Romanian protests: Is a victory over corruption in sight?

Public opposition could be close to toppling a decree that would offer amnesty for officials convicted of abuse of power.

Vadim Ghirda/AP
A man holds a banner with the initials of the ruling Social Democrat party (PSD) during a protest in Bucharest, Romania, on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017.

Public outcry in Romania over a government decree that would decriminalize official corruption for sums of $47,800 or less is roiling the cabinet of prime minister Sorin Grindeanu, with the business minister resigning in protest of the decree and the country's justice minister – who was architect of the decree – temporarily ceding his duties. 

In a Facebook post announcing his resignation, trade and business minister Florin Jianu said it was “the ethical thing to do” while clarifying that his conscience was “clean” on matters of professional honesty, according to Reuters:

"How am I going to look [my child] in the eye and what am I going to tell him over the years? 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?" 

Romanian president Klaus Iohannis has also come out against the decree, announcing on Thursday that he would ask judges in the country’s highest court to annul the order.

The shakeup comes a day after some 250,000 people took to the streets in cities around Romania to protest the measure, in the biggest demonstrations since the fall of the communist government in 1989. That outcry seems to testify to the force of public support for an anti-corruption push that got legs with Romania’s 2007 entry into the European Union, whose commission helped pressure it into reforming its notoriously corrupt politics.

As Kit Gillet reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2015, that push hasn’t been without its setbacks. But other failed attempts by lawmakers to rein back punishments for abuse of power seem to point to progress:

Last November, just days after an anticorruption candidate won Romania’s latest presidential election, lawmakers were once again called to vote on a controversial amnesty bill. This one would have opened the way to releasing any inmate serving up to six years in prison for non-violent crimes – which would have included most of those serving time for corruption.

This time the vote was almost unanimously against the bill.

If there were clear-cut signs that no one is now safe from investigation, it has been in recent weeks, as first Udrea, the former presidential candidate, was arrested, and then Iulian Hertanu, the brother-in-law of Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta, was detained. Mr. Hertanu was allegedly involved in embezzling funds worth around 1.75 million euros.

“The area of untouchables has gotten smaller and smaller with time,” says Ms. Stefan, the anticorruption expert. “People are seeing for the first time, if you steal you go to jail, no matter who you are. This is the way it should be, but we need to keep the momentum.” 

Prime Minister Grindeanu says the measure, presented along with a draft bill on jail pardons, will ease overcrowding in prisons and align the criminal code with recent rulings from the constitutional court. Critics call it a way of pardoning officials, like the leader of the ruling Social Democratic party, who have been accused or convicted of abuse-of-power crimes. Among those critics is Romania’s anti-corruption czar, Laura Codruța Kövesi, who calls the decree a blank check for legislators to abuse public office. 

“It is a project by emergency decree which will very severely affect the anti-corruption fight, basically if this project is adopted, the fight against corruption becomes irrelevant,” she told Euro News.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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