BALKAN BLOG: Axe hangs over Romania’s anti-corruption efforts

BALKAN BLOG: Axe hangs over Romania’s anti-corruption efforts
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest January 20, 2017

For several years Romania has been lauded by observers of its vigorous fight against official corruption, spearheaded by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), which has fearlessly targeted top politicians and business leaders alike.

Now the new government is poised to introduce legislation that would significantly restrict the DNA. At the same time the agency’s head, the once adored Laura Codruta Kovesi, has been tarnished by an unfolding scandal concerning her alleged links to foreign intelligence services, and her future is unclear.

The new government, led by the centre-left Social Democratic Party (PSD) initially tried to keep its plans quiet, despite swirling rumours of the proposed law on amnesty and pardons. The news broke on January 17 that the government, led by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, intended to adopt the law by emergency ordinance at its session the following day - a move that would have seen the law adopted before it had even been seen by the public.

This plan was thwarted at the last moment by President Klaus Iohannis, who used his presidential right to chair government meetings to attend the session. The president announced after the meeting that the amnesty and pardon law would not be adopted overnight, but published for discussion, although this does not preclude it being adopted by an emergency ordinance rather than submitted to the parliament for approval. 

Under the bill, prisoners serving a sentence shorter than five years would get a full pardon, ostensibly to lessen prison overcrowding. The pardon would not apply to recidivists or people convicted of murder, rape and other violent crimes, or to those found guilty of giving or taking bribes or influence peddling. However, many other people convicted in corruption-related cases would automatically be pardoned. Partial pardons are planned for the over 60s, pregnant women and those who support children under five, including those who have committed serious crimes.

The DNA said in a January 18 statement that the changes were “unjustified”. “It is worth mentioning that among the pardoned offences there are abuse of office (in all its forms) and the offences assimilated to those of corruption,” the DNA statement said. “In case of tax evasion, only the simplest forms are excluded from pardoning. The really serious ones … are completely pardoned,” it added.

A separate piece of legislation has also been drawn up, envisaging the partial decriminalisation of abuse of office. This would only be a criminal offence if the damage to the state exceeds RON200,000 (€44,500) or if the injured party has made a complaint. Again, this would seriously affect the DNA’s activities since up to 42% of the cases it has investigated concern abuse of office, Kovesi has said.

The same bill also waters down the current rules on conflict of interest. “[A] civil servant will be able to grant benefits to commercial companies in which he/she holds or held certain interests, without being impeded in any way,” the DNA warned.

Iohannis has since said he will launch procedures to organise a referendum on the two pieces of legislation. Meanwhile, the two largest opposition parties in the parliament, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and Union Save Romania (USR) say they are planning a no-confidence motion in the government. 

Death blow

Independent observers have also criticised the government’s moves, warning that they could represent a death blow to the anti-corruption fight in the country.

“We see these days rhetoric against the corruption fight, and the possible amnesty and pardon law. Those of us who were worried about what might happen if the PSD was elected seem to be justified,” says Laura Stefan, corruption expert at think tank Expert Forum. “I think the government will use everything at their disposal … it’s sad to see how fragile the reforms are.”

Adrian Moraru, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy (IPP), points out that even if the changes are later reversed, the damage will have been done. “Even if [an offence is] only decriminalised for five minutes, it doesn’t matter, all the past has been wiped clean, and anyone who did it before that date will go free,” he says.

The attempt to restrict what the DNA can investigate is not surprising since several key members of both the PSD and its coalition partner the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) have been convicted following DNA probes or are under investigation. However, passing the two pieces of legislation has become a matter of particular urgency due to the impending trial of PSD leader Liviu Dragnea for instigation to abuse of office. Dragnea was already prevented from becoming prime minister after the PSD’s victory because he has a previous conviction for voter manipulation. Now he is fighting not only for his political life but for his personal freedom; if found guilty he will be sent to prison.

However, under the new rules he would escape conviction since the damages in the case – which concerns PSD employees allegedly put on the payroll of Teleorman county council when it was headed by Dragnea - are only RON108,612, well below the new threshold.

The government is therefore expected to push ahead with adoption of the legislation swiftly and most likely by emergency ordinance, rather than risk allowing pressure to mount from opponents within the country and from external actors like the EU.

Acting during the coldest month of the year appears to have been another precaution against mass protests, though thousands of Romanians in Bucharest and other cities turned out to demonstrate on January 18. Some stood ankle deep in snow outside in Bucharest’s University Square chanting “DNA, don’t give up” and “Dragnea, don’t forget, Romania is not yours”.

Another grievance was the (incorrect) claim by Antenna and other broadcasters close to the PSD that Iohannis was in favour of the changes. There was a brief moment of comedy when protesters erupted into loud boos as an Antenna reporter attempted to start a live broadcast from the rally.

This was followed by an even larger rally on January 22, with an estimated 20,000 people, including Iohannis, taking part. 

The last time Romanians protested in such large numbers was 14 months ago, when up to 25,000 people rallied against the previous PSD-led government after dozens of deaths in the Club Colectiv nightclub fire. The mass protests eventually resulted in the resignation of then Prime Minister and PSD leader Victor Ponta. There were some flashbacks to the earlier protest as demonstrators chanted “Corruption kills” and “Colectiv”, but this time around the impact is not expected to be great. The PSD was elected just six weeks ago, as voters rejected rivals like the Union Save Romania that ran on an anti-corruption platform, in favour of the welfare programme offered by the PSD.

