Never-ending protests against never-ending corruption in Romania

Demonstrators at Bucharest University Square (photo: Alberto Grosescu, Inquam)

On 20 January, some 100,000 anti-corruption protesters took to the Romanian streets once more to protest against the ruling Social Democrat Party's controversial justice policies, which have been criticized by civil society activists, international institutions and foreign diplomats. Groups of demonstrators also clashed with security forces, broke police barriers and occupied Bucharest's University Square before they marched towards the Romanian parliament.

The Social Democrats (PSD), who hold the majority of seats in parliament, have been pushing to reverse several justice reforms implemented at the request of the European Union. The party managed to pass a bill in December that prosecutors warned made them vulnerable to political pressure. Only a week before the newest protests have started, the former Prime Minister Mihai Tudose suddenly departed and the PSD party decided to form a second government in just seven months, and both fueled additional anger among demonstrators.

Previously, Romanians took to the streets on numerous occasions during 2017 against the PSD's attempts to curb the power of anti-corruption prosecutors within Romania's powerful National Anti-Graft Directorate. Everything has started in January 2017, days after the government of the Grindeanu Cabinet was sworn into office, when demonstrators stood up against ordinance bills that were proposed by the Romanian Ministry of Justice regarding the pardoning of certain committed crimes, and the amendment of the Penal Code.

The newly sworn-in government secretly approved an ordinance modifying the laws during the night of 31 January, and opponents raised accusations that the ordinance was intended for decriminalization of government corruption, and to help hundreds of current and former politicians to escape ongoing criminal investigations or prison sentences. Among them, Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea was sentenced to a two-year suspended jail term after being found guilty of attempting to rig a 2012 referendum. He is currently on trial for abuse of office and is under investigation for suspected fraud in a European funds embezzlement case.

The protests have been continuing on a daily basis since then and they reached their peak on 5 February when between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested throughout the country, thus making them the largest since the Romanian Revolution and the overthrowing of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Democratic reforms in the past thirty years have proven to be only moderately successful because though issues with corruption remain.


In the 2002 European Commission 'Regular Report' on Romania, the anti-corruption measures chapter strupulated that "surveys indicate that corruption remains a widespread and systematic problem in Romania that is largely unresolved. Despite a legal framework that is reasonably comprehensive, and which has been expanded over the last year, law enforcement remains weak. New institution structures have been created but are not yet fully operational." The 2004 Commission's 'Regular Report' stated that "measures contained in the National Anti-corruption Strategy and associated Action Plan have so far had a limited impact."

Additionaly, "surveys and assessments conducted by both national and international organizations confirm that corruption remains a serious and widespread problem in Romania which affects almost all aspects of society. There has been no reduction in perceived levels of corruption. The number of successful prosecutions remains low. The fight against corruption is hampered by integrity problems even within institutions that are involved in law enforcement and the fight against corruption." Independent information was not revealing a positive trent at the local level either, since data published in 2004 by the Romanian Academic Society showed that Romanians perceived an increase, not a decrease of corruption compared to previous years.

The pre-accession years brought about the development of an impressive arsenal of legal instruments of transparency and accountability in Romania. Still, in 2007 Romania had barely entered the EU when its political class started to undo the anti-corruption commitments undertaken to allow the country's accession. Matters worsened to the point that two deputy prime ministers resigned in one year, and most of the political class mobilized to change the legislation to decrease the power of prosecutors. The government even attempted to close down the National Anti-Corruption Department (DNA), Romania's independent anti-corruption agency.

A vicious fight erupted between the president and the parliament, culminating in an attempt to impeach president Trian Basescu. A serve split between representatives and voters emerged when two-thirds of parliament voted to have Basescu deposed and two-thirds of the voters reinstated him in a referendum on 19 May 2007. The feeling that Romania has done so much in the field of anti-corruption while achieving so few practical results was worrisome. Willem De Pauw, a Belgian prosecutor and EU adviser, wrote a report in 2007 that concluded: "Instead of progress in the fight against corruption, Romania is regressing on all fronts."

Overall, Romania has improved its corruption score only before its scheduled accession to the EU, and since 2007 it has stagnated. Only comparable among EU countries are Greece as the most corrupt member state, Bulgaria as the most corrupt of the new EU members, and Hungary and Slovakia which have scores closer to Romania's. The European Commission reports on the progress made by Romania after accession have been generally positive, and the report issued in 2012 indicated that many of the building blocks required were in place, and that the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) had made a major contribution to reform in Romania.

The 2014 report indicated that the history of the CVM so far shows that progress is not straightforward, so that advances in one area can be constrained or negated by setbacks elsewhere. The Romanian institutions responsible for tackling high-level corruption have demonstrated the application of the justice system to powerful political figures, both in terms of indictments and convictions. DNA has indicated over 4,700 defendants, and nearly 1,500 of them were convicted through final court decisions, almost half of them holding very high level positions.

However, the data released by the same report reveals that an astonishing 93% of Romanians still think that corruption is widespread in their country, 65% think that the level of corruption has increased, and 57% state that they are personally affected by corruption in their daily lives. Also, 25% of Romanians, the second highest percentage in the EU, have been asked or expected to pay a bribe for services received in the past year, compared to the EU average of 4%.

Deeper cultural roots

Several Western-based organizations gave various explanations for corruption in Romania and similar countries. For example, Transparency International argued that "the foundations of the integrity system, the political, social, economic and cultural profile of the country are shaped by the Communist heritage and moreover by the difficult and slow transition of the country." In addition, "the socio-cultural tradition and low involvement of the people in civic movements represent vulnerabilities in the Romanian context. Those vulnerabilities were likely to support dysfunctional social capital and a low level of social trust through successive generations, which made harder to fight corruption.

The World Bank argues that the country's period of exposure to independence is related to the strength of public institutions and legislature, so that countries with a longer record of independence are less susceptible to corruption. Romania stands opposite of Hungary or the Czech Republic, which were exposed to longer periods of sovereignty, and due to the type of Communist regimes they had implemented, entered their transitions with more highly developed systems of public administration and better trained public officials.

However, roots of the Romanian corruption are much deeper. For several centuries until 1877, the Ottomans maintained sovereignty over roughly two-thirds of today's Romanian territory, and they popularized corrupt practices like bribing the public servants. This was most severe in the 19 century when the extreme corruption of Ottoman-appointed rulers led to popular uprisings in Romania. Even more importantly, the forty-three years of Communist dictatorship created certain norms for the treatment of public servants. The type of this regime was a very special one compared to the neighboring Communist states, as there was no concentrated party-dictatorship program, but a highly patrimonial system.

During the Ceaușescu era since the mid-1960s, corruption became endemic in the Romanian society. He practiced dynastic Communism by appointing close friends and relatives to powerful public office positions, and these exclusivist elites had a privileged status in society. During the 1980s when there were chronic shortages, many ordinary people were trying to win the favor of these elites so they could subsist, thus corruption and bribery became deeply rooted in society and an everyday affair at all levels, from store clerks to top party officials.

Today, many Romanians do not view the acceptance of small atentii (cultural term for bribe) or spaga (bribe in Romanian slang) as dishonest, but rather acceptable behavior. Atentii are given according to tradition and they represent sort of a "thank you in advance" or "I appreciate it." Nonetheless, more often than not these atentii have the characteristics of bribe, as better, quicker and more attentive treatment is sought or expected in return. Those civil servants who do not accept bribes may easily be seen as cultural outliers, and they are often ostracized, victimized, or forced to leave their institution. The former Prime Minister Mihai Tudose apparently did the same for the opposite reason, and it leads to a serious paradox in the Romanian society.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.