Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said he would challenge a decree to water down corruption laws in the Constitutional Court - the last legal resort to do so. The tribunal has not yet announced whether it intends to take up the case.
Earlier this week, the government, led by the Social Democrats (PSD), decriminalized corruption if funds do not exceed 200,000 lei (44,100 euros/$47,800). Set to take effect next week, the measure effectively amnesties officials facing corruption charges - such as PSD leader Liviu Dragnea - and their cronies and encourages authorities to steal.
Up to 300,000 people took to streets in Bucharest and more than 45 towns Wednesday - perhaps the biggest protests in Romania since the demonstrations that brought down the Communist Party in 1989. That popular uprising toppled the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed along with his wife by firing squad on Christmas Day.
Iohannis, a former leader of the opposition right-wing Liberal Party, criticized the Interior Ministry, which runs the police, for failing to contain the protests' "instigators." Authorities detained 20 people. The protests left four officers injured.
Only last week the European Commission commended the efforts on graft by Romania, which joined the EU along with neighboring Bulgaria in 2007; the countries became the bloc's two most impoverished member states. But this week's latest move set off alarm bells in Brussels, with European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and his deputy Frans Timmermans expressing their "deep concern" and warning against "backtracking".
'For my child'
Commerce Minister Florin Jianu resigned on Thursday, saying he disagreed with the government's stance. Jianu called his resignation the "ethical thing to do, not for my professional honesty, my conscience is clean on that front, but for my child."
"Am I going to tell him his father was a coward and supported actions he does not believe in, or that he chose to walk away from a story that isn't his?" Jianu wrote.
Iasi Mayor Mihai Chirica, a deputy chairman of the PSD, said the government should scrap the decree and send it to parliament for debate and called on Justice Minister Florin Iordache, who published the decree, to resign. Iordache said his decree contained "nothing secret, illegal or immoral," but will hand his duties over to a subordinate until February 7, spokeswoman Carmen Lita told the national Agerpres news agency. However, she said, he would do so because he needed a break after engaging in "intense activities" preparing this year's budget.
mkg/rg (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)