The Corruption Divide Protests in Victory Square, Bucharest, February 2017. Photo: Mihai Stoica, 2Celsius

The Corruption Divide

From the green movement against gold mining in Rosia Montana to recent anti-government demonstrations, the fight against corruption has become an impassable moral benchmark that governments can no longer ignore. It took half a million people rallying in Romania in early February for a controversial law meant to whitewash corrupt politicians to be withdrawn. A decade after EU accession, people in Romania and across Central and Eastern Europe seem less willing to put up with endemic siphoning of public resources into private pockets, and politicians in power are forced to comply or be washed away.

In the late afternoon of February 7, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, with well-exercised poise and large gestures, addressed Parliament from the podium in his typical Transylvanian Saxon staccato discourse: “Sacrificing a single minister for this crisis is too little; yet early elections are too much. You won. Now you govern! But not anywise”.

Romania needs a strong government, he announced, “that is working in transparency, predictably and not at night, thievishly”.

At this point, the left half of the plenary hall started clamouring and all social-democratic MPs precipitated towards the exit proclaiming their outrage. All parliamentarians of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) left the room. “Tired already? Bad luck”, the president scolded them with a smile. And he continued his speech to a half-full audience consisting by and large of liberals and deputies of a new and progressive party named Save Romania Union (Uniunea Salvati Romania – USR).

Appeals to the European Union were the highlights of each evening during the anti-corruption protests in Bucharest. February 9, 2017. Photo: Mihai Stoica, 2Celsius.

A couple of nights earlier, the streets of Romania’s cities had been flooded with over half a million citizens expressing their anger against corruption and, in particular, demanding withdrawal of the emergency decree and the government’s resignation. President Iohannis has expressed from the very beginning his full support for the people in the streets.

In quantitative terms, these demonstrations were without a doubt the largest street protests since late 1989 when dictator Ceausescu was toppled in what is remembered as the December revolution.

A legal matter of corruption

The people’s complaints are founded on the sheer fact that the government is perceived to be irredeemably corrupt. And this perception is for quite a good reason given that over 1,200 public officials were indicted only in 2015, and many of these parties have subsequently been condemned and sentenced, primarily for graft and related infractions.

In technical terms, the government made use of its constitutional power to issue emergency decrees and thus bring modifications to the Criminal Code in a flash.

Nevertheless, the ministers and coalition in power failed to explain what the emergency consisted of. The general discourse of the party in power touched essentially on the good election results last December (when PSD won 48% of the votes in a rather poor turnout of 39%). By and large, that would legitimize a surge in the use of emergency decree.

Consequently, many voices consider this particular legislative delegation a moral abuse.

However, what really infuriated the crowds was the fact that the emergency decrees were passed secretly, as they got sneaked into the day’s agenda late in the evening and were passed without all approvals. Normally, the Superior Council of Magistrates is required by law to issue an approval in such matters and in this particular case, the minister of justice avoided even requiring it.

what really infuriated the crowds was that the emergency decrees were passed secretly

The decree itself was seen by a large number of people to have been adopted in order to save Liviu Dragnea, the president of PSD, and other politicians from jail. Dragnea is currently under indictment in a case of misconduct in office.

“Lack of transparency, the blatant lies and subterfuges used to adopt the ordinance in the dead of night added fuel to the fire”, said Roxana Wring, founding member of USR and general councillor in the municipality of Bucharest.

Following public pressure, the government has abrogated the decree.

“There was outrage against the very peculiar way to pass the emergency ordinance, at 9.30 in the evening during a government meeting which was not publicly announced. And of course because it tapped into the huge reservoir of mistrust and anger triggered by the widespread corruption”, underlines Claudiu Crăciun, lecturer in Political Science at the National School for Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest.

