Diasporas have been researched extensively, in both current and historical contexts. This essay is the first in a series that aims to deliver a fresh perspective by focusing on the complex relationship between homelands and diaspora communities. Bureaucratic and institutional practices in the home country have shaped to certain degrees, at times considerably, how diaspora communities interact, associate and organise themselves abroad. In particular, by examining the Romanian diaspora we can glimpse into larger issues of governance and more specifically, into Romania’s fight against corruption.
For over a decade now, the authors of this study have been part of an expansive diaspora. And whilst fully integrated in the societies that have welcomed us and made use of our expertise, we remained committed to bringing about positive change in our home-country. This is precisely what motivated our current project, which explores in-depth how diaspora communities interact, between themselves, with home and/or host country public institutions as well as other entities (i.e. civil society, media and businesses). Moreover, this networked approach (employing Social Network Analysis methodology) helped us visualise the impact and geographical scope of diaspora initiatives worldwide. We believe such an endeavour is relevant in the context of evidence-based policy-making, in both the homeland and countries of residence. By mapping the associative models of diaspora communities, the principles and motivations for their organisation, as well as the scope of their initiatives, the analysis places diasporas at the confluence between the homeland and their host societies. Diasporas should be viewed as a strategic resource, uniquely positioned to benefit from the ever-expanding geographies of interconnectivity, and thus capable of advancing the nation-states’ resources and foreign policy interests, at a transnational level.
This introductory brief examines the Romanian diaspora in light of the more recent political events and the widespread civic mobilisation, which demonstrates a shifting diasporic identity. The study also explores the response of home country institutions and the different strategies of engagement that shape diaspora involvement in policy and decision-making processes at home and abroad. We also focus on the Romanian institutions’ perception of diaspora issues and identity, by examining the strategies and state-sponsorship of diaspora organisations. We argue that civic activism is gradually becoming an organising principle for Romanians abroad, largely in response to the political turmoil affecting the home country.
The Romanian Diaspora. Aspects of civic mobilisation and political activism
Civic mobilisation has been commensurate with a collective perception of the importance of particular issues. In other words, what takes precedence in a nation’s consciousness that makes civic and political activism possible? In the case of Romanians living and working abroad, the fight against corruption at large, or against the constant political meddling in the justice system, has bolstered public dissent and led to widespread civic mobilisation. The impulse to emigrate in the first place is also attributed to the precariousness of home country politics – a lack of stability, of prospects or economic security. Such dynamics are interwoven. On the one hand, Romanians emigrate in search of a stable future, but in most cases, they remain attuned to homeland politics. On the other hand, and quite paradoxically, it has been the same protracted uncertainty of home country politics, public mistrust in institutions, and the past experience of communist dictatorship that made Romanians abroad weary of political involvement and active participation in their host societies.
On the 10th of August 2018, diaspora communities organised an anti-corruption protest in Bucharest. Participation was wide and not limited to the diaspora: public intellectuals, members of the opposition, civil society organisations, Romanian citizens at large congregated in Victoria Square (where the Romanian Government is headquartered) to voice dissent against a regime that is perceived to encroach on democratic values, particularly the rule of law. The protest made international headlines also in light of the repressive use of force deployed by security forces (the Gendarmerie) to disperse the crowds. The continued lack of accountability for the events that unfolded on the 10th of August infuriated the court of public opinion, both Romanian and European.
The anatomy of this protest is particularly interesting because it indicates a convergence of interests: Romanians in the home country and those abroad hold similar grievances with regard to Romania’s political trajectory. Moreover, the protest and the exposure it received acted to internationalise home country politics. Those who could not mobilise in Bucharest assembled in European capitals in solidarity with the movement at home. We witness a complex dynamic by which diaspora communities export the sets of communitarian values and good governance principles internalised in host societies back into the home country. Thus, a system of political and civic expectations emerges, at a transnational level. Of course, this is not to idealise host societies in their entirety, but rather to emphasise the context of reflexivity, which diaspora communities experience through livelihoods in more developed societies. Invariably, a comparison is drawn in relation to the homeland and the perceived vulnerabilities or disparities (social, economic, political) that drove the decision to emigrate in the first place. Home politics are therefore internalised, stimulated and reshaped through these new experiences and the perpetual aspirations that arise through migration.
Homeland Institutions and the Romanian Diaspora
Although the mobilisation of Romanians abroad has been significant, particularly in response to the fight against corruption back at home, transnational initiatives stemming from diaspora organisations are relatively modest. In the same vein, political activism remains sporadic, construed as a reaction to political events in the homeland. Our analysis indicates that diaspora associations are less prone to cooperate, partly due to their limited organisational capacity, and lack of online visibility. To a certain extent, the same mistrust in institutions translates into apathy when it comes to formal organisation. In explaining the weak transnational impact of diaspora initiatives, institutional attitudes towards Romanians abroad, are perhaps the most relevant. The various but largely ineffective engagement policies are characterised by a lack of evidence and publicly available information on the Romanian diaspora. Upon embarking on this research project we became aware of such caveats, particularly the institutional urgency to produce new strategies in absence of an informed basis.
Despite having an institutional framework in place, with a Ministry for Romanians Abroad, Presidential Advisors, as well as substantial European funding available for diaspora associations abroad, little has been achieved in terms of addressing this persistent knowledge gap. Moreover, engagement with the diaspora so far mirrored the patronage practices that largely characterise Romanian politics. Funding allocation, administered by the Ministry for Romanians Abroad has often lacked transparency and failed to address the most pressing issues facing communities abroad and the domestic effects of continued migration. We partly attributed this to a persistent cognitive dissonance in how the Romanian diaspora is perceived inside the very institutions that seek to represent its interests.
