By Sebastian Burduja, President of the New Civic Action Party (PACT)
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA – Democracy is under attack in many parts of the world today. Economic hardship, growing inequality, youth unemployment, and widespread corruption have led to sweeping disillusionment with politics as usual. The growing gap between regular citizens and politicians has unleashed the dangerous forces of populism, xenophobia, and isolationism, even in established democracies. In this grim global context, Romania offers a surprising glimmer of hope.
Over the last four days, the world has witnessed Romania’s largest protests since the 1989 Revolution. For the hundreds of thousands of Romanians in the streets of Bucharest, all across the country, and in the diaspora, this protest is a matter of principle and started as a spontaneous reaction to the current government’s abusive attempt to roll back the fight against corruption. On January 31, in the dead of night, the social-democratic cabinet passed an emergency ordinance that decriminalizes abuse of power for a range of instances, including for all damages of up to 200,000 lei (roughly 45,000 EUR). Other measures include reducing prison sentences and weakening provisions around conflicts of interest and whistleblowing. Among the beneficiaries are top leaders of the ruling party currently under investigation and numerous local politicians already serving time. The blatant injustice of the ordinance and the government’s dismissive attitude toward the public outcry have struck a chord with ordinary Romanians, who have pledged to protest every night until justice is restored.
Romania has struggled with endemic corruption for the past 27 years. A failed break with the Communist past created in the early 1990s an intricate web of corrupt politicians and businessmen, tied in bungled privatizations and flawed public procurement procedures. Corruption became an inescapable and painful reality in the daily lives of Romanians, who were forced to pay bribes to access basic public services. The situation started improving as Romania began seeking EU membership, a national goal with huge support among the public. This allowed Brussels to pressure Romanian politicians into tying their own hands by conditioning accession on the adoption of critical anticorruption reforms. This led to the creation and development of the country’s anticorruption bodies, most prominently the National Anticorruption Department (DNA). Recent years have shown Romanians that nobody is above the law – numerous politicians, including prime ministers, ministers, MPs, and local officials have been tried and some have been convicted. All this has required significant effort from prosecutors and judges, in a hostile political environment often seeking to influence their decisions. It is no surprise that the government’s current attempt to reverse these hard-fought reforms has generated so much frustration.
Beyond all the disappointment with politicians, however, the Romanian protests are about principles and renewed hope in a better future. People are standing up in tremendous numbers for justice, democracy, and the rule of law. As an active participant to the daily protests, I witnessed firsthand the positive energy, decency, and sense of civic duty that spring from these demonstrations. People are firm and exceptionally resilient in the face of below-zero temperatures, but also extremely peaceful. For example, on the first night of the protest, a few hooligans tried to provoke the police and were immediately isolated by the crowd. The next night protesters handed flowers to the police and frequently chanted “say no to violence” (fără violență).