Claudiu Craciun, lecturer at the National School for Political Studies in Bucharest

The events all over Romania could be deemed as anti-corruption demonstrations, but “they are also protests against an authoritarian manner of doing politics, by mainly taking important decisions without public debates and consultations. Because of the 500,000 people who took to the streets, the government apparently retreated from its plan to decriminalize some corruption offences that would favour the party in power, especially its political and economic clientele”, adds Adrian Dohotaru, deputy of USR in the Romanian Parliament.

PSD, for its part, blamed a “powerful media manipulation on a false theme of legalization of corruption”, as well as  the ignorance of protesters who “did not actually read those acts and simply decided to believe and follow what the opinion-formers said in the public sphere”.

“Part of this situation was generated by our government’s inability to communicate and react accordingly on this matter, which, in my opinion, inflamed the protests. It is important to inform that steps towards correcting these mistakes were made, the contested act has been withdrawn”, says Amira Sawan, a young researcher and member of PSD in Bucharest.

On February 9 the minister of justice resigned. So far, he has been the only one to take responsibility for the infamous emergency decree.

Amusing penal legislation

Surpassing juridical technicalities and procedural law, the modifications proposed in the emergency decree were aimed at altering provisions related to misconduct or abuse in office.  The first new condition proposed was the burden of proof for prosecutors that the material damage was at least in value of Euro 47,000 (RON 200,000). A lower damage would have exonerated the perpetrator of her criminal liability. Needless to say, the people in the streets took this condition as an utter enactment of the decriminalization of theft.

Amongst other provisions, the maximum punishment would have been reduced to three years of imprisonment from seven, and public officials would have faced no consequences for any abuse of office committed by way of passing official acts. If caught, acts could have simply been annulled with politicians themselves being spared any criminal investigation. The law was cleverly geared towards enabling an environment wherein officials would not have had to worry about any possible repercussions stemming from abuse or misconduct. And if caught, and charges were brought, they could have simply cited negligence for which they would face no charge at all.

 This decade of protests is our turbulent western Sixties

A history of recent protests had nothing to do with economic demands or union claims, but primarily with democratic principles.

“In a sense, this decade of protests is our turbulent Western Sixties”, utters Dohotaru.

“Justice. Under Construction”. Bucharest anti-corruption protests, February 7, 2017. Photo: Mihai Stoica, 2Celsius

Beginning in 2012, there have been large mobilizations each year against different governments in Romania, but, he adds, “mainly against the so-called social-democrats or even against the Presidency when it favoured controversial businesses involved in illegal logging.”

In 2012, there were protests against austerity measures, in 2013 against the political backing of a corporation bringing about a catastrophic mining project in Rosia Montana, in 2014 against the social-democrat candidate for presidency, Victor Ponta, in 2015 against illegal deforestation and, finally, for the 64 victims of the Colectiv nightclub fire, where authorities were blamed again for corruption and its inability to ensure public safety.

As an element of novelty, the USR parliamentarians decided to stage a sit-in in the Parliament in order to show their solidarity with the protesters and to focus on the lack of transparency and public debate, which preceded the adoption of the ordinance.

Costel Popa, director of the green think tank Ecopolis says that “the biggest protests in the last three to four years were against governmental actions to favour specific corrupt interests, such as abusive mining businesses (as the aforementioned Rosia Montana) or certain corrupt persons that risk to be prosecuted and jailed.”

“Romania is certainly a very active country in this respect, we had many protests in the last five years. There is certainly a culture of dissent, but it is mobilized differently in each protest. The common thread is that, somehow,” adds Crăciun.

Sit-in at the Romanian Parliament; MP Adrian Dohotaru is holding a “Refuz” (I refuse) poster. February, 2017.

Wring believes that the “current protests are inspired by the Save Rosia Montana campaign (2013) and the Colectiv (2015) demonstrations. Just like today’s protests, those protests were in defense of principles: the law is the same for everybody, the public good is above the well-being of a few corrupt individuals. In a European democracy one cannot build prosperity without the rule of law. Corruption kills people, destroys the environment and obliterates the national heritage. During the Save Rosia Montana protests we learned to act together, to organize peacefully, and to be creative”.

