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Romania has experienced protests since the government passed legislation reversing anti-corruption measures on Jan. 31. Photo illustration by Janelle Blakley.

Romania’s new government only took power last month, but the public is already expressing their anger as massive protests - some of the largest since the fall of communism - have erupted across the country.

Madalina Balasescu lives in Romania’s capital, Bucharest. She went to a protest last week in Victoriei Square where she estimates 300,000 people were in attendance.

“It was absolutely amazing. Everybody there was very determined, not violent, but very determined to reach the goal, because it’s democracy in the middle (of it) and our lives. It’s very important what is in the middle of this political game,” said Balasescu.

The protests are in response to an emergency ordinance - passed by the government on Jan. 31 - which decriminalized financial misconduct by public officials if the amount is less than 200,000 lei (US$47,600).  

The issue of corruption has dominated Romanian politics since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. According to a 2016 report by Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, over half of Romanian citizens surveyed said their representatives are very corrupt. Romania also has one of the highest bribery rates in the EU; 29 per cent of households reported paying a bribe in the past 12 months when accessing basic services.     

Monika Cule, head of the economics department at the University of Regina, said corruption is common in post-communist countries in eastern Europe.

“(Corruption) comes directly from the nature of the transformation that these countries embarked (on) from the early 1990s and they continue. They are completely changing not only the economic system but also the political system because they moved from a one-party system to a competitive democratic system,” said Cule.

Established democracies, like those in western Europe, developed slowly over many years. After the fall of communism in the east, new governments put in place legislation borrowed from western democracies, Cule explained.

“This kind of institutional borrowing of the rules and regulations, things that have been created over years in these developed countries, western European countries, did not have that legitimacy in the eastern European countries,” she said. 

Romania joined the European Union in 2007 and has previously made progress in the fight against corruption as anti-corruption measures were a condition of EU membership. Since Brexit has raised new uncertainties about the EU’s future, member states may feel more confident to bend the rules, said Cule.

“They already have the membership and in a climate where membership is questionable for others, they might feel that they can pull back from what was initially imposed on them to become members in the first place,” she said.

Cule believes the protests are a good way for citizens to take a stand against corruption. 

“At the end of the day, you can have the best regulations, if it doesn’t have legitimacy among the larger population, then it’s not a good regulation because it’s going to be very hard to enforce,” said Cule.

Balasescu said Romanian people have had enough.   

“The people lack trust in the institutions, it’s more than a number of people upset because of this ordinance, it’s a lot of people sick and tired after 27 years post-communism, because they pay taxes and (the government) took the money, everybody in the political system, we have a very bad problem here with corruption,” she said.    

Protests across Romania are expected to continue as Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu survived a vote of no-confidence in parliament on Feb.8.