Recent serial of court acquittals of high ranking politicians or judges accused of a corruption-related crime, together with the dismissal of the head of the anti-graft agency DNA, raised fears that Romania might jeopardise or roll back its considerable post-2007 achievements in fighting corruption.
Ponta acquitted while Kovesi fired
In May 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted an MP and a former PM Victor Viorel Ponta of accusations of fixing public procurement contracts and enabling money laundering. A few days later, the same court acquitted the Senate Speaker and former PM Calin Popescu Tariceanu, as well as former Senator and former Supreme Court judge Toni Grebla of perjury in a corruption case, and money laundering, respectively. In March, former Mayor of Bucharest Ludovic Orban was acquitted of extracting bribes from a businessman. All those cases dragged on for quite a while, which has also been the case with numerous other high ranking corruption cases encompassing politicians.
On 9 July 2018, after a long hesitation and resistance, Romania`s President Klaus Iohhanis dismissed the head of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Codruta Kovesi. His decision was taken following the order of the Constitutional Court to have obeyed the recommendation of the Ministry of Justice to fire her. If he resisted any further, he might have faced an impeachment procedure. The same CC ruling specifically noted that prosecutors and similar officials were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice.
This serial of events has been a huge blow to a trust that many Romanian citizens recently put into the prospects of diminishing corruption in the country and maintaining an independent position of the prosecutors, courts or independent regulatory bodies.
At the time of their entry into the EU in 2007, Romania and Bulgaria were widely considered as sort of „sick men“ in comparison to the EU-25, regarding corruption or other deficiencies of the rule of law. Their accession was in part politically motivated, with a hope attached that shortcomings would be removed later, while in EU membership and under radiation of better governance practices.
In Romania`s case, these hopes at least partially came true. In a decade after EU accession, Romania has improved in several aspects of rule of law, including in curbing corruption, both grand and petty. It was noted by various researchers and/or international indices, e.g. by Freedom House, by Transparency International, or by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF).
Three factors - combined - have considerably accelerated this change during the past several years.
Anti-graft agency DNA has been since 2013 led by Laura Codruta Kovesi, who courageously stood against the highest echelons of politicians, judges and business people engaged in corruption. Thousands of national or local politicians, government officials, lawmakers, judges, or prominent businessmen, were investigated and some very highly ranking ones sentenced. Among the recently convicted have been a former (ruling party) PSD leader Liviu Dragnea (still the informal leader of PSD), convicted on 21 June at the first court instance to 3 years for incitement to abuse of office, and one of the strongest business tycoons and media moguls in Romania Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, who was, in February and April 2018, sentenced to 6 months and 10 years in prison, for blackmailing a business partner and embezzlement of trade union funds, respectively.
However, DNA also faced strong criticism. It was accused of political bias against the centre-left part of the political spectrum, as well as of exceeding its constitutionally defined authorities. Especially controversial has been the use of wire-tapping. Supporters of the accused politicians labeled DNA as an instrument in the hands of „deep state“ (uncontrolled parts of secret services and the related interest groups). At one moment, PSD even gathered dozens of thousand people to the rally in demand of termination of DNA activities in a way practiced since 2013.
On the other hand, President Klaus Iohhanis and the centre-right political parties that supported him (e.g. PNL) endorsed DNA`s activities and have been their supporting pillar against the attacks by the PSD.
Market economy and active citizenship as factors
Another factor that enabled improvements in the corruption struggle in Romania was public opinion. Especially since the 30 October 2015 fire in a Bucharest rock club which had killed 65 people (due to bribed-out safety failures), citizens have been highly aware of not least economic but also social perils of corruption. In a campaign following this fire, with a voiced support by hundreds of thousands of street protesters and by numerous whistleblowing NGOs, prosecution bodies have arrested hundreds of corrupt officials, discovered dozens of similar cases of bribery aimed at circumventing safety or security procedures and standards and thus considerably changed the social climate in the country (arising hopes that Romania might become much cleaner of corruption). Since then, large crowds have taken to the street several times, proving the anti-graft resentment as the strongest social mobilizer since the fall of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.
The fact that Romania has successfully passed the main stages of economic transition from centralized to the private-property-based economy has also contributed to narrowing the ground for grand corruption, petty bribery or other misuses of public office for private ends, which all had previously been endemic, immediately after, as well as during or before communism.
FNF also noted improvements in Romania
In its Freedom Barometer Europe Editions 2015, 2016 and 2017, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom noted improvements both in the independence of judiciary and in anti-corruption struggle in Romania, but also warned at perils of political influence on the selection of the members of the CC (Edition 2015), or of re-election of the corrupt local politicians (Edition 2016), or of legal initiatives to decriminalize some forms of corruption and abolish past perpetrators (Edition 2017).
Freedom Barometer latest analyses also find out that the heated debate about graft in Romania is (similarly to many other places in the region) held mainly along political partisanship lines, with mutual accusations of centre-right and centre-left political parties for each other`s illicit influence on courts (or attempts thereof) and with protection of one`s „own“ perpetrators. More awareness of the complexity of the problem of corruption (and of its universality), as well as more inner-party democracy and mechanisms of preserving the integrity, is needed if the public trust in the democratic institutions is to be maintained and advanced.
Recent events raise fears
Many fear that the serial of actions of the current ruling party PSD, from undermining DNA to legal initiatives to ease the penalty threat against graft, as well as organizing counter-rallies in support of controversial government officials, is a threat to the achieved level of respect of rule of law in the country.
Some even fear that Romania might follow Hungary and Poland in a „crawling authoritarianism“, implemented through gradual submission of, in this particular case at first the prosecution bodies and only subsequently the courts, to the control of the executive branch of power.
It is to be seen how will the civil society in Romania and large masses of citizens who demonstrated against corruption so many times in the past react to the latest challenges.