Romanian Government Backs Down on Graft Decree Amid Protests

  • Premier says cabinet to repeal disputed decree on Sunday
  • Protests around Romania largest since fall of Communism

Romania’s one-month-old cabinet bowed to pressure from the largest protests since the collapse of Communism and vowed to scrap disputed changes to criminal legislation that sparked concerns they would roll back anti-corruption efforts.

With more than 150,000 people protesting in front of Victoria Palace in Bucharest for a fifth consecutive evening on Saturday, Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu called an emergency government meeting for Sunday to repeal the changes approved on Jan. 31. Still, the move may not be enough to end the protests as many participants have called for the government to resign, citing a lack of trust in the administration.

Protests in Bucharest on Feb. 3.

Photographer: Tudor Vintiloiu/Sputnik via AP

“I’ve listened to my colleagues in the party and in the opposition and I heard the voice of the street and I don’t want to split the country in two,” Grindeanu said. “I will start a debate shortly with all the parties on ways to change the criminal codes so that they meet the most recent rulings of the Constitutional Court.”

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 back the anti-graft drive that’s ensnared top officials in the European Union and NATO member nation, including an ex-Social Democrat premier.

Setting an Example

“I want to show my kids that they have to stand up for their rights and their freedom and never accept someone stealing their country,” said Liana Pavelescu, a 33-year-old accountant, who protested Saturday while holding a newborn in her arms and towing her 5-year-old alongside. “I’m here for their future and I will keep coming until something changes.”

The turmoil sent the leu 1 percent lower against the euro on Wednesday, the steepest decline in more than two years and one that erased all of its 2017 gains. It recovered about half of the losses in the past two days. While S&P Global Ratings said risks to Romania’s investment-grade status are currently balanced, it warned that the turmoil could dent investor confidence and harm growth. 

“I am deeply concerned by the decree of the Romanian government,” said U.S. Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona who is 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.”

Easing Punishments

The government had planned 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. Grindeanu said new talks with parties may no longer refer to this threshold that sparked controversy.

While it said it sought to ease prison overcrowding, its actions would have freed hundreds ex-officials and potentially halt investigations of others. They include an investigation into Liviu Dragnea, the party leader 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.

President Iohannis, who challenged the government’s actions in the Constitutional Court together with the ombudsman and the judiciary watchdog, has asked the cabinet repeatedly to repeal the steps.

“We have to find good solutions,” Iohannis told reporters 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.”

Undermining Rules

The controversy in Romania comes amid concern that other national 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.

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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