The Cable

Thousands Take to Streets in Romania to Protest Attempt to Decriminalize Misconduct

Government officials say they want to fix overcrowded prisons. Romanians say politicians are trying to avoid doing time themselves.


Romanians have taken to the streets in what could be Bucharest’s largest protest since the 1989 fall of communism.

On Tuesday night, the Romanian government passed an emergency ordinance to decriminalize certain offenses — including official misconduct where damage is less than $48,000 (or 200,000 Romanian lei).

Government officials claimed the move would solve overcrowding in prisons. Romanians, however, saw something else: an attempt to help dirty politicians get off scot-free. And so, just hours after news of the ordinance broke (at 10 pm local time), over 10,000 residents took to the streets of Bucharest, shouting, “You won’t get away with it.”

The outcry wasn’t just from ordinary citizens. On Facebook, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis said, “Today is a day of mourning for the rule of law.” (As president, however, he does not oversee the legislative body, a role that falls to the prime minister.)

Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, and his deputy, Frans Timmermans, expressed concern in a joint statement. “The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone,” they said. Such censure shouldn’t be taken lightly: Romania is to due to receive 30.84 billion euro in European structural and investment funds from 2014 to 2020.

Romania is currently ranked 57 out of 176 in Transparency International’s corruption rankings. The higher the number, the higher the corruption. As points of comparison, Denmark is first, and the United States is ranked 18.

Romania’s judicial watchdog announced they would challenge the ordinance in court. But, so far, the government is unmoved. On Wednesday, government officials defended their move. Justice Minister Florin Iordache said the changes were necessary to have the law reflect decisions made by the constitutional court.

But Romanians aren’t buying it. After all, Liviu Dragnea, leader of Romania’s ruling party, is charged with defrauding the state of roughly $25,800 — under the new ordinance, not a criminal act at all.

Photo credit: DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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