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Rumble in Romania: The People’s Win?|Amreeta Priyadarshini Das

Amreeta Priyadarshini Das

Great claims are being made, of the win of the Romanian people’s prevailing over its government’s nonsensical anti-corruption decree.

Romania is often on international news, but is usually overshadowed by other crises; what is interesting though, is that when it is mentioned it is mostly in the context of corruption. The past 12 days have been especially critical for the country – once again highlighting the issue of corruption and, more importantly, the power of the civil society.

Historically, the country has been perforated with a high level of corruption and a general mistrust of the government and public institutions, the reason being that most people have some unpleasant experience of corruption, from bribing an official to get simple tasks done, to witnessing senior appointments being made based on political loyalty.  The people have suffered for decades due to the draining of national wealth owing to corruption, but the silver lining appeared in the form of the country’s anti-democratic agency, DNA, which was highly praised by the citizens and by western media alike, due to its fervent anti-corruption activities. Various opinions polls show that majority of the people trust the DNA over the parliament. Thus, in a society where the issue of corruption is central, it isn’t surprising that the controversial decree which was passed (and later repealed) by the government garnered such a hostile response.

Mass protests broke out over the last week in several cities across the country, against the controversial emergency decree passed by Romania’s Government – an alliance of the Social Democratic party (PSD) and the Liberal ALDE, after only one month of being in the office. The decree, reduced penalties for corruption by decriminalising instances of corruption if the financial damage involved is less than €45,000, pardoning those who committed past offences and reducing the length future sentences of abuse to “ease overcrowding in jails”. The Social Democrat party’s leader – Liviu Dragnea, who was also convicted for electoral fraud for which he received a two-year suspended prison sentence, will be cleared of his offence. Several other corrupt politicians will also be able to avoid criminal prosecution. Naturally, this has been understood by the public as an attempt to protect corrupt politicians and has received major backlash. Relative to other EU countries, Romania has always been among the most underdeveloped and economically weak. Corruption has been a long-term problem in the country. External pressures exerted by the EU was a push to anti-corruption activities in Romania. Romania’s entry to the EU was conditioned on reforms to combat corruption and cleaning the justice system. In response, the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) of Romania, took active measures to combat corruption by intensifying investigations and increased convictions. It prosecuted around 1,171 people and 34 organizations and companies for abuse of office in the last two years. The PSD was strongly hit by the DNA. Thus, corruption has become more visible and identified by the people as a challenge to the rule of law by being a hindrance to the functioning of formal institutions.  As a result of external pressure by the EU and internal pressures exerted by anti-corruption activists, NGOs, and the people, the government implemented anti-corruption policies, but are they really concerned about its success? The anti-corruption advances which took place over the past few years, will be completely reversed by the emergency decree.

Transparency International defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. The negative effects of corruption spill over into every realm of life. Economically, it can lead to higher prices and unfair competition, and politically, a constant distrust of the government can lead to instability and in such a situation it is highly probable for violence to break out. In the extreme, it can even lead to death. The best example of this comes from a nightclub in Bucharest in 2015, where a fire broke out during a metal concert and resulted in the death of more than sixty people. Investigations soon found out about the lack of safety regulations –  the public linked this to overarching problems of corruption which allowed for disregard for regulation.

Corruption is especially problematic for countries like Romania which have newly transitioned to democracy because corruption brings with it questions about legitimacy and accountability of institutions and is a major obstacle to the rule of law. No country is free from corruption, but the extent and nature of it varies from country to country. In Romania, corruption has almost become normalised. As a former USSR satellite state, everything began to change for the country from 1989 when it slowly started transitioning to democracy, but the seeds of corruption were sown during the communist years, during which corruption was institutionalised and “stealing from the state” was common and often necessary for survival. This is not to say that communism leads to corruption; there are countries like Hungary with a similar communist past which have not had similar results, the focus here is on the extent of institutionalisation of corruption during the communist years and the perpetuation of such institutions by transitory and current governments. They say corruption is contagious, and with the new ordinance in place, instances of future corruption will only increase – when individuals will observe that corruption is less reprehensible, widespread (and even approved) by their peers, they will be more likely to engage in such activities themselves – this will serve as the motivation and rationalisation of corruption.

The ‘emergency decree’ (which was passed directly by the executive, bypassing the parliament), goes to show how much power the political elite hold. This brings into question if the formal institutions in place are enough to hold the government to account, resistance from the President didn’t change the result either. However, owing to the mass protests and ‘power of the people’, the government repealed its controversial decree. The protest against the corruption decree has been termed as the biggest outpouring of public anger, which has attained its purpose of repealing the corruption decree but the repeal has failed to tone down the protests.  These protestors are calling for resignation of the government, to end the dominance of the elites and reject the politics of usual.

In recent years in Romania, there has been a rise in discontent against the culture of tolerance to corruption – people are becoming more aware and are voicing out their opinions even more.  Will the civil society be able to bring about change, or will the importance of the issue fizzle out and be accepted? – it will be interesting to see what turn the event takes in the next couple of days (or possibly months).

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