Romania's government accused of legalising corruption

Romania's government has been accused of legalising corruption, inspiring the largest protests since the fall of communism. We explain the controversy.

Dylan Brethour
3 February 2017
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Anti-corruption protest. NurPhoto SIPA US/PA Images. All rights reserved.Romania’s new government has been accused of passing a decree that could pave the way for corruption. On the 31 January, prime minister Sorin Grindeanu’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) decriminalised several corruption offences. The measure also removed criminal sanctions for abuses of power involving sums of less than 200,000 lei (£38,000). The move could see the release of dozens of officials imprisoned on corruption charges. It would also end the trial of PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who stands accused of illegally procuring state salaries for two people between 2006 and 2013.

The government insists that the measure was introduced to combat overcrowding in prisons. Parliament had been debating its contents for several weeks. Late Tuesday night, however, the PSD used an emergency law to pass the decree. Some officials have refused to countenance the measure, including members of the Social Democratic Party itself. The prominent business and environment minister Florin Jianu has resigned in protest. Despite the growing outcry, the government has so far been unwilling to rescind its controversial revision to the law.  

Hundreds of thousands of Romanians have taken to the streets in protest. In Bucharest protestors waved signs and chanted: “you did it in the night, like thieves!” The protests, which took place in several cities, have been the largest since the fall of communism in 1989. The decree will likely damage the reputation of the PSD, which was elected less than a month ago. While the party won with a decisive majority, the election was marred by low voter turnout.

As of 2016, Romania was ranked as the fifth most corrupt country in the EU by the Corruption Perceptions Index. There had, however, been signs that the situation was gradually improving. The recent move by the PSD has increased concerns that progress is being reversed. European Commission head Jean-Claude Junker has issued a statement warning that: "The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone."

There is also significant pushback within Romania. In addition to the dramatic street protests, a judicial challenge has been put forward. The supreme council of magistrates, which acts as the country’s top judicial watch dog, will take the decree to constitutional court. The move has been endorsed by president Klaus Iohannis, who took part in the magistrates’ council. While the presidential role is predominately ceremonial, it is well regarded across the country. Iohannis told reporters: "The problem is that one cannot act the way the government did in a country with the rule of law, which Romania is and wants to remain." 

→ For more about the rise of the Social Democrats read Cornel Ban’s “Romania: a social democratic anomaly in eastern Europe?” He discusses the party’s internal politics as well as its appeal to Romanian voters.

→ Ana Maria Dima takes a different approach to modern Romanian politics in "The Emperor's new clothes." She examines the role of identity politics ten years after the country first joined the EU. 

→ Looking towards the past, Raluca Besliu asks why some Romanians believe life was better under Ceausescu in her article "Communist nostalgia in Romania."

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