Understanding Romania’s Anti-Corruption Protests

BY MATTHEW APPEL 

Throughout much of post-Communist Europe, the prospect of EU membership and integration has always been a driving force behind political reforms. In the absence of this external motivation, corruption and government mismanagement are more difficult to eliminate. Romania, for example, is already a member of the EU and is thus rarely subjected to pressure from the rest of the union; politicians there often feel no incentive to change corrupt practices that date back to the Communist period.

Over the past few months, Romania has seen major protests over a controversial emergency decree that would decriminalize abuse-of-power offenses in which the sums involved are less than 200,000 lei ($48,000). Sorin Grindeanu’s Social Democrat-led cabinet passed the decree during a late night session on January 31, less than a month into Grindeanu’s term as Prime Minister. Critics argue that one of the main beneficiaries of this change would be Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the Social Democrats who is currently unable to become Prime Minister due to corruption charges involving roughly $26,000. By the following evening, an estimated 150,000 people had taken to the streets of Bucharest in protest, while another 100,000-150,000 joined demonstrations in other Romanian cities. Overall, these were the largest protests Romania had seen since the fall of communism in 1989.

Even Grindeanu’s decision to rescind the emergency ordinance in reaction to the growing protests failed to appease the crowds. On February 5, only hours after the announcement, over 500,000 more people joined protests throughout the country, with about half of them gathering in Bucharest alone. Increasingly, many of them began to call for Grindeanu’s cabinet to resign, claiming that it had lost its legitimacy to govern. Although disagreeing with the need for Grindeanu to resign, President Klaus Iohannis, elected in 2014 as a member of the Liberal Party (PNL) and constitutionally authorized to act as a mediator between the state and society, offered the demonstrators his personal support, arguing that “Romania needs a government that is transparent, which governs predictably by the light of day, not sneakily at night.” Meanwhile, immense public pressure caused Justice Minister Florin Iordache, who was considered a co-architect of the unpopular decree, to resign from his position on February 9. Since then, anti-government protests and much smaller pro-PSD counter-protests have continued intermittently, although the two sides appear to have reached a stalemate of sorts over the past few weeks.

The history of the Social Democrats provides context for why the party was so desperate to obstruct prosecution against corrupt officials. The Social Democratic Party (PSD) is the direct political descendant of the National Salvation Front (FSN), which Ion Iliescu and other former Communists created during the 1989 Romanian Revolution that toppled longtime ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu. Despite initially promising to implement democratic reforms and to organize free and fair elections, the FSN moved quickly to consolidate its own power and seize control of state resources. Meanwhile, Iliescu’s unwillingness to reform Communist-era security institutions allowed former agents of the Securitate, Ceaușescu’s dreaded instrument of surveillance and oppression, to take leading roles in the new state apparatus. Under the Social Democratic leadership of Iliescu, who served as president from 1990 to 1996 and again from 2000 to 2004, Romania experienced rampant corruption and democratic backsliding.

The country’s first significant anti-corruption reforms were a direct response to the demands of EU membership. In 2003, the Romanian government created the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) in order to investigate and prosecute high-level cases of corruption. With the support of then-Justice Minister Monica Macovei, the DNA tackled graft in both the PSD and the governing Truth and Justice Alliance. By doing so, however, both Macovei and the DNA made themselves targets for political retribution. When the Truth and Justice Alliance broke up after EU accession in April 2007, Macovei was one of the first ministers to be removed by the new PNL-led minority government. Beginning in 2008, the PNL and the PSD formed an alliance of convenience against then-President Traian Băsescu, who had introduced several anti-corruption measures and strongly backed both Macovei and the DNA. Two years later, PSD resistance prevented the passage of a lustration law that would have banned former communist officials from holding public office for five years. EU pressure to reform waned after accession, allowing corrupt institutions and individuals to reassert themselves.

In recent years, however, the DNA has made a major comeback as a semi-autonomous government agency within Romania’s supreme court, and today it is one of the most respected public institutions in the country. Under the leadership of Laura Codruța Kövesi, who previously served as Prosecutor General during Macovei’s time as Justice Minister, the DNA has successfully prosecuted and jailed many corrupt officials, including former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase and pro-PSD media mogul Dan Voiculescu. In 2015, it launched a criminal investigation into Dragnea’s predecessor as leader of the PSD, Victor Ponta, accusing him of forgery, tax evasion, and complicity in money laundering. Later that year, Ponta was forced to resign from his position of Prime Minister after a deadly fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest was blamed on government mismanagement and negligence. Many political commentators see Grindeanu’s recent attempt to decriminalize certain abuse-of-power offenses as only the latest move in a larger PSD-led effort to inhibit the work of the DNA and prevent future prosecutions against the party’s leadership.

Despite the noble efforts of Kövesi and the DNA, the political culture in Romania is unlikely to be transformed with an entirely top-down approach. Rather, anti-corruption reformers need to be actively supported and reinforced by a vibrant civil society. It is precisely for this reason that the recent demonstrations are so important. For many, they are a sign that Romanians are finally beginning to hold their elected officials accountable. If it can be sustained, this emerging “people power” phenomenon is likely to discourage politicians from committing such blatant acts of corruption in the future. Although Romanians still have a long way to go before creating a stable and relatively corruption-free government, they have effectively changed the rules of the game and have sent a clear message to their political establishment.

From a regional perspective, it is clear that EU leaders must re-engage with Southeastern Europe and push for further integration and much-needed political reforms. Over the past 28 years, Romania has made its greatest progress in fighting corruption when incentivized to do so by the EU. Unsurprisingly, many of the protestors in Bucharest carried EU flags and called on the body to take an even tougher stance against corruption. Although several European countries warned the Romanian government that its emergency decree risked damaging partnerships with the EU and NATO, such rhetoric is rarely backed up by any concrete efforts to help solve the country’s underlying governance problems. If Europe continues to be distracted by issues like Brexit and the US election of Donald Trump, pro-EU reformers in Romania and elsewhere will be at a severe political disadvantage, enabling populists to assert their influence and corruption to be entrenched. This trend is already visible in the Western Balkans, where a lack of EU engagement has contributed to a political crisis in Macedonia and renewed tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. Ultimately, the greatest threat to political stability in Southeastern Europe is the breakdown of European integration and the transatlantic alliance, and thus continued EU engagement with and pressure on Romania is key to ensuring the stability of the region.

Image source: bbci.co.uk

About the Author 

Matthew Appel is an intern with the Armed Conflicts Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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