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How Romanian 'people power' defies corrupt 'business as usual' -view

The people were out on the streets because they felt it was a crucial moment for the country, lying at the crossroads: either corruption and oligarchs will take over the country or transparency, good governance, anticorruption and rule of law will prevail.

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How Romanian 'people power' defies corrupt 'business as usual' -view

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By Mihai Polițeanu – Founding member of Inițiativa România

During the last 10 years, under the supervision of the European Commission, Romania has run probably the most powerful and successful anticorruption campaign Europe has ever seen, surpassing by far the duration, the intensity and the results of the ‘90s mani pulite campaign in Italy. Hundreds of high level politicians in Romania (prime ministers, ministers, MPs, presidents of county councils or mayors) have been indicted for corruption or corruption-related offences and sent to jail by courts’ final decisions. The Romanian anticorruption agency (the National Anticorruption Directorate, aka DNA) became a successful model in the region, a motive of envy and admiration in the corruption-torn countries of the Balkans and Eastern Europe as a whole, a beacon of hope in Bulgaria or Moldova, for example, and, sure enough, a kind of popular rock star in Romania. Conversely, the DNA is both feared and hated by many oligarchs and politicians, who tried countless times to weaken and undermine the fight against corruption.

Starting in 2007, when the anticorruption prosecutors’ investigations gained momentum and the judges gathered the courage to sentence to imprisonment corrupt MPs and ministers, all too often politicians in the Parliament or the Government have tried to use institutional and legislative tools in order to escape prosecution and possible convictions in the courts: amending the criminal laws, mostly the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, abusing immunity in parliament, attempting to replace independent and effective chief prosecutors with obedient ones or even to dismantle the anticorruption agency. What was striking for every independent observer each and every time was the organised crime group-like behaviour: decisions, decrees, laws drafted and discussed in total secrecy, and their blitzkrieg-style adoption (overnight or in timespans of hours) by the Government or the Parliament. And again and again, somehow, a still precarious system of checks and balances, doubled by internal and international pressure, did the trick: the Constitutional Court, the Superior Council of Magistracy, on the one hand, and civil society organisations, media outlets, public statements of the European Commission and of the most important allies of Romania, like the US, the UK or the Netherlands, on the other hand, safeguarded the rule of law in Romania and made Romanian politicians back down.

Therefore, the Government decree from January 31 came, in a sense, as ‘business as usual’ in quite a long history of power abuse of Romanian politicians trying to take over the judiciary and to stop the fight against corruption. As the world already knows, the Government, in the middle of the night, passed an emergency decree for amending the criminal codes and, at 1 o’clock in the morning, published it in the Official Journal. The decree de facto decriminalized some forms of corruption, like abuse of power or conflict of interests, and essentially said that if a minister, MP, local elected official stole less than 200.000 lei (around 47.000 euros), she or he would not be any longer punishable under criminal law. An institutional war between the executive and the judiciary flared up, the Constitutional Court was called upon to settle the conflict, strong indignation statements against the Government decree from the US State Department, the European Commission, EU member states embassies poured in. Five days later, the Government admitted defeat and repealed the decree. It is not clear yet if the ruling party will try again in the near future to push forward the amendments to the criminal codes through parliament, while the specialists are already contesting the repeal ordinance, arguing that the Government purposely drafted it wrongly so that it can be declared unconstitutional at the Constitutional Court.

So, business as usual. But what is different this time? The difference lies in the powerful and exceptional pro-EU, pro-democracy and pro-rule of law public statement of the Romanian people in times of geopolitical troubles in the region as well as a worldwide surge of extreme nationalism and intolerance. Like never before, hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets for eight consecutive days in sub-zero temperatures, protesting and fighting against the government’s actions which amount to an undermining of the rule of law, which, if not sanctioned, would have thrown Romania back to the authoritarian times of the early 90s and would have brought us closer to undemocratic regimes like Russia or Turkey. The people were out on the streets because they felt it was a crucial moment for the country, lying at the crossroads: either corruption and oligarchs will take over the country or transparency, good governance, anticorruption and rule of law will prevail. They chose the latter, upon which the European and North-Atlantic projects were built, and which are the cornerstone of Romania’s strategic partnership with the US.

This government is now politically compromised and will become an outcast at European level, which will eventually lead to its resignation or at least to its partial reformation (e.g the resignation of the minister of Justice). However, Romania, as a country, showed until now that independent democratic institutions can resist the attacks of a few madmen, trying to capture the state for their own benefit. It demonstrated that, unlike other countries in its vicinity, it has a strong commitment to the European project and its core values, and that ordinary people can stand up not only for social benefits or better wages, for example, but, first of all, for democratic values and principles, for rule of law and good governance. Last but not the least, Romanians have learnt the culture of protests and of participation in public decision-making. The current crisis is not yet over, but all these bright democratic progresses cannot be undone just because the Government wants.

Mihai Polițeanu – Founding member of Inițiativa România

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