This piece was originally written for https://kyc360.com/, a news and knowledge hub for financial crime prevention professionals. It is republished here with their permission.
It is a precarious victory that Romania’s 500,000 protesters earned last week, and it is characteristic of current public sentiment that there have been no celebrations. There is widespread distrust of the government, partly due to the emergency decree of the night of the 31st of January (which is now being withdrawn), but more generally because of the endemic corruption that has plagued the country since its communist years.
Among other things, the decree would have decriminalised several offences, including the abuse of power, where sums under 200,000 RON (approx. £38,000 or $47,000) are involved. It was passed during an emergency Government meeting at 9.30 pm and was not preceded by any sort of announcement, spawning the refrain ‘at night, like thieves’ among protesters. The official stance is that it was meant to bring the Penal Code of Romania in line with several recommendations of the Constitutional Court, but a wave of public outrage enveloped the country as soon as it became clear how much the decree would benefit its proponents.
Liviu Dragnea—president of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) and of the Chamber of Deputies in the Romanian Parliament—received a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud last year and is currently being investigated for abuse of power. Although Dragnea leads PSD, which won the parliamentary elections in December 2016 by a considerable margin, these charges bar him from being appointed Prime Minister. The decree would not only mean a retrospective acquittal for Dragnea, making imprisonment less likely in the case of future offences, but would clear the way for him to take the place of current PM Sorin Grindeanu. Florin Iordache, the Minister of Justice who resigned as a result of the protests, has repeatedly claimed that the decree would not help Dragnea, but the party leader clearly falls under its remit.
Another would be beneficiary is Dan Voiculescu, billionaire media mogul and former president of the Conservative Party (political allies of PSD), who is serving a ten-year sentence for money laundering.
Of course, corruption owes its longevity to its wasp nest nature: self-contained, opaque, and difficult to approach from any angle. Presumably on purpose, the decree is protected by a number of legal complexities. Protesters in central Bucharest quickly caught on to the fact that its extraordinary nature would have made withdrawal by a temporary government impossible—hence their demands for its repeal rather than the resignation of the government.
Moreover, the decree, which concerned changes of both procedural and substantive criminal law, was scheduled to come into effect 10 days after it was approved; except procedural changes always become applicable immediately, and so the publicly claimed 10-day runway was something of a half truth.
Finally, although the government officially scrapped the decree after the extent of public feeling became manifest, its repeal is still under review by the Constitutional Court and may not be approved by the PSD-dominated Parliament. If the repeal is rejected, depending on the nature of the rejection, the decree might automatically come into force.
At the moment, the only person at the top of the Romanian political hierarchy who is not associated with the PSD is centre-right president Klaus Iohannis, a vocal supporter of the protesters’ cause. His allies on the issue are various independent institutions, of which the DNA (the National Anticorruption Directorate) has been in the media spotlight most often in recent years.
At the forefront of the fight against corruption, the DNA was responsible for the sentencing of Dragnea, Voiculescu, and many other Romanian politicians and businessmen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, accusations that the DNA is itself corrupt have surfaced in recent months, due to its peculiarly high conviction rate (92%), lack of transparency, and close collaboration with the intelligence service.
The first two issues are indeed cause for concern, but the latter, surreptitious relations with intelligence, are unfounded: the intelligence service is legally obliged to alert the DNA whenever it suspects acts of corruption. This begs the question of where the accusations originated from in the first place. Criticism of the DNA would obviously benefit those it prosecutes, but at the same time the allegations should not be dismissed out of hand. The result has been yet more distrust of all sides.
According to a ruling by the Romanian Constitutional Court, there was nothing illegal about the emergency decree. But both its content and the way in which it was passed came across as immoral and lacking in transparency. For protestors around the country it has served as a symptom of a much bigger problem, as well as an unpleasant reminder of the authoritarianism of the country’s communist past (a connection all the easier to make because several PSD members have ties with the previous Communist Party). Protests have focused as much on repealing the decree as they have on expressing support for democracy, freedom of speech, equality and transparency. And so even though a repeal now looks likely, the protest continue in force. On Sunday night an estimated 60,000 people gathered in the centre of Bucharest, determined to make their voices heard.