Violent incidents in Bucharest as up to 150,000 protest against corruption

Violent incidents in Bucharest as up to 150,000 protest against corruption
By Carmen Simion in Bucharest February 2, 2017

Several violent incidents were reported at a mass protest in Bucharest on February 1, the day after the government adopted an emergency ordinance partly decriminalising abuse of office. This was the largest protest organised in Bucharest since the fall of communism, with the number of participants estimated at between 120,000 and 150,000. Rallies were organised in other cities too.

Four protests, steadily growing in size, have been organised in Bucharest since the government's plans to amend criminal legislation were revealed on January 18. Despite the pressure coming from the street and critics made by the judiciary and the president, the government adopted the ordinance late on January 31.

The changes to the Criminal Code will stop a series of investigations into Romanian politicians, including the leader of the ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, and some former ministers, and will cancel out the efforts made in recent years by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). 

A few thousand people protested in front of the government headquarters during the day on February 1, but their number increased gradually to reach up to 150,000 in the evening. Like the previous three protests, the February 1 protest was calm with demonstrators - some of them carrying children on their shoulders - chanting slogans against the government and the PSD. 

However, the protest turned violent, when a group of people started to throw objects and attack the police, who responded with tear gas. Five people were transported to hospital, state secretary Raed Arafat said, quoted by 

According to sources, the violent people were supporters of local football clubs, one of them owned by a PSD member. The protesters chanted "They are not with us" and "No violence”.

The European Commission has expressed its concern over the legislative changes, saying that the "the fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone." Freedom House vice-president for international programmes Robert Herman called it a "significant setback in Romania’s fight against corruption," undermining "the government’s commitment to the rule of law and accountability of government officials.”

The government's move to amend the legislation has also been criticised by President Klaus Iohannis, who has started procedures to call a referendum on the issue. Iohannis, who has often been criticised for his lack of involvement, has taken now a series of steps to stop the ordinance from coming into force.

On February 31, he attended a meeting at the the Superior Council of Magistrates, where the council was supposed to discuss the planned ordinance. The council announced it had decided to challenge the ordinance through the Constitutional Court.

Iohannis also went on February 1 to ombudsman Victor Ciorbea, recently accused by the opposition of favouring the PSD leader, to ask him to challenge the ordinance through the Constitutional Court, reported. Following the discussion, Iohannis said the ombudsman will analyse the situation and he hopes that "tomorrow and the day after tomorrow he will analyse it and notify the Constitutional Court." Ciorbea previously said he could not challenge an ordinance which had not yet come into force. 

The adopted ordinance was published in the official gazette, with some of its provisions coming into force immediately and others in 10 days after their publication in the official gazette.

Iohannis also sent a letter to Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu on February 1 asking him to revoke the ordinance.

Despite the tensions in Romania, the risk of government instability remains low for now, although some cabinet changes could be introduced, Teneo Intelligence commented.

"Nonetheless, the determination of the PSD-led government to charge ahead with the contentious criminal justice reform in disregard of widespread public discontent and political opposition sets a scene for tumultuous period ahead, highlighting a risk of further deteriorating operating environment,” it added in a February 1 analyst note. 

There are also concerns about the possible impact on investment from the EU-Romania Business Society. 

“Just these past days we have seen negative business reports about Romania from Transparency International and the Commission's anti-corruption monitoring group about continued failings in Bucharest in 2016 to strengthen rules and laws protecting business capital and property rights,” the society’s founder James Wilson said on February 1. “It sends entirely the wrong message for the Government to propose legislation that would exacerbate the situation.”