Romania’s anti-corruption crusade is not finished yet

Romania’s anti-corruption crusade is not finished yet
Romania’s anti-corruption prosecutors again announced record results in 2015.
By By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest March 6, 2016

Romania’s anti-corruption prosecutors again announced record results in 2015, and public confidence in the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) is high. But while the many arrests have a deterrent effect, fully cleaning up Romania’s state institutions will be a slow process.

The figures announced by DNA chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi at the presentation of the directorate’s annual activity report on February 25 were impressive. The DNA indicted over 1,250 people for high and medium-level corruption crimes, and 970 defendants received final convictions. Five times more ministers - including one prime minister - and members of parliament were sent to trial in 2015 compared to 2013. During the year, the DNA’s department for financial investigations became operational, making it easier to recover the proceeds of corruption, and the directorate ordered the seizure of almost €500mn.

President Klaus Iohannis, who attended the briefing, congratulated the DNA, describing it as “the epitome of a functional institution” that had “created a standard for performance”, ACT Media reported. However, he added that, “unfortunately the problem of corruption continues to affect our society in a profound way ... The fight against corruption is far from completed.”

The success of the DNA in taking on high profile figures - those probed in 2015 include the country’s then prime minister Victor Ponta who resigned in November - has attracted attention outside Romania as well as within the country. Michael Hein, fellow at Humboldt University of Berlin’s department of Social Sciences, notes that the DNA is “singular in CEE ... no other country has an agency that has been similarly successful in fighting corruption.”

The last year has seen Romania pull away from neighbouring Bulgaria in terms of the fight against corruption. While in 2014 the two countries were the lowest ranked EU countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index alongside Greece and Italy, on the 2015 index, Romania was in 58th place - 11 places higher than Bulgaria and two above Italy.

The annual Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) reports from the European Commission also reflect this. The latest report issued in January said that the “track record of [Romania’s] key judicial and integrity institutions in addressing high-level corruption has remained impressive”. European Commission officials are now considering scrapping CVM monitoring for Romania altogether.

Hein believes personalities played a role in the DNA’s success. “Former president Traian Basescu was very involved in fighting corruption for several years, during which he installed a number of key figures,” he says. In addition, the EU officials advising Romania on its fight against corruption before its accession to the bloc had different visions from those working in Bulgaria. However, he also considers that, “over time, the DNA gained its own momentum.”

By 2015, hundreds of central and local officials had been removed from office after being convicted of corruption. 100 mayors and county council presidents were sent to trial in 2015 alone, and one third of all Romanian county council presidents have been indicted. 

However, it is not clear whether this has resulted in deep change within government organisations. “The problem is that these officials are taken away, and the replacement carries on doing the same thing. Removing officials doesn’t change the pattern of behaviour,” says Laura Stefan, corruption expert at think tank Expert Forum.

She believes that tackling the roots of official corruption will be difficult. “These guys are not stupid. They either believe it’s a risk worth taking or they can’t afford to opt out because they are part of a corrupt network. They are there to provide for the network, not to question it. It’s very difficult to find the strength to opt out,” says Stefan.

Hein agrees that tackling informal networks and clientalism is tough, but believes there have already been improvements since the early days when the DNA was fighting corruption almost single-handedly, even battling corruption within the judicial system. “If these developments continue for a longer period of time, I think there will be a deterrent effect,” he forecasts. “People change their behaviour when they know there is a high probability they will be sentenced.”

Clara Volintiru, a lecturer at the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies and president of the think tank Centre for Social Governance, considers that although the effects have not yet been assessed, education is helping to prevent corruption especially among lower level civil servants. “The political elite may not have changed, but most public employees are underpaid and struggling to do the right thing. When they are made aware of what constitutes corruption, they are less likely to be misled by their superiors,” she says.

However, this has received less attention than the DNA’s investigations. As Stefan points out, prevention “is not as sexy as someone being led away in handcuffs”.

Kovesi also raised the issue of prevention on February 25, saying that the DNA’s latest results “oblige us to also launch a discussion about the necessary reform of the state in terms of preventing and combating corruption.

