Romania’s democracy is in dire straits. Romania is experiencing its largest protests since the fall of Communism in its 1989 Revolution, exceeding 300,000+ protestors all over the country this past week, particularly in Bucharest (150.000), Cluj Napoca (35.000), Timisoara (25.000), Iasi (20.000), Sibiu (20.000), and many other smaller cities. On the evening of January 31st, Romania’s government signed a late-night emergency executive ordinance at 10PM, granting clemency for officials convicted of corruption and decriminalizing offenses that cause less than 200,000 lei ($47,8000) in financial damage with added measures of leniency to the penal code. Under this measure, the government proposed to release 3,000 prisoners (to reduce overpopulation in prisons they say, to free its former colleagues convicted of corruption say the rest). In other words, no need to worry about facing prison charges if you swindle a mere $40,000 from the government.
Many in the PSD ruling party stand to gain from clemency and measures of leniency, as do 2,000 other local politicians.
Thousands of Romanians poured out into the city streets in protest at the 12th hour of the night in emotional and indignant outbursts against the motion that effectively allows corruption to thrive, and protests are set to continue for the next several days. The government even published the ordinances in the Official Monitor at 1AM. As one friend wrote to me, “The government’s rush is incredible.” “They have acted like thieves in the night,” say many.
As one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, this sets Romania back on its fight against corruption, which had been significant strides in since 2014 to combat corruption through its National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA).
President Klaus Iohannis, chief anticorruption prosecutor Laura Kövesi, and other justice officials have condemned the measures. Indeed, President Iohannis himself joined the protests on the first evening, where he called the measures an offense to justice.
The ordinance has also been criticized by the European Commission, and has received reproach in a joint statement from Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, which say this movement has also undermined Romania’s position in the EU and NATO.
How was this passed?
On December 12th, the PSD (Social Democratic) party was victoriously voted in to lead the government through its promises of higher pensions and a higher minimum wage drew in many voters who earnestly desired higher living standards. Many PSD supporters now feel disillusioned and betrayed by the party they had supported. Some have said, “The PSD party here doesn’t really stand for values. It stands for clientelism, and now it’s seeking to bail out its cronies.”A few in the PSD, namely Secretary of State Florin-Daniel Sandru, have even handed in their letters of resignation over the scandal. However, party-blaming will not be the answer.
The leader of the ruling PSD party himself, Liviu Dragnea, was supposed to appear for a hearing on his charges of corruption earlier on January 31st. The hearing was delayed, only to have the government pass the emergency ordinance later in the evening. When asked about Romania’s anticorruption fight in an interview with Swiss media on December 12th following PSD’s parliamentary victory, he replied: “I want to talk about Romania’s future, not about this bullshit.”
Others, such as PSD mayor Mihai Chirica of Iasi, have spoken out against those in their own party and insisted on accountability. “Romania needs stability more than ever… Romania has to get to work… We continue to believe in our social-democratic European values…” He particularly called upon the resignation of Florin Iordache, the Minister of Justice, whom he declared wholly responsible for this oversight of justice.
Meanwhile, the anti-corruption party Save Romania Union (USR) seeks to ally itself with European right National Liberal Party (PNL) in these movements against the government. While some seek to resign en masse to force a referendum, this initiative has been condemned by others, who warn that an interim government will be powerless to pause or repeal executive ordinances of the previous regime.
Many are the voices crying out. Many are the necessary reforms to restore justice and continue on the path to transparency and veritable democracy, and many hope that this firm indignation over corruption will crystallize into a call for civic virtue in the Romanian consciousness. Currently, the resentment is growing and remains largely unorganized.
Unfortunately, Romania is no stranger to such blatant corruption. Despite its Europeanization through its entry into the EU, some would say that little has changed since its “revolution” in 1989 when they executed their dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. The current ruling PSD party (Partidul Social Democrat) is the predecessor to the former Communist party, and it has consistently been criticized in the past 27 years for slowing much-needed reforms in the country following the revolution.
To all Romanians joining in the protest: Organize yourself. Stay informed. More importantly, become involved in your democratic processes. Only 39% of the eligible voting population turned out to vote in December. We’re not at the point where we can disengage and dismantle our protests. We cannot become resigned to our fates. Never forget that the government is made of public servants. Demand change and demand justice as citizens. Freedom is never freely given – it must be asserted.