In recent years, the country of Romania has been raft with civil unrest in response to the ongoing fight against political corruption. As the population mobilizes to make themselves heard, they are met with a combination of both adversity and support. Outlined below is a summary of those precursors, symptoms, and resistance measures involved in Romania’s democratic erosion.
Featured Image Courtesy of Inquam Photos/George Calin via REUTERS.
History of Romanian Democracy
Democracy is a relatively new form of government for Romania as an independent country. From the time they gained independence in 1881 to the onset of World War II, Romania was considered a constitutional monarchy. Between 1940 and 1944, the seizure of power by Ion Antonescu subjected the country to a fascist dictatorship. Upon the Soviet defeat of Romania in WWII and a coup d’etat by King Michael I, the Communist Party rose to power from 1944 to 1989. The Romanian Revolution of 1989 marked a new era for a country with an extensive history of political repression. Following the third wave of democracy, Romania executed Communist dictator Nicholae Ceausescu and decreed themselves a democratic and social republic.
Erosion Timeline: 2000 – 2019
Gradual democratic improvement is evident from 2000 – late 2010s. Beginning in 2011, there is a gradual state of erosion followed by a sharp drop from 2015 – 2019.
Romania’s accession to the EU in 2003 involved a number of measures, including Constitutional referendums that ensure the protection of human rights and minorities, anti-corruption provisions, checks and balances, and trade agreements. Furthermore, EU membership requires that country leadership are held accountable to one another. Such was the case in July 2012, when the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso expressed concern regarding judiciary independence and institutional integrity in Romania.
The global financial crisis of 2007 – 2008 caused a consequent recession in 2009. Following an IMF bail-out, the government was forced to institute an extremely unpopular austerity program over the next year that involved public sector wage and pension cuts to reduce Romania’s budget deficit. Upwards of 30,000 demonstrators protested these measures in Bucharest. Economic hardship has also decreased the number of media sources available, reduced the amount of content circulating, and diminished funding for investigative journalism and political commentary.
As politicians struggle to gain recognition for Romania as leaders of eastern Europe, continued negative media coverage both at home and abroad succeeds at increasing international tensions. The seemingly constant state of political unrest, frequent protests, and a substantial number of corruption cases have resulted in an overall lack of international credibility.
Precursors to Erosion
- 2000 – 2006: Research shows that income polarization grew between over the course of six years.
- 2001 – 2012: Liviu Dragnea alleged to have embezzled €20 million from EU development funding and was later investigated by the European Anti-Fraud Office and National Anticorruption Directorate in 2016.
- 2006 – 2013: Council leader Liviu Dragnea allowed two Social Democratic Party employees to remain on public payroll from 2006 to 2013 while they worked for the PSD. He was later prosecuted in 2018.
- February 2010: Populist candidate Victor Ponta elected President of the Social Democratic Party.
- October 2015: After being indicted for corruption five months earlier, populist politician Liviu Dragnea was elected President of the Social Democratic Party.
- January – February 2016: The National Audiovisual Council received ten-times the normal amount of fake news reports.
- August 2018: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas cited growing polarization due to corruption as violent protests grow increasingly more common.
Symptoms of Erosion
- August 2002: Social Democratic Party blackmailed journalist Silva Vranceaunu after her newspaper published articles critical of the PSD.
- June 2002: Journalist Iosid Constinas disappeared after writing a book on the Timisoara mafia and investigating unsolved murders during the Revolution of 1989 and former Securitate members in positions of power. He was later found dead in March 2003.
- May 2003: Secretary-General Serban Mihailescu threatened to sue Parisian newspaper Le Monde for libel after they published an article accusing him of corruption.
- November 2005: Human Rights Watch exposed Romania for hosting CIA-operated “black sites” where suspected terrorists were unlawfully imprisoned and tortured.
- December 2010: Mayor Sorin Apostu illegally evicted Roma families in Cluj-Napoca and relocated them to the Pata-Rât ghetto.
- January 2013: A same-sex couple was denied their EU-designated residence rights.
- September 2013: Eforie Sud homes demolished without judicial review, leaving 46 adults and 55 children homeless in severe weather.
