Is there any other country in Europe where the No. 2 politician (head of the Senate) and the No 3 politician (head of the Chamber of Deputies), who have just won elections with a comfortable majority fear imminent arrest and conviction?
Or where most of the freshly elected members of Parliament could themselves be prosecuted on any count, from having hired their relatives in the past (like French presidential candidate François Fillon, except in Romania, unlike France, that’s illegal); having passed legislation to favour some private interests; or simply for having lunched with someone who is suspected of corruption and not declaring it? Or where a minister who issues legislation on criminal matters which is in his legal right is three days later indicted by the anticorruption agency (DNA) for his actions?
And yet this is the situation of Romania, a country where generalised corruption and the toughest anticorruption in Europe have been co-existing for the past ten years.
The result is not less corruption, but crowded jails. Eighteen ministers from the governments in power since 2004 have been charged or convicted, including one prime minister, who was jailed (Adrian Năstase), and without counting another (Victor Ponta), indicted on several counts, for instance for rewarding a businessman who sponsored an event during then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to in Romania. Even the family of former anticorruption President Traian Băsescu, a powerful backer of DNA for many years, has not been immune, with some members in jail or facing penal sentences.
Liviu Dragnea (the second most senior politician in the country), whose party was the big winner from December 2017 elections, could not even become prime minister due to a suspended jail sentence for having planned a lottery to encourage participation in the 2012 referendum to impeach the then President Traian Basescu. This is despite the fact that he later gave it up, realising that it was illegal. He has also been charged just before elections again, for having talked an associate into putting his party secretary on the public payroll when the party’s funds ran dry. If he gets a second conviction, the first becomes active and will serve time on both.
As to Calin Popescu Tariceanu (who ranks just behind Dragnea in his political position), he is the one charged of not confessing a brief luncheon meeting, although there is no other crime or suspicion related to him. The charge was brought before elections, when he was still President of the Senate (and of a small, king-maker party), and after the election he was invited by the President Klaus Iohannis to switch sides. He refused publicly, and this denied Mr. Iohannis’ party the possibility of forming the government.
So these are the camps. On one hand, Mr. Iohannis, who controls secret services, and in particular the Romanian Information Service (RIS), an important source of evidence for corruption convictions until spring 2016, when the Constitutional Court asked for a better separation of roles between RIS and the DNA. His party managed just 20% of the vote, having itself being decimated by DNA investigations.
And on the other, the new government coalition (250 out of 465 seats), with a Mr. Dragnea unable to assume premiership due to his prior conviction, which he dismisses as ‘political’.
These parties contributed most of the 465 members of parliament, of which 37% had known public integrity problems, according to Clean Romania, a watchdog which has been blacklisting candidates for corruption since 2004
As well as introducing legislation which kept him out of jail, Mr. Dragnea has enacted another controversial measure: he cut the budget of the secret services by ten percent. The RIS is not an institution to trifle with. Since 2005 it has grown its network of information gathering from 6,370 wiretaps to 44,759 in 2014, double that of the FBI for a population sixteen times smaller than the US. All in the name of anticorruption.
Just a few days before the controversial legislation rewriting corruptions laws was passed, RIS’ top general, Florian Coldea, stepped down, accused of sharing holidays with a infamous IT magnate, and an avowed collaborator of the service, Mr.Sebastian Ghita.
Mr Ghita, who has collected hundreds of millions in government contracts, especially from secret services and internal affairs, is currently on the run and sought by Interpol.
In another risky promise, Mr. Dragnea has vowed that this Parliament will try to bring secret service under proper civilian control for the first time.
In this climate where distrust in the state is well founded, the anticorruption agency DNA has gained the trust of Romanians.
When DNA, the president and a section of the media denounced the new law, presented as the first step of an all-assault on the judiciary, the public answered the call.
They did not do this during the election, as they saw few favourable alternatives. But the appetite for sending the corrupt to jail- indefinitely if necessary- is strong.
People are furious that convictions take years, that under each regime certain figures seem to act with impunity and that, once jailed, politicians manage to get out in just a few years using various unorthodox procedures (like claiming to write ‘academic’ literature in jail to reduce their time).
A strong majority told an online survey that they believe corruption crimes should have no limitation periods, despite half of them confessing to some corrupt act, such as bribing or tax evasion in the recent past.
The question remains if Romania’s tough repressive strategy against corruption is sustainable against its own Parliament.
MPs sometimes allow the prosecution of their colleagues, but they often withhold their permission. They seldom pass any policy to prevent corruption, therefore corruption remains widespread and arrests look often arbitrary, as far more people indulging in similar practices exist.
While a recent suit was filed at the Constitutional Court to claim that the executive and the judiciary were ‘in conflict’ over the recent bill, the long, deep conflict is actually between sovereignty of the Parliament over legislation and the Brussels-sponsored anticorruption bills that DNA uses to indict politicians.
MPs have tried for years to reverse or blunt the teeth of anticorruption legislation. They suffered many losses- so many that last December some of their descendants had to fill in seats as their parents were in prison: the county of Prahova is one example.
But the people of deep, poor, dependent Romania nevertheless returned the families of their corrupt patron politicians to parliament, as they hope for more redistributive policies in return.
In contrast, the crowds in the big cities are made of English-speaking Romanians working in multinationals and NGOs. As no early elections are possible, the country remains divided, and the conflict is bound to continue until a party with a good governance mandate and clean politicians manages to get 51% of the seats in Parliament.
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is a professor of democracy studies at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the former leader of Romania’s anticorruption Coalition for a Clean Parliament
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