BALKAN BLOG: Romanian government’s ‘useful idiots’ line up to undermine anti-corruption drive

BALKAN BLOG: Romanian government’s ‘useful idiots’ line up to undermine anti-corruption drive
Romanians have been turning out in their tens of thousands against the measures.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest February 3, 2017

On February 2, as anti-corruption protesters gathered for the third consecutive day outside the Romanian government offices, the Financial Times website published an article by British freelance journalist Nick Kochan claiming that the government should instead “be congratulated” for its recent moves to decriminalise some corruption offences and allow thousands of people convicted of graft to go free.

The article is one of several that have appeared recently in what is coming to resemble a PR campaign to discredit Romania’s anti-corruption drive just as it comes under sustained attack from the new government in Bucharest.

The Romanian government’s legislation in question is an emergency ordinance partially decriminalising abuse of office. If (or most likely when) it comes into force, anyone previously convicted of abuse of office that results in damages of less than RON200,000 (around $50,000) will also be allowed to go free.

Kochan describes such instances as “minor acts of graft”. Yet this is hardly akin to officials helping themselves to office stationery or fiddling their lunch expenses. $50,000 is more than eight times the average annual salary in Romania or the price of a two-bedroom flat in downtown Bucharest or – as one outraged protester pointed out – a brand new Mercedes.

“Some of course will expect the decriminalisation measure to be abused by politicians facing corruption charges of their own. But this would be a highly visible abuse of power,” writes Kochan.

But this is exactly what the protesters expect to happen, which is why they are protesting in their hundreds of thousands. Indeed, they even know which politicians are set to benefit: first among them will be the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea.

It is no coincidence that one of the first acts of the new PSD-led government was to draw up the ordinance. Dragnea’s trial started on January 31, the very day that the ordinance was adopted by the government. He is accused of abuse of office while serving as head of Teleorman county council and the damages in the case are RON108,612 – conveniently below the RON 200,000 threshold set in the ordinance.

Another claim put forward by Kochan in his article is that the measure “allows the recently elected government to revise its approach to probity in public office, under an international spotlight”.

This is disingenuous. The government did everything it could to avoid allowing a spotlight – local or international – to shine on its activities. That’s why the government originally planned to adopt the ordinance with no prior announcement at its session on January 18. This was thwarted by President Klaus Iohannis’ decision to attend the session after news of the government’s plans was leaked to the press. However, less than two weeks later, the government quietly adopted the ordinance at a late-night session on January 31.

In fact, there is no good reason for the government’s decision to adopt the legislative changes by emergency ordinance. The PSD and its coalition partner, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alde), have a majority in both houses of parliament that would allow them to approve the changes via the parliament, but this of course would subject them to debate by lawmakers.

Romania’s Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM) has since pointed out, when referring the ordinance to the Constitutional Court, that emergency ordinances are supposed to be used – as their name suggests – only in an emergency. The only emergency in this case appears to be the need to rush through the changes before a verdict is reached in Dragnea’s trial.

Kochan also calls in his piece for Romania to allow “the marketplace to raise standards of ethics and governance”, rather than the “heavy handed state prosecutor” that is Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Yet before the DNA stepped up its activities under Chief Prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi, who was appointed in 2013, there was little evidence to support the idea that the marketplace could raise ethical standards in Romania; in fact quite the contrary.

In Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled during the first year of Kovesi’s time at the helm of the DNA, Romania was in 69th place with a score of 43 points out of 100 (with 100 being the best score). Three years later, Romania had shot up to 57th place, with a score of 48. From being on a par with Italy in 2013, Romania is now three places higher.

In addition, numerous analysts interviewed by bne IntelliNews in the last three years believe that the numerous investigations and charges brought by the DNA – in particular those against influential businesspeople and top politicians – have started to bring about a change in culture by acting as a deterrent to those considering breaking the rules.

It is hard to see how leaving the fight against corruption to “the practice of the international market” would demonstrate that Bucharest is “serious in dealing with [its] reputation for corruption”, as Kochan claims.  The European Commission and anti-corruption experts such as Transparency International take exactly the opposite view.

