BUCHAREST -- In Romania, the word "Roexit" has been making up for lost time.
After years of rarely being used, the Romanians' portmanteau for quitting the European Union, inspired by Britain's "Brexit," has suddenly flooded social and digital media.
And the trend looks set to continue in 2022, with 545 "Roexit" or #roexit posts on Facebook, the world's most popular social network, so far in the first half of January.
That's more than eight times the number for all of 2017, when the term first emerged to push back against EU pressure on Bucharest for judicial and other reforms.
Analysts blame the rise of right-wing elements like the two-year-old Alliance for the Unification of Romania (AUR) party, a populist party whose leadership has embraced traditionalism and xenophobia. But they also cite appeals among prominent Romanians bucking the country's historical enthusiasm for European integration in favor of Euroskepticism, sometimes echoing Russian and other outside narratives.
"The increasing influence of narratives promoted from the east in Romanian media shows worrying signals," says Florin Zeru from the Center for the Promotion of Participation and Democracy, part of Romania's National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA) in Bucharest. "These narratives are starting more and more, in the past two or three years, to cross over from obscure areas and become mainstream elements."
There are no indications that current levels of support for "Roexit" would threaten the status of roughly 19 million Romanians as citizens of the European Union.
But any dramatic turn away from shared goals and priorities with the bloc could hamper Romanian progress in crucial areas like fighting notoriously widespread corruption, reducing income and other inequalities, and improving infrastructure to boost economic development.
On And Off -- But Mostly Off -- For Years
After 47 years in the European Union or its predecessor, the European Communities, Britain became the only country to quit the bloc with its "Brexit" after a bitterly divisive referendum in 2016.
In January 2017, exactly a decade after Romania joined the EU, the term "Roexit" first appeared online in an appeal by a group called Credinta (Faith) against Brussels' increasingly urgent appeals for reform by Bucharest. It received just one "like."
A year and a half later, Roexit picked up steam ahead of a grassroots referendum to redefine "family" in the Romanian Constitution to effectively ban same-sex marriages.
The term appeared more than 1,100 times over the span of a week on Facebook alone, triggered in part by a senior EU official's characterization of the referendum as an effort to turn the constitution into "a weapon to justify homophobia."
But the tide quickly subsided -- and remained generally low -- until last fall.
Then around three-quarters of the more than 5,700 online posts explicitly mentioning "Roexit" throughout all of last year appeared in the last three months of 2021.
Zeru called lawmaker Mihai Ioan Lasca, who was elected on the upstart AUR's list in 2020, "the most important promoter of the Roexit message," although he cited others including prominent vaccination critic Senator Diana Sosoaca.
Lasca was expelled from AUR a year ago after a conviction for beating up someone in a road-rage incident, and was targeted by investigators last year for suggesting COVID-19 vaccinations paralyze and kill people. He has continued to lean heavily on populist messages.
On December 5, 2021, Lasca posted a message to his 76,000 Facebook followers warning against anti-pandemic restrictions. He said it was a "crucial moment" to protect Romanian "sovereignty and freedom" and urged Roexit as an "exit and release from the yoke of slavery imposed by the European Union, the destroyer of national identities."
Amplifying her own widely shared diatribes of the previous two months, Sosoaca warned the same day that "traitors to the nation and country...will die" along with Europe, while Romanians will "rise and live forever."
Both posts bounced around and were echoed by fellow vaccine skeptics, especially.
With the new year, well-known actor, director, and former lawmaker Mihai Malaimare stirred the pot again, listing Roexit atop a post, which was later deleted, of "exactly what I would like" 2022 to bring.
Popular news sites including Stiripesurse.ro and Bugetul.ro quickly shared the post with their 4 million or so combined followers.
'More Hostile Toward Everything'
Romania spent much of 2021 mired in political crisis, capped by the installation of the country's 10th prime minister in as many years in November, with former army General Nicolae Ciuca as prime minister.
Many rounds of protests and government crises have been fueled by public perceptions of rampant corruption and economic imbalances, while the COVID-19 pandemic has further slammed the country.
"We're seeing an increase, especially in the second half of last year, of more hostile positions toward everything -- hostile toward the European Union, hostile toward institutions, hostile toward politicians, hostile toward anything," Barbu Mateescu, a sociologist and independent political consultant, told RFE/RL's Romanian Service.
Mateescu conceded that it was difficult to know whether the current "Roexit" flurry will persist and eventually influence Romanian society more broadly.
There are no indications that anything but a small minority of Romanians favor "Roexit," with polling consistently showing that they are among the most ardent supporters of a united Europe.
An INSCOP Research survey warned in October 2021 that an alarming 80 percent of Romanians felt that events in the country were "headed in the wrong direction," up from around 68 percent in midsummer.
But the survey, commissioned within a U.S.-backed research project, also said nearly 62 percent of respondents "think the U.S. and EU have a positive influence on the country."
And while nearly two out of three Romanians in the survey believed the country should defend its national interests ahead of EU requirements even if it risks a loss of membership, two-thirds of those people think exiting the bloc would harm national interests.
Expert Zeru described the suddenly accelerated spread of the Roexit message as a consequence of four elements: the explicit messages from prominent Romanians and the rising influence of Sputnik, the Russian state-controlled news agency; the rise of ultranationalist and populist groups like the AUR; coordinated efforts on Facebook; and finally, public disappointment with Romania's financial and social situation combined with the fractured political landscape.