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