This article originally appeared on VICE Romania
In February of this year, Romania's ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) passed a motion that makes it harder to jail corrupt officials. Now, anyone found guilty of abusing their power can only be imprisoned if the sums involved are over €44,000. That's especially convenient for the PSD, since its leader, Liviu Dragnea, was recently given a three-and-a-half-year sentence for corruption. On top of this, the government has sacked the leader of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), Laura Codruța Kovesi. During Kovesi's six years at the DNA, nine ministers, 27 MPs and an MEP have been convicted of corruption.
Since February, tens of thousands of Romanians have taken part in anti-corruption protests across the country, demanding the government steps down. But these protests turned violent last Friday, as 100,000 people gathered in Bucharest's Victoriei Square – the largest anti-government rally in decades – to demand the anti-anticorruption measures be abandoned. Around 450 demonstrators and 30 police were injured, as riot officers used teargas and water canons to disperse the crowd.
That hasn't stopped protesters – there have been anti-government rallies in Bucharest almost every day since.
On Tuesday, I spoke to people at the most recent rally in Victoriei Square to find out why they continue to protest, how corruption has affected them and what they'll do next if things don't change.
VICE: Why are you out here protesting?
Geanina: Because I want to see change in this country. I want to have kids, and be able to raise them in a safe and secure environment. I don't want to be afraid every time I leave my house, worried that someone could harm my family and not face any consequences for it.
How has corruption affected you?
An example: a woman ran a red light and drove her car into my best friend's car, completely totalling it. After the accident, my friend wound up with terrible back pain, but the judge ruled in favour of the woman who caused it. The police had tampered with the video evidence of the accident. It's something that happens in Romania.
If the government doesn't listen to the uproar, what are you going to do next?
Honestly, I'll leave the country. I just can't stay here anymore. I know I'd be leaving my mum behind, even though she's ill and lives alone. But I still can't sleep at night after what happened to me last Friday in Victoriei Square. I did nothing wrong, but the riot police sprayed teargas straight into my face. This shouldn't be normal.
How do you think the protests have gone over the past few days?
There should've been more of us here, but people are afraid. I'm not afraid – though this is the last time I'm going to try to bring about some change in this country.
VICE: Why did you decide to join the protests?
Victor: For so many reasons. I'm here because when you go to the hospital, they often don't have the medicine you need; because there's filth in the streets everywhere; because local governments treat us like we work for them, rather than the other way around. My list of reasons is very long.
Have you personally been affected by corruption?
It's a general problem that affects everyone. And now that the DNA is in danger, it looks like we're headed even further in the wrong direction.
What if nothing changes after this?
I don't know what my options are. I'll file a formal complaint with the prosecutor's office, but I have no idea whether that will actually make a difference. I'll keep protesting every chance I get, though. But I don't want to leave Romania.
Are you happy with the way the protests have gone over the past few days?
I was hoping more people would keep coming out – that way we could've had a bit more of a presence around Bucharest. And I wish the Romanian president had come out a bit firmer in condemning the violence in Victoriei Square. Finally, we should have seen resignations across the board, starting with Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă.
VICE: Why are you here?
Geanina: Because I'm not happy with everything that's happening in my country – from our education system to the fact we have convicted felons serving in public office.
What's the worst kind of corruption that you've personally had to deal with?
I've had relatives not receive proper medical care at hospitals because we didn't "tip" the doctor well enough.
What will happen if nothing changes?
We will keep protesting. My friends and I are thinking up a plan that will involve completely blocking the traffic in Victoriei Square. I've also thought a lot about leaving Romania. Our corrupt system isn't providing me with any opportunities, so I'm thinking of leaving for the UK or Germany.
VICE: What is corruption doing to Romania?
Dragos: Firstly, we are seeing far fewer foreign companies wanting to invest in Romania. This affects all of us because it's weakening our economy. And then there's the moral element to all of this – I don't think it's OK to steal and get away with it for decades. I'm not saying this doesn’t ever happen in the West, too – but it's more discreet there. I mean, at least they sort of try to conceal it, compared to what's going on in Romania.
If the government doesn't change anything, what will you do?
I'll leave the country. But if everyone goes, I'm worried about who's going to stay and pay for vital services, such as pensions.
How do you feel about the protests over the last few days?
First off, the riot police could've refrained from teargassing us. I don't actually think too much will change – not because there are too few of us, but because the people governing us are like animals.
VICE: What motivated you to come out here and protest?
Dana: I don't want to leave my country – I like it here and I genuinely think we can change things. I don't have any children, but I've come out to protest on behalf of my friends' kids and their futures. There are so many problems in the country. Our healthcare system is a mess; we pay our taxes but get absolutely nothing in return when we end up in a Romanian hospital. And I would love to explore our beautiful country more, but last week it took us seven hours to drive 160 miles because we don't have any motorways. Also, it shouldn't be normal for politicians to make up laws just to keep themselves out of prison.
What will you do if nothing changes?
For the past few months, I've unfortunately been thinking more and more about leaving the country. I don't want to, but it feels like I'm being forced into the decision.
How do you feel about the turnout tonight?
I'm very disappointed there's so few of us. I don't know what needs to happen for everyone to wake up.
VICE: Why did you decide to come protest?
Octavian: After the recent decision to amend the criminal code, I think it's essential that we find a way of toppling the government. It's obvious the current government is toxic; the regime only works for a select few at the top, with a convicted felon as the leader of the ruling party. The government lost any shred of legitimacy with the violent response to the protests on Friday – an administration that turns on its own citizens can no longer claim to rule the state. We're the laughing stock of Europe.
How has the corruption in Romania affected you?
You can see the effects of corruption whenever you go to a state-run hospital or interact with civil servants. That envelope you have to hand to the doctor to get noticed is a form of corruption.
Would you ever want to move away?
I've been meaning to leave ever since the PSD won in 2016 – not necessarily because they won, but because voter turnout was below 38 percent. The percentage of people in this country that elected Romania's current government was so small.
How do you think the protests have gone over the past few months?
It's been disorganised, which is what you'd expect from street protests. And at the moment, it would be difficult to identify a leader of the movement, which I don't think is a bad thing. It's this very lack of organisation that makes the movement spontaneous, and perhaps it would be best to keep it this way. But politically, we can't do much without a leader.