Corruption now comes in two forms in Romania. There is the big kind that can still land an official in jail. Then there's the acceptable type that will bring nothing more than a knowing shrug.
The country's governing Social Democratic Party shocked domestic and international observers Tuesday when it adopted an emergency measure to decriminalize official misconduct causing damage worth less than about $48,000. Thousands of Romanians protested the decision, calling it a blow to recent progress in fighting chronic corruption in a European Union nation where accusations of bribe-taking, favor-trading and bureaucratic abuses are part of everyday life.
The directive will stop ongoing investigations and prevent new ones from being launched. Another decree might end up freeing convicted officials from prison.
Officially, the measure is supposed to prevent “prison overcrowding.” According to numbers published by the European Court of Human Rights, worsening prison conditions in the country have indeed been a major concern recently. But critics allege that the government is now using the overcrowding to justify pardoning its own political allies.
The emergency directive was adopted the same day the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, went on trial for abuse of power. He was already convicted of electoral fraud in 2015 in a separate case, preventing him from becoming prime minister. Now, he is widely considered to be the driving force behind the latest measure.
Dragnea is the highest-profile politician currently facing trial but the underlying problem is far more extensive, according to prosecutors. More than 1,000 cases of abuse in office have been investigated by the country's anti-corruption directorate over the last three years, marking a steep rise compared to previous years. Abuses in office make up about one third of the agency's overall anti-corruption investigations.
Speaking to the Associated Press, Romania's anti-corruption chief prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi said Tuesday: “This measure will render the anti-corruption fight irrelevant.”
Among the critics of the law was also President Klaus Iohannis who mainly holds ceremonial powers. He called Tuesday “a day of mourning for the rule of law … which has received a grave blow from the enemies of justice,” according to the Associated Press.
“From today onward, my mission is to reestablish the rule of law. I will do everything I can to make Romania a country free of corruption, until the last day of my mandate,” Iohannis said.
The Social Democratic Party won 45 percent of the popular vote in elections last December and formed a coalition with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats. Observers soon became concerned with the governing party's plans, fearing that prime minister nominee Sevil Shhaideh — a little-known politician — might end up serving as a puppet for party leader Dragnea.
Amid ongoing protests against the decriminalization of official misconduct and beginning of his own abuse of power trial, Dragnea portrayed himself a victim of a conspiracy on Tuesday.
“This case is based on false testimonies,” Dragnea told reporters.
Although the trial was only adjourned until Feb. 14 on Tuesday the government's emergency measures have made a prison sentence for Dragnea less likely.