Their activism drove the government in Bucharest to repeal its decree, energizing citizens in similarly situated Bulgaria, just a few hundred miles to the southwest.
Hundreds of Bulgarians gathered around the Romanian embassy in Sofia to express their support for the Romanian demonstrations. Many expressed hope that someday, they might use freedom of expression to stare down corruption in their country, as well.
In an appreciative response, Romanian activists projected an image of interlocked hands on a Bucharest building accompanied by the words “thank you Bulgaria” and “#StopTheStealing.”
The messages of solidarity point to a united fight in Romania and Bulgaria against corruption, a mainstay of the two Balkan countries since they emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in the later stages of the 20th century. In both countries, citizens have felt the consequences of corruption at the government’s highest levels—both economically and in daily life, where paying bribes for university grades, electricity, and even medical treatment is standard practice.
Capitalism—but with corruption
When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on the same day in 2007, there was hope among the people of the two countries that Brussels would be successful in forcing their governments to rein in government theft and clamp down on a tradition of low-level corruption by completing a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) process.
But in these two countries, as in many of the Balkan states, the fight against corruption has faced strong headwinds.
In 2015, an investigation into a nightclub fire which killed 64 people in Romania’s capital found corruption related to the granting of the club’s license to be a primary cause of the deadly fire. The resulting protests and mounting public pressure led Victor Ponta, the former Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) implicated in the granting of the license, to resign in November 2015.
In 2014, Bulgaria’s country’s fourth largest bank, Corporate Commercial Bank, underwent a bank run which many believe was engineered by a clan of senior-level government officials. The bank ultimately collapsed, causing a financial crisis in the country and widespread economic hardship for Bulgarian citizens.
Even Bulgarian government commissions created to target corruption have come under fire from Brussels for their graft.
In 2013, the chairman of one of Bulgaria’s prominent anti-corruption authorities, the Commission on Prevention and Ascertainment of Conflict of Interest (CPACI), was found to be compiling instructions on delaying and hiding cases of corruption brought to his commission.
Bulgaria was ranked as the EU’s most corrupt country in the Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
It is in this context—of unchecked graft and an embittered population—that Romania might have inspired the people of Bulgaria and the rest of the Balkans to finally push for reforms.
A last straw in Bucharest?
Last month, with less than a month in office under their belts, a new Romanian cabinet issued a late-night emergency decree decriminalizing cases of public misconduct resulting in financial damages of less than 200,000 lei, or roughly $47,000 USD.
The decree and a second proposal, which would pardon those serving sentences of five years or less for certain crimes, were conveniently designed to help Social Democratic Party (PSD) leader Liviu Dragnea, facing two prison sentences after his conviction for electoral fraud in 2015.
Romanian Prime Minister and Dragnea supporter Sorin Grindeanu claimed he was pushing the measures to alleviate “prison overcrowding.”
Thousands of Romanians gathered Jan. 31 in front of the Romanian Government’s headquarters in Victoriei Square to protest the emergency ordinance. On Sunday February 5th, even after the emergency order was rescinded, thousands turned into half a million protesters nationwide in the country’s largest anti-corruption protests since the fall of communism.
The political pressure of the ongoing demonstrations, which drew 70,000 protesters a week after Sunday’s mass protest, led to the justice minister’s resignation and, most recently, to a plan to hold a national referendum on anti-corruption reforms. Those who have remained in the streets have called for further resignations and for punishments to be handed out to Grindeanu and others convicted of misconduct.
Will Sofia stand up?
In Bulgaria, there haven’t been mass protests. But the country’s people have been waging their own battle on corruption. Many viewed Rumen Radev’s resounding November victory in the presidential election as a clear sign that Bulgarians had grown weary of the political establishment’s graft.
Radev, an independent candidate supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, ran largely on a pledge to tackle corruption. And he seems keen to deliver on his promises.
Ten days after Radev’s inauguration, the new president vetoed the New Concessions Act, which would have added regulations to business in the natural resources industry and, according to many across the political spectrum, would have paved new avenues of corruption.
EU leaders, for their part, have consistently reminded Bulgarians of their government’s shortcomings in reducing a national epidemic of corruption.
In its most recent report on its anti-corruption efforts, the EU reiterated Bulgaria’s “very limited track record of concrete cases leading to final convictions in court regarding high-level corruption…”
The impacts of corruption are felt in almost every aspect of life in Bulgaria and Romania, making any struggle for honesty both potentially rewarding, and extremely difficult.
Today, leaders in both countries are being faced with resolute challenges to their corrupt traditions, a trend that they should expect to continue into the future.