February 3, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania – Romania’s leaders  stood by an emergency decree decriminalising  many corruption offences a day after the  lar­gest ­protests in the country since the fall of communism in 1989.

Demonstrators were gathering again in the capital last night, the evening after 150,000 protesters had rallied  in front of the main government building in ­Bucharest,   some  clashing with police, and  a further 150,000 rallied in 50 other towns and  cities.

Yesterday  the  minister for business environment vented his shame over   the decree by resigning from the cabinet.  “What will I tell my child, that their dad was a coward and endorsed actions he didn’t believe in?” Florin Jianu wrote on Facebook.

The demonstrations   came after an emergency  order  passed by the centre-left Social Democratic Party-led government (PSD)  decriminalised offences including abuse of office where the financial cost was less than 200,000 lei (£38,000).  Prisoners  serving less than five years could also be released early.

Several leading politicians could benefit,  including Liviu Dragnea, the PSD leader, who  was given a two-year suspended jail sentence for election ­rigging and is facing other  charges.

Mr  Dragnea said yesterday that  ­Sorin Grindeanu, whom he picked to head the government   as he was barred by a previous vote-rigging conviction, had the party’s full support. “The government and the parties that back it are determined to exercise the executive and legislative power granted by the citizens,”  Mr  Dragnea said after party officials met Mr  Grindeanu.

The protests have been supported  by President Iohannis, an independent liberal, who  filed a challenge to the measures with the Constitutional Court yesterday. “It is obviously a legal constitutional conflict between the government and the judicial system and parliament,” Mr Iohannis said. “The rule of law has taken a severe blow.” 

When Romania joined the EU in 2007 it was put under a corruption monitoring scheme but won praise for introducing reforms to  tackle the worst corruption culture of any member nation.

“The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the European ­Commission president, describing the developments as a “great concern”.

Protesters shouted “Shame on you” and “Down with the thieves”  as clashes broke out between riot police and a small number of protesters who threw flares. Police reacted with tear gas, causing many protesters to retreat.

A majority of the protesters are under 40, pro-EU and view the law changes as an attack on democracy.

“We want to fight against corruption and not have a special law for politicians and another law for common people,”  Razvan Diaconu, a freelance website developer at the protests, said.

“We want a democratic country and a strong state with fair laws for everybody and above all we want to live here and not have to go and work in other countries.”

The government said that the  changes in the law would ease  overcrowding in prisons. Over the past few years anticorruption prosecutors have charged more than  1,000 high-profile figures and won international praise.

The PSD  won December’s parliamentary elections   with about 45 per cent of the vote after being ousted by protests in 2015 in the wake of a   fatal nightclub fire.

Paul Ivan, a senior policy analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies  in Brussels and a former Romanian ­diplomat, said that the law changes were very significant. 

“The protests are clear proof that  ­Romanian society will not accept such a blatant attack on its interests and that is it ready to defend the rule of law,” he said.