Most importantly, she mentions, both protests were successful; today, Rosia Montana is on the UNESCO list and the Ponta government resigned (right after the Colectiv club fire).

Most press dispatches observed the good-natured atmosphere of the protests including a solidarity, creativity, quality sarcasm, and humor that brought people together along with the generosity and selflessness of the protesters.

“We discovered how beautiful we can be when we protest together for democratic principles”, says Wring.

She adds, “I was in awe when 200,000 people kept two minutes of silence and 250,000 lit the night with the flashlight of their smartphones”.

At the peak of the protests earlier last week, there were an estimated 600,000 people in the streets. “The sheer number! I’ve been very active in the last five years, and frankly it took me by surprise. There was a whole new level reached. I do hope that the people will be back to the streets in big numbers next time”, says Craciun.

“In the beginning, the whole of Europe was watching in disbelief as hundreds of thousands of people protested”, adds Craciun.

“If citizens in a country like Romania can do it, the whole Europe can”.

A regional tide

Dohotaru connects the current happenings in Romania to what is happening in Poland and Hungary. Romanians also protest against populist, non-transparent, and authoritarian politics. “It is also a growing distrust of civil society in regards to party politics. We need different mechanisms of involving people, like participatory budgeting that I proposed in Cluj (Transylvania). We need to reiterate the redistributive mechanisms of the state, to legislate better citizen initiatives, to increase democracy in our companies… we need, in general, to extend politics beyond party level and electoral democracy”.

Anti-government protests of a similar scale and nature shook neighbouring Bulgaria as well throughout 2013 and 2014, taking down two consecutive governments. And an anti-corruption movement entitled Da Bulgaria (Yes Bulgaria) is promising to take on the country’s political elite at the parliamentary elections this March, 2017.

The presence of children has been largely contested by the governmental coalition. Anti-corruption protests, Bucharest, February 9, 2017. Photo: Mihai Stoica, 2Celsius Network

One of the EU’s poorest members, Romania has become a showcase of poverty and the deregulation of capital. While corruption has been commonplace in both state institutions and the private sector, popular media have imposed a dominant populist and conspiracy discourse, marked by an avalanche of fake news and led by a political caste prone to conserve all of its privileges. World views from the dark abyss of a totalitarian past came to the surface with the last election campaign, entangling ethnocentrism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and a certain propensity towards authoritarianism.

On the other hand, the prosecutors from the National Anti-corruption Department (DNA) are often perceived as meddling too much or even impeding activities of the legislative and executive. That might create an imbalance between state powers. Consequently, officials and public servants could enter into what is called “the pen strike”, meaning an ingrained fear of signing documents since anything might be used against them as misconduct or negligence. This also led to stories of a conspiracy related to the ‘enemy within’ that the social democrats concocted.

“It seems that the rise of populism is due to the strange dynamics of elections and the capacity of a certain political figure to reach electoral success. I would say that a certain part of the electorate needs to be lied to, vote for political figures that have no problem to lie and no respect for facts. It is like the electorate needs a Santa Claus. It is the same for Americans (with Trump), Britons with the Brexit, and Romanians with their current political leaders”, explains Popa.

And Craciun adds, “the social democrat government used fringe voices to attack the protests as being either foreign-led, opposition-led, and somehow civil society and protesters are not part of the nation. If the retreat of the government after these protests is in more nationalism and conservatism, we could see the illiberal scenario becoming reality”.

More BlueLink stories about corruption

Another important thing

In order to keep finding voices and points of views of those who are less and less heard in mass media, as well as keep ethical, democratic and professional standards of journalism in the public interest, BlueLink Stories needs to remain an independent platform. Please consider making a donation to our publisher – the BlueLink Foundation – to support this important cause through our work.