A shot rings out in Romania's fight against corruption

By bne IntelliNews June 22, 2012

Phil Cain in Graz, Austria -

In terms of marking a turning point in Romania's fight against corruption, it was certainly dramatic.

The police arrived at Adrian Nastase's house four hours after a court sentenced Romania's former prime minister to two years in prison for a party funding scam on June 20. Affable as ever, Nastase reportedly asked the police officers to wait a moment while he fetched some books. When he did not return after a few minutes, the police followed him inside to find the 61-year-old brandishing a Smith & Wesson pistol, which he turned on himself, firing a single shot.

He underwent minor surgery for injuries to his neck and collarbone soon after. His doctors said his life was never in danger, but he is expected to stay in hospital for five days and his lawyers have asked to delay the start of his sentence by three-months. Good behaviour could see him released after eight months.

Nastase's government from 2000 to 2004 is widely seen as among the most corrupt in Romania's post-communist history, but after an eight-year trial involving 972 witnesses, he was sentenced for the relatively minor crime of concealing his donations to his party, the Social Democrats. The trick he used is not only commonplace in Romania.

Though the trial was long-winded and the conviction relatively minor, his sentencing, the first of such a senior politician, is a sign that Romanian courts are now functioning, argues Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a professor at Berlin's Hertie school of governance. Until now, she says, senior judges in higher courts have tended to be particularly favourable to Social Democrats, having taken their positions under the party's communist forbears. This time, the judges have revealed a nest of corruption and nepotism, operating on the basis of punishment and reward.

Nastase is appealing a separate three-year sentence brought in March. But despite his ongoing legal troubles, Nastase remains popular. Nastase's mentor, the 82-year-old former president Ion Iliescu spoke of an unjust verdict. His political protégé Prime Minister Victor Ponta, meanwhile, visited Nastase in hospital, despite coming under formidable pressure this week over claims he copied a large chunk of his doctoral thesis.

Domestically the scandal over Ponta's alleged academic misdemeanour is likely to fade fast, according to Mungiu-Pippidi. This is not through lack of evidence, but that it is such common practice among Romania's ruling elite that no-one is much surprised. Academic standards at least were better under communism, she says.

The electorate may well judge all established parties negatively in this autumn's election, with those allied to Traian Basescu's centre left position also deeply unpopular. An entirely new party is needed to provide Romanian voters with a viable choice, experts say.

Rising through the ranks

Nastase's self harm seems to be the end of a career marked by self-promotion. As the son of an officer in the royal army, he courted the daughter of a foreign minister who died in a plane crash, only to drop her once the posthumous esteem of her late father faded. In 1985, the Young Communist married the daughter of the minister of agriculture, a key position.

Nastase was able to hang on to the power and wealth he accrued in communist times after the revolution took place four years later. Anyone in any doubt need only see his neoclassical villa in the diplomatic district of Bucharest or the even-more grandiose country estate on the edge of the Carpathian mountains.

Nastase's four-year government was one of the most corrupt in recent Romanian history, with tales of astonishing greed and graft. Romania's Consul to Shanghai was allegedly asked to procure expensive Chinese furniture for Nastase's villa in return for advancement. There was also the case of "Aunt Tamara" in which the Anti-Corruption Authority opened a file on Nastase's wife, Dana, after she opened a bank account with $400,000. Nastase promptly replaced the head of the authority and the dossier on his wife disappeared. Nastase subsequently told a court that the money had come from his wife's aunt, Tamara. The case, however, was dropped in December for lack of evidence.

For all the scandal surrounding him, Adrian Nastase was true to one principle: loyalty. The party awarded resources and recipients were expected to reciprocate. Nastase did not invent the system. It was the guiding principle of the Communist Party through which he rapidly rose. Post-1989, other parties have merely copied what was a winning formula.

Bucharest judges have now shown how parties manage to keep their grip on power, but no Social Democrat has distanced themselves from their sponsor. The electorate might yet recoil, however, if presented with a viable alternative come November at the next elections.

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