Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Recent high-profile arrests and a sharp increase in indictments for corruption-related crimes have illustrated the increased determination by the authorities to combat corruption in Romania. But these efforts are being held back by MPs and high-ranking officials.
The Romanian president’s brother, Mircea Basescu, was indicted on July 14 on charges of taking a €250,000 bribe to help reduce the jail sentence of crime boss Sandu Anghel, who is serving eight years and nine months for attempted murder. When his brother was detained by police in June, President Traian Basescu, who was elected in 2004 on an anti-corruption platform, denied any involvement in the scandal, and says his brother should face trial. “I can assure you that between the need to strengthen the judiciary and the natural urge to defend my brother, I will always choose the former,” Basescu said in a June 19 statement published on the presidential website.
Basescu’s political opponents naturally seized on the arrest to bolster their own positions. Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who is tipped to become Romania’s next president after Bacescu stands down at the end of his second term in November, called on the president to quit immediately.
However, Basescu’s brother is just one of a growing number of high-ranking officials to be targeted by prosecutors recently. Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) reported in February that during 2013, more than 1,000 defendants had been indicted, one-third higher than in 2012. The headcount included six ministers and MPs, 34 mayors and deputy mayors, 25 magistrates and 10 managers of national companies. Among these are former PM Adrian Nastase, who was first convicted in 2012 of siphoning off $2m in state funds to finance his election campaign. The following year he was returned to jail for accepting bribes. In July 2013, Transport Minister Relu Fenechiu became the first serving minister to be sentenced for corruption.
Despite the increasingly active DNA and judiciary, the level of corruption in Romania remains high by European standards. A European Commission study published in February found that corruption costs European countries a total of around €120bn a year, with the highest levels of bribery found in Bulgaria, Greece and Romania. “In Romania, both petty and political corruption remains a significant problem,” says the report. “Although some positive results have been observed when it comes to prosecution of high level corruption cases, political will to address corruption and promote high standards of integrity has been inconsistent.”
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Romania's parliament on December 10, 2013 – dubbed “Black Tuesday” – when MPs voted to give top politicians including the president and MPs, as well as lawyers, immunity from prosecution in corruption cases. The support from parties across the political spectrum most likely demonstrated MPs’ fear of becoming the subject of future investigations; at the time of the vote, 28 MPs were either on trial for corruption or had already been convicted. The parliament has also repeatedly intervened in individual cases. In March, MPs voted against lifting parliamentary immunity for former finance minister Daniel Chitoiu, blocking an investigation by state prosecutors.
These moves have dismayed NGOs working to reduce official corruption. In a joint letter on June 7, five NGOs and think-tanks appealed to the parliament to obstructing the judicial process. “The Romanian Parliament constantly denies the requests by the DNA for the pre-trial detention of the investigated politicians on corruption charges or the start of their criminal investigations... This attitude undermines the rule of law and it is placing us outside of the Western civilization,” the letter said.
“We want the government and parliament to stay out of this game and allow the judiciary to do what it needs to do,” Laura Stefan, anti-corruption expert at Bucharest-based think-tank Expert Forum, tells bne. “Black Tuesday and the emergency ordinances issued by the government are an attempt to undermine the legal and institutional framework. These requests for immunity send out a very bad signal to society.”
In the last decade, Romania has seen a steady increase in the number of convictions for corruption-related crimes and the severity of jail sentences. However, observers argue that even tougher penalties are needed to create an effective deterrent. “I don’t feel that we are sending a signal to society that corruption is not a choice in life,” says Adrian Moraru, deputy director of Romanian NGO Institute for Public Policy (IPP).
He argues that Bucharest should consider adopting its own version of the US' Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, to set harsh penalties for repeat offenders and clamp down on those for whom “crime is a way of life.”
Both Moraru and Stefan also want to see more focus on recovering funds lost to the state budget; only around 5% are typically recovered at present. Moraru calls on the authorities to “look at the sectors that are bleeding the most” and “follow the money.” Of €15bn worth of public procurement a year, an estimated €2bn-3bn is lost, and tackling tax evasion effectively could generation an addition €5bn-8bn a year, he believes.
Far from the corrupt society often portrayed, many Romanians are keen to see a reduction in official corruption and closely follow high-profile investigations. Discontent with the current situation was a contributor to the mass protests of January 2012, and erupted again after Black Tuesday in 2013. However, more political will from the top is needed to stop politicians and officials concerned about their own positions holding the process back.
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