World News

Romania Braces for President’s Decision on Bills Seen as Weakening Judiciary

Posted December 30, 2017 5:54 p.m. EST

BUCHAREST, Romania — Across Eastern Europe, liberal values were under threat in 2017, with governments in countries like Hungary, Poland and Romania passing measures intended to push back against democratic principles, including anti-corruption efforts, freedom of the press and the rule of law.

In Romania, protesters and politicians are gearing up for a tense January, almost a year after hundreds of thousands took to the streets to oppose government measures relaxing penalties for official corruption.

On Dec. 20, the Romanian Senate passed legislation that critics said would weaken the judiciary’s independence. The country’s lower house previously had approved the changes. They now await the signature of President Klaus Iohannis, who has long criticized efforts to weaken the fight against corruption. Iohannis is the former leader of the National Liberal Party, the main opposition party to the governing coalition.

Iohannis has 20 days to sign the measures into law or exercise his veto and send them back to parliament. “If someone is imagining that there will be no consequences, they have simply fallen from the moon,” he told reporters on Dec. 20.

The measures would limit the independence of magistrates, as well as set up a special unit to investigate potential crimes committed by them. Judges and magistrates have held silent protests in front of courthouses across the country to oppose the measures.

Lawmakers from the governing party also released a draft bill on Dec. 26 that proposed changes to Romania’s criminal code, which, among other things, would no longer punish abuse-of-office offenses in which the financial damage is less than 200,000 euros, or about $240,000.

On Thursday, the bill’s chief proponent announced that he was withdrawing the proposal but said that some of its provisions could still be enacted as amendments to the criminal code.

The measures, if passed, would significantly weaken corruption laws. A similar effort earlier this year to rein in anti-corruption efforts spurred record numbers of Romanians to demonstrate in the streets. Those protests — the largest in the country in a quarter-century — at times drew more than half a million people and lasted more than two weeks, forcing the government to rescind its emergency decree.

Demonstrations have flared up throughout the year, however, as the government moved to pass other legislative changes that many here and abroad say would weaken the rule of law.

Observers say the timing of these bills, and the proposed changes to the criminal code, is no coincidence.

“Protests have had an impact, but now it’s winter and the protesters are less,” said Cristian Pirvulescu, dean of the political science department at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest. “Politicians understand that this is the moment to push these changes.”

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Mihai Tudose met with representatives of the civil society groups involved in the protests. Little was achieved, however.

“We didn’t expect much from this meeting, after 10 months of almost continuous protests and with them still pushing for changes to the law,” said Mihai Politeanu, one of the founders of Initiative Romania, a civil society nongovernmental organization, who attended the meeting.

Politeanu says he believes what is happening in Romania is more than just about an anti-corruption fight, but rather an attempt to subordinate the judiciary’s power and follow the paths of Hungary and Poland. Both counties in recent years have enacted policies that weaken checks on political power.

“In January we’ll call on the people to go out to the streets again,” he said, “until these changes in the laws stop for good.”

Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007, has long struggled with corruption, but in recent years it has made strides to hold politicians and others to account. In November, anti-corruption prosecutors froze personal assets worth more than $30 million belonging to Liviu Dragnea, leader of Romania’s governing Social Democrat Party and president of the lower house of parliament.

Dragnea, who is already serving a two-year suspended sentence for electoral fraud, is under investigation for misuse of state money, including EU funds.

On Dec. 20, the European Commission, the bloc’s powerful administrative arm, invoked Article 7 of the EU’s founding treaty against Poland over judicial changes that many fear will undermine the independence of the country’s courts. The move potentially paved the way for the suspension of the country’s voting rights in the European Union.

Romania’s foreign allies, including the United States, have raised similar concerns over the latest measures. Seven EU embassies in Bucharest, the capital, issued a joint statement on Dec. 21 appealing to those involved in the judiciary changes to “avoid any action that could lead to weakening the independence of the justice system and of the fight against corruption.”

This followed a similar statement released by the State Department in November. Iohannis can send the legislation back to parliament only once. After the measure is returned to him, complete with any changes, he is obliged to sign it.

“Parliament is powerful from this point of view: You have a law, the president can refuse it and afterwards he has to pass it no matter what,” said Radu Delicote, a strategist at the political consulting group Smartlink Communications.

Delicote says he believes, as others do, that Iohannis will return the legislation to parliament, setting the stage for further debate and then the eventual passage of some form of the legislation. What form it eventually takes could depend on outside pressure.

“We have to wait and see what will happen in January — what Iohannis’ decision will be, what the embassies’ last words will be and how public pressure will look,” he said. “January is going to be a powerful political battleground.”