BUCHAREST, Romania—A spontaneous display of “people power” in the capital Bucharest and cities throughout Romania has for the moment slowed a government push to decriminalize some forms of corruption committed by public officials. The confrontation has seen the largest protests since the 1989 revolution that ended the regime of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Here is a look at the situation and the issues:
What prompted the protests?
The government sought to impose a measure by “emergency decree” that would have substantially reduced penalties for some types of corruption by public officials, including the misuse of public office for personal gain. The law seemed lax to protesters, in part because offenses would only be prosecuted if more than about $48,500 in local currency was involved.
The decree was designed to protect officials — from mayors in small villages all the way up to senior ministers in the national government — from an increasingly aggressive anti-corruption program that has led to numerous prosecutions, including some with prison sentences.
What have the protests achieved?
The unexpected momentum of the civic mobilization forced the government to blink first in the face of growing swarms of protesters. It has abandoned plans to impose the decree on its own authority and sought instead the more conventional route of introducing the plan in Parliament, where it can be amended and debated like other proposed legislation.
It will also be reviewed by the country’s Constitutional Court to determine if it is line with Romania’s constitution, written and put into place after Ceausescu’s fall.
The proposed law has not been abandoned, but it has been at least significantly slowed and may be substantially weakened by opponents. It is too early to say if it will ever be passed by Parliament, signed by the president, and put into effect.
What are some examples of the types of official corruption that bedevil Romania?
There is the case of the former national railways chief, Mihai Necolaiciuc, who is serving an eight year prison sentence for embezzlement and other crimes worth more than 55 million euros ($58.6 million). He diverted funds and loans for personal use, created phantom companies, and overpaid for services and goods, skimming off public funds. He used some of the public funds for personal items like wetsuits and flowers.
Another case involved the manager of Bucharest Emergency Hospital and the head of the burns treatment unit there. Both were charged with abusing their position when purchasing hospital equipment in 2013. As a result, the equipment cost roughly $1.45 million more than it should have — and the burn unit wasn’t functioning properly when it was urgently needed after a catastrophic nightclub fire that killed 64 people in 2015.
The proposed new law would not have affected crimes of this magnitude, but it would apply retroactively to people convicted of offenses judged to be below the $48,500 threshold.
Why is corruption such a problem in Romania?
The country has recently made big strides in prosecuting some offenders but the deep-rooted problem goes back to the Ceausescu era. The dictator was excessive even by lax Soviet standards in his use of public funds for an opulent personal lifestyle. He and his wife were executed in 1989 after they were accused of putting roughly $470 million in foreign bank accounts while amassing vast luxury properties inside Romania.