Behind Romania’s Protests, A Struggle Between Unaccountable Judiciary and Corrupt Politicians
CriticAtac co-editor Florin Poenaru says Romania’s political crisis is likely to deepen after the protests begin to recede
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
On Wednesday night, an estimated 250,000 Romanians swelled the streets of Bucharest, as the Parliament failed to pass a vote of no confidence against the majority party, the Social Democrats. This, just the latest in a collection of major political and social events in Romania, all of which began in late January, after the passage of a decree which decriminalized some forms of government corruption.
This triggered a massive protest response, which pressured lawmakers to rescind the decree on Sunday, plus call for the resignation of the recently elected right-wing president, and some also demanding a complete dissolution of the government.
To get more insight as to what these events mean for Romania’s future, we’re joined today with Florin Poenaru. He is an anthropologist and co-editor of, CriticAtac, which is a Romania left-wing platform. He works on issues of class and post-Communism, and he joins us today from Romania.
Florin, thank you so much for being here.
FLORIN POENARU: Thank you for having me.
KIM BROWN: First, let’s begin with the catalysts of all of this, the Executive Order, as it were, issued by the coalition government that would have decriminalized bribery and corruption, as long as the sum in question was less than the equivalent of about 47,000 U.S. dollars.
What made these legislators think that this would be accepted by the public?
FLORIN POENARU: Well, it’s still a mystery, to be honest, and I think everybody asks this question. Because it’s not clear what the intention of the government, and the party in power now, was to pass the decree, in such a manner. I mean, in haste, middle of the night, with no transparency, and so on.
One of the suspicions is that basically the main beneficiary of this decree would have been the leader of the Social Democrats, Mr. Liviu Dragnea, who is the head of the party, and who has a trial pending now. And he would be, theoretically, one of the beneficiaries of this decree –- even though I must say, that there are opinions who disagree with this in Romania — because the whole legislation is unclear, that they are voicing, saying, that it might not actually be the case.
But the main suspicion, and the main reason people took to the streets, was this expectation that the decree would benefit the leader of the party. And that it will decriminalize a lot of mayors, or other people from the party, who are currently facing trials for these particular offences.
So, this was the catalyst. This was the triggering moment, even though it’s still surrounded in cloud, and it’s still shrouded in mystery, as to the real reasons. So, we can only speculate, that at this stage –- and I’m sure a lot of people within the party express the same concerns –- that it was not clear why they were doing that.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. Many viewed this move by the coalition government to pass this decriminalization decree, as it relates to government corruption, they found it to be quite audacious, if not straight-out ballsy. Because Romania has a rather impressive reputation, when it comes to government corruption.
Give us a little bit of background about how corruption has, sort of, shaped the modern Romanian government, post-Communism.
FLORIN POENARU: Yeah. Okay, obviously corruption was a big issue, and continues to be, to a certain extent, a big issue in Romania, and other countries around the region. Of course, it plays a very important part in this case, as well — particularly because the current ruling party, the Social Democrats, even though they went through a lot of changes in the past few years — they are still considered to be deeply corrupt.
One of their former heads, and a former prime minister, was put in jail for corruption charges. A lot of people in the party are currently investigated for corruption charges. A lot of other people were put in jail as well. So, the party has this image of a very corrupt, deeply corrupt party, which fuelled the suspicions of the people, and actually played into these expectations that people had, in relation to this party, that the party will try to reverse and curb the anti-corruption struggle.
But at the same time, I have to say, that now more and more, this aspect of corruption, which is not denied at all –- I mean, it’s still there –- the issue of corruption, and especially the anti-corruption efforts to fight it, became more and more politicized. So, whenever we frame things as corruption, or whenever we talk about corruption, we have to be very clear there is also a very political aspect to it. Or the whole conversation is underpinned by very political expectations, and it’s embedded in the political game.
Corruption played a part, and I think it played the part in construing Romania, and Bulgaria as well, as very corrupt countries. And they had this kind of mechanisms of surveillance within the EU accession. So, it’s a political game. It’s a very serious issue, but I think the question now is, how we deal with it in terms of which are not so politicized? So, I think that the question now is we have to recognize the problem, but at the same time, to recognize the fact that talking about corruption is in itself, a political aspect. It’s a political game.
So, what we have now, it’s a mixture of the two, this expectation that the Social Democrats might try to curb corruption, but at the same time the opponents, use corruption as a political tool against them.
KIM BROWN: Well, Florin, expand on that for a minute, because obviously corruption is an issue, not just in Romania, but truly across the globe. But speaking specifically about Romania — but there have been concerted efforts to try to crack down on corruption. Talk to us about the role of the national anti-corruption directorate, also known as the DNA.
What brought about this agency? And talk about the attempts to curb its powers, because they had been extremely successful arresting, and prosecuting, literally thousands of business people trying to curry favor with government officials. Also senators, parliamentarians, ministers, in the Romania government. So, talk to us about the DNA.
