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Romanian government appeals for calm after graft U-turn
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 07 - 02 - 2017

Romania's Social Democrat-led government on Monday urged an end to what it called "this tense state" as it braced for further mass protests despite its withdrawal of a decree widely condemned as reversing the country's anti-corruption drive.

Following the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989, the government on Sunday rescinded the decree, which would have shielded dozens of politicians from prosecution.
Political analysts said the government — in power for barely a month — now faced an uphill task restoring shattered public confidence. Even after its embarrassing U-turn, some 250,000 protesters chanted late on Sunday: "We don't believe you, we won't give up."
Some said they would protest daily until Parliament confirms the withdrawal of the decree, while others said only the government's resignation would satisfy them.
Social Democrat Party (PSD) leader Liviu Dragnea, the chief target of the protesters' ire, sounded a defiant note on Monday after chairing a meeting of senior party officials, and he reiterated its support for Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu.
"The government has no reason to resign, it was legitimately elected," Dragnea told reporters. "As long as this tense state continues in Romania no one has anything to gain."
He signaled that the government could still seek, with parliamentary involvement, changes to the criminal code, and might seek the advice of foreign experts.
"All the PSD can do is to urge calm. Besides the protesters in the square, there are other Romanians also shouting that their vote must be protected," he said, in reference to the party's big win in a December election.
However, the scenes of Romanians thronging Bucharest's broad boulevards and other cities every evening since Jan. 31 have clearly shaken the PSD, and they will not have gone unnoticed elsewhere across Eastern Europe, blighted by corruption and cosy ties between business and politics since the end of communism.
Romania, a country of 20 million people and host to a US ballistic missile defense station and one of the staunchest Washington allies with troops in the middle East, remains one of the poorest and most corrupt members of the European Union.
A Social Democrat-led government was felled by street protests only 15 months ago following a nightclub fire that killed 64 people. That incident triggered an outpouring of public anger amid accusations of state negligence and corruption in failing to enforce fire-safety regulations at the club.
"They (Romania's leaders) are deeply scared by these huge protests, unprecedented in 27 years," independent political commentator Cristian Patrasconiu said of the latest rallies. "This amounts to more than a simple step back. Any new move by them needs assessment. Everything looks suspicious."
The corruption decree, issued late in the evening of Jan. 31 by the Cabinet without parliamentary debate, had been designed to decriminalize a number of graft offences, cut prison terms for others and narrow the definition of conflict-of-interest.
The government said it was merely bringing the criminal code into line with recent rulings by the Constitutional Court and an EU legal directive to member states to consolidate some aspects of presumption of innocence, as well as to ease jail overcrowding.
But the opposition, anti-corruption prosecutors, magistrates and hundreds of thousands of Romanian protesters said it had been tailor-made to amnesty dozens of politically-affiliated public officials convicted or accused of abuse of office in one of the most corrupt members of the EU.
The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, and the United States both condemned the government's move as backtracking on anti-graft reforms and the widely-acclaimed work of anti-corruption prosecutors.
On Monday morning, Justice Minister Florin Iordache told reporters he would publish the details of a new, alternative bill to update the criminal code, which would be put to the public for a month-long debate.
But his own ministry later appeared to contradict him, issuing a statement that said the justice ministry was not planning to draft a bill.
The government's decision to withdraw the decree will require the approval of parliament, where the PSD and their junior partners enjoy a big majority.

On Wednesday, the government also faces a no-confidence vote filed by the opposition Liberals and Save Romania Union.

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