“Our actions may have long lasting effects only if they are doubled by preventing actions conducted by the other institutions and authorities of the state, by the education sector and business community,” she added.

She also indicated that the DNA would become even more active going forward. “The cases under investigation show us that we haven’t caught all the corrupt people,” she said, singling out in particular the area of public procurement.

As the DNA becomes ever more active, criticisms of its methods have also grown. Even Basescu, who appointed Kovesi, has become increasingly critical. In January, he told local media that the DNA was infringing the human rights of those it arrested. Shortly after Kovesi announced the latest results, he slammed her “political” speech on his Facebook page. Contacted by bne IntelliNews, Basescu declined to comment further on his criticisms of the DNA.

For many of the Romanian population, however, the DNA can do no wrong. It is already seen as one of the only - if not the only - visibly effective Romanian institution. Its ability to bring down top officials - in addition to Ponta, finance minister Darius Valcov and Bucharest mayor Oprescu also resigned last year after the launch of corruption probes - has inspired huge (and sometimes misplaced) confidence in its abilities.

Kovesi is clearly aware of this. “The level of expectations regarding DNA’s activity has become very high. Sometimes, people would want DNA to solve problems which are not under our jurisdiction,” she said, adding that, “It does not mean that citizen’s expectations are not justified or that they shouldn’t be met.”

This became apparent after the Club Collectiv tragedy in October, when dozens of people were killed in a fire in a Bucharest nightclub, and the population looked to the DNA to bring those responsible to justice and ensure that similar disasters did not happen again in future. The Collectiv tragedy provoked a huge outpouring of anger against the political establishment, as corrupt local officials were blamed for the failure to enforce fire safety rules at the club.

Stefan jokes that Romanians now “expect the DNA to fix their plumbing”, but warns that looking to the directorate to cure all the problems in Romanian society will end in disappointment. “Because of the failure of other institutions, people are placing all their hopes in the DNA, but not all problems can be solved by the criminal justice system.”

Much of Kovesi’s February 25 address seemed designed to appeal directly to the population. “[Funds] which should have been used for salaries or public investments reach in fact the pockets of corrupt public officials,” she said, adding later that, “in this fight we had on our side the most important ally: the Romanian citizens ... There are thousands and thousands of people who support our work. These are those honest people who want a society built on fairness and respect.”

From Kovesi ordinary Romanians get what they do not trust politicians to offer. With a general election this autumn, following local elections in June, politicians from both the main parties are trying to present their anti-corruption credentials, but few people are convinced they are doing more than paying lip service to the issue.

“The problem is that large portions of the population do not believe the political elite because they have 25 years experience of politicians saying they were fighting corruption when they were themselves corrupt,” says Hein. “More time is needed for people to have reason to believe that their politicians are not corrupt.”

It is hard to believe this when many senior politicians tarnished by corruption suspicions still hold key positions in the country’s main political parties even as they prepare to campaign in the elections later this year. The leader of the Party of Social Democrats Liviu Dragnea resigned from the government in May 2015 after he was convicted in an electoral fraud case but he remains the party’s president, although former deputy prime minister Gabriel Oprea resigned as head of the National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR) on March 3, after coming under investigation for abuse of office the previous month.

Further dashing any hopes the elections could bring real change, the switch to a single ballot system for the upcoming local elections will increase the dominance of the larger parties, in particular the PSD. The National Liberal Party (PNL), whose MPs initially backed the change, is now furiously backtracking apparently having realised that it will favour its main rival. However, Romania’s non-partisan prime minister Dacian Ciolos has refused to intervene.

Incumbent mayors will benefit from the current system, which will give the major parties an advantage in the campaign for the parliament. “The Collectiv demonstrators wanted the political market to be opened up. This is spitting in the face of the demonstrators,” says Stefan.

The DNA continues to be visibly effective and deliver results, but it will take longer for other Romanian institutions to reform, and the upcoming elections are likely to further highlight the slow pace of reform.


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