International headlines in early 2017 have been dominated by the anti-corruption protests in Romania - the largest demonstrations to take place in Bucharest since the 1989 revolution that toppled one of the last remaining Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Romanian citizens have taken to the streets over government ordinances decriminalizing certain corrupt acts related to politicians and possible abuse of power, along with pardoning certain offenses previously classified as criminal acts. The secretive manner of the government’s decision to approve these ordinances, coupled with the opaque way in which these measures were rolled out, further contributed to this outburst of public anger.
The controversial proposed changes in Romania relate to anti-corruption legislation adopted by the previous government of Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos. Ciolos came into power in 2015 in response to collective anger over criminal corruption by the PSD-led government of Victor Ponta, following revelations that a Bucharest nightclub burned down because the fire safety permit requirement was not enforced for a favored business. The political turmoil did not stop with the new government, and in December 2016 the PSD returned to power, now led by Sorin Grindeanu. The government does not appear to grasp the high level of concern over corruption by Romanian citizens.
Despite the most recent upheavals, Romania’s anti-corruption efforts are in many ways more advanced and rigorous than anything that has thus far taken place in Ukraine. This is due to the commitment of key national institutions in Bucharest to tackle corruption from the top down. The powerful Romanian National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) has carried out hundreds of arrests and opened numerous criminal cases against corrupt officials. This served as a visible and powerful image for Romanians that concrete steps towards fighting corruption were taking place. Jailing corrupt individuals was an important and highly visible way to improve public perceptions of the government’s seriousness towards fighting corruption. Yet today, the legislative backbone and influence of the institutions underpinning Romania's anti-corruption drive are now threatened.
Lessons for Ukraine?
In the long term, Ukraine's focus on institution building will hopefully mitigate the effects of ebbing political will on enforcing anti-corruption measures. However, Ukrainians are also demanding more visible steps in the short term, particularly as the third anniversary of the EuroMaidan Revolution passes without evidence of the kind of progress the public seeks.
In Ukraine, serious attempts to introduce anti-corruption reform grew out of a grassroots movement during and after the EuroMaidan Revolution. Individual initiatives have included local municipal efforts to increase the transparency of city budgets, the launch of Administrative Service Centers, and adopting new tender processing portals. These efforts have helped to build a political environment in which the government is expected to approach corruption in a robust and institutionalized manner.
Many of these initiatives were locally driven and championed by local mayors or parties with strong civic backing. Pressure from civil society helped to bring the newly established National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutors Office into being. How effectively these new bodies will be in actually bringing offenders to trial and prosecuting corruption remains be seen.
Will Romania take a step back?
Romania’s urban population is unlikely to accept a single step back in reforming corruption in both the private sector and government. The creation of the DNA, the introduction of new legislation, and the (albeit brief) period of reformist government have changed the environment to the point where it may not be politically viable to undue this progress. Like Ukraine in 2013, the frustration Romanians feel towards officials who seemingly act with impunity has translated into a public outcry. Whether or not the protest movement achieves sustainable political change remains to be seen.
Prime Minister Grindeanu appears to be playing for time and has publicly expressed his approval of this current wave of “participatory democracy” by Romania's citizens. Taking Ukraine as an example, the ability for protest movements to translate into political power and yield meaningful reform remains an elusive goal, and corruption an enduring problem. According to an October 2016 nationwide poll by the International Republican Institute, 38 percent of Ukrainians still saw corruption in state bodies as the most important issue affecting the state and 42% felt that anti-corruption reform should be the top reform priority of the government. How Ukraine and Romania translate public exasperation into strong democratic institutions remains to be seen, but their people have certainly not given up yet.
About the author: Michael Druckman is the Resident Country Director for Ukraine at the International Republican Institute.