Books on Romania
Update No: 132 - (01/06/08)
The EU pinpoints all-pervasive corruption
There is no doubt what is the number one problem in Romania – tackling
corruption that goes right to the top of government, as in Bulgaria. It is
poisoning relations with the EU.
Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in January 2007 under precise conditions.
Brussels was well aware of the perils of disbursing EU funds in the Balkans.
European Commission officials visited Sofia and Bucharest to assess judicial
reforms on May 18-23. The visit took place amid mounting pressure in Brussels to
invoke so-called "safeguard clauses" against the two countries, which
could result in EU funds being slashed.
There are three areas where safeguard measures can be invoked under Bulgaria and
Romania's EU Accession Treaties: economic, internal market and judicial reforms.
The safeguard clause can be invoked up to three years after accession and could
result for example in food export bans or cuts to EU funds in areas such as
agriculture and "structural" policies.
The two EU newcomers are struggling hard to avoid a "worst-case
scenario" ahead of a Commission monitoring report expected on July 16.
According to reports in the Romanian press, the mission has taken place at a
time when some officials in Brussels are wondering whether taking the two
countries onboard as early as January 2007 was "a mistake" and are
applying pressure to activate the safeguard clause on justice.
Both countries could lose EU funds or have their national court decisions
annulled if a safeguard clause is triggered against them.
Evidence mounts that corruption is still rife
Prosecutors have gathered substantial evidence on corruption cases against
Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, former transport minister Miron Mitrea, current
Labour Minister Paul Pacuraru and five other senior officials, the Romanian
media have reported.
Although this could be an important test case for the country, the Romanian
constitutional court ruled that the Parliament must give its approval to
investigate high-ranking politicians. This prompted Romanian President Traian
Basescu to call the constitutional court "a shield for corruption."
A telling image of what corruption can represent in Romania was provided by the
discovery of €1.7 million in cash in the boot of a car belonging to oligarch,
football club owner and populist politician Gigi Becali. He said the money was
intended "to buy chocolate and candy". Strange as it may seem, the
courts often consider such mocking explanations to be valid.
The high-profile cases may remain taboo, but at least statistics from the
anti-corruption prosecutors' office (DNA) show that hundreds of people have been
indicted in recent months and dozens convicted. What remains to be seen is
whether the Commission will find these developments satisfying.
Justice is not the only problem area. According to reports in the Romanian
press, the country could lose a large part of its EU agricultural funds due to
poor management of the programmes.
Romanian Justice Minister Catalin Predoiu admitted there is resistance to strong
reforms in his country in an interview for Reuters. "I wouldn't believe in
reform measures that do not face the tendency to preserve the status quo.
However, I am happy to see that both the government and parliament showed
commitment to fighting corruption," Predoiu said.
The internet site, Hotnews.ro, quotes sources from the Romanian government, who
consider that Brussels will not trigger the Justice safeguard clause. The
officials expected however the monitoring procedure to continue for another
The Bulgarian daily 'Sega' is more pessimistic. It expects that Bulgaria may
lose access to most of the EU funds, and if the government continues to perform
as badly until the end of its term in mid-2009, then the country may be
"put in the freezer," losing its voting rights in the Council.
Basescu berates the politicians
Romanian President Traian Basescu, as we have seen, has called the country's
Constitutional Court "a shield" for corruption, a stinging rebuke. The
comment earned him reprimands from politicians across the spectrum. Combined
with the Becali affair, it shows how corruption is a day-to-day concern in
Basescu also said that various politicians had asked him to intercede on their
behalf with the judiciary when under investigation. His comments touched a raw
nerve in the Black Sea state, which many observers say has regressed in reforms
against high-level graft since joining the European Union last year.
As Romania heads into local government elections on June 1 with the ballots rife
with candidates tainted by corruption accusations, the worry is that reforms
have not been sufficient to keep corrupt officials from office.
Basescu was referring to a ruling by the Constitutional Court in March requiring
prosecutors to seek parliament's approval for checks on some senior politicians.
That decision opened doors to new delays in investigations of corruption, adding
to accusations that the establishment is not serious about tackling fraud.
A handful of probes into allegations of abuse among former and current cabinet
ministers, including ex-prime minister Adrian Nastase, are already stalled by
other delays in courts and changes in legislation.
"Other than with prosecutions, there is no progress since 2005," said
Laura Stefan of the Romanian Academic Society, a think-tank. "The message
to the people is that to have a nice life you have to be rich and powerful.
"There is no law but power."
Bucharest's struggle to clean up is raising concerns in the European Union as
diplomats say Romania may have been allowed to join the bloc too early. Brussels
monitors the reform progress but its ability to enforce the new members'
commitments wanes after accession.
Such disappointment in Brussels may make it harder for other candidate countries
in the Balkans to join the wealthy bloc, analysts say. They argue the EU will be
more cautious in setting entry targets and much tougher in demanding reform
"The lesson is that if there are things you don't seem able to resolve in
the run-up to accession, then we are not confident you will able to achieve them
afterwards," said Katinka Barysch from the Centre for European Reform in
For Romania, the foot-dragging means slower transformation from the brutal
pre-1989 regime of Nicolae Ceausescu towards democracy, as Romanians are
reluctant to trust state institutions. According to Transparency International,
Romania is the most graft-prone EU member.
Its ruling centrists argue they are doing what they can to combat widespread
abuse and reform the judiciary.
They point to statistics from the anti-corruption prosecutors' office (DNA)
showing hundreds of people have been indicted in recent months and dozens
"Of course there is resistance to strong reforms," Justice Minister
Catalin Predoiu told Reuters. "I wouldn't believe in reform measures that
do not face the tendency to preserve the status quo”. Despite the tough
rhetoric, results in the war on top-level crime are scant. The Romania Libera
daily newspaper said its research showed almost every county is fielding a
candidate for the local election who is either being investigated for graft or
has faced accusations of abuse.
One of the highest-ranking officials to have been sentenced to jail on graft
charges, Nicolae Mischie, is now running for office again, after switching
allegiances from the ex-communist PSD to the nationalist New Generation Party of
soccer tycoon Becali. Mischie was sentenced to four years for abusing power
while he headed a county council in southwestern Romania.
Civil society observers and diplomats say too many Romanian politicians are
entangled in powerful interest groups that oppose reforms, while others simply
protect their own practices.
An example, they say, is a protracted parliamentary debate over Romania's new
criminal procedure code, which some observers have said could effectively
prevent prosecution of graft if introduced in its full form.
Romania's Senate has improved the draft, including removing a ban on
wire-tapping phones before pressing criminal charges against a suspect. But
resistance is strong.
"The system is far more powerful than we thought," said Stefan.
"People are defending themselves like crazy."
In coming weeks, parliament is also due to decide whether to approve
prosecutors' request to investigate former Prime Minister Nastase, former
Transport Minister Miron Mitrea and current Labor Minister Paul Pacuraru. All
three face corruption charges which they deny and label as politically
"Nobody believes the deputies will hand them (the politicians) over to the
Justice Hall," wrote Mircea Marian, a columnist for Evenimentul Zilei
daily. "Their files of corruption will be lost forever."