Ro­ma­nian streets filled with protests over cor­rup­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY VLAD ODOBESCU

BUCHAREST, RO­MA­NIA | Aurel Vulcu was on the streets of Bucharest in De­cem­ber 1989 when he and other fight­ers for democ­racy over­turned the bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship of Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu.

“That vic­tory gave us hope,” said Mr. Vulcu, re­call­ing how iso­lated and im­pov­er­ished Ro­ma­ni­ans felt while caught in the Cold War stand­off be­tween East and West. “I thought that democ­racy will soon en­ter the door of the par­lia­ment, the doors of the courts.”

Three decades later, Mr. Vulcu, 61, a re­tired baker, was stand­ing out­side the gov­ern­ment build­ings in the city cen­ter with a Euro­pean Union flag draped over his shoul­ders, his voice hoarse from shout­ing anti-gov­ern­ment slo­gans. Like many other Ro­ma­ni­ans, he op­poses on­go­ing ef­forts that he said would weaken the ju­di­ciary and hob­ble the fight against cor­rup­tion.

The fight is be­ing repli­cated in states across the re­gion still strug­gling with deep-seated chal­lenges in­her­ited from the com­mu­nist era, but it is be­ing fought with par­tic­u­lar in­ten­sity in Ro­ma­nia.

Prime Min­is­ter Vior­ica Dan­cila and her So­cial Demo­crat party are tar­get­ing the coun­try’s top pub­lic prose­cu­tor and the Na­tional An­ti­cor­rup­tion Direc­torate, an agency that pros­e­cuted six Cabi­net min­is­ters and ul­ti­mately con­victed two, as well as 23 law­mak­ers and many may­ors and man­agers of state-owned com­pa­nies in re­cent years.

Jus­tice Min­is­ter Tu­dorel Toader, a So­cial Demo­crat, dis­missed the direc­torate’s chief prose­cu­tor, Laura Co­druta Kovesi, this year and ini­ti­ated the dis­missal of a key of­fi­cial in the chief prose­cu­tor’s of­fice, Au­gustin Lazar.

Crit­ics say the gov­ern­ment’s of­fen­sive il­lus­trates how Ro­ma­nia is be­com­ing an “il­lib­eral” democ­racy in lock­step with Hun­gary, Poland and other Cen­tral and Eastern Euro­pean coun­tries whose lead­ers are un­der­cut­ting le­gal sys­tems, op­po­si­tion par­ties, crit­ics in civil so­ci­ety and any­one else who chal­lenges their dom­i­nance.

Many na­tion­al­ist and con­ser­va­tive voices in the re­gion say the crit­i­cism is mis­guided and that they are try­ing to pre­serve their sovereignty, con­trol of their bor­ders and cul­tural her­itage in the face of a new glob­al­ist threat com­ing not from Moscow but from Brus­sels, the head­quar­ters of the Euro­pean Union.

In mid-Novem­ber, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment adopted a res­o­lu­tion ex­press­ing deep con­cerns about the rule of law in Ro­ma­nia, par­tic­u­larly laws that crit­ics say un­der­mined in the in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary and Na­tional An­ti­cor­rup­tion Direc­torate. EU of­fi­cials have sim­i­larly crit­i­cized Hun­gar­ian and Pol­ish lead­ers.

Clashes are to be ex­pected be­cause the demo­cratic trans­for­ma­tions in for­mer com­mu­nist coun­tries such as Ro­ma­nia, Hun­gary and Poland were never com­plete, said Grig­orij Me­seznikov, pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Af­fairs in Slo­vakia.

“We’re deal­ing with some residues from the past, pat­terns of po­lit­i­cal cul­ture in­volv­ing au­thor­i­tar­ian meth­ods, nos­tal­gia for the com­mu­nist regimes … and the lack of ex­pe­ri­ence on the side of demo­cratic politi­cians,” Mr. Me­seznikov said. “The com­mon ef­fect is strength­en­ing the po­si­tion of pop­ulist par­ties.”

Low­er­ing the thresh­old

Civil rights ac­tivists be­came con­cerned about Ro­ma­nia in Jan­uary 2017 when Prime Min­is­ter Sorin Grindeanu, an­other So­cial Demo­crat, signed an or­der to de­crim­i­nal­ize abuses in pub­lic of­fice if the fi­nan­cial dam­age is less than $48,000. Af­ter hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple protested in cen­tral Bucharest, the gov­ern­ment with­drew the or­der.

The main ben­e­fi­ciary of the pro­posed re­vi­sion would have been So­cial Demo­cratic Leader Liviu Drag­nea, a for­mer in­te­rior min­is­ter who is now leader of the lower house of par­lia­ment. At that time, he was fac­ing cor­rup­tion charges in­volv­ing a sum be­low the thresh­old. A panel of judges had al­ready con­victed Mr. Drag­nea of elec­toral fraud and gave him a sus­pended sen­tence of two years.

