BUCHAREST -- Ascendant right-wing populists in Romania have seized on the illegal trophy killing of a brown bear ascribed to Liechtenstein's royal family to blame "foreigners" as the driving factor in the country's social and economic woes.
Romanians and outside ecological groups were outraged by reports last week that Prince Emanuel -- a nephew of Liechtenstein's reigning Prince Hans-Adam II who lives in Austria -- had killed the massive male bear, nicknamed "Arthur" by researchers, in the Carpathian Mountains in March.
But George Simion, head of the nationalist Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR, which means gold in Romanian) party whose meteoric appearance shook up last year's national elections, skipped the environmental implications to invoke a carefully crafted appeal to patriotism, nationalism, religion, and Romanian gangsta rap.
Analysts warn that the incident and its fallout could further bolster anti-Western resentment and buoy a dangerous strain of Romanian nationalism that amounts to "hate speech."
On social media on May 5, Simion republished a conspiracy-peddling Romanian website editor's characterization of the poaching episode as "a perfect parable for the way things have happened in our country in the last 30 years."
In the polemic, titled We Are Arthur, editor Mihai Somanescu lamented that "Arthur the bear was like all Romanian industries, banks, and minds stolen by foreigners." Somanescu said he hoped the bear's "murder" -- along with a new music clip shared two days earlier by Simion, called "Terorist" -- encouraged Romanians to shed a national "inferiority complex" and "wake up from their death sleep."
Somanescu's Activenews.ro site presents what he describes as "indigenous" views to promote the "Christian, Judeo-Christian values of European and Romanian civilization." The site has been criticized for allegedly churning out "fake news," baiting minorities, and smearing ideological opponents.
The We Are Arthur article was topped with a photo of the Liechtenstein prince chomping on a lit cigar.
Fuel For The Fire
Simion's "anti-system" AUR won around 9 percent of the vote in December on an anti-globalization platform built on the pillars of "family, nation, Christian faith, and liberty."
AUR had been founded only a year earlier but gained national prominence due in part to Simion's history of headline-grabbing stunts and political disenchantment among Romania's 19 million residents and millions more expatriates.
The party fared poorly in local races but placed fourth nationwide in the December elections.
Simion had posted a YouTube link to the Bucharest-based gangsta rappers La Familia's new clip, with Oana Marinescu, for the song Terorist earlier in the week, adding that he was "supporting the boys' message."
The clip, preceded by text saying the song "is a statement, not entertainment!" bucks rap trends by using only Romanian and includes a backdrop of "Greater Romania." It also suggests that schoolchildren are brainwashed into abandoning traditional national and religious values.
"It's typical hate speech, it's hate speech that seeks to create adherents," political analyst Cristian Parvulescu, dean of the faculty of political science at Romania's National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, told RFE/RL's Romanian Service.
Parvulescu said Romanians were witnessing "gross forms of propaganda" and "exaggerated nationalism" from AUR that might attract even more votes. "The combination that AUR represents of religious fundamentalism and nationalism has the capacity for development," he said, in addition to fostering "stereotypes against foreigners."
Parvulescu said that while Romania was faring well economically, particularly compared to its neighbors outside the European Union, groups like AUR are trying to take advantage of "the dissatisfaction of those who couldn't benefit from this opening."
"They are trying to sow hatred against 'others,'" he said. "It's a message directed against the West, it's a typical message [also shared by] Russian propaganda."
Parvulescu noted that AUR had recently registered to take its ethno-nationalist message to neighboring Moldova, which amid a constitutional crisis has scheduled snap elections for July.
Moldova had a complicated shared culture and history with Romania before the 19th century, and there have been scattered calls for unification since the 1980s.
Charges, Yes, But Changes?
Brown bears are protected under EU law and the Council of Europe's legally binding Bern Convention on European wildlife and habitats.
Exceptions to allow hunting and trapping, known as derogations, can be granted in specific cases where people or homes are in danger and alternatives like relocation are deemed insufficient.
A huge 17-year-old bear, Arthur was known by ecologists to inhabit protected forestland in Covasna, and they challenged the credibility of any claim that he was confused for the bear whose derogation was said to be at the center of Prince Emanuel von und zu Liechtenstein's alleged hunt.
The local NGO Agent Green immediately questioned "how the prince could confuse a female coming into the village with a chicken, with the largest male bear that existed in the depths of the forest."
Although it has been challenged in its characterization, Agent Green described Arthur as "the largest bear observed in Romania and probably the largest living in the European Union." It noted the carcass's measurements were a trophy hunter's dream of "593 points out of 600" on a commonly used scale.
The head of the Austrian VGT animal-rights group similarly alleged that the prince had "abused a derogation" to kill Arthur.
The fee for such a kill has been estimated at around 7,000 euros ($8,500).
The prince has maintained silence, other than saying "he doesn't want to be involved in this sensitive matter," according to local media. Emanuel also claimed on May 7 that he had killed the problem bear, not Arthur, and that this could be "documented photographically." He also pledged his support in any investigation of the matter and said he was "extremely sorry" that "an impression was created that hurt many people's feelings."
Romania's prime minister, former economist and investment banker Florian Citu, responded by downplaying the bear's size and mocking media and ecologists' references to the animal by its nickname.
But Romanian prosecutors announced on May 6 that they had launched an investigation into the suspected unlicensed killing of the bear and possible weapons violations.
Agent Green and other conservationist NGOs are continuing their campaign to convince Romania's Environment Ministry "to end trophy hunting" in that country.
More Of The Same
Few are publicly questioning the perception that the hunt was an offense against Romanian wildlife.
But it is also just the latest sign of official malaise in defending Romania's countryside and natural heritage, from the densely forested Carpathians to the Danube Delta and the Black Sea.
Bears, wolves, and lynxes inhabit the extensive virgin forest of Romania, in addition to countless other animals that are less prized as trophies. Degradation of biodiversity continues to be a problem.
State and local officials have been accused of looking the other way -- or worse, colluding -- as organized criminal groups and others for decades systematically stripped swaths of Romania's 6 million or so hectares of forest, about half of it in the hands of the state.
Legal loopholes have literally been big enough to drive trucks through, and companies from Austria have profited.
Ecologists like Agent Green have estimated billions of dollars in losses to runaway illegal deforestation since Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and the communists were toppled in 1989. Global Forest Watch says that in the last two decades, Romania has lost 376,000 hectares of tree cover, or nearly 5 percent of its total.
Romanians turned out in the thousands to demand official action to protect old-growth Carpathian forests and national parks six years ago, during debate over a new Forestry Code. Investigations have been undertaken into official collusion with lumber companies, but those have rarely produced convictions.
Meanwhile, air and water pollution continue to be a problem as fossil-fuel-heavy industries continue to operate against a hazy enforcement regime.
"AUR is addressed to that segment of the population, among Romanian citizens, who were left on the sidelines in the [postcommunist] transition, but especially the pandemic crisis," Ovidiu Voicu, executive director of the Center for Public Innovation, said.
Voicu noted that AUR's popularity had risen in the six months since its inaugural appearance on ballots in December. "Unfortunately, the bear is dead," he said. But even more importantly, he warned of "excesses" when the incident is used to stoke nationalist and other forms of public resentment.
"That should worry us. The cynical exploitation of these issues in order to obtain money or political advantages only leads to suffering for innocent people."