FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold effigies with the faces of leader of Romania's leftist PSD Dragnea and other members of the party dressed as prisoners, during a demonstration in Bucharest
By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - On Feb. 1, hours after Romania’s government issued a decree seen as turning back the clock on the country’s fight against corruption, Florin Badita took unpaid leave from his job in the western city of Cluj and left for the capital Bucharest to help mobilize a response.
It was not his first time.
Through the Facebook page Coruptia Ucide (Corruption Kills) that he created in 2015, Badita had helped rally protesters after a fatal fire tore through Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub in October that year. The government fell, toppled by an outpouring of anger against a culture of official graft and negligence that had enabled the club to flout safety regulations.
A little over a year later, Badita was hunkered down in a damp basement apartment off Bucharest’s Victory Square with a handful of other activists bent over laptops posting links, uploading videos and consulting over protest times.
"These protests don’t have leaders," said the lanky 28-year-old map analyst, "at best they have facilitators."
Confronted with hundreds of thousands of protesters in the biggest display of popular anger in Romania since the fall of communism in 1989, the Social Democrat-led government on Sunday rescinded a decree that would have decriminalized a number of graft offences.
Quietly adopted after dusk, the government ordinance was widely condemned in Romania and by its Western allies as a retreat on progress made fighting endemic graft.
Parliament, where the ruling coalition holds a big majority, must still vote on whether to confirm the decree’s withdrawal.
Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, who on Thursday jettisoned his justice minister and the architect of the decree, remains unbowed, insisting the decree was justified but rescinded in the interests of social unity.
That has stirred some suspicion the government may try again, keeping protesters on their guard.
SETTING RULES OF SUCCESS
Striking in their scale and diversity, the protests have served notice to the government that its every step is being scrutinized, say those involved. The protests have dwindled, but another misstep and the government risks reigniting the streets.
"No matter how much politicians say they don’t care about what goes on in the street, it is obvious they care, that the street is a significant opposition," said Romanian sociologist Mircea Kivu.
"The impact is for the future. If the current (parliamentary) majority tries similar steps, effectively tries to short-circuit democratic rules, people will react again."
Some say the half a million who turned out on Sunday across Romania after the decree was repealed marked a watershed moment, the climax of years of increasingly elaborate activism and civic awareness in Romania that will be hard to reverse.
It will not have gone unnoticed elsewhere in Eastern Europe, blighted by corruption and cosy ties between business and politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"The region was having a lot of anti-corruption demonstrations, but the Romanians up to now are actually setting the rules of success for everybody else," said Srdja Popovic, a leader of the Otpor movement that helped bring down Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Its Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies trains democracy activists around the world.
Romanians, he said, were proud of what anti-corruption activists and prosecutors had achieved in recent years, with the conviction of thousands of public officials. Prosecutors are currently pursuing some 2,000 cases of alleged abuse of office, many of which could have been halted by the decree.
"Trying to take this from Romania is like trying to take my most prized fishing trophy," said Popovic. "It is because they are so proud of their achievements ... that they are very protective of them."
Romanians are fast developing a tradition of holding politicians to account in the streets.
It began in 2013 with a civic uprising against government plans to allow a Canadian mining company to carve out what would have been Europe’s largest open-pit gold mine in the Transylvanian town of Rosia Montana.
Over years of resistance, town residents who refused offers to move out enlisted backers around the world and harnessed the power of the Internet to spread the word. Demonstrations forced the government to back down.
Mihail Bumbes, 35, a historian, human rights activist and one of the organizers of the Rosia Montana protests, recalled telling a filmmaker at the time: "If we stop this project, then we will succeed in stopping others going forward."
"A small group of people were at the center of Rosia Montana protests," said Bumbes, a co-founder of the civic activism group Spiritual Militia. "You can find that group at the Colectiv protest, and trace it to Victory Square," the epicenter of the February protests, he said. "It was a crescendo. People became informed. They gained confidence. Networks grew."
"Optimistically, there is now a greater awareness about the role that citizens must play," he said.
Razvan Pascu, 30, was also on the streets over Rosia Montana and the Colectiv fire.
A visual artist and video mapper, Pascu and his colleagues last week tracked down large projectors, borrowed a van from a friend and spent three days during the protests projecting video messages onto buildings near the government.
"These protests didn’t come out of nowhere, they grew over years," Pascu said.
They projected the words of the national anthem, which the crowd sang, and called on protesters to light up their phones to the sky, resulting in pictures that were beamed around the world. They also set up an email address where protesters could send them messages to project. The most popular, said Pascu, were "At night, like thieves" and "We see you, we are awake."
In the basement apartment off Victory Square, Badita typed away at a real-time messaging service to communicate with other protest organizers across the country.
"It would not be good to stop until we have resolved at least a part of our grievances," he said. "We have a historic chance to change things for the better in Romania and I think we have to try."
(Additional reporting and writing by Matt Robinson in BELGRADE; editing by Ralph Boulton)