FLORIN POENARU: Yeah. Well, the DNA was very important when it first appeared, some… I think more than a decade ago. Of course, its full powers and the successes that you describe, came a little bit later, when the former president, Traian Băsescu, fought very hard to empower this directorate and other connected institutions.
And indeed, the results were spectacular, to the extent to which, that for example, the former prime minister, Adrian Năstase, also a former head of the Social Democrats, as I just mentioned — very, very powerful figure at the beginning of the 2000s — he was put, not only to trial, but he was in jail for several years. And same thing happened with other big figures, people we thought of as untouchables during the transition years. They were put on trial, and they were put in jail for corruption cases.
And, of course, to a certain extent, this was expected, and people demanded that it was some sort of expectation of transitional justice to call it this way.
But the problem right now, what is happening is that, these institutions became very, very powerful, and they lack now political control. Because, you see, that’s the big paradox. And the big discussion about corruption we have, and anti-corruption we have in Romania right now — it’s basically, you have a corrupt political class, and you set up mechanisms to try to curb that corruption — but at the same time, you want to keep a democratic framework in which you have this balance of power between the judiciary, the parliament, which is basically politicians, and the government, which is, again politicians.
So, you want to fight corruption within the political class, but at the same time you don’t want to have a particular branch — which is the judiciary — freed from any sort of public scrutiny or political control. What has happened with this directorate, it gathered a lot of power, and it’s now outside of the political control. Because, of course now the politicians are corrupt, and the perceived position is that any sort of attempt from their behalf to intervene or control, it’s a form of intervention or, you know, trying to curb corruption, and so on.
So, you have this impossible dilemma, how to balance the struggle against corruption, how to enforce anti-corruption measures and institutions. While at the same time keeping democracy in place, and keeping this balance of power in place, and keeping, you know, judges and prosecutors accountable. Because that’s another aspect to it, what we also encounter in the past few years, along with the anti-corruption struggle, it was also a series of cases of judges and prosecutors and magistrates, who were themselves accused of corruption, and wrong-doings, and abuses of office, and so on.
It was just yesterday then, one of these top profile judges, who was involved in a very, very important cases of corruption, was just thrown out of the judiciary system, because of breaking the rules. And many other judges are actually in jail now, after judging and passing judgments in corruption cases.
So, the whole thing, it’s like a dilemma. It’s very… it’s very hard to discern, and it’s very puzzling to a certain extent, because it’s basically — you have these two trials on the one hand to enforce anti-corruption measures, and punish people who are guilty of corruption — but at the same time, keep the balance of powers, and also keep the magistrates and the judges accountable for what they do.
KIM BROWN: Certainly a lot to unpack out of this Romanian protest story. We’ve been speaking with Florin Poenaru. We’re going to take a little break and come back with part 2 of our discussion, about the tremendous protests that had been occurring in Romania over the past week and a half now, over the government’s attempt to decriminalize corruption.
Stay tuned. You’re watching The Real News Network.
KIM BROWN: Welcome back to The Real News Network with part 2 of our conversation with Florin Poenaru. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.
We’ve been talking about the ongoing sustained protest happening in Romania, in response to the government’s attempt to decriminalize some forms of corruption. Let’s hear from the Romanian Prime Minister, Sorin Grindeanu.
SORIN GRINDEANU: (Romanian)
TRANSLATION: I understood the message given by the street. That’s why I took to the decision to withdraw the decree. On the other hand, our supporters and those who want us to go on, and resist to the protestors’ pressure, feel the need to express their support. I would like to urge everybody to calm.
KIM BROWN: That’s the Romanian Prime Minister, Sorin Grindeanu. He said that he wants everyone to remain calm. Florin, these protests have been sustained for over a week now, hundreds of thousands of people in the street. In largely from the photos that we’ve seen, the footage, the coverage of these protests, they have been overwhelmingly peaceful.
What has been your take about the… obviously the desire of Romanians, to make their voices heard on this issue, in the form of massively being in the streets?
FLORIN POENARU: Yeah, they were truly impressive protests. They’re probably some of the biggest protests in recent years, and the enthusiasm was huge. They were really, really important and uplifting moments, if you want, to see so many people on the streets to protest the government decision, and to make their voice heard.
And to be honest, their voice was heard, because the government issued another decree, canceling the previous one. So, to a certain extent, their voice was definitely heard, and it was really important moment, again, to see so many people taking to the streets, staying there in such a big number and demanding this anti-corruption movement to go on.
At the same time, again, as I said earlier, these protests also raised their own contradictions. One of the contradictions is whether it is a sign of democracy to see so many… tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, in all Romania, onto the streets to protest a government decision. Which was, to be honest, hastily passed, and had its own murky aspects. But it was not entirely clear whether it was something wrong about it or not. So, we still have this debate.
But this kind of reaction, or what took people onto the streets, was not some sort of clear sign that wrongdoing was in the process. But it was basically the expectation that some wrongdoing might happen, or this government is capable of doing this.