Another issue pertaining to institutional attitudes is that diaspora communities are pre-eminently viewed as a financial resource. Although, financial remittances constitute a significant contribution to the country’s economy, the defective administration and distribution of resources towards the public sector (education, healthcare or infrastructure, for instance) render such cross-border flows almost inconsequential for actual domestic growth. To complicate matters further, domestic authorities advanced a bill proposal (April, 2018) requiring Romanians to provide justifying documents when sending back sums exceeding 2000EUR, despite Romania’s heavy reliance on the steady influx of remittances. This largely attests to the politicisation of diaspora issues within Romanian institutions – if the voting preferences of diaspora communities are clearly not favouring the current government, then the vast bureaucratic apparatus is selectively deployed to suppress dissent, wherever it may stem.
The disproportionate funding of events promoting traditions and culture abroad (without any standardised framework of how such events should be organised in the first place) shows that Romanian institutions tend to favour a cultural-populist model for diaspora engagement. Concerning the capacity to access funding, our study shows that many diaspora organisations across different countries are dependent on governmental funding, thus exposing a dynamic by which, associations align their objectives with those elaborated or at times, dictated by Romanian authorities, irrespective of the needs of those communities they aim to serve. This has led to an entrenched patronage system and increased politicisation of diaspora issues. In many cases, these funding patterns led to a mushrooming of diaspora organisations that opportunistically syphon public funding, with the knowledge and tacit consent of domestic public authorities. This is precisely why an evaluation of such practices becomes momentous also within the wider context of anti-corruption measures. We are not completely discarding the role of diasporas in promoting and conducting cultural diplomacy, however, we consider that in the current political and social climate institutional priorities are severely misaligned. More importantly, these state-driven policies had so far negligible impact on strengthening the (political) representation of Romanians abroad, in their homeland and elsewhere.
Similar to other CEE (Central Eastern European) and Balkan countries the Romanian diaspora has a significant demographic presence, not only in Europe but also across the globe. Despite this, its organisational capacity remains precarious and Romanians abroad are poorly represented in their host countries. Political representation seems to be equally poor in Romania. With an official estimate of 3.5 million Romanians living abroad, they are represented by only four deputy mandates in the Parliament’s lower house and two senators. Ever-changing electoral procedures have increasingly hampered diaspora voting. The more recent Romanian Presidential elections (2014) saw innumerable queues forming in front of voting stations across Europe (mainly Romanian Embassies and Consulates), diaspora communities waiting for hours on end to cast their ballot. Apparently, not enough voting stations were made available by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (tasked with organising the elections) and a great many did not get a chance to exercise their constitutional right. This failure and lack of institutional accountability fomented dissent and led to an almost unprecedented civic mobilisation. To put this into perspective, political participation, particularly diaspora voter turnout, has been low, in the previous elections not exceeding 9% (abroad).
This introductory brief aimed to emphasise the many paradoxes that epitomise the relationship between the Romanian state and its diaspora. Such caveats partly stem from a persistent cognitive dissonance, with institutions consistently failing to build the trust needed for a civic-public partnership. Our research showed that Romanian institutions tended to endorse what was perceived as a benign form of diaspora engagement, centred on promoting a specific ethnic-cultural identity abroad. Current state policies largely, albeit intentionally, ignore the civic dimension of diasporic identity. Despite this, civic and political activism increasingly forms an organising basis for diaspora communities. Common themes such as good governance and the fight against corruption have become rallying points for collective mobilisation, at home and abroad. The following briefs shall expand on the networked approach in studying diasporas, as well as on the associative models pursued by Romanian communities living abroad.
We believe that mapping the Romanian diaspora is a momentous and necessary endeavour. For the homeland it goes to show the political influence that can be harnessed through activism abroad. Unfortunately, we are yet to witness a constructive institutional response, which aligns policies to make use of this vast social capital abroad. For host societies or countries of residence, the study will hopefully highlight the transnational potential of diaspora communities as an alternative source for more effective, future bilateral engagement.
Andra-Lucia Martinescu is currently pursuing a PhD in International Relations with the University of Cambridge, focusing on geopolitical developments in the Black Sea region. She also completed an Mphil with the same department, analysing the transformation of national security doctrines in the post-Soviet space. She has extensive experience in operational and strategic research having worked for the British Army, RAND Europe and the Royal United Services Institute for Security and Defence (RUSI, London) in various research and analysis capacities. She is currently an independent consultant, focusing on civil society projects, diasporas as well as public policy and good governance. She is an FPC Research Fellow.
Rares Burlacu is a doctoral candidate at the École Nationale d’Administration Publique in Québec (Canada), focusing on Canadian digital diplomacy in relation to the EU and China. From 2009 he has been teaching high-level courses in public diplomacy at ENAP. Rares currently coordinates Romania’s rotating EU Presidency in Canada through diaspora initiatives. His publications can also be accessed on HuffPost Quebec, La Presse and Le Devoir.
 Ruxandra Trandafoiu (2013). Diaspora Online. Identity Politics and Romanian Migrants (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books). P.: 17;
 By transnational initiatives we refer to those actions that benefit diaspora communities across multiple countries of residence, as well as the homeland. Such initiatives stem from close cooperation/coordination between diaspora organisations and have a transnational impact.
 World Bank reports 4.94 billion USD for 2017 in financial remittances.