Pres­i­dent Klaus Io­han­nis asked Ms. Dan­cila for word of her gov­ern­ment’s plans 24 hours be­fore of­fi­cials meet to make sure they don’t give amnesty to peo­ple im­pris­oned on cor­rup­tion charges. Mr. Io­han­nis made the re­quest af­ter Mr. Drag­nea called for such an amnesty.

“Ro­ma­nia won’t re­turn to the black era of a one-party state,” said Mr. Io­han­nis, a for­mer Lib­eral Party leader who has long said Mr. Drag­nea wields too much power in the coun­try.

But Mr. Drag­nea, widely seen as the most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal fig­ure in the coun­try, isn’t go­ing away qui­etly, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of amnesty and par­dons for those caught up in cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and even sug­gested a crim­i­nal com­plaint against Mr. Io­han­nis for trea­son.

“Why are the words ‘amnesty’ and ‘par­don’ such blas­phemy?” Mr. Drag­nea told fel­low party mem­bers at a meet­ing Dec. 16 in Bucharest, ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg News. “They’re seen as an atomic bomb that Ro­ma­nia is con­sid­er­ing drop­ping on Europe or the world. I’m not afraid to say them.”

The So­cial Democrats have pro­posed other laws that would un­der­mine the fight against cor­rup­tion, ac­cord­ing to a Euro­pean Com­mis­sion re­port is­sued last month.

The pro­pos­als in­clude spe­cial pros­e­cu­tors to in­ves­ti­gate al­le­ga­tions in­volv­ing judges, a tac­tic that crit­ics said would limit the free­dom of ex­pres­sion of mag­is­trates; an early re­tire­ment scheme that would re­move ex­pe­ri­enced judges; a looser def­i­ni­tion of the abuse of power; re­stric­tions on what judges could say from the bench; and, in a move that re­sem­bles sim­i­lar changes in Hun­gary and Poland, broader grounds for re­mov­ing mem­bers of top ap­pel­late courts.

De­fend­ers of the mea­sures said they would pre­vent abuses of power among pros­e­cu­tors who of­ten work hand in glove with shady in­ter­ests in the Ro­ma­nian bu­reau­cracy. Many Ro­ma­ni­ans be­lieve the claim, which has never been proved.

“The rights of de­fen­dants have been vi­o­lated,” said Bog­dan Chireac, a for­mer jour­nal­ist who is now a po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor on Ro­ma­nian tele­vi­sion. “There were se­cret pro­to­cols be­tween ju­di­cial in­sti­tu­tions and the for­mer lead­er­ship of the Ro­ma­nian In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice. In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers were di­rectly in­volved in giv­ing sen­tences.”

The pace of changes sped up af­ter the June con­vic­tion of Mr. Drag­nea, who was sen­tenced to 3½ years for abuse of power. Mr. Drag­nea and his al­lies are now push­ing for an ex­ec­u­tive or­der that would al­low the prime min­is­ter to grant him amnesty.

Other changes in­clude forc­ing non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions to re­port their donors or face dis­so­lu­tion. Crit­ics warn that the move could si­lence many gov­ern­ment crit­ics.

The So­cial Democrats ap­pear to be rush­ing the mea­sures in part be­cause Ro­ma­nia will take over the pres­i­dency of the Euro­pean Union on Jan. 1. The coun­try will be un­der tremen­dous scru­tiny from Brus­sels as well as pow­er­ful lead­ers in Europe and in­vestors through­out the world.

“If the gov­ern­ment would de­cide to grant amnesty to politi­cians con­victed or pros­e­cuted for cor­rup­tion, and do this dur­ing the pres­i­dency, I would say that this would be worse than Brexit,” said Elena Cal­istru, pres­i­dent of Funky Cit­i­zens, a civic group based in Bucharest. “It would mean that the gov­ern­ment de­cided to defy not only its cit­i­zens, but also the hope that many of them have to­wards a Europe that can ac­com­mo­date the East as well.”

Many or­di­nary Ro­ma­ni­ans have protested the mea­sures. On Aug. 10, they clashed with po­lice, who fired tear gas into the demon­stra­tions and fought demon­stra­tors with ba­tons. Af­ter the protest, more than 350 peo­ple filed com­plaints of ex­ces­sive force by the po­lice.

The crack­down didn’t dis­suade Mr. Vulcu, the protest­ing baker.

“We do not lose hope of see­ing [cor­rupt politi­cians] in jail,” he said. “We want to see them where they be­long, ac­cord­ing to their deeds. If you did some­thing wrong, you need to pay.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dur­ing a protest in Bucharest, a woman sang the Ro­ma­nian na­tional an­them while hold­ing a pho­to­graph of a vic­tim of the 1989 upris­ing. Ro­ma­ni­ans are lead­ing a move­ment of Cen­tral and Eastern Euro­peans de­mand­ing more democ­racy from their gov­ern­ments three decades af­ter the anti-com­mu­nist re­volt.

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