Romanians stage biggest protests since the fall of communism

Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets across Romania on Wednesday (1 February) to protest the government’s decriminalising of a string of corruption offences, the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 protesters, according to media estimates, braved sub-zero temperatures to demonstrate, with some shouting “Thieves!” and “Resign!” a day after the government passed an emergency decree.

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In Bucharest, some demonstrators hurled bottles, firecrackers and stones at security forces, who responded by firing tear gas. A few police and protesters were lightly injured.

For the second straight night, crowds also hit the streets in other cities across the country – including in Timisoara, the cradle of the 1989 revolution.

In a matter of days, that uprising nearly 30 years ago forced dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu from power, ending with Ceaușescu and his wife being summarily executed on 25 December 1989.

Romania’s left-wing government, under the Social Democrats (PSD), has only been in office a few weeks, after bouncing back in elections on 11 December, barely a year since mass protests forced them from office.

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Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu’s social-democrat government won a confidence vote in Romania’s parliament by a wide majority yesterday (4 January), ending a year-long political crisis.

The decree that triggered the nationwide protests was approved by the cabinet on Tuesday night (31 January).

Thousands protest as Romania relaxes corruption law

Thousands of Romanians took to the streets Tuesday night (31 January) after the government issued a controversial emergency decree reducing the penalties for corruption in a move which will allow several politicians to avoid criminal prosecution.

“I am outraged. The PSD won the elections but that doesn’t mean they can sneakily change the penal code in the middle of the night,” said protester Gabriela State, 46.

If enforced, as planned, within 10 days, the decree would, among other things, decriminalise abuse-of-power offences in which the sums involved are less than 200,000 lei (€44,000).

That would put an end to the current trial of PSD party leader Liviu Dragnea, accused of using his political influence to secure state salaries for two people working at his party headquarters between 2006 and 2013.

Dragnea, 54, is already barred from office because of a two-year suspended jail sentence for voter fraud handed down last year. His abuse-of-power trial, which began on Tuesday, concerns €24,000.

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Another initiative, which Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu will submit to parliament, will see around 2,500 people serving sentences of less than five years for non-violent crimes released from prison.

The government said that this will reduce overcrowding in jails but critics say that, again, the main beneficiaries will be the many officials and politicians ensnared in a major anti-corruption drive of recent years.

“I don’t understand what the protesters are upset about,” Dragnea told reporters on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Florin Iordache wrote on his Facebook page that there was “nothing secret, illegal or immoral” about the emergency decree.

Two opposition parties, the centrist Liberals and the Save Romania Union USR, filed a no-confidence motion against the government which has little chance of succeeding.

Romania’s top judicial watchdog, the Superior Magistrates’ Council (CSM), earlier in the day filed a constitutional court challenge to the decree.

Centre-right President Klaus Iohannis, elected in 2014 on an anti-graft platform and a sharp critic of Dragnea, called the decree “scandalous” and took part in an emergency meeting of the CSM, telling reporters afterwards:

“The problem is that one cannot act the way the government did in a country with the rule of law, which Romania is and wants to remain.”

‘Scandalous’

The anti-corruption push saw Romania make history in 2015 when then-Prime Minister Victor Ponta went on trial over alleged tax evasion and money laundering, charges he denies.

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Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta was indicted on Thursday (17 September) on charges of forgery, money-laundering and being an accessory to tax evasion, piling pressure on a premier also facing mounting criticism and elections.

Only last week, the European Commission commended the efforts of ex-communist Romania, which joined the European Union together with neighbouring Bulgaria in 2007 as the bloc’s two poorest members.

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The European Commission has released its latest report on Romania’s progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, which puts its judicial system under close surveillance for potential corruption and organised crime. EURACTIV Romania reports.

But this week’s latest move set off alarm bells in Brussels, with European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and his deputy Frans Timmermans issuing a joint statement expressing “deep concern” on Wednesday.

Juncker, Timmermans issue stern warning against Romania’s ‘backtracking’

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and First Vice-President Frans Timmermans issued a stern warning today (1 February) after the Romanian government issued an emergency decree reducing penalties for corruption, allowing several politicians to avoid criminal prosecution.

“The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone,” they said. “The Commission warns against backtracking and will look thoroughly at the emergency ordinance… in this light.”

Centre-right President Klaus Iohannis, elected in 2014 on an anti-graft platform and a sharp critic of Dragnea, on Wednesday, called the decree “scandalous” and moved to invoke the constitutional court.

Both decrees were published earlier this month, sparking protests last Sunday (29 January) which drew 40,000 people including 20,000 in the capital, and more than 15,000 a week earlier.

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Around 40,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian towns Sunday (29 January), to protest controversial decrees to pardon corrupt politicians and decriminalise other offences.

The laws have been heavily criticised by several Romanian officials and institutions, including the attorney general, the anti-corruption chief prosecutor and the president of the high court.

Romanian ombudsman challenges ban on convicted politicians from government

Romania’s ombudsman asked the Constitutional Court on Thursday (5 January) to strike down a law that bars people convicted of a criminal offence from joining the government, a move that could help the leader of the ruling party to become prime minister.

Six western countries including Germany and the United States issued a joint statement warning that the government’s move would undermine Romania’s international reputation and position in the EU and NATO.

The Romanian leu fell as much as 1.4% against the euro to 4.5540, marking a seven-month low.

Positions

The EU-Romania Business Society in Brussels issued a press release yesterday (1 February), welcoming the firm stance taken by Brussels today opposing the Romanian government’s emergency decree reducing penalties for corruption.

“We at the EU-Romania Business Society welcome the robust position taken by the European Commission. Romania’s enormous potential can only be fulfilled under circumstances where the rule of law is clear and fully respected”, the statement says.

Further Reading