Facing criticism, Romania's kingpin cries conspiracy

Mihaela RODINA, Ionut IORDACHESCU
1 / 2
Social Democratic Party strongman Liviu Dragnea says his 'Orthodox education and my traditional upbringing' means he will vote yes

Faced with criticism of police violence against a massive anti-corruption protest, Romania's ruling party strongman Liviu Dragnea has raised eyebrows with a string of bizarre, unsubstantiated claims including a "failed coup" and an assassination plot.

The opposition has accused the 55-year-old, who is widely seen as Romania's most powerful politician, of seeking to distract the public after more than 450 people, including 30 police, were injured in clashes during demonstrations in Bucharest this month.

"There was an attempt to assassinate me in April last year. Four foreigners came here and stayed three weeks," Dragnea said during a live television interview this week in his first public comments since the August 10 protest clashes.

Asked who was behind the plot, the chief of the Social Democrats (PSD), pointed vaguely to a person who is "famous worldwide" and suggested it might be US billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

However, in another interview Wednesday on the same private television channel he retracted allegation.

"I want to clarify that -- despite my very bad opinion of him -- I don't believe George Soros was implicated in this."

Authorities said they were not aware of an assassination plot.

"There has been no complaint, and no investigation has been started," an official close to the department in charge of fighting organised crime and terrorism told AFP.

Another security official told AFP the department had "no indications" to substantiate Dragnea's allegations.

Dragnea had previously accused Soros -- a bete noire of Hungary's authoritarian premier Victor Orban -- of financing past anti-government protests, without providing evidence.

With Romania due to take up the European Union's rotating presidency in January, the EU Commission has said it is closely monitoring one of the bloc's poorest and most corruption-plagued member states.

- Legal woes -

Dragnea was unable to run for prime minister because of a two-year suspended prison sentence for vote-rigging dating back to 2016.

In June, he received a second jail term of three-and-a-half years over a fake jobs scandal, which his lawyers are appealing.

Police used teargas, water cannon, pepper spray and batons during the August 10 rally attended by 80,000 people -- many of them Romanians living abroad who returned to call on the government to resign.

More than 380 people have filed criminal complaints against the police, and a 68-year-old man who was injured during the protest died this weekend.

Dragnea said the protest was a "failed coup" instigated by a "paramilitary organisation".

He went on to accuse multinational corporations of financing street demonstrations because of "financial interests".

"They encourage their employees to protest either by giving them a day off or by suggesting they should better do it," he added.

He also blamed centre-right president Klaus Iohannis of "inciting violence" by criticising the police response.

- 'Lies or drugs' -

Andrei Taranu, a professor at the National University of Political Studies, said Dragnea's comments added up to an "exercise of victimisation" as the PSD leader faces an increasing backlash from inside his own party.

"There's no element to support the thesis of a coup d'etat," Taranu told AFP, adding that "conspirational rhetoric" about "foreigners" is common among populist regimes in East and Central European states.

Dragnea's scenario is similar to that of "Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro who invented an assassination attempt to justify a repression against the opposition", Romanian MEP Siegfried Muresan wrote Wednesday on Facebook.

Many on social media started posting pictures of Ninja Turtles, Arnold Schwarzenegger and scenes from "The Matrix" to make fun of Dragnea's assassination plot claim.

And former prime minister Victor Ponta questioned whether Dragnea, a one-time friend and political ally, "lies or is on drugs".