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Around 30,000 Romanians have taken to the streets in peaceful protests Sunday night, including your irenic correspondent on the scene, in Bucharest, the capital, & the other large cities. The scandal this time: The new Socialist government is attempting to change the criminal code by government decree (emergency order), bypassing the Parliament where it holds the majority. Why are the Socialists not willing to debate the changes publicly? Because they aim to get some of the most successfully corrupt people now in jail out–that is, to reduce terms for various forms of corruption that are estimated to add up to less than 200,000 RON (close to $50,000), which of course is more than the majority of Romanians make in a life time.
The government attempted this week to pass the order to that effect in secrecy. Some journalists made a scandal of the underhanded attempt & asked for publicity: They asked publicly that the president attend the government meeting where this underhanded business was supposed to be done, which he has a constitutional right to do. He did attend, & the government reacted by taking the measure off the order of business for the day. The laws stands unchanged yet, but we do not know what the next underhanded attempt will be. We took to the streets, therefore. This is the most blatant attack against the hard core of democratic justice in Romania in recent years. It comes a mere month after the installation of the new Socialist government, which won a remarkable legislative victory in December, as the opposition electorate mostly collapsed.
In Romania, the magistrates are alike to the Roman tribunes of the plebs. Their job, understood in terms of the regime, is to put corrupt rich people in jail in the name of the poor majority. The Bureau authorized to prosecute corruption is the major source of justice in Romanian society & the only anti-oligarchic power the democracy now wields. Political corruption is a major issue in Romania & several former high-ranking officials, including a recent Socialist PM, have been accused, tried, convicted, & imprisoned for various forms of corruption. A large number of the men elected to the new Parliament find themselves in various of these four stages of the justice system. To be blunt, the balance between democracy & oligarchy depends on the institutions of anti-corruption prosecution. Those institutions are not themselves threatened right now, but the result of their work is–changes to the criminal code would of course make justice worthless.
One man alone runs the government right now, although he is not a part of it. He runs it from the Parliament. This man is the leader of the Socialist party, Mr. Liviu Dragnea. He has been definitively convicted of abuse of power of some kind, after all recourse to courts of appeal–but the sentence was suspended, as if the country needed another show of the way the powerful escape justice. (Other sources, like this Reuters report, apparently cannot even get the basic facts right about the trial, & only mention accusations…) Nevertheless, the condemnation was enough to keep him from ascending to the position of PM after his party, under his astute leadership, won the legislative elections of December 2016.
His reaction was to propose someone else for the position of PM–a puppet–a Muslim woman–I have no idea what her name is, nor does anyone else in Romania. The NYT of course jumped for joy at such a multicultural appointment-in-the-making. The president refused to appoint her on the grounds that her husband is too close to the tyrant conducting the slaughters in Syria & had other dubious relationships in the Islamic world. So it was perfect caricature of pro-Muslim multiculturalism. The NYT failed to mention that the woman is an utter non-entity in Romanian society & politics & the press & what have you. This would have been the first anonymous PM, but as luck would have it, it did not come to pass.
The Socialist leader reacted to that false step with hysterical accusations against the president & then proposed another non-entity, who was duly appointed, & who formed a cabinet of non-entities. Romania is now run, effectively, without public accountability, without the public even knowing who is running things, but in accordance with the laws & Constitution. This also is unheard of, the country having previously been run by a President or a PM…
An important part of the agenda of the new government seems to be to destroy the institutions of justice in Romania. One wonders about the effects of the attempt of the oligarchy to defend itself from the rule of law. One wonders, especially, whether it would affect Romania’s relationship to NATO. It seems obvious that Mr. Trump will have problems in Eastern Europe because of Russia. Only two countries are large enough to matter in the region–both rather loyal American allies–the bigger one is Poland, the other Romania. Poland seems politically in trouble because the EU seems to want to destroy the duly-elected government, because it is right-wing. Romania is a different case–it is politically stable, without foreign troubles, but it is undergoing another phase of the political lukewarm war conducted in the institutions of the state, in the media, & in public between democracy & oligarchy.
It is of some importance to America to have serious allies in Eastern Europe. Helping Poland against the EU seems like sensible policy. Mr. Trump should be advised to pursue it with his trademark loquacity & confidence. It is not difficult to do, but it does create a serious NATO-EU tension. In Romania, it is not clear what American public diplomacy & high-level diplomacy can achieve. Conservatives should ask themselves whether they’re ok with oligarchy running the country through the Socialist party, which has non-negligible ties to Russia.
I speak here without partisanship & must round out my advice with the following qualifications: I am not convinced democracy would be a better American ally than oligarchy; I am reasonably confident, but not completely convinced that democracy would favor America over Russia, but I cannot say it would do so competently or efficiently; I am not convinced that the oligarchy would prefer Russia to America, either, although I am reasonably confident. In the Romanian case, the EU makes certain demands relating to justice & rule of law that are helpful to the democracy. If America & NATO want a harmonious relationship with the EU’s policy in Eastern Europe on issues of justice, it is worth the incoming Secretary of State’s time to use the State Department to push for a more legal order in Romania. I will say without any reservations, however, that I do no believe Romania can move towards a more legal order without EU-NATO-American support. It would be very cheap for America to do & would be useful if NATO-Eastern Europe is important for the Trump administration.