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Thousands Protest in Romania as Government Decriminalises Corruption Laws

BUCHAREST (AFP) – Romania’s latest government has been in office barely a month and the country is already experiencing its biggest protests since 1989 — but Laura, an demonstrator in her 30s, is upbeat.

“Am I optimistic about our future? Yeah! Otherwise we wouldn’t be here,” she told AFP, her baby sleeping soundly through the whistles and vuvuzela horns of the latest demo in downtown Bucharest.

“We decided not to leave (to live abroad). We have family, friends, our salaries are okay for the prices in Romania.”

Hundreds of thousands have hit the streets nationwide in four nights of protest against an emergency government decree decriminalising a string of graft offences.

An estimated 200,000-250,000 protested on Friday, a similar crowd side to Wednesday, which saw Romania’s biggest demonstrations since the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

Vlad, 39, cradling a drum while his friends clutch megaphones, echoes Laura’s sentiments despite earning just 500 euros ($540) a month as a university lecturer in cinema.

“Since 2012 the right abuses us, the left abuses us, it’s the same kind of politics. But it’s a good country to be a young person. You have to be on the streets to change things,” he told AFP.

“I have two kids. I had my chances to leave the country but I never believed that a better life for me was elsewhere.”

But they and the many other young people, taking part in the demonstrations on Friday against what critics see as a dangerous government retreat on corruption, are far from typical.

Three million people from this ex-communist country of about 20 million, which is the second-poorest nation in the European Union, have upped sticks in recent years.

The vast majority of those who have left are people of working age.

With the average monthly salary only 470 euros, one in four people live in poverty. Half of rural households are without running water and many schools are unable to afford heating.

The effects on Romania’s economy and society from this exodus are dire, with tens of thousands of children left behind to be brought up by relatives or friends.

Firms and public services, in particular hospitals, have severe problems finding qualified workers. Many older Romanians work well beyond retirement age to fill the gap.

– Bright spots –

There are however bright spots, for example in the information technology sector where Laura’s partner Daniel works, earning by Romanian standards a healthy monthly wage of around 3,500 euros.

“The quality of IT workers here is very good, even if we are more expensive than India,” he said, talking sotto voce in order not to wake the seven-month-old strapped to his chest.

“Lots of companies are coming, setting up big data centres, employing call centre support staff. They are even producing software here,” the 30-something said in excellent English.

The country’s reputation as a place to invest has been boosted in recent years by a push to root out its long-standing problem, the all-pervasive scourge of corruption.

More than 2,000 people have been convicted for abuse of power and more than 2,000 other cases are ongoing. Among those to go on trial were a former prime minister, five ministers and 16 lawmakers.

But now the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) appear to be backtracking, critics say, decriminalising certain graft offences and looking to release early from prison bent officials and politicians.

Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu says the new changes are to bring the penal code into line with the constitution and to ease overcrowding in prisons. But many people smell a rat.

“I left the country mainly because of the corruption,” said protestor Cornelius, 26, “on holiday” in his home country back from Newcastle in England where he works as a video editor.

“I earn the same there as here, the only difference is the corruption. The corruption here has reached limits you cannot believe,” he told AFP.

“Yes I am optimistic about this country, of course,” says Armand, 34, a bearded economist holding a protest placard who is set to become a father next month.

“I am not a leftist, I am not rightist. My views are centre-right. But I want respect from this leftist government.”

The government “is making fun of us. They think they can do whatever they like to us,” said Stefan, a 40-year-old manager.

“But another reason I am here is because of my two-year-old daughter. I want us to stay in Romania, that she grows up in a decent environment.

“But the way things are going we are considering the alternatives.”

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