- September 2016: Senate blocked prosecution of Interior Minister Gabriel Oprea following the death of a policeman during his illegal motorcade use in October 2015.
- January 2017: Emergency decree de-criminalized graft involving less than $48,000.
- February 2017: German cameraman Christian Gesellmann assaulted by police and arrested while filming a protest in Bucharest.
- February 2017: The Social Democratic Party opened an inquiry into foreign bank president Steven van Groningen after he participated in a Victoria Square demonstration to protest Fiscal Code provisions.
- June 2017: A no-confidence vote removes Prime Minister Sorin Grindeau from office after he fails to protect senior officials from corruption charges.
- March 2018: Prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi fired from National Anticorruption Directorate following a ruling from the Constitutional Court.
- January 2019: The Romanian Data Protection Authority ordered Rise Project to reveal their sources or pay a €20 million fine after leaking files that incriminated Liviu Dragnea of corruption.
- March 2019: Laura Codruta Kovesi indicted on corruption charges to prevent her from speaking to the media, leaving the country, or being elected as an EU public prosecutor.
Resistance to Erosion
- 2000 – 2015: 2.4 million people, or 18% of Romania’s population, emigrates.
- April 2002: Emergency Ordinance 43/2002 established the National Anticorruption Directorate.
- October 2003: Romania prepared for their entry into the EU with amendments to the Constitution, including an amendment to Article 30 that strengthened protections for freedom of expression.
- 2014: National Anticorruption Directorate indicted 317 defendants and seized €310 million.
- January 2014: Cluj-Napoca County Tribunal Court ruled that evictions were illegal and ordered the city to provide housing and restitution to those affected.
- 2015: National Anticorruption Directorate convicted 970 defendants and seized €431.6 million.
- May 2015: Regional development minister Liviu Dragnea convicted of defrauding referendum votes to impeach President Traian Basescu.
- July 2015: Prime Minister Victor Ponta indicted on tax evasion, money laundering, and conflict of interest charges.
- November 2015: Mayor Cristian Piedone of Sector 4 resigned after issuing an event permit to Club Colectiv despite evidence of negligence, resulting in a fire that killed 65 people and injured 164.
- November 2015: Mayor Cristian Piedone arrested for abuse of power and neglecting fire safety code.
- 2016: National Anticorruption Directorate convicted 879 defendants and seized €226 million.
- September 2016: Interior Minister Victor Ponta resigned after Colectiv fire protests.
- December 2016: The National Audiovisual Council fined pro-government station Romania TV €6700 for airing fake news suggesting George Soros was behind the Colectiv fires.
- 2017: National Anticorruption Directorate convicted 713 defendants and seized €159.5 million.
- August 2017: Justice Minister Florin Iordache resigned following five days of protests after he defended graft-decriminalization.
- December 2017: Demonstrators protested a parliamentary coup that would reduce the power of anti-graft agencies.
- June 2018: European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the same-sex couple petitioning for residential rights.
- June 2018: President of the Social Democratic Party Liviu Dragnea convicted and sentenced to 3.5 years for abuse of power after he allowed two employees to remain on public payroll from 2006 – 2013.
- August 2018: Demonstrators protested over lower wages and weakened judiciary checks. Protests turned violent when police used tear gas and beat non-violent demonstrators.
- October 2018: Voters hindered a referendum that would have prevented same-sex marriage.
- April 2019: Reporters Without Borders introduces ten EU proposals to protect freedom of the press.
- May 2019: Bucharest police and prosecutor’s office protect journalist Emilia Sercan after she received death threats and police officers were indicated as suspects.
- May 2019: Youth voter turnout increased by 39.48% for European Parliament elections.
Substansiave Score for Further Erosion (0 – 4): 3
While there is significant evidence of democratic erosion in Romania, there is still hope. Statistics show that while most of the population believes democracy is not working very well, 60% of Romanians maintain that it is the best form of government. In the face of widespread poverty and corruption, public resistance and support for democracy are still present. Dramatic shifts in leadership over the course of 2019 indicate that the people of Romania are finally being heard. Moving forward, there is hope that these profound changes will pave the way for a stronger, brighter future.