An estimated 250,000 people took to the streets in Romania Wednesday, in protest at an emergency decree issued by the government that could potentially free many officials jailed for corruption. These are the largest demonstrations in the country since the fall of communist rule in 1989.
Why is this matter so important?
Romania is a country where corruption is perceived as endemic – reaching almost every aspect of daily life. This means petty stuff like bribes but also numerous very public high level corruption cases.
The country has a special prosecutor’s office (DNA) that deals solely with high level corruption. In 2015 the DNA prosecuted one prime minister, 5 members of cabinet and 21 members of parliament. The total number of high and mid-level corruption cases prosecuted in 2015 reached a staggering 1,250.
So why protest now?
Two weeks ago, a journalist got wind of a plan to decriminalize some corruption offences like official misconduct and abuse of power. The story caused outrage in the country, mainly because – according to this emergency decree – many politicians jailed for corruption charges would be pardoned.
The main beneficiary of this legislation could well be the chairman of the ruling Social-Democratic party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea. Dragnea was convicted of voter fraud in 2012, and now faces a second trial on charges of official misconduct. Dragnea could not be appointed prime minister because of his first criminal conviction, but many in Romania suspect that he runs the PSD from the shadows.
The protest was fuelled by the fact that the PSD passed this emergency decree in a special cabinet meeting, held at almost 10pm, without announcing the plan publicly. On the streets, the chant “at night like thieves” could be heard.
How is the world seeing this situation?
Not lightly at all. There’s already been a letter sent from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to the Romanian prime minister that warns against setbacks in the country’s fight against corruption.
In an unprecedented move, six key partners of Romania – the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands – have issued a joint diplomatic statement warning that this decree undermines the very principles of EU and NATO membership.
These red flags are especially important because Romania is located in an area where Russia’s influence is growing – the country borders with war-torn Ukraine.
Does it affect other countries?
Not directly. But in a world where “alternative facts” can influence elections and help spread misinformation, people standing up for the very building blocks of a functional democratic society is a big deal. The Romanian people went into the streets to defend the rule of law. That doesn’t happen very often – especially not in Eastern Europe.
For the people marching through Bucharest and other cities in Romania, this is a fight for a fair future. That surely, is a global ideal.
Laurentiu Colintineanu is a journalist based in Eastern Europe.