Bucharest protesters signal peaceful intent with flowers at latest mass anti-corruption rally

Bucharest protesters signal peaceful intent with flowers at latest mass anti-corruption rally
By Carmen Simion in Bucharest February 3, 2017

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Victory Square in Bucharest on February 2 to show their disapproval of a recently adopted emergency ordinance partly decriminalising abuse of office. Many carried flowers as a sign of their peaceful intent, after the previous day’s rally was marred by violent clashes with police. 

The participants, whose number was estimated at around 90,000, continued the series of protests that started on January 18, despite violent incidents which had put an end to the previous day’s protest. On February 1, up to 150,000 people gathered in front of the government's headquarters in the largest protest in the capital since the fall of communism, to ask the government to withdraw the controversial ordinance. 

Despite the cold weather, with temperatures dropping below zero degrees Celsius in the evening, people have protested every day since the government unexpectedly adopted the ordinance at a government meeting late on January 31.

People started to gather in Victory Square during the day, but the number of participants grew steadily in the evening. The protesters carried banners which read "Revoke the ordinance and then resign”, "We are not leaving”, "Romania is us”, "Shame on you”, "Go to prison, criminals” and "The day we give in is the day we die" and chanted slogans such as "PSD, the red plague”, "Thieves" and "DNA should come and take you” - a reference to Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) whose work will be undermined by the ordinance. 

Some of the protesters were carrying flowers in their hands as a sign of their peaceful attitude towards the security forces. On February 1, police guarding the main government building were attacked by a group of people, some of them supporters of local football clubs, who had mingled with the peaceful protesters. Reportedly, the clubs owners are linked to Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). 

The violent incident, following which five people were hospitalised, caused Romanian President Klaus Iohannis to harshly criticise the interior ministry for the way it managed the situation and for not intervening before the attacks even though it had enough information that there were groups planning to "break" the demonstration.

"We have brought flowers to show the gendarmes we are peaceful protesters. Those people yesterday have nothing to do with us," a woman who had come to the protest with her teenage daughter told bne IntelliNews.

"The situation in which Romania is now is critical. The PSD is going to destroy us," her daughter added.

The changes to the Criminal Code have been criticised for representing a threat to Romania's anti-corruption fight. They will stop a series of investigations into Romanian politicians, including the leader of the ruling PSD, Liviu Dragnea, and some former ministers, and will cancel out the efforts made in recent years by the DNA. 

The European Commission has expressed its concern over the legislative changes. EC First Vice President Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament on February 2 that the ordinance approved by the government "cannot be interpreted as anything else than a step back from the progress we have seen in the last decade." Timmermans warned that the legislation could also affect the disbursement of European funds. 

"They are making laws just to save themselves from justice. We will not stop protesting until they revoke the ordinance. I will be here in Victory Square every day," Robert, who has not missed any of the protests, told bne IntelliNews.

A group of protesters brought drums and other percussion instruments to Victoria Square and staged an impromptu concert among the other protesters, who chanted slogans against the ordinance accompanied by the music.

Massive protests were organised again in other Romanian cities, according to Hotnews.ro. Around 25,000 people protested both in Cluj Napoca and Timisoara, around 10,000 in Iasi and Constanta.

Pressure piling up

Despite the ongoing protests and the criticism from Romanian judicial institutions, investors and partner countries, the PSD is determined to go ahead with its plans. Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said at a press conference on February 2 that the party will not give up the ordinance. However, his views are not shared by all members of his cabinet.

The recently endorsed government suffered its first loss on February 2, when Minister for Business, Trade and Entrepreneurship Florin Jianu announced he would resign from the government. "Romania does not deserve what is happening now, the Romanians do not deserve what is happening now," Jianu wrote on Facebook.

Also, PSD vice president and Iasi mayor Mihai Chirica city asked the government to revoke the ordinance and for the resignation of Justice Minister Florin Iordache.

"Today I will try to transmit a message as the leader of the Iasi organisation and propose the Grindeanu government and [PSD] president Liviu Dragnea to urgently revoke the 13/2017 emergency ordinance, to propose a draft bill to the parliament elected on December 11, to have a public debate, to consult experts and society, and to leave the parliament  to decide as a democratic entity of this state," he said.

Chirica accused the justice minister of being "responsible for the chaos he has created these days."

In addition, the leader of the Sibiu branch of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), PSD's governing partner, Paskuj Robert, announced he is resigning and will join the protests against the ordinance, Hotnews.ro reported.

Meanwhile, the DNA announced that it has started an investigation into the way the ordinance was adopted, after it received a complaint about possible corrupt acts in drafting the ordinance. The DNA has demanded from the justice ministry all relevant documents related to the drafting of the ordinance.

According to the amendments to the Criminal Code, the abuse of office offence will be redefined so that it will be a criminal offence only if the damage caused exceeds RON200,000 (€44,500).

The activity of the DNA would be significantly affected by this change. Currently, the institution is working on 2,151 cases of abuse of office. Between 2014 and 2016, 1,171 people and 34 legal entities were indicted for abuse of office and the damage caused exceeds €1bn.

Lately, there have been rumours that the government could be planning to merge the DNA and the Directorate for Investigating Organised Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT) into one institution in order to impose new chief prosecutors favoured by PSD, Hotnews has reported. The justice ministry denied any such plans in a statement on February 2.