Romanian Government Faces Renewed Pressure After Protest Clashes

(Bloomberg) -- Romania’s government faces renewed pressure over its controversial overhaul of the judiciary after hundreds of protesters who oppose the changes were injured in clashes with riot police, the first time demonstrations that began 1 1/2 years ago have turned violent.

Tear gas and a water cannon were used Friday in Bucharest as some officers were attacked with stones and other objects. More than 400 people needed hospital treatment. As well as sparking fury at home, the government’s reform plans have irked the U.S. and the European Union, swelling the list of disputes with other ex-communist members over the rule of law.

Romanian Government Faces Renewed Pressure After Protest Clashes

“There’s a lot of pressure on the government and the ruling coalition now,” Cristian Pirvulescu, dean of Bucharest’s Political Science University, said by phone. “It’s difficult to say whether it’s enough to tip the scales.”

The Black Sea nation of 20 million people, one of the EU’s poorest members, has rattled the bloc by following Hungary and Poland in seeking to politicize its legal system, also moving to shield crooked officials from censure. Friday’s rally, led by members of Romania’s diaspora, attracted more than 100,000 people in the capital and other major cities. The turnout suggests there’s still life in a protest movement whose numbers have dwindled of late.

‘Brutal’ Intervention

Smaller rallies were hastily arranged for Saturday and Sunday to voice outrage at the police’s tactics. President Klaus Iohannis, a critic of the government’s agenda, condemned the “brutal” intervention. Prime Minister Viorica Dancila “firmly condemned” the violence and accused political leaders of using the clashes for electoral reasons. Prosecutors are investigating the police response.

The majority of the government’s plans for the criminal code and the judiciary has been approved by parliament, though Iohannis hasn’t signed the changes into law yet. Ruling-party boss Liviu Dragnea, Romania’s de facto leader, is himself likely to benefit from the overhaul as he seeks to avoid prison by challenging the latest of two convictions. Iohannis was forced last month by the Constitutional Court to fire Romania’s chief anti-graft prosecutor, who was instrumental in convicting hundreds of corrupt officials.

While not as big as the 500,000 people who forced the government into a temporary retreat in January 2016 over its legal-reforms, the diaspora added a new element as they arrived from places like the U.K., Italy and Spain.

Romanian Government Faces Renewed Pressure After Protest Clashes

‘No Criminals!’

“These politicians should go -- Romania needs early elections to choose new people because this government is the worst we’ve ever seen,” said 66-year-old Radu Viorica, who came from Chicago to attend Friday’s protest in front of the government building, where demonstrators shouted “thieves!” and “no criminals!”

“Romania still needs to learn the workings of a democracy,” he said.

About 5 million Romanians live abroad, lured to Europe’s richer west by higher wages. Many maintain ties to their homeland and send money back to family who remain there.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.