February 18, 2017 PDF

For most of the year, the large tarmac square in front of Bucharest’s main government building is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded on one side by towering communist-era blocks and on the other by a wedge-shaped park.

However, when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these last weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction the country is heading, and the fact that many politicians continue to use public funds as a source of personal cash. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in office less than a month, snuck in a piece of emergency ordinance in a late-night session that weakened the punishment for abuse of power, negligence in office and conflict of interest. The move effectively decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage was less than around £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll despite them not working for the state. He’s one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he already had one, resulting in a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister after his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and, once, half a million, took to the streets to protest across the country. On 5 February, it was estimated that between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across the country, with 300,000 in the square itself (protests have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in Romania, as well as among the diaspora abroad). The government backed down on their immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week, and despite snowfall show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th on Transparency International’s corruption-perceptions index, up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, public officials, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate like they are above the law, an idea certainly not helped by the recent attempts to change anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The current protests, the largest the country has seen since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that has increasingly used the streets as a communication platform. Previously, large-scale protests in Romania brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a Bucharest nightclub fire that left 64 dead, while mass protests during the country’s 2014 presidential election, this time over the mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, though, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the main government building is officially known – night after night are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, though they would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protestors have become more and more creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have been joined by messages written with lasers and projected onto nearby buildings – some have projected the Batman signal onto the roof of a nearby museum, a funny or perhaps desperate plea for help. The national anthem is regularly sung. On Sunday, a sea of protestors held up coloured paper over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination present that has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February Romania’s parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, proposed by the protest-supporting president, although most of those on the street these last weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Increasingly, many Romanians are frustrated that time and again they have to head out to protest in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that existing politicians can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Despite this, she, like many others, are likely to continue to head out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead to have their voices heard.