BUCHAREST, Romania — After weeks of protests — the largest here since the fall of communism nearly three decades ago — Romanian Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu was forced to scrap a decree that would have made it harder to prosecute some of this poor country’s corrupt politicians.
So why, then, haven’t the protesters gone home?
“We are the last line of defense — it is us or them,” said Bogdan Rusanescu, 30, who has remained on the streets of Victoria Square near parliament after the decree was scrapped to remind the government that it has not gone far enough.
“We must strengthen the justice system so they can attack the thieves,” he said. “If we do not take action and they are able to [again] introduce laws to legitimize theft, I cannot see a good future for Romania.”
The persistence of the protests matches the persistence of the challenge that official corruption has posed for the economic and political health of many former communist countries in the region. Analysts say corruption and the corrosive effects it has on democracy and basic government functions are proving some of the most difficult problems facing reformers.
While the crowds have gotten smaller in recent days, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people were once again outside government headquarters on Sunday demanding the resignation of a government that they say has lost the trust of the voters. Many sported pins that read “Resist.”
The Romanian protests erupted at the end of January after Justice Minister Florin Iordache — who has since stepped down — announced that the government had adopted a law that would decriminalize official misconduct for damages less than $48,000 and end corruption investigations for offenses currently underway. The decision was made in secret and was announced at two hours before midnight.
Dozens of politicians, including the leader of the ruling political party and the president of one of the houses of Parliament, Liviu Dragnea, would have benefited from the new rule. Mr. Dragnea is under investigation for reportedly using a patronage scheme involving around $25,000. He was convicted of electoral fraud and received a two-year suspended sentence last year.
Laura Kovesi Codruta, the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor, issued a report late last week finding that nearly 1,300 Romanian officials — including three ministers, 17 lawmakers and 16 magistrates — were sent to prison in corruption cases. She said confusion over the corruption statute could make it more difficult for prosecutors to do their job.
Before Romania joined the European Union in 2007, Brussels required the country to beef up its legal system. The National Anti-Corruption Directorate, an agency that has prosecuted hundreds of high-ranking officials, put former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase in prison and convicted thousands of lawmakers, mayors, judges, police chiefs and other officials on bribery, fraud, embezzlement and other charges.
Mr. Nastase’s conviction on charges of abusing office in 2012 was a key moment in the fight against corruption, said Elena Calistru, co-founder of Funky Citizens, a good-government group. “In the collective mind, that was a moment of, ‘Wow, this really happens; it’s not just a game,’” she said.
The anti-corruption agency has scored significant successes since then.
Today, Romanians in Victoria Square hope that Mr. Grindeanu will follow the disgraced Mr. Nastase and former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who was forced to resign in 2015 while facing corruption charges. Still, after he withdrew the corruption decree, the prime minister said he would not resign because his party won parliamentary elections in December with millions of votes. Days later, a no-confidence vote initiated by the parliamentary opposition failed.
Protesters, as a result, say they will be on the streets to show that the situation is not acceptable. Some also say the country is developing a solidarity that hasn’t been seen in the past.
“Romanians must relearn what it’s like to be all together after so long we stood apart and tried to thrive strictly each for himself,” said Serban Alexandrescu, 46, a creative director for an advertising agency.
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