BUCHAREST, Romania — The largest anti-government crowds since the violent 1989 revolution that toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu succeeded Sunday in pressuring Romania’s new government to repeal a hastily adopted decree that would have eased penalties for official corruption.
The law, opposed by the influential Romanian Orthodox Church, would have weakened the country’s emerging anti-corruption effort, which has begun to make progress against a ruling culture accustomed to acting with impunity.
The government backed down Sunday following six days of street protests, but plans to introduce another version of the law in Parliament, where it would be debated and possibly passed.
The late-night introduction last week of an emergency ordinance to turn a blind eye toward abuse in office by officials if the amount involved was less than about USD $48,500 provoked a lightning response from Romania’s civil society.
Nightly throngs in Bucharest and other major cities pit angry citizens who believe a modern, pro-European Romania must not condone corruption in high places against a moneyed elite that stands to benefit, if the law eventually passes.
“We want all people to be equal before the law, and no privileges for the people in Parliament,” said retired engineer Profira Popo, protesting in crowded Victory Square. “This government is organized from the high level to the low like a mafia, and we don’t want something like this.”
Opponents see it as legitimizing criminal activity – if it’s done by people with influence. It would not only go lightly on future offenses, but take some politicians off the hook for cases pending against them.
“The law protects a layer of ex-Communist politicians who kept stealing for years,” said software engineer Dorin Popa, 36, who was carrying a somewhat vulgar sign about the government. He said the tough anti-corruption drive which began in 2008 had “panicked” the ruling elite.
“The rule of law is kind of working, so the only thing they can do is change the law,” he said. “They think the Romanian people are fools.”
The protests so far have been largely peaceful, even festive. Parents brought young children and large pets, while volunteers distributed fresh-baked sweets to kids bundled up in wool hats and winter wear.
Even after the repeal, tens of thousands packed the Victory Square outside the government offices Sunday evening, waving Romanian flags, blowing horns and carrying giant puppets of politicians dressed as convicts. They yelled, “You thieves!” and “Resign!”
Thousands protested in the cities of Cluj, Timisoara, Craiova, Ploiesti and even in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.
There was also a pro-government demonstration Sunday as several hundred people gathered around the presidential palace to protest President Klaus Iohannis’ decision to side with the protesters seeking repeal of the measure.
One part of the ordinance that gained less attention also would weaken human rights protections and ease penalties for related crimes.
It would have substantially reduced the sentences for officials who violated or restricted the rights of people based on race, religion, disability or HIV status.
It would also, in some cases, decriminalize discrimination committed by officials.
Cluj Court Judge Cristi Danilet, a former member of the Supreme Council of Magistrates, said the changes would open the door to future abuses and “creates the possibility of issuing racist legislation.”
Amid the sounds of the Romanian national anthem and the red, yellow and blue colors of the national flags waving at Victory Square, gymnasium owner Cornel Sain, 53, carried an American flag. Sain said he wanted to thank U.S. officials for calling for a repeal of the law.
He said the huge crowds of the last six days reminded him of the 1989 revolt that ushered in the post-communist era as Soviet rule collapsed in Romania and much of Eastern Europe.
“This fight is different than 1989 – no bullets, no casualties. It’s a moral fight. But it’s almost as important,” Sain said. “That fight was… with death and suffering. This is a fight for hope.”
Romania’s Constitutional Court is still scheduled to rule on the legality of the just-repealed proposal. Among those it might have benefited is Social Democratic Party leader Liviu Dragnea, whose path to becoming prime minister is effectively blocked by corruption charges.
Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, who is also a Social Democrat, said the draft should respect the court’s rulings, European directives and Romania’s criminal code.
Sain said the new government, in power just one month, must step down despite its reversal on the emergency decree.
“It’s too late,” he said of the government’s about-face on the new law. “Their credibility is zero.”
Story: Gregory Katz, Alison Mutler