Romania's anti-corruption drive: reality TV or genuine reform?

Romania's anti-corruption drive: reality TV or genuine reform?
Romania's former president Emil Constantinescu
By Carmen Valache in Istanbul April 19, 2016

Romania's much-publicised fight against corruption is at its peak, with 2015 becoming the most prolific year for the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) in bringing to justice high-level officials on corruption accusations that ranged from illegal land restitutions to purchases of Microsoft software at inflated prices. But while handcuffed judges, politicians and mayors are being paraded in front of the cameras in a reality-television-like manner to the vindication of many regular Romanians, former prime minister Petre Roman and former president Emil Constantinescu believe that the country has a way to go in addressing graft and building democratic institutions.

Despite the DNA's investigations into 1,400 officials ranging from state prosecutors to mayors to five former ministers including former prime minister Victor Ponta, Romania remains one of the most corrupt countries in the EU according to a European Parliament study. Corruption costs the country a staggering 15% of GDP every year, the March 2016 study finds.

"I have always been in favour of reforms to ensure the independence of the judiciary and to combat corruption," Roman, prime minister between 1989 and 1991 and a three-time MP, says in an interview with bne IntelliNews. "But in Romania, things have gone from one extreme to the other," he says. "Besides, there have been [corruption] cases revealed by the media that the DNA has not investigated. For instance, in the land restitution case that involved [the national restitution agency] ANPR, only some low-ranking officials have been prosecuted. This is a case in which the prime minister at the time [Calin Popescu-Tariceanu] took €1bn from the state budget of a country that was going through an economic crisis and gave it to ANPR. He was never investigated," he adds.

Roman is referring to some of the restitutions made during the Popescu-Tariceanu administration of 2004-2008, which were found to be illegal and a result of high-level graft. However, the former prime minister was never called in for questioning in the case, despite the fact that his ex-wife was a suspect.

ANPR has been at the centre of an investigation regarding the Romanian government’s restitution of lands confiscated by the communist regimes before 1989. Some of the country's richest businesspeople, such as football-club owner, former MEP and real estate mogul Gigi Becali, who has spent a two-year stint in jail, made their fortunes by abusing the restitution system - bribing officials in exchange for properties that had never belonged to their families, and to which they were not entitled. Even current president Klaus Iohannis is suspected of having taken advantage of the restitution system by forging documents to obtain a property in central Sibiu, his hometown, but his immunity has prevented an investigation into the case.

Roman is not alone in suggesting that the DNA lacks impartiality. The agency and its head prosecutor - Laura Codruta Kovesi - have become the target of similar accusations. Veteran political commentator and journalist Ion Cristoiu is perhaps the most vocal of all its critics, having repeatedly accused Kovesi and her team of illegally spying on telephone conversations and relying too heavily on the Romanian secret services for their investigations, which raise red flags about the agency’s impartiality. The DNA did not respond to bne IntelliNews' request for an interview.

Undoubtedly, there are those within Romania who want the DNA reined in. Kovesi was recently revealed to have been spied on by former Mossad agents in an apparent attempt to find compromising material. It is not clear who was behind the attempt, though the local press claims it was a media tycoon convicted of corruption.

Conversely, many Romanians complain that the jail sentences issued to those convicted of corruption are too little, too late to compensate for the widespread graft of the last two decades. They want corrupt politicians and government officials to be stripped of any financial gains and given longer sentences.

But accusations and criticism are not holding back the 120 prosecutors working at the DNA from pushing ahead with the 6,000 cases they are working on at the moment. In response to its critics, the DNA claims that its success should be measured by the 90% conviction rate in the cases it investigates, which Kovesi says goes to show that its cases are solid. As for the agency's use of intelligence, the devoutly religious Kovesi claims that it serves the greater good of catching corrupt officials. "People have to understand that officials involved in corruption do not speak about the bribes they receive with witnesses around and they do not take money in public. These are stealthy actions that require similar tactics to be exposed," she said in an interview with Al Jazeera in October.  

After the clean-up

Fearful of being targeted by the DNA, politicians and officials are opting for inaction. "Our political class is very weakened at the moment, and the anti-corruption authorities have the upper hand. Even businesses are confused. Companies are afraid of being prosecuted, the parliament is blocked. Everything is blocked. The way out of this situation is the [parliamentary] election in the autumn, which will hopefully lead to a new political formula," Roman says.

Meanwhile, Constantinescu, Romania's president from 1996 to 2000, believes that Romanians are not prepared to fill the power void left by the DNA's clean-up. "The [current] government of technocrats shows that there are limitations to our civil society. People are quick to judge and to accuse but, when they are in positions of power, they struggle to get things done and to assume responsibility for their actions. [...] Unfortunately, our education system does not train actors, but spectators. This is the biggest problem of Romanian democracy," he tells bne IntelliNews.

Constantinescu is credited with having introduced some of the basic democratic institutions in Romania, such as the Ombudsman, and paved the way for the country's later accession to the EU. But the career academic is not happy with the accomplishments of his administration. "I realised, after my time in office was over, that the most important thing after you put in place democratic institutions is to create a democratic consciousness," he says. This is still lacking in Romania.

However, he is happy that, 16 years after his presidency ended, Romania is finally fighting the corruption that he had decried so many times. "Romania's political system used to resemble the mafia. [...] There is no stopping this [anti-corruption] process now. People would not accept it. And politicians are aware of the fact that people will no longer accept corruption," he says.

The victory against corruption could turn tragic if Romania loses the fight for democracy, Constantinescu believes. "It is important to strengthen people's trust in democratic institutions like the parliament. This is a challenge right now given the corruption cases against MPs and politicians, which have affected people's trust in democratic institutions. But we have to reform everything. Not just politics, but also society," he says.

Roman concurs. "Nothing very bad can come out of the parliament, because it is a debating body. MPs scrutinise bills, they debate ideas. Anything that is very bad for the country would simply not be approved. In fact, the parliament can do a great deal of good for the country, and some politicians like [former president Traian] Basescu made a huge mistake when they took on the Romanian parliament as an enemy."

The way ahead according to Constantinescu is to promote human governance through education and to encourage the diaspora to come back to the country to set up businesses. "It took a long time to change Romanians' mentality that a head of state that obeys the law is a weak leader, and that honesty is stupidity. [...] Families and schools now have to educate young Romanians, to build their character. Countries are not corporations, we have to work with our people's ethos in building our democracy [...] There is an extraordinary opportunity right now for Romanians who have experience abroad to set up honest businesses in Romania," he concludes.