Minister Quits as Biggest Post-Communist Protests Rock Romania

Updated on
  • 300,000 people flood major cities demanding government resign
  • Premier says cabinet won’t reverse controversial measures

Riot police stand guard as demonstrators gather in front of the government headquarters in Bucharest, on Feb. 1.

Photographer: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

The largest protests since the collapse of communism failed to persuade Romania’s government to reverse legislative changes that undermine a clampdown on corruption and have enraged the public.

While saying people have the right to protest, the ruling Social Democrats gave the one-month-old cabinet their full backing. The only public dissent from within the administration came from Business Environment Minister Florin Jianu, who resigned. At least 300,000 people took to the streets of cities across the country on Wednesday evening. About 150,000 gathered in freezing temperatures outside the government building in Bucharest.

“We took a decision and we’re going forward,” Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu told a news conference with party leader Liviu Dragnea on Thursday. “The party assured me we have its full support to continue our activity and proceed with the governing plan.”

Florin Jianu

Source: Romanian Government

The Social Democrats face the largest backlash since the 1989 uprising that ousted dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Romania’s third government in two years incurred the wrath of the public and President Klaus Iohannis by unexpectedly easing punishments for officials who abuse their positions and seeking to free others from prison. The protesters in the European Union and NATO member back the anti-graft drive that’s ensnared top officials, including an ex-Social Democrat premier.

Leu Pressure

The turmoil sent the leu 1 percent weaker against the euro on Wednesday, the steepest decline in more than two years and one that erased all of its 2017 gains. It had rebounded by 0.4 percent as of 5:59 p.m. Thursday in Bucharest. S&P Global Ratings said risks to Romania’s investment-grade status are currently balanced.

The government wants to pardon prisoners serving sentences shorter than five years, excluding rapists and repeat offenders, and decriminalize abuse-of-office offenses for sums of less than 200,000 lei ($48,000). While it says it’s trying to ease prison overcrowding, its actions would free hundreds of ex-officials and halt probes into others.

They include an investigation into Dragnea, who’s seeking a retrial after receiving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud. He denies wrongdoing and on Thursday blamed the protests on a misinformation campaign and encouragement from the president.

“The Social Democrats’ strategy is to shield current and past party politicians from corruption probes,” and “make it practically impossible for serving politicians to be prosecuted for corruption,” James Sawyer, a London-based researcher at Eurasia Group, said in an e-mailed note.

For an explainer on the protests in Romania, click here

Iohannis, who’s challenging the government’s actions in the Constitutional Court, said the only way to end the unrest is to repeal the steps. He’s seeking talks with Grindeanu next week. Prosecutors said they’ll investigate the process through which the cabinet approved the measures.

The controversy in Romania comes amid concern that other regional governments are undermining the rule of law. The EU has reprimanded Poland and Hungary for state encroachment on the judiciary and the media. The government in Warsaw backed away from plans to tighten abortion rules after mass protests.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker criticized Romania’s actions, saying “the fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone.” Six embassies, including those of the U.S. and Germany, said they “hope the government will reverse this unhelpful course.”

Anti-graft prosecutors are working on more than 2,000 abuse-of-office cases. In the past two years, they’ve sent more than 1,000 people to trial, seeking to recover damages in excess of 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion). The country of 19 million people ranks fourth-worst for graft in the EU, according to Berlin-based Transparency International.

“I’ll come here every single day until they reverse all the measures and then leave,” Ionut Balcescu, a 34-year-old small-business owner, said Wednesday evening in Bucharest. “They take us for fools.”

— With assistance by Marton Eder

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