The Country Governed by Thieves

I was 5 years old in December 1989. My memory of those days is clustered, filled with flashbacks of my family trying to offer me a “normal” Christmas, while outside terror was taking over the streets. I remember my father coming home saying he met good ol’ Santa Clause and after rummaging through his bag, he pulled out a toy staple gun and a spinner. I looked at them and reluctantly started playing. I knew things were not ok. Over the course of the following days, our house was filled with close relatives coming to live with us, because our side of the city was safer. We would often turn off the lights at night and crouch while gunshot echoes filled the air outside.

Romania was fighting to escape the darkness that reigned for 44 years. Or so we thought.

Corruption builds its nest

A nation raised on fear is bound to make fearful decisions. From May to June 1990, a group of young people, mostly students, started to protest against the National Salvation Front (FSN) led by Ion Iliescu, the neo-communist party disguised in democratic clothes that took power in Bucharest. Protesters had gathered with the goal of attaining official recognition for the 8th demand of the popular Proclamation of Timișoara, which stated that communists and former communists (including newly-elected President Iliescu himself) should be prevented from holding official functions. A lot of people were angry with FSN, saying the party won the general election mostly because the opposition had not been given a fair chance to mount an effective campaign, while former communists were in power.

Iliescu appealed to the miners to help defend the “besieged democratic regime”. What happened next was gruesome, as thousands of miners were brought to Bucharest armed with wooden clubs and bats. They started beating everyone who seemed to be against the regime or looked too “occidental” for their taste. Newspaper offices and headquarters of opposition parties were trashed claiming they were full of illegal items, including drugs, firearms or fake currency.

On the course of time, FSN changed its name to PDSR and then to PSD (Social Democrat Party).

Numbing the nation

From that moment on, the people became anaesthetised, no major protests shook Romania until recent years – 2013 against Gabriel Resources Gold Corporation, 2014 to help Klaus Iohannis win the general presidential election and 2015 to make the Government (PSD) resign following the Colectiv nightclub tragedy. After the PSD government fell, a technocratic cabinet was assembled by Dacian Cioloş, who demonstrated that the country could be governed ethically and effectively.

Unfortunately, December 2016 came and PSD won the parliamentary election with an overwhelming result, based on promises of higher wages and pensions. A series of coalitions and merges destabilised the opposition’s power so much in the past few years, that they managed to achieve a shameful result in this election.

The fight against corruption

Formed in 2003, The National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) started investigating and prosecuting corruption-related offences (such as bribery, graft, patronage and embezzlement). Starting 2015, the agency managed to make real progress in fighting high-level corruption, after Laura Codruta Kövesi was appointed General-Prosecutor. The agency “currently employs 120 prosecutors working on more than 6,000 cases, and has successfully prosecuted dozens of mayors, five MPs, two ex-ministers and a former prime minister in 2014 alone. Hundreds of former judges and prosecutors have also been brought to justice, with a conviction rate above 90%”. Also, The DNA told Euronews that 1,250 people were put before the country’s justice system in 2015, including 16 MPs, five ministers, five senators and 97 mayors and deputy mayors. Among these people, a lot of them are PSD members or had/have ties to the party.

One of them is Liviu Dragnea, leader of the Social Democrat Party who won the election on December 2016. At the moment, Dragnea is being investigated together with his ex-wife for official misconduct and forgery. His trial was supposed to start this year on January 31st. Guess what happened after his party won the election and assembled the new cabinet.

Back to square one. The biggest protest since 1989

The moment it took office in January 2017, the new government led by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, issued an emergency directive that decriminalises some major corruption offences. Here are a few alterations that will be added to the Penal Code:

  • decriminalising official misconduct/abuse of power cases in which the financial damage is valued at less than 200,000 lei (€44,000)
  • reducing punishment for such cases from 2-7 years prison time to 6 months-3 years or a fine
  • eliminating the law stating that a convict cannot hold a public office job between 1-5 years
  • the directive will stop ongoing investigations and prevent new ones from being launched, including Dragnea’s. Another decree might end up freeing convicted officials from prison.

This is a major blow to the fight against corruption, not to mention a huge blow for democracy. People are outraged. Protests have been organised in Bucharest and in a lot of major cities around Romania. On the 1st of February alone, 150.000 marched in front of the Government building in Victory Square while another 100.000 marched in other cities. A total of 250.000 people protested and it is not over yet. This is the biggest protest since 1989.

al-jazeera-2
Photo by Ioana Moldovan/Al Jazeera

Using the excuse of “prison overcrowding”, the Government wants to justify pardoning its own political allies. This is outrages and it generated powerful reaction from EU officials and USA representatives. Everyone is following developments in Romania with great concern.  Klaus Iohannis, the President of Romania, mainly holds ceremonial powers, but he is among the most fierce critics of the law.

We have until 11th of February to repeal this emergency directive. If the government falls before repealing it, the interim government that will take its place will have limited powers and it will be unable to help. The moment this directive becomes effective, all the DNA ongoing investigations will cease.

We ask our government to repeal this emergency directive and then dismiss itself!

 

Cover photo by Dan Mihai Balanescu.

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