High-handed methods

And while protesters urged the DNA not to give up, public opinion has already turned against the agency. Its head Kovesi used to be one of the most popular public figures in the country as ordinary Romanians relished seeing politicians and influential businesspeople brought low. Those to have come under investigation by the DNA include Ponta (while he was still prime minister), Dragnea, Alde leader Calin Popescu Tariceanu, and many other current and former ministers.

However, many now seem to have wearied of the focus on corruption, as shown by the result of the December 2016 election. The DNA has also faced a growing tide of media criticism, some of it clearly inspired by Romanians who have been the target of its investigations. 

There has been a concerted campaign both within Romania and outside the country intended to discredit both the DNA and Kovesi. In April 2016, two Israeli men were arrested for spying on Kovesi in an attempt to find compromising information about her, while two other suspects – former Mossad agents who later founded the Black Cube private investigation company – managed to escape the country.

According to reports in the local press, two unnamed media tycoons had hired the agents in an apparent campaign against Kovesi. In the last year, bne IntelliNews has also received several approaches from PR agencies and freelance journalists with stories aimed at discrediting the DNA.

Much criticism has focussed on the alleged high-handed methods used by the DNA. There has been an apparent widening of the DNA’s activity from clear-cut corruption cases to more nebulous suspicions of “abuse of office”, such as the probe into the death of a policemen in a road accident when he was escorting former Deputy Prime Minister Gabriel Oprea. The DNA then attempted to launch a manslaughter investigation into Oprea but was blocked by the parliament.

Legitimate concerns have been raised about the links between the DNA and the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). Kovesi has not denied using evidence from the SRI; in fact when the DNA was banned from using wiretapped SRI evidence in 2016 she claimed the DNA would need an additional 130 police offices to compensate. It would cost €10mn for the DNA to continue its operations using equipment owned by the SRI, or even more money to buy its own equipment, Kovesi told Digi24 TV channel at the time.

This has raised fears that by being encouraged to collect information on Romanian businesspeople, officials and especially politicians, the SRI is becoming increasingly embroiled in Romanian politics. If this is allowed to continue unchecked, there are fears that the intelligence service could start to play the same role as its predecessor, Nicolae Ceausescu’s feared Securitate, did in the communist era, with worrying consequences for democracy in the country.

These concerns are now being reinforced by the revelations made by businessman Sebastian Ghita in a series of taped statements released by his television channel Romania TV. Ghita alleges that security services from Romania’s “partner countries” - most likely a veiled reference to the CIA - were involved in shaping the DNA and promoting Kovesi. Ghita has also accused both Kovesi and the former executive head of the SRI of being “agents”.

Ghita, a close friend of Ponta, is a questionable source and his allegations have not been proven. However, they include evidence that seems to back up some of his claims, and there is a widespread belief that there is substance to at least some of his accusations.

Coldea has already resigned, and the claims have also damaged Kovesi’s reputation, especially as she failed to defend herself convincingly in television interviews on January 17. If Ghita reveals the proof he claims to hold of collaboration between Kovesi, Coldea and CIA operatives in the region, this would further undermine the DNA’s credibility.

Ghita himself is being investigated by the DNA in connection to several corruption scandals. His whereabouts are currently unknown after he escaped from police surveillance on December 21. He is believed to have had high-level help, since his escape was only reported 16 hours later, and it was nearly a month before an international arrest warrant was issued.

Given the timing, it also appears likely that Ghita’s revelations were coordinated with the government’s plans to adopt the law on pardons. Moraru points out that “this charade built to a crescendo on the day the government was planning to adopt the legislation [by emergency ordinance], so that the public would say, ‘Who cares, Kovesi is dirty anyway and people are in jail because of abuses by prosecutors’.”

This is not the first time politicians have made a concerted effort to undermine the DNA. On “Black Tuesday” in December 2013, MPs from across the political divide voted to give themselves, the president and other groups of potential defendants immunity from prosecution in corruption cases. MPs now have to vote to lift the immunity of their peers.

For the time being, Kovesi has said she will not resign. However, the DNA chief - until recently one of the most powerful people in Romania - has been weakened by the scandal unleashed by Ghita. Consequently, the government might make an attempt to replace her or even start to dismantle the DNA. In any case, should the new laws come into force, there will be little for the DNA to prosecute.

Despite the flaws of the DNA, this would represent a huge setback for Romania’s fight against corruption, which would have repercussions beyond the country’s borders. In less than four years since Kovesi took over at the DNA, Romania has become a beacon for other countries in the region from Albania to Ukraine. When the prime minister of neighbouring Bulgaria, Boyko Borissov, announced plans for a new anti-corruption strategy in 2015, he set his country’s benchmark as beating Romania. In December 2015, bne IntelliNews wrote that Ukraine needs to “do a Romania”; now Ukraine is accelerating its reforms while Romania backslides.

Bucharest still faces pressure to continue with its reforms from the European Commission, which uses its Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) to monitor progress in both Romania and Bulgaria against an agreed set of benchmarks. The annual CVM reports on the two countries are expected later this month. A spokesperson told bne IntelliNews that the commission does not “comment on draft legislation, but we are closely following these developments”.

But ultimately this is a domestic matter and, according to Moraru, in the eyes of large numbers of the population Kovesi has “already lost” - whatever the outcome of the Ghita saga. This leaves the DNA open to attack. Nonetheless, he is optimistic that even if the DNA is hacked down, in future Romania’s anti-corruption fight will “rise again like a phoenix … perhaps after the destruction of the DNA something better will rise in its place.”

This may happen at some point in the future. But for now - barring a miracle - those responsible for corrupt acts committed during the 28 years since the fall of communism, from the turbulent early transition years to the boom and crash of the late 2000s, are most likely to go unpunished.