Reportage. The prime minister issued an emergency decree raising the amount of money a public official is allowed to steal without facing prison time.

Romanians flood the streets after government decriminalizes corruption

Romania has been racked with political turmoil after the new government, led by the Social Democrat Sorin Grindeanu, issued an emergency order decriminalizing the abuse of public office.

On Tuesday night, immediately after the news hit the wires, thousands of people who had on Sunday filled the squares of major Romanian cities again spilled into the streets spontaneously through word of mouth and social media, demanding the Grindeanu’s immediate resignation.

At the center of the debate that has inflamed the country, and that seriously jeopardizes the fight against corruption, is the decision to amend Article 267 of the Penal Code and raise the threshold for which the crime of official abuse, punishable by up to seven years in prison, will be prosecuted. Those careful not to exceed about €50,000 may only be punished with a fine.

The government took the action in extreme haste, without any debate with the opposition and in particular with the rising political force, the Save Romania Union (USR), which came to prominence in December elections under the leadership of the former mayor of Bucharest, Nicusor Dan.

USR has called the order tailor-made for the leader of the Social Democrat Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, whose candidacy for prime minister was rejected by President Klaus Iohannis because Dragnea had been indicted for corruption. (Already, Dragnea had received a separate two-year sentence for attempting to rig the votes in an impeachment referendum of the former president, Traian Basescu.)

The new charge? Abuse of office. The damage to the treasury? About €24,000.

The premier’s order does not help the country’s image as it faces the close scrutiny from the European Union over corruption woes. Romania has not gained entry to the Schengen area because of unheeded demands from the European Commission to reform the judiciary and clamp down on corruption.

“The fight against corruption must move forward and not be undermined,” said Commission President Jean Claude Juncker. “We’re following with great concern the recent developments in Romania.” In the same statement, he added that “the report published by the Commission last week greeted with satisfaction the positive statements made by prosecutors and judges of Romania as regards the fight against corruption, but any measures that could affect or slow down this process will impact the next report.”

Iohannis’ reaction was also vehement. Before entering the High Judicial Council on Tuesday, he called the order “inadmissible, unacceptable, scandalous and an unprecedented mockery that the government has taken in haste, without the consent of the [high court], without being included in the agenda, on a subject as sensitive as the penal code.”

Iohannis then formally requested that Grindeanu rescind the order.

The atmosphere is tense, and already there’s been the first resignation. Daniel Sandru, secretary of the PSD, immediately stepped down, declaring, “Romania cannot progress with lies and flagrant disregard of the demands of Romanians. Abuses can’t be corrected with even larger abuses.”

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