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Inside Romania’s Huge Protests Against a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Decree

Corruption is the spark that ignited the demonstrations that now aim to bring down Romania’s government. But there’s more to it than that.

BUCHAREST, Romania—What happens when the population turns against the populists? Just such a drama is playing out in Romania, a country of 20 million people where hundreds of thousands have poured into the streets in the biggest mass protests since the end of communism.

On Sunday night the energy of the anti-government rally on Victoriei Square was reminiscent of a huge rock festival. Protestors were drumming, playing trumpets, whistling, singing, and dancing. In the bitter cold, a river of people streamed from all directions of Bucharest to the heart of the revolutionary movement. To get warm, people were jumping up and down with the flags of Romania and the United Nations in their hands. A cheerful group of young men served hot tea. By 9:30 at night, the square was packed with thousands of people and more were coming. An enormous blue, yellow, and red national flag was floating over the crowd. “Hotii Hotii” (Thieves! Thieves!”) protestors chanted.

One of the big banners unfurled at Sunday’s rally said: “The day we give in is the day we die.”

The slogan was linked to the famous tragedy that happened at the Collective nightclub in 2013, where 64 people were killed in a fire during a concert by the band Goodbye to Gravity. Mass protests against the corruption (the nightclub had no authorizations for much of its construction) led to the resignation of the country’s prime minister. One of Goodbye to Gravity’s songs was called “The Day We Die.”

The issue that sparked these new demonstrations today was a new and stunning example of corruption: the government’s attempt on Jan. 31 to decree immunity for many of its members who are under investigation. But the discontent behind the protests runs much deeper than that.

At first, the political labels attached to some of the players seem very different from those in other countries, where we’ve seen the rise of right-wing populists who now govern in Hungary and Poland, and are serious contenders for power in the Netherlands and France—all with more than a little encouragement from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Romania’s government, elected just last November, is dominated by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), is supposed to be pro-Europe, and Romania has raised the ire of Moscow by allowing components of the NATO missile defense shield to be based there.

Yet among the protestors there is a rejection of the government’s arrogance, and to a considerable extent the demonstrations are an assertion of power by the younger, more cosmopolitan generation in defiance of the older, more provincial forces that have dominated politics, the same sort of divide one sees not only in European politics but in the United States, where big cities voted overwhelmingly against President Donald Trump.

The epicenter of the Romanian protests is here in Bucharest’s Victoriei Square, where the spirit these last few days has been upbeat, almost triumphant.

After almost watching this growing public anger day after day, the Romanian government finally reacted: Justice Minister Florin Iordache resigned this week. But clearly that's not enough for these demonstrators.

Night after night, even as they stood out in the freezing cold, people in the crowd were smiling and cheering. Some wrapped themselves in Romanian national flags, others waved caustically witty signs or tooted their enthusiasm on plastic trumpets. On Saturday, thousands were chanting: “Resign! Thieves!” as drummers beat a frenetic rhythm and protest slogans were projected on the side of a building

Romania, one of the last countries to join the European Union in 2007, had become an EU star in the fight against corruption. Its prosecutors, now led by 43-year-old Laura Kovesi, have gone after prime ministers, ministers, mayors, and law enforcement employees. But in November the PSD, which actually is conservative leaning, won an election marked by a low turnout and widespread apathy.

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That changed when one of the first big acts of the government, “Emergency Ordinance No. 13,” was announced late on a Tuesday night almost two weeks ago. It would be, essentially, a “get out of jail free” card for officials if the bribes they took could not be proved to more than $48,000. Hundreds of officials already imprisoned for corruption could have walked; prosecution of many others would be impossible.

People instantly took to the streets to defend the rule of law. Many were furious. Their war on corruption was one of the country’s proudest accomplishments, and they wanted their reputation back. On the first Sunday after the decree, an estimated 600,000 turned out.

As governments are wont to do whenever they are caught out, Romania’s began to flirt with a conspiracy theory. Officials suggested that George Soros’s Open Society Foundation had somehow financed this huge anti-government movement. In fact, the cleavages in Romania quickly became apparent. The PSD is popular among a more provincial electorate while it has infuriated and Romania’s urban populations. The Orthodox Church backed the government, while the EU and another branch of government, the largely ceremonial presidency held by Klaus Iohannis, were supporting the resistance movement.

One of the protestors out in the square, a young linguist named Alina Vaculea, has been coming there every day after work and staying in the freezing wind until late at night. Clearly a woman of strong spirit, Alina knows exactly what she wants: a return to the war on corruption. Alina seemed chilled to the bone in the cold wind but did not leave the square. “The pawn you sacrifice does not impress me!” read the banner in her hands, alluding to the resignation of the justice minister.

Romanians wanted to move forward, away from their repressive communist past: the period from 1947 to 1989 when people were too terrified to join any political protests. In recent years, the Romanian street has brought down governments. But the shadow of the old Iron Curtain imposed by Russia has remained over the country, clouding its future.

“Any politician saying the words, ‘I am pro-Putin’ is dead in Romania, but Putin’s spirit is quietly creeping in, being imported,” says Sorin Ionia, an analyst with the Expert Forum. Going back to anti-democratic methods of rule was exactly why people protested on Victoriei Square, says Ionia.

In fact, it was not some American-oriented non-governmental group affiliated with Soros, but Facebook that has helped Romanian civil society organize mass protests and overthrow governments in the past decade. The latest movement grew from about 13,000 people protesting against a non-transparent mining project in 2013, to over 30,000 coming out after a lethal nightclub fire in 2015—the protestors were convinced that the disaster was caused by corruption. Both times, the anti-government rallies lasted for weeks before prime ministers resigned. Most of the activists were members of multiple anti-corruption groups on Facebook, which have announced their agendas and built up their networks.

After the government’s “emergency” decree announced on Jan. 31 the reaction was instantaneous.

One of the Facebook pages called Corruption Kills had a photograph of a toilet seat featuring the party leader, Liviu Dragnea, and other members. “Flush them down!” it said. One minister gone is not enough. People on the square want to see Dragnea behind bars for abuse of power, and and they want the rest of his government to resign.

Last Thursday night, as the momentum of the protests continued to build and the justice minister resigned, professional musicians Valeriu Borcos and Eduard Gabia could barely contain their excitement. They said they were going to sign up on Facebook for Thursday and Friday protests, and for the upcoming weekend rallies. Their cheeks were chapped pink after many nights protesting outside. The two were “veterans of the revolution,” they joked in an interview with The Daily Beast.

“The minister of justice leaving today is our small victory but this is just the start, we cannot trust anybody in the PSD—they passed one corrupt law, they can do it again,” said Borcos. “We see so many bad examples, anti-democracy processes both in Europe and in post-Soviet states, we should not allow our government to drag us back.”

—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey in Paris