How AUR’s ideological synthesis generates mobilization in Romania

Romanian political scientist Sergiu Mișcoiu comments on different ideologies that make up the political face of the AUR party and its relations with the Protestant churches and the Romanian Orthodox Church. He also comments on whether AUR could be classified as a left-leaning party, at least at certain points.

Interview by Vladimir Mitev.

What is happening now with the AUR Party in the electoral sense and what is happening in terms of ideology?

The Alliance for the Unity of Romanians is a party that was formed recently – at the beginning of 2020. It is a party that has evolved spectacularly, as we know, between the local elections in the autumn of 2020 and the general elections in the winter of 2020 it grew from about one percent to about 9 percent. And, indeed, it deserves a more detailed analysis, an analysis that I and other colleagues have tried to do in various articles in 2021 and especially in 2022.

AUR is a party based on three pillars. There is a pillar that we can call ultraconservative.

This pillar comes from the Coalition for the Family, that association of associations that organised the campaign for the 2018 referendum, in which the main question was about amending the Constitution to specify that a marriage can only take place between a man and a woman.

That referendum that failed due to the low turnout below the 30 percent threshold, with the number of participants being somewhere just over 20 percent. This is the first pillar, this ultra-conservative coalition of US-funded neo-Protestant lobbies and Orthodox lobbies, which mobilised and were extremely disappointed and frustrated by the referendum result in 2018.

Outside this hard core, we have a second core, the unionist movement. It is represented by the leader of AUR George Simion, who in recent years has been very vocal in his message in favour of Moldova’s annexation to Romania. And this message has succeeded in winning over part of the Moldovan electorate, as well as mobilising a large part of the Romanian diaspora.

The third pillar is somewhat more heteroclite, and is represented by those who were mobilised by the restrictions against Covid during the pandemic, but also by those who denounced ”the oppressive system”, that vaccinates en masse and imposes limitations against individual and collective freedom. This movement is also present in this party. The churches, especially the neo-Protestant, radical, but also radical Orthodox circles, those who have been engraving the bans during the pandemic and have even had a number of run-ins with law enforcement agencies in this regard, also have an important representation. And this nucleus, at the time was led by Mrs. Șoșoaca, who today is no longer part of the AUR, but who fought actively in this direction. It managed to gather a somewhat more dispersed, more heteroclite electorate, quite radicalized by the events of 2020.

These three pillars of the AUR combined and managed to generate a mass of contestation with ultra-conservative accents on the one hand, with addressability and a very broad vocabulary and elements of modernity in communication on the other.

This becomes especially clear if we refer to the unionist platform and, in general, to George Simion’s communication, the result being that in the December 2020 elections the party got 9 percent, but then throughout 2021 and partly in 2022 they saw an increase in the polls. So today we have the latest polls that place AUR as the third political force in the country, somewhere over 15 percent of the vote, sometimes trailing the National Liberal Party at times when it is rated with less confidence in public opinion.

Basically, there are all the ingredients for electoral success, which, of course, will have to be confirmed in 2024. There is a long way to go before then, but it is promising enough at the moment.

What is the link between AUR and the Romanian Orthodox Church? How do you explain this alliance, perhaps surprising in some senses, between neo-Protestants and the Orthodox Romanians?

Officially, there is no link between the Romanian Orthodox Church as an institution and the AUR. But we have within the Romanian Orthodox Church a mobilization, especially in the area of conservative priests, which was effective during the 2020 election campaign. In those communities in the diaspora, where things are very visible, but also in many areas in Romania proper, where the Orthodox priests, and especially the radicalized Orthodox priests, had a greater influence, they obtained scores above the average they obtained in the country, even doubling their scores.

That happened even if officially the position of the Church is to distance itself from the AUR. Several times the spokesman of the Romanian Orthodox Church has claimed that the Church is politically neutral. However, we have a number of local Church hierarchs who have sent signals in favour of the AUR.

In many communities, priests were openly building up their frustrations during the pandemic. They have seen this as the solution to teach a lesson to the system which has not protected the interests of the Church at all, in their view. Therefore, we have once again a convergence, we call it in quotation marks, natural, in certain areas and in certain layers of the Romanian Orthodox Church. This convergence and the message of the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians is proven by field research. I was among those who had the opportunity to conduct such field research.

Romanian Orthodox church in Suceava.

On the other hand, however, we also have an ecumenical dimension to AUR, as was the case with the Coalition for the Family, from which AUR draws its support to a good extent.

As I said, AUR has also tried to have not only an Orthodox but a multi-religious dimension, in particular to reach out to those non-Orthodox backgrounds that are unhappy with the traditional parties and support conservative platforms, anti-sexual minority platforms, anti-abortion platforms, traditional family and so on. And in this respect, AUR has had candidates who have given messages of this kind. It has had candidates who are part of evangelical neo-Protestant churches, it has several elected members who are from these confessional backgrounds, rooted especially in the western part of Romania, Bihor, Arad, but also in Suceava, for example. These people, of course, find in the AUR message no incompatibility insofar as the conservative agenda imposes themes that go in the direction they want is more important, is perceived as more important than the traditional competition between the Orthodox Church and the neo-Protestant churches, which are increasingly able to take a number of believers from the ranks of the Orthodox.

Why isn’t there actually an incompatibility between the two? For the simple fact that the Orthodox Church still has an extremely large majority in Romania, even if it has lost some believers to some neo-Protestant churches, and it knows that it cannot mobilise the same kind of resources as some radical neo-Protestant churches, for example evangelicals or Pentecostals.

And that’s why I think that, strategically speaking, they’re going along this line of mutual complementarianism rather than a war of attrition that would diminish their chances. This strategy has proven to be winning. We see that on this platform the two neo-Protestant plantings and Orthodoxy have managed to thrive.

