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Romania: renewed optimism with familiar doubts

Diego Cupolo
February 4, 2017

As massive crowds protest the decriminalization of official misconduct, many Romanians feel encouraged. But few expect to change the nation’s long history of government corruption. Diego Cupolo reports from Bucharest.

Proteste in Rumänien
Image: DW/D. Cupolo

After four days of demonstrating against government corruption, Andrei Musat said he's going to camp out in Bucharest's Victoria Plaza on Saturday night.

"We have been protesting since Tuesday and the government still doesn't care about what we are saying," said Musat, 18, a blogger and university student. "Tomorrow, I am bringing my blanket and I will sleep here. If anyone wants to join me, it will be a twenty-four hour protest. This is too important."

Musat spoke while standing in front of five effigies depicting members of Romania's ruling Social Democrat party (PSD) as prisoners wearing black-and-white stripped outfits. He was among a crowd of thousands that has gathered nightly in Victoria Plaza to express outrage at the new government's attempt to weaken corruption laws.

"These are old political figures who had positions in the government under communism," he told DW while pointing at the effigies. "Even today, they don't understand democracy and we are here to show we do not approve."

Like many of those protesting in Bucharest on Friday night, Musat felt his condemnations would continue to be dismissed by the government. Still, he said this would not stop him from demonstrating.

Proteste in Rumänien
Effigies depicting members of Romania’s ruling Social Democrat party (PSD) as prisoners, in Bucharest’s Victoria Plaza on Friday night.Image: DW/D. Cupolo

One step forward, two steps back

Since joining the European Union in 2007, Romania has made slow but steady progress on alleviating bribery and government corruption that has long plagued the political establishment. According to the Berlin-based Transparency International, the country ranked fourth worst for corruption among EU nations in 2016.

Though the nation has run through three governments in the past two years, many citizens thought the country was moving in a positive direction since joining the EU block. Then, on Tuesday, the recently re-elected PSD passed emergency decrees making official misconduct punishable by prison time only when financial damage surpassed 200,000 lei, or about 44,000 euros.

The decrees would also pardon criminals serving less than five years in jail, excluding rapists and repeat offenders. At a time when the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, is seeking retrial for charges of election fraud, citizens have interpreted the reforms as a direct attempt by government officials to pardon themselves from criminal activity, both past and present.

Proteste in Rumänien
People were protesting the Romanian government’s attempt to weaken anti-corruption legislation.Image: DW/D. Cupolo

Historic Public Revolt

The public response has spawned the largest protests in Romania since 1989, with more than 300,000 people taking their frustrations to the streets throughout the country, about half that number in the capital city of Bucharest.

"People, even without the full knowledge of these laws, they understand perfectly what they mean: this is a mutual agreement in bribing," said Iuliam D., 43, a corporate legal advisor from the northeastern town of Focsani, who came to Victoria Plaza on Friday because he "had to see this."

"I didn't want to miss this opportunity," Iuliam continued. "Our people are standing tall while our government remains astonishing in the worst way possible."

As horns blasted and marching bands swirled around him, Iuliam said corruption has long been institutionalized in Romania. He was impressed by the size of the protests, which he said were "completely legit," but the movement probably would not make a lasting impact.

"Dragnea has been very clear. He wants everything on his little finger," he told DW, explaining this was a Romanian expression meaning he wanted "absolute control."

Iuliam then held up a water bottle. "To give an example, let's say I'm the government," Iuliam said. "I want to sell you this bottle of water, which costs no more than one euro, but instead I let you charge me one thousand euros and we become good friends … This is what is happening every day on a very large scale."

Support Without Expectations

With the exception of a brief confrontation between firecracker-wielding hooligans on Wednesday night, the protests in Bucharest have been largely peaceful. Police officers stand in front of the Romanian government building adjacent to Victoria Plaza and are not shy to take selfies with protesters. At one point on Friday night, an officer gave a scarf with the Romanian flag colors to Andy D., 20, a university student. "[The police] are on our side, they agree with the protesters," she said. "They are here to help and protect us."

Proteste in Rumänien
Demonstrators gathered at Victoria Plaza in Bucharest on Friday night.Image: DW/D. Cupolo

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, has also shown support for the protesters. "We have hundreds of thousands of my Romanians out on the streets and I trust them," Iohannis said on Friday while speaking at an EU summit in Malta. "I believe in Romania. European values have to prevail and this is what I believe will happen."

The influential Orthodox Church has also backed demonstrators andone minister has resigned in protest, while other state officials have said Romania's Constitutional Court must reject the decrees when they come under review on Tuesday, 7th February.

"I want to be optimistic," said Andrei Ivan, a 27 year-old commercial photographer in Bucharest. "These people coming out to protest magnify my optimism … but I don't know exactly what is going to happen or if this will change anything."

For the time being, the protesters have pledged to continue demonstrating every night in Victoria Plaza. When asked if the EU should take any action regarding the decrees, Ivan said most Romanians do not want foreign intervention.

"I don't have faith in the ruling party and if the EU [were to] punish the government or placed sanctions on Romania, I don't believe the ruling party would care. They just want to get their asses out of jail."