Protests continue as Romania wakes from political slumber

Opposition to government energised by ruling party’s bid to blunt anti-corruption law

Radu Dinescu was already in bed when Romanian media broke the news.

“When I heard what the government had done I got up, got dressed and came straight down here,” he recalled on Victory Square in central Bucharest.

“It was late on a Tuesday night – January 31st – but lots of people did exactly the same as me. There were thousands of us here.”

By midnight about 12,000 people had gathered outside government headquarters on Victory Square, and a similar number rallied in other Romanian cities. The next night, about 150,000 people protested in Bucharest, and another 100,000 took to the streets despite freezing weather across this country of 20 million.

Romania’s biggest demonstrations in a generation are continuing, as people express their fury at the new government’s bid to blunt anti-corruption law.

At around 10pm on January 31st, using an emergency decree to bypass parliamentary debate and presidential oversight, the government moved to decriminalise some graft offences and weaken prosecutors’ power to investigate current cases, to the benefit of many politicians and influential businessmen.

The move struck Romania like an electric shock, jolting into life a nation that just two months ago stumbled apathetically though parliamentary elections that swept the populist Social Democrats (PSD) into power with a large majority.

Nightly protests and criticism from the European Union and United States forced the government to scrap the decree – but now thousands of Romanians vow to keep demonstrating until it resigns.

“How can we trust this government? How do we know what they will do with four years in power?” says Dinescu (36), a general manager for a Bucharest firm.

“We will stay here until they leave.”

‘Resistance becomes duty’

With nightly temperatures dropping to minus 10 degrees, Dinescu and friends each wore a striking black-and-white T-shirt over several layers of warm clothes.

The front bore a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, author of the US Declaration of Independence: "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty". On the back was a cartoon of four masked faces and a slogan in Romanian condemning the nocturnal decree: Noapte ca hotii – At night like thieves.

All around Dinescu, protesters blew vuvuzelas, banged drums and jumped and danced to ward off the chill. When a small dog draped in a Romanian flag barked at the commotion, a protester called out: “Go on, bite the thieves.”

"We're not leaving, we're resisting", people chanted; "Red plague", others shouted in denunciation of the PSD, which sprang from the communist party that Romanians ousted along with dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in a 1989 revolution.

Scores of Romanian red, blue and yellow tricolours swayed over the crowd, some with a hole in the middle – a reminder of how that earlier generation of protesters cut the communist emblem out of the national flag of the time.

Romania's post-communist era has been blighted by grinding poverty and corruption and, since it joined the EU with neighbouring Bulgaria in 2007, the graft situation in both countries has been subject to special monitoring by Brussels.

In recent years, however, the EU and US have praised Romania for the striking success of its anti-corruption directorate, known as the DNA.

In 2015 alone, the DNA indicted five government ministers, 21 parliamentary deputies and senators, and more than 100 local mayors and heads of county councils. It also filed charges relating to more than €430 million in alleged bribes and ordered the seizure of assets worth almost €500 million.

Defiant slogans

“DNA – come and take them away”, demonstrators chant on Victory Square, as defiant slogans were projected in huge blue letters onto a neighbouring tower block: “Thieves” glowed on the wall, before being replaced by “the country resists”.

“Yes, the PSD was elected in December, but turnout was very low,” says protester Mihaela Samsonescu (29), recalling how fewer than 40 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot.

“Most young people didn’t bother, because they didn’t see any party or politician that they believed in. Maybe this will wake them up,” she adds.

The government has refused to resign and insists the public has misunderstood and overreacted to its reform bid.

It claims the changes are needed to align Romania's legislation with its constitution and ease prison overcrowding by decriminalising fraud in cases that cause damage to the state of less than about €44,000; Liviu Dragnea – the leader of the PSD – would have been one high-profile beneficiary of the decree.

Laura Stefan, an anti-corruption expert at the Expert Forum think tank in Bucharest, says the PSD's "arrogance and attitude" had led to the crisis.

“The government showed bad manners and bad faith, and a lack of understanding of the value of transparency and good governance,” she adds.

“They could have followed the normal process in parliament, but didn’t feel it was necessary – and that was like spitting in the face of the people.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe