The Rise of Romania’s AUR: Europe Take Note?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

 

What if I told you that in an EU member state - which makes a negative contribution to the EU budget - an ultranationalist, eurosceptic party has lept to second in the latest recorded polls? How to explain this?

Since the Covid pandemic began in March 2020, conspiracy theories - combined with populism and nationalist rhetoric - have made for useful tools adopted by the far-right in Romania. What has emerged is the AUR - the Alliance for Reuniting the Romanias (the title here referring to territorial unity with the state of Moldova, but also with a nod toward other ‘lost territories’, -  Northern Bucovina, Southern Dobruja and Basarabia). 

So who exactly are the AUR, what do they stand for, and what may their rise represent? I will explore all the above in this article.

Who are the AUR - and how did we get here? 

The AUR party has a plurality of ideological ideas, but it is best described as a national conservative party with a tendency to ultranationalism and far-right soundbites. Ironically, the AUR brands itself as staunchly “anti-communist” - yet is in favour of nationalising most industries. It is also visibly populist: declaring a "strong support for all unions'', but tying itself to any kind of scandal that would boost political support. The platform of the AUR also includes myriad anti-EU propaganda, sometimes farcical: ‘the Brussels bureaucrats want to make us eat bugs' and (my favourite) ''EU funds are given to Romania as a form of keeping the country underdeveloped".

At a European level, they are in talks to join two blocs for the 2024 European Elections: weighing up allegiance to the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), but also the Identity and Democracy Group (ID). The AUR illustrates therefore (at once) their ultraconservative, fringe orientations - as well as their superficial and cynical moves (including a penchant of wearing traditional Romanian clothing when posting video clips on a political subject, to seem more appealing to their voter base).

It remains important to mention that the trend of parties having populist policies and conservative traits is hardly abnormal across the European political sphere. The AUR's rise can be compared to three other factions: Vox in Spain, Lega in Italy and Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość in Poland. Their ascent in a short span of years can be attributed to various factors, but in particular: the inability of mainstream parties to form a functional government (the USR, Romania’s liberals, left government in September 2021 after failing to secure coalition with the National Liberal Party - PNL), the rising popularity of propaganda (especially Russian), and the so-called "neo-marxist" or “globalist” agenda of the western countries elites. On this latter point, Claudiu Târziu (co-President of AUR) has publicly lampooned the USR since 2020 as a “neo-Marxist”  party for their views on social issues. 

 

This rubric of elements - weaved together by the AUR - have brought far-right discourse firmly back into the mainstream of political debates in Romania.

The Russian connection

As seen in other countries where far-night parties have seen a surge in polls, in Romania this political organisation has been a leading propagator of Russian misinformation. Valeriu Paşa, a researcher in the field of media politics and propaganda, told Balkan Insight that the reason why the AUR party is attached to people who openly support Russia is a matter of simple opportunism.

"They decided to ally with some completely different elements, such as promoters of religion, anti-vaccine activists or characters who promote close relations with the Russian Federation," Paşa says. "As long as it gets them votes, they stay tight-lipped."

There are also accusations that the party leader, George Simion, met with agents of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) in 2011 and on other occasions. While this remains an allegation (unconfirmed by a court), the Republic of Moldova - and more recently Ukraine - have both banned Simion from entering their territory for his alleged links.

But the Russian links do not stop there. Further traces of Russian influence are visible in other positions supported by the AUR, which has carried out repeated rhetorical attacks on Ukraine - focusing on its complicated and (at times) bloody history with Romania. Much of this rhetoric focused on Northern Bucovina, a region straddling the northern border of Romania (with Ukraine). This region has a large minority of ethnic Romanians and AUR has decried the region’s supposed mismanagement and measures disfavouring Romanian-language speakers. Here, the AUR tied much of its material to the concerns of Elena Nandriş, former Mayor of the Ukrainian city of Mahala and a figurehead of the Romanian population in Ukraine. Nandriş had encouraged the Romanian authorities to become more involved in defending the interests of the Romanian ethnic population in the Chernivtsi region, expressing concern about the implementation of the new Education Law, which restricts minority rights in school (the law requires schools teaching in minority languages, including Romanian, to gradually introduce classes in Ukrainian.

No More NATO

Militarily, the AUR’s vision for Romania’s place in NATO appears clear-cut: to leave, and to become strategically dependent on Russia. 

Diana Soşoacă, a controversial MP who entered Parliament on the party's list (now-President of the SOS party) proposed in many instances anti-Ukrainian propaganda, with the latest being the reclamation of several cities from Ukraine - lost by Romania following World War II - and demanding that Romania annex the territories once part of interwar Romania.

While the party's platform is not anti-NATO per se, their statements regarding this topic mirror Hungary’s Fidesz: presenting itself as aligned with both the EU and NATO, but routinely mimicking points favoured by Vladimir Putin. Their constant attacks on Ukraine and the lack of solidarity with the refugees shows that they have little affinity for the West and its values. It is also a point of great contrast with some major right-wing parties of the EU such as Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS), which is demonstrably pro-Ukrainian and which has made tangible efforts to support the refugees fleeing the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Anti-Semitism and homophobia in the AUR

The AUR has a detailed and sordid history of celebrating prominent antisemitic political figures, with a special focus on those who were part or associated with the Iron Guard (also known simply as ‘Legionnaires’), a fascist paramilitary organisation from the pre-WWII period. 

In July 2016, Claudiu Târziu participated in a conference organised by the head of the Legionary Movement (a group attempting to keep the memory of the movement alive), Șerban Suru, entitled "Persecution of the Legionnaires by the Communist regime - past and present”. Târziu was alleged to have posed with his wife next to Suru - but he later claimed that he had no Legionnaire sympathies whatsoever.  

But the link with prominent antisemites returned to light in 2022, when the second district of Bucharest mulled the removal of a statue to Mircea Vulcanescu - a popular sociologist from the wartime period, convicted for war crimes for his role in the government of Ion Antonescu. Vulcănescu was a strong supporter of the Holocaust, something extensively documented by the Elie Wiesel Institute in Romania. Despite this, AUR representatives embarked on an energetic campaign to prevent the statue’s removal - and ultimately succeeded, with Vulcănescu’s statue in its place to this day. Claudiu Târziu himself has glorified figures such as Vulcănescu, despite their convictions as war criminals.

Further, Alin Bloşa - AUR MP - contributed some bizarre remarks regarding the evil influence of "foreign ideologies" (referring especially to the promotion of LGTBIQ+ and women's rights). He even asked former Agriculture Minister Petre Daea to immediately stop the influx of Ukrainian grain in order to protect the Romanian farmers' output in the market.

In short: the AUR is a middling threat, but let Europe take note

Nobody knows what the future holds for the next year elections, but there is a credible threat that this extremist party might form a coalition government with the Social Democrats (PSD) - a party with a large and secure electoral base support - even if their credibility as a social democratic party (in light of this proposed coalition) appears highly contestable.

My opinion is that the liberal pro-European parties will prevail against the extremist threat, with a pro-Eu/liberal bloc emerging, uniting the democratic- and liberal-leaning parties in Romania. Values such as anti-semitism, fascism/neo-Legionnarism, Russian or anti-Western propaganda have no place in a democratic Romania.

 

 

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