Romania’s anti-corruption fight sends mixed messages

Romania’s anti-corruption fight sends mixed messages

Romania’s efforts to combat political abuse have received both praise and scorn, domestically, as well as internationally.

On June 15th, the Romanian Constitutional Court ruled that the abuse of public office will remain a criminal offence. As this was one of the most anticipated rulings in years, it came as a disappointment to multiple officials facing indictment. The ruling makes the distinction between intentional abuse, where the law is actually being broken, and unintentional abuse, where power was exercised in a faulty manner.

A decriminalization of the abuse in question would have led to acquittals in the thousands of trials pursued by the Romanian Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA). It also would have resulted in the inability of the Directorate to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.  DNA prosecuted over 1,250 officials in 2015 with 92% conviction rate and had a paramount role in overthrowing the former government.

International praise

The European Parliament, in a study that attempted to quantify the economic, social and political costs of corruption in the EU, showed that Romania remains at the top of the most corrupt countries in the EU. This has a net result of Romania losing almost 15% of its GDP to corruption.

The DNA, under Laura Codruta Kovesi, has been internationally praised, as it not only cracked down on nationally and locally-elected officials, but businessmen as well. Kovesi stated in a recent interview that DNA is currently working on 3,200 cases of public office abuse. This figure represents almost half of DNA’s full caseload.  As a result,  last month Kovesi received France’s Legion of Honor medal, highlighting her talent and dedication.

Praising Kovesi’s efforts, the U.S. Ambassador to Romania, Hans Klemm stated:

“In recent years, the success of the efforts launched to fight corruption, particularly in the area of prosecution, criminal prosecution, has been remarkably successful.(…) The record of the National Directorate for Anticorruption, the record that Romanian courts had over the past several years has been quite successful, indeed to the extent that Romania is beginning to be recognized internationally and particularly in this region of Europe as the pace-setter for its judicial prosecutorial fight against corruption”.

In May, at the Anti-Corruption Summit in London, Romania reaffirmed its intention to fight corruption through crime-prevention and retrieval of the proceeds of crime. This would also include investment in education and exchanges of good practices. Collectively, all of these initiatives would fall under the umbrella of the newly-launched National Anti-corruption Strategy for 2016-2020.

Romania also announced the creation of its National Agency for the Administration of Seized Assets. When this agency becomes operational by the end of June, it will be  an important step in asset recovery. At the agency’s unveiling, The Economist stated that Kovesi was received “as if she were a rock star”.

Internally, the Romanians are thrilled to see action being taken against corruption for the first time in decades. This has resulted  in a phenomenon which can only be described as a mix between  historically-denied justice and the need for panem et circenses.

Consequently, Romanians applauded when the DNA went after a prime minister, 4 ministers, 10 mayors (including Bucharest’s),  and the former president’s brother while he was still in office. These high-level prosecutions in 2014 and 2015 have driven Kovesi into the first rank of non-political figures.

Romania’s recent past highlight potential abuse

However, DNA and Kovesi have detractors domestically and internationally. In a country that shed communism only relatively recently, the memories of an all-powerful Securitate are quite fresh. This government organ spied on its own people, tapped phones, arrested people without just cause, and turned people against each other  These memories have led some to dub Kovesi as the “Stalinist prosecutor” and her methods involving preventive arrest and phone-tapping were used as justification for the moniker.

The method of preventive arrest (anywhere between 30 and 180 days) is normally used as an exceptional measure during investigations. However, the method is perceived as being used haphazardly for public figures involved. The controversy is given weight as the crimes being prosecuted are non-violent in nature. Lastly, the Criminal Code allows for house arrest but it is rarely applied.

In Romania, a taped conversation cannot alone constitute the only evidence brought in front of the court. However, many analysts have noticed the exaggerated weight which phone-tapping has been given in the corruption cases. Accusations were made about conversations being taken out of contest or conclusions being drawn defying logic.

A decision of the Constitutional Court earlier this year ruled as unconstitutional the Romanian Intelligence Agency’s tapping of phones in criminal investigations. In the aftermath of this ruling, the DNA was assessing the funds needed to carry out the phone surveillance itself.

Meanwhile, on June 4th, U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez expressed her concerns in a letter to her Romanian-American constituents. These concerns highlighted the documented human rights violations associated with the fight against corruption, the violation of due process during penal investigations, as well as  threats to the independence of the judiciary system in Romania.

Romanians and the international community should be pleased by the commitment shown and relentlessness with which anti-corruption is being addressed. A less corrupt Romania is a better, stronger and more self-reliant member of the EU. It is also a more credible and reliable international partner at discussion tables and a beacon of rule of law at the EU’s most eastern border.

However, the fight against corruption, without a transparent quality assessment, is now raising questions about democracy, human rights and the separation of powers. All of this has the power to return Romania to its 1990s economic levels and deter the already feeble foreign direct investment (FDI). Romanians, however, should stop electing people with criminal records and multiple sentences in political functions and thereby stop feeding the DNA machine.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alina Harastasanu

Alina Harastasanu works as a business analyst and has over 7 years experience in consulting and international business. She holds a B.A. in Political Sciences from the University of Bucharest, a M.A. in Geopolitics and Global Security from University of Rome “La Sapienza” and an MBA degree focused on International Business and Strategy from The Ohio State University.