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Rollback in Romania (Hindu.)

The protests that have convulsed Romania are the largest since the fall of communism in the country in 1989. Hundreds of thousands of Romanians have taken to the streets against the government’s attempt to decriminalise graft involving sums below a certain threshold, ostensibly for practical reasons. The move has impressed neither the citizens of Romania, nor European Union officials in Brussels. Even the country’s President has thrown his weight behind the protests. The popular outcry against such a blatant move to relax the rules should have been anticipated by the government, especially as it had a direct bearing on the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which heads the current coalition. Its leader could not assume charge as Prime Minister only because an existing law bars convicted politicians from occupying the office. Similarly, judicial proceedings currently involving a number of elected representatives and officials are a measure of the independent functioning of the body in charge of fighting graft. It has been argued in some quarters that the agency has been overzealous in its endeavour to combat corruption. Either way, by venturing to ease the extent of the penalties, the ruling coalition has run the risk of being perceived as trying to protect the guilty.

Faced with popular anger, the government has rescinded the decree to let off offenders in cases where the financial harm is less than about $48,000. But it is still insistent on pursuing its controversial objective to pardon errant officials through the normal parliamentary route, citing in its defence the overcrowding of prisons. When Romania joined the EU in 2007, the precondition of membership — strict enforcement of the rule of law — sat uneasily with the realities on the ground. The country ranked high on the graft and crime index, besides attracting criticism for the treatment of its sizeable Roma minorities. Many of these concerns still remain. But they are being addressed systematically through the adoption of an institutional framework. It is these mechanisms that the government’s recent moves could potentially erode. Romanians have drawn huge economic and cultural benefits in the last decade from the freedom to move and work in a largely borderless EU. It may not be wide off the mark to suggest that their expectations of greater accountability from their rulers may reflect a sense of dignity and propriety arising from this greater exposure. Bucharest should not fritter away these fruits of integration.

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