In December 2016, Romania’s political landscape changed following the parliamentary elections. The Social Democratic Party (PSD, successor to the Romanian Communist Party) won a plurality of seats (around 44%) in both the upper and lower chambers of Parliament, but fell short of securing a simple majority. With the help of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), on 4 January 2017 the PSD formed a government led by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu. The PSD dominated the Romanian Parliament for much of the post-communist period, and many more of its politicians are corrupt than members of other political parties. Romania has struggled with high levels of corruption in every field of life, from the elementary school student who must bribe her teacher, to medical doctors expecting or demanding bribes, all the way to corrupt politicians embezzling large funds from the country’s budget and from the European Union (EU). After joining the EU ten years ago, Romania was asked to control its corruption, but it has remained one of the most corrupt members of the EU, alongside sister Orthodox countries like Greece and Bulgaria. The fight against corruption has been encouraged by the ethnic German President Klaus Iohannis (in office since December 2014), and led by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) Chief Prosecutor Laura Codruța Kövesi (née Lascu), a devout Romanian Orthodox displaying icons in her office, who assumed the post in 2013.
Hundreds of PSD members, including former prime ministers, MPs, mayors, and other political figures, found themselves behind bars as a result of the DNA-led anticorruption campaign. Therefore, it came as no surprise to many Romanians that among the first pieces of legislation introduced by the new PSD Minister of Justice Florin Iordache was Emergency Ordinance 13 that amended the Penal Code, decriminalized abuse in the performance of official duties if the damage is less than 200,000 RON (some USD47,000), and granted amnesty to many prisoners under the pretext that the Romanian prison system was overcrowded. Adopted in a late-night session by the new government, the ordinance was published on February 1, 2017 and started to have effects immediately, since ordinances do not need the approval of Parliament. The somewhat surreptitious adoption of the ordinance, combined with the cabinet’s willingness to avoid a parliamentary debate on the issue and the many PSD leaders the ordinance was supposed to help bring out of prison, brought Romanians into the street in droves the following day.
At the height of the protests, which were peaceful except for one night when drunk soccer fans appeared into the streets, some 600,000 people (including the elderly and parents with small children) demonstrated in various cities across the country against the perceived corruption the government was trying to protect. Thousands of Romanians living abroad showed support for the protests and the anticorruption fight. It was an example of civism never seen in Romania, with the number of protesters being far greater than those who took to the streets against the communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu in December 1989. Under tremendous pressure from the street, the EU and its international partners to meet its responsibilities and defend the rule of law, the Grindeanu government abrogated the ordinance and replaced its minister of justice. However, the protests continued, drawing an even larger number of people into the street. The protesters prefer another government, with no corrupt ministers, but do not contest the December election results that brought the PSD to power.
One day after the ordinance was published, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Romania reacted to the street protests, while the following day Patriarch Daniel Ciobotea, the head of the majority Orthodox Church, issued a communiqué. The ordinance pitted the executive against the judiciary. This was sensed by both church leaders, who spoke about fact that social peace had been disturbed by the conflict between the two branches of government and called for a peaceful, prayerful and responsible approach to overcome the impasse and fight corruption. The Orthodox communiqué emphasized that the anticorruption fight should continue without being misused for political purposes to become a “witch hunt,” while the use of prisons should not be mistaken for repression, as was the case under communism. Since 1989, and especially under Patriarch Teoctist Arăpașu, the Orthodox Church has depended on financial support and property restitution from some influential parties (particularly the PSD). In exchange, the Church has helped these parties’ candidates to win electoral support. While commenting on the ongoing protests, the Orthodox Church has been careful to assert its political neutrality and state that “it cannot be indifferent socially, but receptive to the major wishes of the people: social justice, diminishing corruption and raising the standards of living.” As such, the Orthodox Church encourages “the continuation of the anticorruption fight and the sanctioning of those found guilty, since theft and felony degrade a society morally and materially.” At the same time, the Church sees itself as a “factor of social peace” (in the sense of preventing what sociologists call anomie), a role identified clearly in the Romanian Law of Religion no. 489 of 2006, and urges Romanians to engage in prayer, dialog and social co-responsibility.
While the communiqué demonstrates commitment to be an involved actor in Romanian society, the Orthodox Church should clean its own ranks in order to remove tainted and compromised clergy who have lost the confidence of the faithful. This clean-up could target the numerous priests and bishops who served as secret police informers under communism and are still leading theology schools, some dioceses, and numerous parishes; a number of hierarchs involved in corruption scandals; as well as the holders of plagiarized doctoral degrees awarded by the church’s theology schools. The Romanian anticorruption momentum is clearly there and the churches themselves should join the bandwagon.
Lucian Turcescu is Professor of Historical Theology at Concordia University in Montreal.