Over the past weeks, Romania has witnessed the largest uprising since the fall of communism in 1989 – when former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown – over a hastily-imposed decree that would have decriminalised abuse in office by officials, if the sums involved were amounting to less than $48,500. This decree aimed to weaken anti-corruption legislation and offered potential amnesty for those convicted of corruption. Following huge riots, the government finally agreed to abrogate the contentious decree. However, an estimated half a million Romanians continued to protest across the country, demanding that a number of politicians leave office.
Romania has come to be known as one of the most corrupt places in Europe until 2014, when a large number of politicians was convicted for abuse of power, starting with Adrian Nastase from the Social Democratic Party(PSD), former PM. However, even given the constant fight for a “system clean-up”, during the last 2 decades, Romanians have started to feel more and more numb when presented with the opportunity to vote. Presence at the parliamentary elections from December 2016 amounted for less than 42% of the population. This led to PSD winning 45% of the votes.
Generally, the population has always seemed to be divided between PSD voters and non-PSD voters. In Romanian commonplaces, the typical PSD voter is the uneducated, either very wealthy or extremely poor person, an unethical person that lacks the mindset directed to progress and only seeks to accumulate wealth through fraud. For many Romanians, the party’s victory in the elections meant a disaster, a conviction to emigration for the bright, and in general, a halt from progress.
Unsurprisingly, given their reputation for hiding their problems with the law under the carpet, the recently elected PSD-ALDE government – a coalition of the PSD and ALDE (the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) made a priority from weakening the anti-corruption legislation. Although the government denied multiple times the existence of any emergency ordinance for amnesty and pardon, or of any intentions to modify the Criminal Code, rumours spread that these issues are currently real. In fact, PSD has been for years supporting this ordinance, taking small steps in favouring the accused ones almost every year. In the government meeting from the 18th of January, the coalition secretly agreed on voting in favour of the ordinance for amnesty and pardon, which would have stopped investigations for pending corruption offences, officials imprisoned for corruption, and canceled initiatives of further investigations related to those offences from being brought to justice. Many perceived the decree as a dedication for PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, whose proposal for PM seat was refused due to the fact that he was indicted for abuse of public office and forgery allegedly committed. He had been previously forced to resign from the cabinet in 2015, following a conviction for electoral fraud, for which he received a two-year suspended sentence last spring.
President Klaus Iohannis ruined their plan, unexpectedly coming in that morning to lead the meeting. He made them aware of the fact that there are “two huge elephants in the room, which are being held invisible”, referring to the the emergency ordinance and modifications in the Criminal Code. When the media disseminated what happened during the meeting, in the same evening thousands of people started to protest in the streets of Bucharest. The population felt sickened by the plans of the government and mainly labeled them as a back-door opportunity for politicians to solve their legal issues. Klaus Iohannis and many important members of the National Liberal Party mingled with the people and joined the protests from the evening of the 22nd of January, as a proof of solidarity towards the protestants. Members and supporters of the coalition criticised the president for his involvement in the riots and insulted the protesters without any shame. They called the people in the streets “Nazis” and “disgusting creatures that refuse to improve the living conditions of prisoners”. The government had been trying to defend the decision, supporting the fact that living conditions in prisons are unacceptable and the European Court for Human Rights threatens them with fines. This was obviously just a fake lame excuse, as decriminalising an important class of offences is not the right way to improve the situation in prisons.
Anyways, all these tensions did not really result in a transparent debate on the topic and a “collective agreement”. The decree was issued out of the blue at 10pm on the evening of the 31st of January and did not have to face parliamentary scrutiny. People continued to see it as a continued back-door attempt by the government to help its supporters, both within the party and in the media, who are currently either in jail or under investigation for corruption. Immediately after the media made the announcement, people start to gather around Victoria Palace, their number reaching 200.000. Protesters tried to block the entrances of the building in order to avoid the officials leaving, but as these were already gone, some television reporters were left stuck in the building until 4AM.
While people were arduously exposing their disgust and disagreement towards the government’s decision from that night, Florin Iordache, Minister of Justice, nonchalantly announced around midnight the publishing of the emergency ordinance in the Official Monitor. This obviously worsened the situation and led to multiple protests across the country, which reached a peak on the 5th of February, when more than half a million of people participated in the riots. During the same day, the government had already announced the abrogation of the decree, however, the manifestations did not end. As people felt betrayed and disregarded for weeks, they continued to protest, demanding that a number of politicians, beginning with the PM, leave office. Meanwhile, thousands of Romanians in the diaspora felt deeply intrigued by what was happening home and participated in riots from major cities across Europe. Following the events, some important politicians resigned, including Business Environment Minister, Florin Jianu. However, without any last bit of shame, the PM, the PSD leader and the Minister of Justice refuse to leave office. Protests against them are continuing despite harsh meteorological conditions.