In its DNA

Kochan does make some fair points about the problems with the DNA, which is far from perfect. Specifically, he raises the issue of the organisation’s collaboration with the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI), the successor to the feared communist-era Securitate. This is no secret in Romania. Kovesi herself said in 2016 that the DNA would need substantial additional resources if it were to dispense with the wiretapping services provided by the SRI.

The main problem with the DNA’s cooperation with the SRI is that it has encouraged the security service – whose intended role is to identify external threats to Romania – to monitor local politicians, which is likely to give it more leverage over domestic politics in future.

However, Kochan backs up his argument by citing a report issued by the “authoritative London-based Henry Jackson Society”. The rabidly neo-conservative think-tank itself has been the centre of controversy after it abruptly withdrew funding from two British all-party parliamentary groups following calls to reveal its funding sources in 2015. This was revealed by Spinwatch, an NGO that says its mission is to investigate the way that the PR industry and corporate and government propaganda “distort public debate and undermine democracy”.

Spinwatch and the Guardian newspaper revealed in 2015 that the Henry Jackson Society’s donors include the US-based Abstraction Fund, in turn linked to the Gatestone Institute which – like some staff members of the Henry Jackson Society – has been criticised for Islamophobia.

Not only that, but concerning the report on Romania cited by Kochan, the report is not in fact a Henry Jackson Society report at all. The report itself states that: “The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and are not necessarily indicative of those of The Henry Jackson Society or its trustees.”

The paper is in fact by David Clark, who works as an associate for London-based PR firm Champollion, as revealed by Forbes reporter Stephen McGrath in January. It’s unclear why Clark is considered an authority on this topic, except that he recently wrote a piece for the Guardian claiming that “Romania's corruption fight is a smokescreen to weaken its democracy”.

Kochan and Clarke are not alone in (mis)representing – from outside Romania – a view of the anti-corruption drive that runs counter to the view from the ground.

There has been some debate over the coverage of Alexander Adamescu, the son of recently deceased Romanian businessman Dan Adamescu. In the UK media, Alexander Adamescu’s arrest has been used to highlight the perceived unfairness of the European arrest warrant. However, claims that Alexander Adamescu, who is wanted on suspicion of bribery in Romania, is the victim of political persecution are questionable.

More controversially, a profile of Dragnea published by the British newspaper the Independent on December 7, four days before Romania’s general election, presented the PSD leader as a figure that could “cheer up European social democracy”, and made no mention of his impending abuse of office trial or previous conviction for voter manipulation.

The author of the piece, which sparked outrage among Romanian commentators, was Denis MacShane, the UK’s former minister for Europe. Readers were quick to point out that MacShane and Dragnea had something in common: MacShane was sentenced to six months in prison for fiddling his expenses in 2013.

While there is no evidence that PR firms are behind these articles, bne IntelliNews has received approaches from lobbyists offering stories that seemed intended to tarnish the DNA’s reputation and undermine the anti-corruption drive in Romania.

As the DNA has become increasingly influential in recent years, efforts to blacken its name and that of his leader Kovesi have increased in Romania too.

In 2016, a bizarre scandal broke when two former Mossad agents working for private security firm Black Cube were detained for spying on Kovesi in an apparent attempt to find compromising material on her. The agents are believed to have been hired by two Romanian media tycoons, though with many of Romania’s media moguls in prison or under investigation, speculation as to which were behind this remains rife.

Fake news has become a hot topic worldwide following the US election, and Romania is not exempt from this. Unsurprisingly, the tone taken on the reporting of the protests differs widely depending on the political orientation and ownership of the local television channels.

However, protesters in Bucharest on January 18 were angered not only by the government’s attempt to plans through the ordinance, but by reports on several news channels that Iohannis had been in favour of the legal changes; in fact he blocked their adoption on January 18 and has since been a vocal opponent.

It is not clear whether the spate of articles from journalists and lobbyists based outside Romania is linked to opponents of the anti-corruption drive within the country. However, articles like Kochan’s that paint the adoption of legislation aimed at undermining the country’s anti-corruption efforts as beneficial do no favours to democracy in Romania.