By: Sabina Ciofu
A wave of populist election victories that started in Eastern Europe and which reached as far as the White House now threatens established Western European politics. Leaders from both sides of the political spectrum – on the right in Hungary and Poland, and on the left in Slovakia and the Czech Republic – espouse an illiberal version of democracy. These countries stand in opposition to the traditionally liberal democracies of Western Europe and are in favour of a strong, centralised government that dislikes foreign meddling and domestic rebellion.
In this regional context, it is no surprise that the Romanian governing party, the Social-Democratic Party (PSD) felt emboldened by the huge election win in December to do whatever it takes to enact its view of the world. However, following a number of hasty government decisions to weaken an anti-corruption drive, a huge popular backlash shows that Romania remains the last country in the region to resist this wave.
On the fringes of a troubled European Union, Romanians have braved winter conditions and freezing, sub-zero temperatures to take a vociferous stand for the principles of rule of law and corruption-free politics. Over the last three weeks, the country has seen the largest protests since the Romanian Anti-Communist Revolution in 1989 – which toppled the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Corruption has been a serious problem in Romania for much of the last three decades, but recent successes, led by Laura Codruta Kovesi, the chief prosecutor of the anti-corruption authority, have brought a sense of pride and confidence among Romanians that high-ranking public officials are now subject to the law. Although, within the first month of the government’s mandate, these advances appeared at risk.
On the 31st of January, the government adopted an emergency decree to decriminalise abuse in office by officials, if the sums involved were less than approximately 45000 EUR. Passed hastily without any input from either the parliament, justice bodies or civil society, the decree was aimed at stopping all investigations for pending corruption offenses, freeing officials imprisoned for corruption, and blocking further investigations related to those offenses. Although the government was officially led by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, the government’s actions were heavily influenced by the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) – Liviu Dragnea – who argued that these changes were needed to align some laws with the constitution and reduce prison overcrowding. However, both the way in which the decree was passed – in the middle of the night, without any consultation – and the content – which went well beyond what the Constitutional Court required – showed that the government’s real goal was to remove the threat of prosecution from senior Social Democratic Party officials.
Among those who stood to benefit from the decree was Liviu Dragnea himself. He is currently facing trial for diverting a sum short of the limit specified in the decree. He has been accused of using his political influence to secure state salaries for two people working at his party headquarters. He is already barred from office because of a two-year suspended jail sentence for voter fraud.
The decree has received widespread condemnation. It was criticized by the European Commission, which warned Romania to not back out from the fight against corruption. “The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone,” EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Vice-President Frans Timmermans said in a statement on the 1st of February, the morning after the decree was passed. “We are following the latest developments in Romania with great concern.” The embassies of Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States subsequently issued a joint statement saying the new measure “undermined Romania’s progress on rule of law and the fight against corruption over the past 10 years.” The embassies said the government should “reverse this unhelpful course.”
The Romanian protests
More than half a million protesters came out in the streets in major cities across Romania, an estimated quarter of a million in Bucharest alone at the peak of the demonstrations. The government has created such a level of distrust that many feel it has lost its credibility and mandate to govern. Besides the sheer number of participants, the protesters in Bucharest have created some very ingenious manifestations of peaceful dissent.
On the night the decree was adopted, after the Justice Minister announced it on TV at 11 pm, people started running through the streets of Bucharest towards the Government building, calling their friends and family to join. People were pouring from all sides of the square for the most spontaneous protest in the history of Romania.
On Sunday the 5th of February, protesters turned on their cell phone lights and pointed them at the sky, creating a sea of bright pinpoints. They sang the national anthem and later went silent for five minutes in memory of the heroes of the 1989 revolution. A week later, the enormous crowds assembled in Victory Square marked the 13th consecutive day of anti-government demonstrations in Bucharest, by forming a huge human flag, pointing the lights of their phones through the colored paper sheets.
On the 4th and 18th of February, parents took their children to Victory Square in Bucharest, for a peaceful protest. The event was largely seen as a lesson about democracy and civic involvement. A few days after the first children’s protest, President Iohannis, of the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL), during a speech in Parliament, congratulated the parents for bringing their children to the protest to defend democracy.
The flags of the EU and US were often seen in the square and the message “EU, we love YOU” was screened on one of the side buildings. On the Eastern border of Europe, this was a cry of support to the Western liberal order, the rule of law and the democratic values of the EU, the pan-continental union which has offered great opportunities to Romanians over the last ten years and is largely seen as a defender of the country’s democratic path.
The decree was withdrawn by the government on Sunday, February 5th. Few doubt that the Social Democratic Party will try again to save its senior leaders from anticorruption trials. The government is still planning to free around 2,500 prisoners serving sentences of less than five years, through a different decree that is due to be reviewed by parliament, where the government coalition holds a comfortable majority. However, the use of a near-hysterical media campaign by government-linked news channels to harass opposition parties and protesters has increasingly bothered the civil society. Dragnea is often accusing shadowy forces of organizing the protests: “The organization of these protests and their scale show that this is a political gathering. Who is organizing this? Hard to say but I hope that the state institutions have this information.”
Ultimately, what the protests have illustrated is an emerging middle class in Romania, with concerns that go beyond daily needs and into the realm of values and principles by which the country should abide. They also show a modern, organised and sharp civil society, able to both raise awareness on key issues and gather people around ideas. While the fight against corruption may still be far from over, this nation-wide awakening attests for a maturing of the Romanian society that has been long awaited.
Sabina Maria Ciofu (@SabinaCiofu) is a second-year PhD candidate in Defence Studies at King’s College London, where she explores how machine learning is impacting foreign policy decision-making. She is also a policy advisor in the European Parliament working on the digital economy, foreign affairs and trade issues. Sabina holds a BA in Classics from Cambridge and an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.