Romania scraps corruption decree amid huge protests

Biggest rallies since 1989 revolution against communist rule forced government U-turn

Children hold balloons in the colours of the Romanian flag as people protest against the government’s contentious corruption decree in Bucharest, Romania.  Photograph:  Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

Children hold balloons in the colours of the Romanian flag as people protest against the government’s contentious corruption decree in Bucharest, Romania. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

 

Romania’s government has scrapped an emergency decree to soften anti-corruption legislation, which sparked the country’s biggest protests since its 1989 revolution against communist rule.

The government rushed through the decree late last Tuesday night, bypassing parliamentary debate and approval from President Klaus Iohannis, who called the move a “serious blow” to the rule of law “from enemies of justice”.

On each subsequent night, hundreds of thousands of Romanians rallied in Bucharest and other cities against a decree that would have decriminalised several corruption offences to the benefit of many politicians and influential businessmen.

“I have listened to my colleagues in the party and in the opposition and I have heard the voice of the street,” prime minister Sorin Grindeanu said on Saturday night, finally bowing to pressure after earlier refusing to rescind the decrees.

“I do not want to divide Romania.  Romania can’t be split in two. Right now, Romania seems to be broken in two. This is the last thing I want to see,” said Mr Grindeanu, whose populist government only took power last month.

“I will start a debate shortly with all parties on ways to change the criminal codes so that they meet the most recent rulings of the constitutional court,” he added, suggesting that he was not willing to abandon the controversial reforms.

Snap elections

With a large crowd gathering again in central Bucharest Sunday night, it was not clear if the cabinet’s withdrawal of the decree and pledge to follow normal parliamentary procedure would satisfy the protesters, many of whom demand the government’s resignation and snap elections.

The fiasco has thrown the Social Democrats (PSD) into crisis just two months after a resounding election victory, and revived accusations over their perceived arrogance and alleged lack of interest in fighting cronyism and corruption.

The decree would have decriminalised abuse-of-power offences involving amounts less than 200,000 lei (€44,000) and redefined “conflict of interest” to loosen rules on who could receive state contracts.

The government also sought to amnesty some 2,500 prisoners serving sentences of less than five years for non-violent crimes, which would have freed hundreds of officials and businessmen jailed for graft offences and potentially halted current investigations.

One beneficiary of the decree – which advocates claimed was needed to ease prison overcrowding – would have been PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who is now fighting abuse-of-power charges and is barred from public office due to a conviction for electoral fraud; many Romanians see him as the country’s de-facto leader.

The crisis exposed cracks in the PSD and prompted trade and business minister Florin Jianu to resign.

Outraged western partners

“How am I going to look [my son] in the eye and what am I going to tell him over the years?” Mr Jianu wrote on Facebook.

“Am I going to tell him his father was a coward and supported actions he does not believe in, or that he chose to walk away from a story that isn’t his?”

The government’s behaviour also outraged western partners that have given cautious praise to Romania’s anti-corruption measures in recent years.

“The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone. We are following the latest developments in Romania with great concern,” European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and his deputy Frans Timmermans said in a joint statement.

Six countries including the United States, Germany and France also jointly expressed “profound concern” over events in Romania.

They said the government decree had “undermined Romania’s progress on rule of law and the fight against corruption over the past 10 years . . . and risks damaging partnerships that are based on common values, inherent in the guiding principles of the EU and Nato”.