Romanian NGOs on Tenterhooks as Government Takes Aim at Civil Liberties

2017 began with perhaps the greatest achievement in public demonstration since the overthrow of Ceausescu, but NGOs now face a fight for their survival.

As in Hungary, Poland and other EU countries, the Romanian government has been busy drafting laws to restrict non-governmental organisations' activities. Multiple pieces of legislation currently sit before Parliament that, if passed, would severely restrict the public's fundamental right to protest and hold the government to account. Despite the year starting on a high note for civil society, it is nevertheless now more important than ever for the people to remain vigilant in defence of civil liberties.

The people prevail

In early January, the newly formed government of Sorin Grindeanu used an emergency provision to fast-track the passage of a decree decriminalising certain forms of misconduct by government officials. It also proposed an amendment to the Penal Code decriminalising abuse of power if the amount of money stolen was less than 200.000 Romanian lei (about 43.500 euros).

The decree was officially justified as necessary to stem overcrowding in the country’s prisons, as corruption by officials is endemic in Romania and many sit in jail. Last year alone, 30 high-ranking officials were indicted for corruption charges, including former ministers and the deputy head of the central bank. But the decree and Penal Code amendment were seen by citizens and civil liberties NGOs as a rather ham-fisted attempt to clear officials of past crimes and insulate politicians from investigations of corruption in the future.

Sustained, well-organised protests against the reforms soon followed in Bucharest and other cities across the country. Civil society groups successfully mobilised tens of thousands of people to protest for days. On February 5, the largest public demonstration since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu happened in Bucharest, with over half a million people demanding the government’s resignation.

The response was rapid: the decree was repealed that same day, and a no-confidence vote against the government was held in Parliament on February 8. The government survived, but barely: MPs of the ruling coalition all abstained, preventing opponents from reaching the necessary 50 per cent.

Civil liberties under threat

The successful demonstrations seemed to cause many Romanian politicians to realise the true strength of civil society. The people left no doubt that they do have the power to hold their government to account. Romanian officials, perhaps a bit panicked by this realization, began making public statements and legislating against the exercise of civil liberties and NGOs’ freedom to operate.

A week after the repeal of the ordinance, Labour Minister Olguta Vasilescu warned protesters, who were still coming out in force against the government, that they must comply with a law stipulating that parents are not allowed to take children with them to public demonstrations.

Another PSD member, Arges Catalin Radulescu, said during the height of the protests that police should beat back public demonstrators with water cannons. He also mentioned that he still possessed the AKM assault rifle he obtained during the revolution and was prepared to use it against the protesters.

But legislative initiatives have the potential to do far more lasting damage than rhetoric. A bill reached the Senate in March that proposed the penalisation of any attempt to 'impede the constitutional order' with up to three years' imprisonment. This law would in effect make public protests, including the kind that took place in February, illegal. Thankfully, however, the bill is currently still working its way through the legislative process and could yet be stopped.

Perhaps the most alarming legislative initiative to appear this year is a draft law that would force the closure of any NGO that does not publish reports on their operating budget twice annually. The draft bill, proposed in early June, appears to be copied from a similar law in Hungary (which itself is based on a Russian law) that forces any NGO receiving over 24.000 euros in donations from abroad to register itself as a 'foreign agent'.

A fight for survival

The response from Romanian NGOs against the budget-reporting proposal was fierce. Several of the country's most prominent organisations, including Liberties member APADOR-CH, published a letter of protest against the bill and urged MPs to reject it. After great pressure, the legislation was put on hold until after the summer.

Although there has been little reaction from outside of the country, perhaps in the hope that MPs will yet come to their senses, the situation has not escaped the attention of some in Brussels. In April, MEPs from the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament issued a statement warning of the Romanian government’s attempts to 'shrink the freedoms and liberties that citizens and civil society organisations now enjoy'. If the government decides to revive the aforementioned bills, stronger and more widely supported responses by the EP will be important.

Strong public stands against the vilification of NGOs are especially important because of the danger posed by such attacks – danger that goes beyond the obvious restrictions on our rights. Politicians' rhetoric against the work of NGOs and even threats against their supporters can too easily be seen as implicitly condoning violence against them. We have already seen such behaviour in other EU countries where the government has shown distaste for civil liberties. The politically motivated beating of a Slovak NGO worker in September 2016 and the ransacking of the offices of an LGBT rights group in Poland in June of this year are but two examples.

In fact, we are already seeing the emergence of this in Romania: in June, a man was beaten on his way to the Bucharest Pride march for no other reason than that his clothes bore the rainbow pattern of the LGBT flag. When politicians openly threaten violence, it serves as a tacit approval for others to carry out such acts.

As the country's MPs return from the summer recess, the aforementioned legislation could well come back to the fore of their agenda. The year started on a high note for civil liberties groups, but that has made them a target for politicians who want to avoid accountability to the public. In Romania, as in other parts of the EU, NGOs are now entering the opening stages of a new fight for their survival and the survival of democracy and the rule of law.