Bucharest January ''17 protest
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Romania: People Power

An insider’s view of Romania’s fierce fight against corruption and for radical change.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available to view online.

Romania is known to be one of the most corrupt nations of the European Union. Less commonly known, however, is that Romania has become the centre stage of one of the fiercest anti-corruption battles.

This radical metamorphosis of Romanian society is mostly the work of a new generation that knew communism when it was young. How was a radical change in the country made possible? 

It's difficult to get a political culture, to interest people in the pros and cons of public politics, in the costs and benefits, when you're not sure about your next meal. Democracy is difficult to practise on an empty stomach.

by Elena Calistru, chair and founder of Funky Citizens

On January 31, 2017, the biggest protest movement since the fall of Romania’s communist dictatorship broke out in the streets of Bucharest. Hundreds of thousands of people marched against a new government decree that would decriminalise some corruption offenses, including official misconduct and abuse of power with financial damages under $48,000 (200,000 lei). 

The move was particularly bold in light of the hundreds of officials, including businessmen, mayors, government ministers and parliamentarians that have been charged and sentenced for corruption charges in the last two decades.

In early 2016, over 1,200 defendants were sent to court on charges of high-level corruption – including Romanian members of parliament. Bribes of cash, political sway, tax cuts and even sausages have shaken and tickled the nation in turn.

Thirty years of dictatorship that ended with the Romanian Revolution and the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu have given rise to a healthy sense of humour in the country – culminating in a Bucharest tour that was created to showcase the history of corruption in the capital. 

But it was the fall of the dictatorship that gave way to new levels of corruption, including the misappropriation of government funds. However, the EU laid down its own terms and conditions for Romania’s then pending negotiations to join the union. Under then Minister of Justice Monica Macovei, a process of judicial reform made way for Romania’s anti-corruption prosecutors. 

It was also Macovei that successfully pushed for the empowerment of an independent judicial body, the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), to prosecute all levels of crime. The heads of the DNA, the chief prosecutor and two deputies, are nominated by a minister of justice and the president of Romania. However, it does not answer to any ministers or deputies, enabling free reign over who and/or what the organisation chooses to investigate. 

More importantly, Romanian youth are working within and alongside the DNA and other independent collectives, like Funky Citizens, motivated by the promise of a cleaner, corruption-free country.

After joining the EU in 2007, Romania has seen an unprecedented judicial overhaul resulting in the unearthing and prosecution of multiple corruption cases at the highest level. Independent media groups, like Rise Project, have also played an important part in continuing the anti-corruption legacy Romania is building, empowering journalists and activists to speak on related matters in a safe and supportive space. 

In a culture of corruption, can Romania’s youth be the hope the country needs to continue its transformation to democracy? Or will the ghosts of the nation’s communism and corruption past be back to haunt the newly rejuvenated Romania?