ROU170215GP004BUCHAREST, Romania – Aurel Vulcu was on the streets of Bucharest In December 1989 when he and other fighters for democracy overturned the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu.

“That victory gave us hope,” Vulcu said, recalling how Romania was isolated and impoverished behind the Iron Curtain. “I thought that democracy will soon enter the door of the parliament, the doors of the courts.”

Recently, Vulcu, 61, a retired backer, was standing outside the government buildings in the city center with a European Union flag draped over his shoulders, his voice hoarse from shouting anti-government slogans. Like many Romanians, he opposes ongoing efforts that he claimed would weaken the judiciary and hobble the fight against corruption.

Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă and her Social Democrat party are targeting the country’s top public prosecutor and the National Anticorruption Directorate, an agency that prosecuted six cabinet ministers – ultimately convicting two – as well as 23 lawmakers and many mayors and managers of state-owned companies in recent years.

Earlier this year Justice Minister Tudorel Toader, a Social Democrat, dismissed the directorate’s chief prosecutor, Laura Codruța Kovesi, and initiated the dismissal of a key official in the chief prosecutor’s office, Augustin Lazăr.

The assault on justice illustrates how Romania is becoming an “illiberal” democracy like Hungary, Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries whose leaders are undercutting the legal systems, opposition parties, critics in civil society and anyone else who represents a challenge to their dominance, said experts and others.

In mid-November, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that expressed deep concerns about the rule of law in Romania, particularly so-called reforms that undermined in the judiciary and National Anticorruption Directorate. EU officials have similarly criticized Hungarian and Polish leaders.

The democratic transformations in ex-communist countries like Romania, Hungary and Poland weren't complete, said Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Slovakia.

“We’re dealing with some residues from the past, patterns of political culture involving authoritarian methods, nostalgia for the communist regimes, seen as ‘more just’ and the lack of experience on the side of democratic politicians,” Mesežnikov explained. “The common effect is strengthening the position of populist parties.”

Civil rights activists became concerned about Romania in January 2017 when then-Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, another Social Democrat, signed an order to decriminalize abuses in public office if the financial damage was less than $48,000. After hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Bucharest for massive protests, the government withdrew the order.

The main beneficiary would have been Social Democratic Leader Liviu Dragnea, a former interior minister who is now leader of the lower house of parliament. At that time, he was facing corruption charges involving a sum below the threshold. A panel of judges had already convicted Dragnea of electoral fraud and gave him a suspended sentenced of two years.

On Monday, President Klaus Iohannis asked Dăncilă for word of her government’s plans 24 hours before officials meet to make sure they don’t give amnesty to people imprisoned on corruption charges. Iohannis made the request after Dragnea called for such an amnesty over the weekend.

"Romania won't return to the black era of a one-party state,” said Iohannis, a former Liberal Party leader who has long said Dragnea wields too much power in the country.

The Social Democrats have proposed other laws that would undermine the fight against corruption, according to a European Commission report issued last month.

They have proposed special prosecutors to investigate allegations involving judges, a tactic that critics said would limit the freedom of expression of magistrates; a new early retirement scheme that would remove experienced judges; a new, looser definition of the abuse of power; restrictions on what judges could say from the bench and – in a move that echoed similar changes in Hungary and Poland – broader grounds for removing members of top appellate courts.

Defenders of the measures said they would prevent abuses of power among prosecutors who often work hand-in-glove with shady interests in the Romanian bureaucracy – a claim that has never been proven but which many Romanians believe.

“The rights of defendants have been violated,” said Bogdan Chireac, a former journalist who is now a political commentator on Romanian television. “There were secret protocols between judicial institutions and the former leadership of the Romanian Intelligence Service. Intelligence officers were directly involved in giving sentences.”

The pace of changes sped up after the June conviction of interior minister and Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who was sentenced for three and a half years in an abuse-of-power case. Dragnea and his allies are now pushing for an executive order that would allow the prime minister to grant him amnesty.

Other changes include forcing non-governmental organizations to report their donors or face dissolution. The could silence many government critics.

The Social Democrats appear to be rushing the measures through in part because Romania will take over the presidency of the European Union on January 1, 2019. The country will be under tremendous scrutiny from Brussels as well as powerful leaders in Europe and investors throughout the world.

“If the government would decide to grant amnesty to politicians convicted or prosecuted for corruption, and do this during the presidency, I would say that this would be worse than Brexit,” said Elena Calistru, president of Funky Citizens, a civic group based in Bucharest. “It would mean that the government decided to defy not only its citizens, but also the hope that many of them have towards a Europe that can accommodate the East as well.”

Romanians have protested the measures. In August 10, they clashed with police who fired tear gas into the demonstrations and fought with demonstrators with batons. After the event, more than 350 people filed complaints of excessive force against the police.

But the crackdown didn’t dissuade Vulcu.

“We do not lose hope of seeing them [corrupt politicians] in jail,” he said. “We want to see them where they belong, according to their deeds. If you did something wrong, you need to pay.”

Photo: February 15, 2017 - Bucharest, Romania - A group of protesters gathered in Victoria Square, to ask for the resignation of the Romanian government led by then Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu.
Credit: George Popescu/ARA Network Inc. 02/15/2017

Story/photo publish date: 12/25/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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