- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2018

PIATRA NEAMT, Romania | Massive anti-government protests turned violent in the capital, Bucharest, and injured more than 400 demonstrators and three dozen riot police, and put a spotlight on rampant corruption that has plagued this Eastern European country since the communist era.

The demonstrators, many of them expatriates who returned to protest the corruption that drove them from their homeland, railed against the graft they say afflicts nearly every interaction with government, including Romania’s single-payer health care system.

Fane Apostol, 59, a butcher in Bucharest, said his country has not been able to shake the bribery and kickbacks that became a way of life under communism.

“That’s the mentality in Romania,” Mr. Apostol told The Washington Times. “Since I was a chid, I was taught to do this to get along. Just like with the doctors — if you don’t give him money, he’s not going to take care of you.”

Romania, a country of 20 million people that hosts a U.S. ballistic missile defense station, is among the poorest and most corrupt members of the European Union. Brussels placed Romania’s judicial system under special surveillance amid concerns about corruption after the country joined the EU in 2007.

Romanians frequently point to the health care system as a prime example of corruption. They say that despite having universal coverage and mandatory health care taxes taken out of their paychecks, they have to bribe doctors and nurses to receive quality care at state-run hospitals.

“If you go to the state hospital it is supposed to be free. You already pay for it out of your paycheck. But if you do not pay a bribe, the doctor is not going to fix you,” said Lucian M. Ilie, 32, an independent loan broker in Bucharest. “It is a holdover from the communists.”

Corruption has abated in some areas: Police no longer readily accept bribes to look the other way for traffic violations.

But most run-ins with state or local bureaucracy, such as obtaining building permits, still require bribes to hasten an otherwise tortuous process, according to Romanians.

About 40,000 protesters returned to the streets Saturday in Bucharest. Hundreds also gathered in front of government buildings in Piatra Neamt, a city of about 100,000 in northeastern Romania. Thousands more protested corruption in the Transylvanian cities of Cluj, Sibiu and Brasov, in Timisoara on the border with Serbia, and in the eastern city of Iasi.

A day earlier, 100,000 demonstrators filled Bucharest’s Victoria Square before violence erupted and police broke up the crowd.

Police officials claimed they were justified in forcibly dispersing the crowd in Victoria Square with tear gas and water cannons after some demonstrators attempted to break through police lines and hurled rocks and bottles at the riot police.

Some news reports in Romania blamed the violence on fans of a Bucharest professional soccer team, so-called football hooligans, who joined the protest.

Others accused parliament leaders of paying the football hooligans, who are linked to crime syndicates in Romania, to foment unrest and discredit the protests.

Romanian police spokesman Marius Militaru said officers are pursuing charges against eight people for the violence and attacks on police, including a police woman who reportedly suffered a broken back and had her firearm stolen.

The protesters claimed that advances against the communist-style corruption faltered after the ruling Social Democratic Party came to power in 2016. They took to the streets to demand the resignation of leaders of the parliament resign and new elections.

The angry backlash against the government took shape after the parliament in July pushed through legislation that decriminalized some corruption. The reforms took only a week to whisk through the legislature and followed the conviction of Social Democrat party leader Liviu Dragnea on abuse of office.

Mr. Dragnea, whose conviction is on hold pending appeal, vowed that his government would not give in to the protesters.

“I want to assure all Romanians that parliament will not allow anybody to dissolve democracy, suspend individual rights and freedoms, change the outcome of the elections and overthrow order in the Romanian state through violence,” he wrote in an open letter.

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