Sometimes, when governments try to exempt politicians and high-ranking officials from prosecution for taking backhanders and for sticking their fingers in the state coffers, the general public gets angry. And for some reason, when the Romanian government thought that this was a good idea to start the year off, ordinary people just didn’t get it.
In the early hours of 31 January the Romanian government introduced emergency legislation that would “amend” the country’s criminal code to decriminalise abuse in office by officials and introduce a law of pardon. Under the new legislation, pocketing anything less than U.S.$48,500 would be unworthy of jail time, especially when Romanian prisons are seemingly bursting.
Ordered without any input from parliament, the decree would have stopped all investigations for pending corruption offences, freed officials imprisoned for corruption, and blocked further investigations related to those offences from being brought to justice.
The coalition government, led by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu of the left-wing Social Democratic Party (PSD), argued that the executive order was necessary to align some laws with the constitution and reduce prison overcrowding—rather than allow politicians, key officials, and the party faithful to dodge jail (which would, naturally, just be a fringe benefit).
PSD President Liviu Dragnea was set to be one such beneficiary. He is currently blocked from becoming prime minister as he is facing corruption charges over defrauding the state of around U.S.$26,000, but the order might have allowed him to stand as the country’s leader.
Even before the ink on the order was dry, people took to the streets of the capital Bucharest to protest, which within days became the largest number seen since former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled in 1989. Initial estimates vary from around 25,000 upwards on the first night, with reports saying that 500,000 people had amassed by day five of the ongoing protest.
Sometimes, when governments try to exempt politicians and high-ranking officials from prosecution for taking backhanders and for sticking their fingers in the state coffers, the general public get angry. And for some reason, when the Romanian government thought that this was a good idea to start the year off, ordinary people just didn’t get it.
There had been widespread rumours that Prime Minister Grindeanu would aim to pass the emergency legislation quickly as one of his first official acts (he only assumed office on 4 January this year).
By 5 February—and within a week of passing the bills—the government had announced that it had withdrawn the legislation, though the atmosphere is still tense and the political ramifications are still uncertain.
It is not quite clear why the Romanian government pursued the policy in the first place. A letter sent by Grindeanu to the European Commission suggests that it was easier to pardon people than try to imprison them and risk a fine from the European Court of Human Rights for detaining people in poor prison conditions.
But such nonsense detracts from the good work that the country has already made. Since becoming an EU member state in 2007, the country has taken significant strides to implement wide-ranging reform and tackle endemic corruption. There is still room for improvement: Anti-corruption campaigner Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Romania in 57th place, the fourth worst performing EU member state, but still ahead of Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria.
On admission to the European Union, Brussels imposed special monitoring procedures to ensure progress continued. The most recent report was only published in January. It acknowledged the track record achieved so far by prosecutors and judges in Romania in addressing high-level corruption. At the same time, however, it made clear that any steps that undermine this progress, or have the effect of weakening or shrinking the scope of corruption as an offence, would have an impact on any future assessments.
In recent years, Romania has shown success in tackling graft, with the DNA, its national anti-corruption directorate, pursuing officials at all levels. In the first eight months of 2016, action by the DNA led to court cases involving 777 indicted defendants, including ministers, Members of Parliament, and judges. Romania may have a historically unsavoury reputation for corruption, but try naming a developed country that has taken a similarly aggressive approach to prosecuting high-ranking officials in recent years—they are conspicuous by their absence.
The DNA’s dogged pursuit of corruption has resulted in some very high-level scalps. For example, in 2012 former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase was jailed for two years on corruption charges; he subsequently received another four-year sentence in 2014 for taking bribes, as well as a three-year sentence for blackmail (to be served concurrently). In September 2015 Victor Ponta became the first sitting Romanian prime minister to go on trial, charged with corruption over allegations of fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering.
Furthermore, until now, the need to stamp out high-level corruption has had backing from the country’s highest-ranking politician, the determinedly anti-graft president Klaus Iohannis.
In a joint statement issued on 1 February, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and First Vice-President Frans Timmermans warned the Romanian government against “backtracking” on the efforts it has already made, adding that that “the fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone.”
In a statement released 6 February, Victor Alistar, executive director of the Romanian arm of Transparency International, said that the Romanian government “should focus on strengthening efforts for preventing corruption, including introducing stronger corporate ethics standards and implementing the anti-corruption legislation that already exists. It should not reduce sanctions for corruption and there should be no ceiling on what corrupt officials or companies can get away with. This sends the wrong message.” Quite right, too.