projects or partnerships with organisations beyond the UK (and not necessarily with other Romanians). Most diaspora associations in the UK have an online presence (website/social media or both), which fosters better communication and outreach. We found that online presence also increases the frequency of collaborations and partnerships amongst diaspora associations in the same country and beyond. Interactions with government bodies or institutions indicate some degree of participation in the host country’s public life and a more nuanced appraisal of local/national politics. This also demonstrates that communities are significantly more attuned to the structures of opportunity present in their host societies.

The networked approach is not rigid or static, because the diasporic ecosystem, with its association patterns is constantly transforming. Our aim is to render diaspora organisations as well as state institutions more self-reflective, capable of identifying opportunities for engagement with wider publics and building the kind of legitimacy that would foster influence. We hope that with strategic foresight and collective support, we can use the diaspora ecosystem in the UK to build a case study of good practice. Given the current political climate, there is renewed urgency in exploring ways of maximising the diaspora’s relevance in the public sphere, by engaging in a strategic dialogue that could essentially shape the future of bilateral relations between Romania and the UK. Opening such a conversation would also make institutions more cognisant of the diaspora’s political remittances, of how the diaspora can innovatively contribute towards leveraging its countries’ strategic role and international posture.


Contributions by Catalina Moisescu (University of Fribourg).

[1] Andra-Lucia Martinescu and Rares Burlacu, Understanding the Romanian Diaspora, FPC, February 2019, https://fpc.org.uk/understanding-the-romanian-diaspora/

[2] The Parliament, dominated by the Social Democrats (PSD) voted to selectively amend the judicial system, particularly the code of criminal procedure by lowering sentences for some offences and the statute of limitations. The pervasive aim was to put an end to several corruption investigations and ongoing court cases involving high-ranking politicians and dignitaries (including then PSD leader Liviu Dragnea). Centre-right President Klaus Iohannis called for a non-binding referendum in a bid to combat the government’s (Social Democratic Party – PSD) controversial justice reforms, set to pardon and confer amnesty over graft-related crimes. Voters were asked if the government should be barred from using emergency decrees to change legislation on justice and whether they supported a ban on any amnesty for those convicted of corruption. 85% (including the Romanian diaspora) voted against the government holding such powers.

[3] There are no official statistics as to how many Romanians failed to vote (in the diaspora), but estimates suggest tens of thousands.

[4] A coalition led by the Social Democrats (PSD), which included ALDE (the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats Party) and UDMR (the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania Party). The coalition dissolved in August 2019 leaving PSD in charge of a problematic minority government.

[5] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was tasked with organising elections abroad; the same Minister (member of ALDE Party) was in charge of the 2014 Presidential elections abroad, which resulted in the same public outrage because of the poor organisation and misallocation of resources.

[6] Translated from Romanian by the authors, original statement available online at: https://www.g4media.ro/ce-stiu-autoritatile-despre-numarul-romanilor-care-traiesc-in-afara-tarii-cea-mai-buna-estimare-vine-de-la-autoritatile-din-tarile-gazda-38-milioane-de-romani.html

[7] Ibid.

[8] Symptomatic of both homeland and at times host-country institutions.

[9] Charles Tilly & Sidney G. Tarrow (2007). Contentious Politics (Boulder CO: Colorado). Passim. Within social movement theory, the term cycles of contention, also referred to as protest cycles or cycles of collective action, traces waves of protest and social mobilisation from their incipient phase to the very end, looking at outcomes, changes in participation and the tactics deployed by the different groups involved in the protest movement.

[10] Soon to be published by Foreign Policy Centre the study analyses the Ecosystem of Romanian diaspora communities in the UK.

[11] An analysis of funding patterns (allocated by the Ministry of Romanians Abroad) for diaspora associations can be accessed here (soon, in English): https://public.tableau.com/views/RADIALFinantareAsociatiiDPRRPStat/Romania?:display_count=y&:origin=viz_share_link; the graph shows which diaspora associations and what type of projects received funding (granted by the Ministry of Romanians Abroad). Based on the approved projects’ scope, we are able to gauge the government’s priorities in its policies of engagement, as well as the countries of residence where the diaspora associations which benefited from funding, are located.

[12] Here we refer to the mostly volunteer based associations created by Romanian diaspora communities and officially registered in the countries of residence. They vary in scope and outreach, with most catering for local Romanian communities, offering legal support upon settlement, organising events and generally enabling socialisation (with varying degrees effectiveness).

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