A shout-out for honesty in Europe

Hundreds of thousands of Romanians protested over a government move to quell investigations of corruption. Having made so much progress against graft, they took a stand for clean governance.

AP Photo
A man waves a large Romanian flag during a Feb. 2 protest joined by tens of thousands against a government decree that dilutes what qualifies as corruption, in Bucharest, Romania. Huge protests erupted in the capital and spread to cities around Romania in the past two nights after the government changed the law — one of the biggest protests in Romania since communism ended in 1989.

Since joining the European Union in 2007, Romania has made so much progress against corruption that it is often held up as a model for other former Soviet-bloc countries. An average of 1,000 officials a year have been tried for graft in Romania since 2013. And last year, the corruption-fighting group Transparency International began to tally the number of companies with codes of ethics. “We want to convince Romania that integrity is worthwhile,” said the group’s local leader, Marian Popa.

But another measure of public integrity happened this week. Hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets to protest a surprise move by the government to end the corruption probes of certain officials and release others who had been jailed for such crimes. One decree said a criminal charge could not be brought against an official if the abuse amounted to less than $48,000. Another measure aims to release more than 2,000 officials convicted of corruption.

The swift reaction of the public shows the momentum toward honest governance in Romania will be difficult to stop. In addition, Western countries have come down hard on the government over its backsliding. And the minister of business, Florin Jianu, resigned in protest over the moves. “How am I going to look [my child] in the eye and what am I going to tell him over the years?” he wrote on Facebook.

Romania still remains one of the EU’s most corrupt countries (tied with Hungary and not as bad as Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria). The cost of corruption is estimated at 15 percent of gross national product. But it has put many laws on the books to improve the rule of law and transparency. Most of all, the country has a zealous group of prosecutors, led by Laura Codruta Kovesi of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Her team has felled two prime ministers and dozens of mayors.

The protests were the largest since the ones that helped down communist rule in 1990. While Romanians now enjoy democracy, corruption has become their biggest worry. It is also an obstacle to joining the eurozone and fending off influence from Russia.

Former President Emil Constantinescu explained what the country faces in an interview last year with a business publication, bne IntelliNews: “It took a long time to change Romanians’ mentality that a head of state that obeys the law is a weak leader, and that honesty is stupidity.... Families and schools now have to educate young Romanians, to build their character. Countries are not corporations, we have to work with our people’s ethos in building our democracy.”

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