Romanians have protested in huge numbers this week against government decrees that many fear will undermine the long battle against a scourge that has long plagued the EU country: corruption.
The biggest demonstrations since the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 saw as many as 300,000 people hit the streets in the capital Bucharest and other cities.
This followed the issuing of a government decree 24 hours earlier that decriminalizes certain corruption offenses and makes abuse of power punishable by jail only if the sums involved exceed 44,000 euros ($47,500).
The European Union has long taken Romania to task over slow progress dealing with corruption and organized crime since the ex-communist country joined the bloc together with Bulgaria in 2007.
Every year, Brussels assesses the two nations’ progress on graft reform in what is known as the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism review.
In the latest report released in January, the European Commission praised Romania’s efforts on corruption and hinted it could soon drop the procedure.
But the new emergency decrees set off alarm bells in Brussels, with top European Commission officials expressing their “deep concern” and warning against “backtracking”.
Graft watchdog Transparency International ranked Romania below all but three of its fellow EU states in a January report based on public perception of the prevalence of corruption. Worldwide, the country ranked 57th in the world.
Launched in 2002, Romania’s DNA corruption agency has become a powerful actor in the fight against graft. The EU has ranked it among the bloc’s five most efficient anti-fraud bodies.
Run by chief prosecutor and former professional basketball player Laura Codruta Kovesi, the agency has done some serious housekeeping in recent years.
Between 2014 and 2016, 1,171 people were found guilty of abuses of power which collectively earned them a fine surpassing a billion euros ($1.1 billion). More than 2,000 other cases are still being investigated.
Many of the officials caught up are from the left-wing Social Democratic Party (PSD), which was returned to power in recent elections. The party has accused the DNA of conducting a witch hunt.
A total of 27 officials, including former prime minister Victor Ponta, were tried in Romania in 2015, a national record. Aside from Ponta, five ministers, 16 lawmakers, and five senators have faced trials.
Ponta still stands accused of graft on two counts, the more recent linked to the financing of the campaign which saw him take office in 2012.
Ex-social democratic prime minister Adrian Nastase is the most eye-catching case of a former high-ranking official to be found guilty. He received two jail terms on two counts of corruption, marking a turning point in the anti-graft fight.
Nastase was found guilty of misusing 1.5 million euros of funds for an unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign and attempted suicide in a bid to avoid jail.
Released in the first instance in 2013, he was again placed behind bars in early 2014 for receiving bribes totaling 630,000 euros before being set free seven months later.
The left-wing government insists its new decrees are bringing legislation into line with the constitution and will help to reduce overcrowding in prisons.
But critics say the main beneficiaries will be the many officials and politicians ensnared in the anti-corruption drive, including PSD leader Liviu Dragnea.
Dragnea, who is currently on trial for abuse of power involving a sum that falls below the decrees’ new ceiling, has hit out at a “campaign of lies and disinformation”.
A previous conviction for voter fraud bars him from office.