There are other contradictions to be seen in what AUR is doing. For example, AUR officially is a unionist party. But its score in the Moldovan parliamentary elections was very low, and at the same time AUR leader George Simion wanted Romania to stop funding for the Moldovan state. How can these things be explained?

The AUR is a unionist party in order to win the votes of Moldovans in the Romanian elections. That was the strategy. It placed itself somehow in continuity and fished especially in the territories of the Popular Movement Party, which, based on the popularity of Traian Băsescu, has often managed to get the votes of Moldovans for this movement. Previously, of course, Traian Băsescu’s Liberal Democratic Party had also managed the same thing. Thus, it somehow tried to enter the same political-electoral segment, but AUR also wanted to individuate itself and could not be part of the PAS Party, of Maia Sandu’s party, with which it was incompatible, because its vector was not pro-European. AUR on the contrary, was rather nationalist, entering into competition with PAS.

George Simion of AUR.

In fact AUR, is after all in the Republic of Moldova a victim of PAS. The great success that PAS had in the previous parliamentary elections made AUR marginalized, and not succesful, in the Republic of Moldova. The AUR is also in a relationship, and there has been much speculation in this regard, which is ambiguous to say the least, with the discourse that comes from the Russian vein and in particular the rather Duginist-inspired discourse.

AUR is a Eurosceptic party, with a number of messages that are directed against the liberal values of the European Union and this is clear from its programme. The approach to a Duginist platform that would apply to the Eastern European Orthodox environment is somewhat natural and, although there is only speculation on this, its Russian vector seems to be or AUR’s Russian tropism confirmed by its actions. It is precisely for this reason that the AUR is not so critical of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and, at the same time, is not so keen to support Ukraine’s war efforts, the government in Chisinau being its political adversary. After all, since the AUR’s parliamentary life in Moldova was nipped in the bud by the existence of the PAS, which did not allow anything to grow in this pro-Western area, the AUR’s desire to make sure that nothing of Maia Sandu’s project succeeds and thus the Republic of Moldova does not receive support.

In fact, if we are to put things in their proper context, it is more a kind of aggressive unionism whereby the Republic of Moldova will prove incapable of governing itself, the only solution being to be taken over by Romania. We can infer this kind of message from the political behaviour of the AUR rather than from anything else. Again, it is both logical and intuitive, probably quite correct to believe that there is a Russian spin supporting the AUR, but so far I don’t think there has been any inescapable evidence in the public space to support this claim.

Another contradiction related to the AUR is that it has been present at several trade union protests and also proposed in Parliament the link between the minimum consumption basket and the minimum wage. To what extent can AUR be called a left-leaning party?

In Romania, parties that have gone down the extreme right-wing lane have rarely been ultra-neoliberal parties or parties of a neo-aristocratic, neo-bourgeois elite directed against the popular masses. On the contrary, due to the specific Romanian situation, with a fairly large rural population and a fairly high degree of poverty, including in urban areas, the parties that went down the extreme right-wing path were forced, from the point of view of socio-economic discourse, to practice a discourse that we could describe as left-wing or even radically left-wing.

These parties, to be succesful, needed including populist measures to support those in difficulty, speculating, of course, on the neoliberal environment in Eastern European countries and very present in Romania as well – the fact that these people from disadvantaged groups are too little taken into account and social programmes are still rudimentary in our country.

So this message of the AUR comes, of course, from an opportunistic calculation on a configuration of Romania in which there are many people in need, with social frustrations. AUR adds to them identity frustrations, frustrations about the type of government and Romania’s place in the regional and continental space. What we get in the end is a rather multipolar cocktail.

From an ideological perspective, we can qualify AUR as a far-right party, as we can qualify similar parties in the West, but at the same time we have to take into account the specificity of the far-right in Eastern Europe, which from a socio-economic perspective is much closer to radical socialist discourses, so to speak, than to other types of discourses.

Let’s conclude once again with AUR’s ideology, because it really is a mixture. One can also detect the influence of protochronism in it. It is unionism, as we have spoken. It’s the connection with Orthodox religion and maybe more, including anti-Westernism, anti-vaccinism… How do you assess this mix? How alive is it in the Romanian political space?

AUR had an electoral opportunity in 2020, which is why this heteroclite composition it has from an ideological perspective was not so convincing. Now we have to say that political parties in Romania have a weak ideology.

The Social Democratic Party is not really a left-wing party, just as the National Liberal Party is not really a right-wing party, and in many ideas and configurations the ideological space is much less coherent than in other areas, especially in Western Europe or Northern Europe.

There is a lot of ideological baggage, as you said, starting with protochronism, all the conspiracy theories mixed with dacomania and the desire to rewrite the past to show how ancient, ancestral, perhaps even mythical, the Romanian people are and how entitled they are, for this reason, to rule this part of Europe. These mixtures of religious fervour, whether neo-Protestant or ultra-Orthodox, with major frustrations about the financial and social situation of some citizens, I think this whole cocktail is quite easily integrated into the logic of this far-right party.

But if we understand that far-right parties have not fished, electorally speaking, and have not fed, ideologically speaking, only from this area of an ultra-conservative, rigorist right, but, on the contrary, from the parties of the classical conservative right, which we find in many parts of the world and we have found over time in our country as well, the far right parties have always been able to mobilise much wider swathes of the electorate and to sustain an ideological discourse that is apparently somewhat self-contradictory, but which succeeds in creating a synthesis that allows them to broaden their scope to mobilise voters in their favour.

Cover photo: George Simion, president of AUR party, during one of the protests against Romanian president Klaus Iohannis.

The text has been first published by Vladimir Mitev’s blog Friendship Bridge, devoted to the development of positive relations and cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania.

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