KIM BROWN: Yeah, so, actually, Florin –- I don’t mean to interrupt –- however, but I’d like you to explain that please. Because even though the decriminalization of corruption decree was rescinded on Sunday, some protestors say that the reason that they have remained in the streets is to make sure that the government doesn’t try to backdoor this decree, in just by altering it slightly.
So, what is the likelihood that that could happen, that this decriminalization of government corruption, Executive Order in effect, could still become a thing, but just not in its original form?
FLORIN POENARU: No, I’m sure that it will become… it will come in place at one point. It will probably be through the channels of the parliament, which should have been the proper procedure to begin with. I mean, that was the mistake of the government to rush this, instead of going through the parliament.
The thing is that the Romanian Constitutional Court, some months ago, decided that some of these changes, that were part of this decree, have to be implemented. The only problem is that the previous government, and the current government, they didn’t find a way to actually do it in the proper way, to make everybody clear about what’s going on. And to avoid any suspicion that this might mean a curbing down the anti-corruption struggle.
So, some changes have to be made, including this threshold that you mentioned at the beginning. There was a ruling saying that there has to be a threshold in the law. The question is the amount, and how it should play out in practice. But some changes need to be made, because basically, what is at stake here, not to make a very long… not to make a long story even longer, it’s basically at stake to reshape the penal code, which has some very unclear aspects about it. And they need to be clarified, in order to make justice run smoothly and help prosecutors and judges to make better decisions based on that.
So, there is a larger issue at stake. It’s a little bit more intricate, and a little bit more complex than… the conversation about politics and so on, so some changes must be done. The problem here is, whether the government or the parliament, will be able to make these changes that are straightforward, that are clear for everybody to understand. What I think is more important at this stage, to eliminate the suspicion that something suspicious is happening, that something suspicious is happening, and it might help corrupt some politicians to get away with that.
KIM BROWN: And, Florin, last question. There have been some calls, from at least some of the protestors, for the resignation of the somewhat recently elected President, Klaus Iohannis. I saw footage of Mr. Iohannis actually going out to try to speak with some of the protestors, and he was soundly booed.
What is the status of him? And is he likely to resign, and why are people calling on him to resign?
FLORIN POENARU: No, of course not, I mean, he’s… he merged very much… involved in after this political crisis, he’s much stronger now. He used to be, like, a very quiet and pretty much absent from the political life in the past two years, after his election. But this crisis just basically reinvigorated him. He’s the only oppositional voice to the current ruling party, the Social Democrats, because the other parties that are in parliament are, I mean, they got very few votes and they’re pretty much insignificant at this stage.
So, he’s now the only opposition to the government, and to the ruling party, which makes a bit of a problem. Because basically, what we face right now, with the President becoming the voice of the anti-corruption, and supporting the anti-corruption institutions against the government, is basically we have a split in the middle of the Executive Branch. Which constitutes again, a problem for democracy, and the way things work, and the way things should work, like this balance of power and the activity of the Executive.
So, from this perspective, it’s not a good sign, and probably the crisis will deepen in the following months, even though the protest might subside a bit in the following days.
So, from this perspective, the political prospects of the President are good. But the prospects of the Romanian Executive, is not so… they’re not so good in the middle, to long run, so we might expect political crisis soon. He’s not in any immediate danger. But the protests were indicative; to a certain extend, of the cleavage that already exists in the Romanian society.
Of course, people who were protesting in front of the Presidential Palace were not in big numbers, nothing compared to the protests against the government. And of course, the social composition, the class aspect of the participants was completely different. But it points to a bigger divide in the society, one in which the government appears to be the party who is taking care of people with social needs. The government increased the pensions and raised the minimum wage, so it has this kind of social program for the most dis-privileged people of Romania, and the pensioners, and so on.
So, there is idea that the social programs of the Social Democrats, is basically also a form of corruption, and the President somehow, even though not in explicit terms, but in implicit terms, he suggested the same thing. And he also took part in the protests in the street, protests against the government, at the beginning of the protests. Which of course, again, boiled the whole… brought the temperature to a boiling point, because a lot of voters of the Social Democrats said that it’s absolutely a thing… something you don’t do as a president.
You want to represent everybody, and that was one of the messages the protestors told to him, when they booed him a few days ago, was that basically he doesn’t represent them. He’s obviously partisan, and in favor of a particular side in this political conflict.
So, he’s not in immediate danger, to go back to your question, politically, but his actions in the end, they had a destabilizing effect, from this particular perspective, because he appeared to be partisan in this political debate.
KIM BROWN: Indeed, fascinating political dealings happening in Romania, with an even more impressive protest response coming from the people.
We have been speaking with Florin Poenaru. He is an anthropologist, also co-author of CriticAtac, which is a Romanian left-wing platform. We’ve been discussing the ongoing sustained protests in Romania, in response to a government edict attempting to decriminalize certain forms of government corruption, which has since been rescinded. However, the protests continue. We will certainly be keeping an eye on this.
Florin, we appreciate you sharing some of your reporting, and some of your insight with us today. Thanks a lot.
FLORIN POENARU: Thank you very much.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.