Written by Eugen Tomiuc with reporting by RFE/RL’s Romanian Service, Hotnews.ro, G4media.ro, and Digi24.ro.
Romanians rallied in Bucharest and other cities across the country Saturday to mark the first anniversary of a massive anti-corruption protest that the government violently quelled.
The demonstrations came amid public outrage over the authorities’ response to the kidnapping and killing last month of a 15-year-old girl, a case that revealed deep flaws in the police system of the European Union and NATO member state.
About 20,000 people turned up for a rally outside government headquarters in central Bucharest, filling much of Victoria Square into the evening, according to G4media.ro.
Protests had also been urged over social media for Brasov, Cluj, Constanta, Iasi and other large cities, under slogans such as, “We don’t forget what you did last summer,” “We’re watching you” and “Reset Romania.”
Last year, about 100,000 Romanians, many of them expatriates, gathered on Aug. 10 in front of the same government building to protest the leftist government’s moves to reverse anti-graft reforms and weaken the judiciary in one of the EU’s most corrupt countries.
Riot police then used water cannons and tear gas in a display of violence unseen since the early 1990s.
Television footage of protesters and bystanders with hands up being chased and beaten with batons sparked fury across the country and prompted condemnation from the EU and the United States. More than 450 people needed medical assistance and one person reportedly died after the crackdown.
Some observers cited the Aug. 10, 2018, violence, as well as the “failure of so-called judicial reforms,” as the reason for the Social Democratic Party (PSD)-led coalition’s losses in European Parliament elections May 26.
A day after the August 2018 crackdown, PSD leader and lower-house speaker Liviu Dragnea was imprisoned following the rejection of his appeal of a conviction in an abuse-of-office case.
However, public anger has recently grown over what many see as an increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional public administration after the gruesome slaying of a 15-year-old girl from Caracal, in southern Romania, whose calls for help were mishandled by police in July.
Alexandra Macesanu phoned the European emergency number three times to say she had been kidnapped, beaten and raped. It took the authorities 19 hours to locate and enter the premises where she had been taken, as they initially made light of her calls and then struggled to trace them.
Authorities later found burned bone fragments on site, which they identified with DNA tests earlier this month as being Macesanu’s. A 65-year-old car mechanic has confessed to killing Alexandra and Luiza Melencu, 18, in April 2019.
The authorities’ handling of the case has triggered street protests across the country and stark condemnation from opposition-backed center-right President Klaus Iohannis.
Iohannis, who is up for re-election in November, said the PSD-led coalition was “the moral author of the tragedy” because of its measures against the judiciary.
The interior minister resigned, while the chief of Romanian police, the education minister and several other officials were fired.
Allegations of crime, trafficking
However, media allegations of organized crime and human-trafficking networks’ ties to senior politicians and local police continue to surface, adding to what many Romanians already see as growing social insecurity.
According to U.N. estimates, at least 3.4 million people have left Romania since 2007, when it joined the EU — a number second only to the refugee total from war-torn Syria. The World Bank said roughly 3 million to 5 million Romanians are working and living abroad, in jobs ranging from day laborers to doctors.
Furthermore, the latest Romanian statistics show that almost 220,000 people emigrated in 2017 after the PSD-led coalition took over in December 2016 and initiated a series of measures to weaken the judiciary and the rule of law.
Many Romanian expatriates had planned to attend Saturday’s protests.
“We were defeated last year,” a woman from the northeastern city of Iasi told reporters on her way to Bucharest. ‘We failed to push for change after August 10. We did not continue the fight to reform the system. As a result of our complacency, two girls are now dead.”