Romanians protest 'thieves in the night' — but government won't rein in corruption

A snare drum rattles. Whistles and horns blare. Thousands of demonstrators, harassed by snow flurries and sleet, trudge along a downtown boulevard fringed by gaudy shops and shout epithets into the night.

For much of the past year, Romania has been rocked by the biggest demonstrations since the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist government in the Christmas Revolution nearly three decades ago. This time, the protests have sought to clean up what is perceived as one of Europe’s most crooked countries.

Yet the sense is that the protest movement has hit a wall.

“The situation just keeps getting worse,” said one demonstrator, Adrian Salanti, a 44-year-old IT engineer participating in the march from Bucharest’s Victory Square, the hub of the anti-corruption protests, to the country’s sprawling marble Parliament.

He lamented Romanian lawmakers’ latest attempts to overhaul the justice system, which many see as an effort to politicize the judiciary. He is angry that many Romanian politicians appear determined to get away with graft.

“There is huge pressure from the street, but the government keeps making these laws to protect themselves,” said Salanti.

Corruption is endemic in Romania, which ranks 57th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s rankings of corruption perceptions — far from the worst, but lower on the list than most European countries. The underground economy was estimated at some $46 billion for 2016, or around 22% of GDP, according to local media reports.

In one case presently before the courts, anti-corruption officials contend that former finance minister Darius Valcov received late-night bribes in a Bucharest cemetery, where he would go to avoid being bugged. The bribes included cash, gold bars and promises of artwork, including paintings by Renoir and Picasso and sketches by Andy Warhol.

The crisis began in February when the ruling Social Democratic Party formed a coalition government with a smaller center-right party and attempted to decriminalize corruption involving less than about $50,000.

After Parliament passed an emergency decree in the dead of night, the protests erupted, forcing the government to backtrack.

At their apex, the demonstrations drew upwards of half a million people, crying slogans such as: “Like thieves in the night!” and “Justice, not corruption!”

That marked a moment of political awakening for many young and urban Romanians. For many, tackling corruption became a daily obsession.

“It has taken over my life,” said Razvan Diaconu, who helps administer a Facebook group, Corruption Kills, instrumental in spreading information about the protests. “I wake up in the morning and I worry what has happened overnight; I come out of work meetings and start scrolling to see what my government has done to screw me.”

However, the protests have since dwindled and activists have struggled to transform them into meaningful political participation, analysts say.

“People are much clearer about what they don’t want, but less precise about positive alternatives,” said Radu Umbres, a political anthropologist and lecturer at Bucharest’s National School of Political Sciences and Public Administration.

The ruling coalition seems laser-focused on delegitimizing the demonstrators and hampering the country’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate. The agency has prosecuted a slew of corrupt politicians in recent years.

The latest legislation, approved last week by Parliament, has drawn widespread criticism from both the European Union and the U.S. State Department — which usually abstains from criticizing Romania, among NATO’s staunchest members and largely amenable to economic deregulation.

The changes give the Justice Ministry control over the country’s judicial monitoring unit, presently overseen by a council of magistrates. A special prosecuting unit will be established to investigate magistrates. The use of video and audio evidence will be curtailed during trials.

The State Department last month noted “with concern” that the legislation “could undermine the fight against corruption and weaken judicial independence.”

Many demonstrators note that the government’s maneuverings are consistent with a broader rightward swing – and attempts to undermine judicial independence — in other Central and Eastern European nations, notably Poland and Hungary.

Certainly, Social Democratic lawmakers are borrowing narrative tools from abroad, describing protesters as paid stooges of the philanthropist George Soros, a favorite scapegoat of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

The Anti-Corruption Directorate, meanwhile, constitutes a “parallel state” according to ruling party statements.

Liviu Dragnea, the head of the ruling party, is widely seen as among the intended beneficiaries of the legislation. He was convicted in 2016 of electoral fraud and is on trial for abuse of office. The anticorruption agency last month froze some $32 million of Dragnea’s assets.

He is alleged to have formed a “criminal group” and skimmed EU funds from public works projects while council chairman in southern Teleorman County. His previous conviction has barred him from becoming prime minister, a position that he is said to covet.

The Anti-Corruption Directorate has won widespread acclaim, both nationally and abroad, with a reported conviction rate of around 90% — spreading serious fear among Romania’s political and business classes.

However, there are lingering questions about both its methods — parading handcuffed subjects before the news media during arrests — and impartiality, amid fears of politicized prosecutions and the role of the intelligence services in its activities. The secret police conduct an estimated 20,000 wiretaps for the agency each year.

Back at the recent snow-harried protest, the demonstrators reached Parliament; its windows darkened, few lights glowing. They flooded the surrounding streets, bellowing boos of contempt and newly popularized slogans.

They stood waving their placards, shouting at an empty building.

Johnson is a special correspondent.

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