Why Romanians Took to the Streets This Weekend

Up to half a million citizens protested a new decree that would have diminished anti-corruption penalties

Romanian Protests
Romanians protest in Victoria Place in Bucharest on January 22. Eduardm - Wikimedia/Creative Commons

It was a protest made for social media—a Bucharest square packed with hundreds of thousands of people, cell phones and voices raised in rebellion. But why did people come out to protest in Romania over the weekend? As Gregory Katz and Alison Mutler report for the Associated Press, the country's biggest demonstration since the fall of Communism happened to fight corruption.

Up to half a million citizens participated in six days of street protests throughout Romania following an emergency decree that was passed late Tuesday night without public debate. The legislation decriminalized corruption for public officials if the amount in question was less than about $48,500, Katz and Mutler report.

On Sunday, the government backed down from its position, withdrawing the decree. But many aren't appeased—citizens are now pledging to continue nightly demonstrations until the government steps down.

The Social Democrat-led government has only been in power since December, but already its hasty emergency decree to essentially legalize corruption has backfired. As Gregory Katz notes for the Associated Press, one of the main beneficiaries of the decree arguably would have been the party leader himself, whose path to becoming prime minister has been blocked because of corruption charges. Romania's president, on the other hand, slammed the decree, though he supports the government's continued right to rule.

Democratic Romania has struggled with bribery and government corruption. Though the bloody reign of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ended in 1989, many of Ceausescu's cronies have remained in power. As Emma Graham-Harrison of The Guardian notes, Romania never banned old regime officials from serving in government or found anyone other than the dictator and his family guilty of their crimes.

But as The New York Times’ Rick Lyman and Kit Gillet report, Romania also has a growing tradition of holding their public officials to task—and an older history of mass movements. In 2015, Romanians took to the streets after a tragic fire they blamed on corruption, eventually causing their prime minister and the entire government to resign.

The recent protests weren’t just impressive; they were effective, at least for now. But will the citizens’ victory be enough to make the new government change course? Perhaps not; both the Times and the AP write that the government plans to create a new, similar bill.  But while experts say Romania's parliament could very well pass new legislation, Katz notes that garnering political support for it is another matter entirely.