Romania gets serious about ending its notorious corruption

Romania's anticorruption taskforce is making great strides in one of Europe's most corrupt nations. Among the thousand-plus convicted last year are 24 mayors, five MPs, two ex-ministers, and a former prime minister.

Marian Ilie/Reuters
Elena Udrea, former minister of tourism and former presidential candidate in Romania, is brought by policemen to court in Bucharest, Romania, on Feb. 11. Such has been the success of Romania's anti-corruption prosecutors that television crews are now permanently stationed outside their offices, waiting for the next politician, businessman, or judge to be hauled in. Udrea is currently under house arrest, pending criminal investigation.

Outside the National Anticorruption Directorate in downtown Bucharest, more than a dozen reporters and cameramen stand around chatting. It’s a weekday afternoon, and they know it’s only a matter of time before the next high-profile Romanian shows up to face charges of corruption.

Even a few years ago, Romania's powerful and well-connected were able to line their own pockets with impunity, earning the country deserved notoriety as one of Europe's most graft-ridden nations.

But today, in a perfect storm of external pressure from the European Union and internal public anger, Romania's crackdown on corruption is almost routine. With an independent and tenacious special prosecutor's office driving the effort, the country is making dramatic strides in holding elites just as accountable as the common man.

Major progress

Romania has long been considered one of the most graft-ridden countries in Europe, ranking last among European Union member states on Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index (tied with Greece, Italy, and Bulgaria). 

Yet as part of the country’s ascension into the EU, which they joined in 2007 along with neighboring Bulgaria, Romania – where graft reaches to all levels of society – was required to clean up its act.

“It started because we had the right mix of external pressure from the European Commission and internal pressure from the population,” says Laura Stefan, an anticorruption expert and a former director in the Romanian Ministry of Justice.

Yet, she adds: “When this started, there was no trust in the state. A lot of people were skeptical, and it took a long time and a lot of strong cases to convince people.”

In 2003, the country established the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), a specialized prosecutor's office tasked with fighting corruption and graft. Initially the DNA targeted lower-level figures, but within a few years it was aiming far higher, and the number of people convicted of high-level graft of more than 10,000 euros ($11,300) has risen accordingly.

Last year 1,138 individuals, including politicians, businessmen, judges, and prosecutors, were convicted of corruption in Romania, up from 155 in 2006. This included 24 mayors, five members of parliament, two ex-ministers, and a former prime minister, not to mention seven judges and 13 prosecutors. Those convicted include politicians of all stripes, irrespective of party lines.

High-profile targets

This year the headlines have continued to pile up. Last week Monica Iacob Ridzi, a former sports and youth minister, was sentenced to five years in prison for abuse of power and corruption. A few days earlier, a former transportation minister was also jailed, sentenced to two years for taking bribes while in office, including getting a house built for his mother free of charge.

These days Romanian news channels are fixated on the rapid fall from grace of Elena Udrea, a glamorous MP, former tourism minister, and recent presidential candidate (she finished fourth) who was arrested in mid-February on charges of money laundering, influence peddling, and taking bribes. Pundits had a field day when Ms. Udrea asked for permission to refurbish and decorate the cell she was being held in under preventive arrest.

Some 7 percent of politicians elected in 2012 have been convicted or are currently under investigation for corruption, according to estimates. The DNA’s conviction success rate is over 90 percent.

The DNA’s biggest conviction to date has been that of former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (2000-2004), who was sentenced to four years behind bars in January 2014 for bribery and blackmail.

“Right now it is ugly, but it is a sign of progress, it shows willingness,” says Cristian Ghinea, director of the Romanian Center for European Policies, a Bucharest-based think tank.

Push back

This progress, however, has not come without a backlash.

DNA’s chief prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, has had her personal life regularly attacked in the media, particularly by news organizations owned or linked with some of the powerful men who have been targeted by DNA investigations. Last year she sued one television station for libel after it accused her of taking bribes.

Yet these public accusations seem to have had little impact on the popularity of the DNA or of Ms. Kovesi herself; in fact, some have suggested that the organization is now Romania’s fourth-most-trusted institution, behind only the church, Army, and security services.

In a statement released last month to coincide with the EU’s latest report on corruption, Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission wrote that: “Romania is on the right course and needs to stick to it. Tackling corruption remains the biggest challenge and the biggest priority.”

Any remaining concerns hinge on the actions of parliament, which has previously tried to curtail the scope of investigations.

While politicians have at least publicly supported the DNA’s anticorruption drive, there have been attempts in parliament to shield elected officials from investigation and prosecution.

In December 2013, on a day dubbed Black Tuesday,the parliament passed a draft law that would have granted immunity to elected officials. The international community reacted strongly, as did many Romanians who took to the streets in protest, and the measures were later struck down.

No longer untouchable

Last November, just days after an anticorruption candidate won Romania’s latest presidential election, lawmakers were once again called to vote on a controversial amnesty bill. This one would have opened the way to releasing any inmate serving up to six years in prison for non-violent crimes – which would have included most of those serving time for corruption.

This time the vote was almost unanimously against the bill.

If there were clear-cut signs that no one is now safe from investigation, it has been in recent weeks, as first Udrea, the former presidential candidate, was arrested, and then Iulian Hertanu, the brother-in-law of Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta, was detained. Mr. Hertanu was allegedly involved in embezzling funds worth around 1.75 million euros.

“The area of untouchables has gotten smaller and smaller with time,” says Ms. Stefan, the anticorruption expert.

“People are seeing for the first time, if you steal you go to jail, no matter who you are. This is the way it should be, but we need to keep the momentum.”

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