Romanian Protests Continue as Government Doesn’t Bow to Plea

  • Thousands flood major cities for fourth consecutive evening
  • Premier says cabinet won’t reverse controversial measures

Romania’s one-month-old government refused to reverse legislative changes that weaken the nation’s clampdown on corruption and have sparked the largest protests since the collapse of communism.

While acknowledging people’s right to demonstrate, the ruling Social Democrats are backing the cabinet despite the resignation of a minister on Thursday. A fourth evening of public dissent Friday saw more than 300,000 people fill the streets of major cities, setting a new record turnout and marking the widest spread movement in the country’s modern history, local media estimated. About 120,000 people gathered in freezing temperatures outside the government building in Bucharest, with more than 40,000 in western Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca. Thousands marched in tens of other cities, including outside the country’s borders.

Protests in front of the government headquarters in Bucharest on Feb. 1.

Photographer: Xinhua News Agency/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

“We took a decision and we’re going forward,” Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu told a news conference with party leader Liviu Dragnea earlier Thursday, pledging to also make good on pre-election promises of tax cuts and state salary hikes. “The party assured me we have its full support to continue our activity and proceed with the governing plan.”

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 by seeking to free others from prison. The protesters in the European Union and NATO member nation 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 recovered part of the losses and is trading little changed at 4.5220 per euro on Friday in Bucharest. While S&P Global Ratings said risks to Romania’s investment-grade status are currently balanced, it warned that the turmoil risks denting investor confidence and harming growth. 

“I am deeply concerned by the decree of the Romanian government,” said U.S. Senator John McCain, head of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee. “With ever-increasing threats to democracy in Europe today from Russia and its proxies, Romania cannot afford to retreat in the fight against corruption.”

The government wants to decriminalize abuse-of-office offenses for sums of less than 200,000 lei ($48,000) and it sent a draft law to parliament to pardon prisoners serving sentences shorter than five years, excluding rapists and repeat offenders. While it says it’s trying to ease prison overcrowding, its actions would free hundreds 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 together with the ombudsman and the judiciary watchdog, said the only way to end the unrest is to repeal the steps. He’s seeking talks with Grindeanu next week and wants to address parliament on Feb. 7. Prosecutors said they are investigating the process through which the cabinet approved the measures.

“We have to find good solutions,” Iohannis told reporters at the start of an EU summit in Malta on Friday. “The rule of law has to prevail, the European values have to prevail. This is what I believe will happen. Investors are not threatened. This is a matter of principle for the population, for politicians.”

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.

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