by Mircea Geoana

BUCHAREST, Romania — A month ago, images of hundreds of thousands of Romanians protesting in front of the government building in Bucharest and in other Romanian cities started to spread around the world. It may have seemed just another popular turn toward right-wing demagogy in a time of receding faith in democracy. But that is not the case.

This protest movement is, in fact, a signal to the world that in this corner of Europe, democracy and its ideals are alive and well — that the civic fabric destroyed during decades of Communist oppression has healed, and the people want to perfect their democracy, not to weaken it.

The protests are aimed at an emergency ordinance from the government that would have reversed a national campaign against corruption, in which Romania has achieved significant but incomplete victories in recent years. Graft and nepotism still exist, and are blamed for high levels of poverty, polarization, social and economic injustice; those, in turn, have sent millions of young Romanians fleeing to other parts of the European Union, the United States or Canada. Still, enough young Romanians remained to take over the streets in freezing cold, and ultimately they forced the government to abandon the infamous ordinance.

These are not the first spontaneous protests here in the name of popular power. Those began three years ago with the end of the discredited presidency of Traian Basescu. They continued in opposition to attempts by foreign corporations to extract gold from Roman-era historic sites in the mountains of Transylvania. And they resumed against the government of the prime minister at the time, Victor Ponta, after a terrible fire in a Bucharest nightclub.

What Romania has been experiencing is an anti-elite political outpouring with a fury that resembles what we see in Europe and America, but whose origins and goals are 180 degrees opposite. These Romanian “indignados,” as the protesters are called, are not the blue-collar, rural, anti-globalization disgruntled who voted for Brexit or helped Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House. They are mainly young, urban, college-educated people with well-paid jobs at multinational corporations and banks, the main employers of local talent. So they are not protesting against globalization or the European Union. The solution they seek would be more globalization, a more solid Europe, more American and NATO involvement in our region. They are instinctively against any walls — physical or invisible — that may be erected in a vain effort to stop the free movement of people, ideas, capital or technology.

Here, the tide of angry opinion rushes not toward fear of outsiders and tolerance for kleptocratic strongmen. It seeks instead to continue cleansing a political establishment still tied at many points to economic barons who divert public funding from desperately needed investments in health care, education and infrastructure. Such graft and cronyism are the very essence of their grievances.

This attitude has historical, cultural and political roots. Romania sits on the fracture lines of Europe, where any shift in the geopolitical balance has an immediate effect on our interests. We have developed, during our tormented history, a collective early warning system that detects danger when the “grand game” among great powers is afoot. This is such a moment, when NATO and the European Union — the pillars of our escape from our post-Communist drama to liberal democracy, rule of law and freedom — seem threatened at their cores. Unfortunately, in Central and Eastern Europe, illiberal and autocratic impulses have never quite died; indeed, they now feed some of our neighbors’ strategic hedging and flirtations with Russia or China.

In recent months, American and other NATO troops have been deployed on Romania’s Black Sea shore, to help deter an aggressive Russia. Moldova, our neighbor and sister in history, has a new pro-Moscow president, and is turning down European integration for the illusion of a future in the Russian-sponsored Eurasian Union. We know things like that are beyond our control, particularly in the face of a drive by great powers to carve new spheres of influence in Europe.

But one thought unites the young urban protesters, many expatriates in our large diaspora, and all of our political parties: A strong Romania starts from within, with good governance and faith that our future lies with a strong, united West. So beyond the social, economic and moral drivers of discontent in our streets lies an understanding that for Romania to truly join the West, it must become stronger as a democracy, an economy and as a state — a goal for which corruption is a lethal virus.

Nevertheless, this is a region where demagogues in Budapest and Warsaw have been making negative headlines, so it would be naïve to think there is no echo at all of economic nationalism and authoritarianism among Romanians, particularly those in the less affluent, poverty-stricken small cities and the country’s vast underdeveloped rural side. If President Trump would like to see real “carnage,” he should visit the destitute former one-industry cities of Romania. Some of these people — and politicians — even believe that the huge demonstrations in Bucharest, Cluj, Timisoara and Iasi were orchestrated by George Soros, foreign corporations or the domestic intelligence service.

But the multitudes with smartphones and torches who have packed Victoria Square in front of the government building know better. For them, the single impetus for their rebellion was the government’s initial mistaken attempt to go easier on corruption. It was a spark, a challenge to their profound belief that Romania’s vast potential is still being shortchanged by a corrupt and incompetent political elite. The protesters don’t have a unifying ideology beyond the shared view that Romania’s social and economic contract needs more work — and that the fish rots from the head. So there is one way and one way only for their country: more democracy, more transparency, more Westernization.

This is the real accomplishment of those freezing and confusing days, far more important than the political issue at hand: A huge and influential part of Romania declared — at last — that we are an integral part of the democratic West. We should all cherish that.