BUCHAREST, Romania — Aurel Vulcu was on the streets of Bucharest in December 1989 when he and other fighters for democracy overturned the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
“That victory gave us hope,” said Mr. Vulcu, recalling how isolated and impoverished Romanians felt while caught in the Cold War standoff between East and West. “I thought that democracy will soon enter the door of the parliament, the doors of the courts.”
Three decades later, Mr. Vulcu, 61, a retired baker, was standing outside the government buildings in the city center with a European Union flag draped over his shoulders, his voice hoarse from shouting anti-government slogans. Like many other Romanians, he opposes ongoing efforts that he said would weaken the judiciary and hobble the fight against corruption.
The fight is being replicated in states across the region still struggling with deep-seated challenges inherited from the communist era, but it is being fought with particular intensity in Romania.
Prime Minister Viorica Dancila and her Social Democrat party are targeting the country’s top public prosecutor and the National Anticorruption Directorate, an agency that prosecuted six Cabinet ministers and ultimately convicted two, as well as 23 lawmakers and many mayors and managers of state-owned companies in recent years.
Justice Minister Tudorel Toader, a Social Democrat, dismissed the directorate’s chief prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, this year and initiated the dismissal of a key official in the chief prosecutor’s office, Augustin Lazar.
Critics say the government’s offensive illustrates how Romania is becoming an “illiberal” democracy in lockstep with Hungary, Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries whose leaders are undercutting legal systems, opposition parties, critics in civil society and anyone else who challenges their dominance.
Many nationalist and conservative voices in the region say the criticism is misguided and that they are trying to preserve their sovereignty, control of their borders and cultural heritage in the face of a new globalist threat coming not from Moscow but from Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union.
In mid-November, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing deep concerns about the rule of law in Romania, particularly laws that critics say undermined in the independent judiciary and National Anticorruption Directorate. EU officials have similarly criticized Hungarian and Polish leaders.
Clashes are to be expected because the democratic transformations in former communist countries such as Romania, Hungary and Poland were never complete, said Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Slovakia.
“We’re dealing with some residues from the past, patterns of political culture involving authoritarian methods, nostalgia for the communist regimes … and the lack of experience on the side of democratic politicians,” Mr. Meseznikov said. “The common effect is strengthening the position of populist parties.”
Lowering the threshold
Civil rights activists became concerned about Romania in January 2017 when Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, another Social Democrat, signed an order to decriminalize abuses in public office if the financial damage is less than $48,000. After hundreds of thousands of people protested in central Bucharest, the government withdrew the order.
The main beneficiary of the proposed revision would have been Social Democratic Leader Liviu Dragnea, a former interior minister who is now leader of the lower house of parliament. At that time, he was facing corruption charges involving a sum below the threshold. A panel of judges had already convicted Mr. Dragnea of electoral fraud and gave him a suspended sentence of two years.
Last week, President Klaus Iohannis asked Ms. Dancila for word of her government’s plans 24 hours before officials meet to make sure they don’t give amnesty to people imprisoned on corruption charges. Mr. Iohannis made the request after Mr. Dragnea called for such an amnesty over the previous weekend.
“Romania won’t return to the black era of a one-party state,” said Mr. Iohannis, a former Liberal Party leader who has long said Mr. Dragnea wields too much power in the country.
But Mr. Dragnea, widely seen as the most powerful political figure in the country, isn’t going away quietly, raising the possibility of amnesty and pardons for those caught up in corruption investigations, and even suggested a criminal complaint against Mr. Iohannis for treason.
“Why are the words ‘amnesty’ and ‘pardon’ such blasphemy?” Mr. Dragnea told fellow party members at a meeting Dec. 16 in Bucharest, according to Bloomberg News. “They’re seen as an atomic bomb that Romania is considering dropping on Europe or the world. I’m not afraid to say them.”
The Social Democrats have proposed other laws that would undermine the fight against corruption, according to a European Commission report issued last month.
The proposals include special prosecutors to investigate allegations involving judges, a tactic that critics said would limit the freedom of expression of magistrates; an early retirement scheme that would remove experienced judges; a looser definition of the abuse of power; restrictions on what judges could say from the bench; and, in a move that resembles similar changes in Hungary and Poland, broader grounds for removing members of top appellate courts.
Defenders of the measures said they would prevent abuses of power among prosecutors who often work hand in glove with shady interests in the Romanian bureaucracy. Many Romanians believe the claim, which has never been proved.
“The rights of defendants have been violated,” said Bogdan Chireac, a former journalist who is now a political commentator on Romanian television. “There were secret protocols between judicial institutions and the former leadership of the Romanian Intelligence Service. Intelligence officers were directly involved in giving sentences.”
The pace of changes sped up after the June conviction of Mr. Dragnea, who was sentenced to 3½ years for abuse of power. Mr. Dragnea and his allies are now pushing for an executive order that would allow the prime minister to grant him amnesty.
Other changes include forcing nongovernmental organizations to report their donors or face dissolution. Critics warn that the move could silence many government critics.
The Social Democrats appear to be rushing the measures in part because Romania will take over the presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1. The country will be under tremendous scrutiny from Brussels as well as powerful leaders in Europe and investors throughout the world.
“If the government would decide to grant amnesty to politicians convicted or prosecuted for corruption, and do this during the presidency, I would say that this would be worse than Brexit,” said Elena Calistru, president of Funky Citizens, a civic group based in Bucharest. “It would mean that the government decided to defy not only its citizens but also the hope that many of them have towards a Europe that can accommodate the East as well.”
Many ordinary Romanians have protested the measures. On Aug. 10, they clashed with police, who fired tear gas into the demonstrations and fought demonstrators with batons. After the protest, more than 350 people filed complaints of excessive force by the police.
The crackdown didn’t dissuade Mr. Vulcu, the protesting baker.
“We do not lose hope of seeing [corrupt politicians] in jail,” he said. “We want to see them where they belong, according to their deeds. If you did something wrong, you need to pay.”