Greek tragedy is based on myth – and Romanian on corruption

Special Feature on Romania - Part III - Romania - 28 Apr 2015
Taking a closer look at Romania: from a highly inefficient justice system to the most recent Presidential elections and the hope of a genuine anti-corruption campaign. by Eva Chitul
++ continues its Special Feature on Romania with Part III. You can learn more about the Romanian geography, history and cultural heritage by taking a look at Part I. Romanian Communism and the 1989 Revolution is presented in Part II. ++

The justice system on IVs

Corruption is one of the biggest challenges European countries are facing and has been compared to a cancer of modern societies and economies, a disease eating away into the organism and infecting what remains healthy. Since it is not confined to one country, the presence of corruption affects the European Union as a whole: reducing investment and economic growth, obstructing the fair operation of the Internal Market and undermining the effectiveness of industrial policies. A sound justice system and low corruption levels represent the foundations of a well-functioning society.

The reform of the Romanian justice system after the 1989 Revolution has proven to be one of the most controversial and difficult undertakings of the country’s transition. Following decades of communism, Romania found itself in front of a puzzle that proved extremely difficult to solve – transforming a justice system of socialist power into an institution committed to safeguarding the rule of law. The failure of the post-communist government to introduce coherent and effective reforms coupled with the resistance of the executive to renounce control over the judiciary, created prominent obstacles to the realisation of a modern and efficient society. Similarly to other former communist states, the political class created the biggest obstacle in the path to reform. The politically appointed Constitutional Court (CC), tasked with ensuring that the legislation fully respects the Constitution, instead acted as a tool of the elites.

The prospect of EU membership provided impetus for change. However, Romania’s declaration to fight corruption had little to no support among from the political elite. The constant attempts by the Romanian Parliament to block and undermine progress in the anti-corruption campaign revealed that the determination shown vis-à-vis EU demands was rhetorical at best, aimed at securing membership but with no genuine interest in maintaining reform momentum post accession. The introduction of the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) provided the much needed tool to maintain momentum, and saw the establishment of the National Integrity Agency (ANI) entrusted with the verification of assets, incompatibilities and conflict of interests. With the fight against high level corruption showing no tangible results, the improved drafts of the Civil Codes, the Criminal Codes and Civil Procedures codes were withdrawn from Parliament due to lack of political agreement. In 2010, many of ANI’s activities were declared unconstitutional by the CC after being attacked in Parliament. Media reports later revealed that the judges of the Court were themselves under ANI investigation.

The pressure from the EU saw the resurrection of ANI and the improvement of activities from the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA); pressure maintained under the threat of potential sanctions and the leverage created by the Schengen blockade. The latter aspect triggered a much needed pressure from within the country due to the important role that the Schengen Agreement holds amongst the Romanian population. The internal pressure placed the Romanian government in a stranglehold, leaving little choice but to continue reform. A stable trend in this sense however was very much dependent on the existence of high level support.

The Obama moment

In November 2014, Romania was gearing up for one of the most important Presidential elections since the Revolution. The campaign was perceived as being the dirtiest in the past 25 years, with two candidates making it to the runoff on the 16th of November – social democrat Prime Minister Victor Ponta and liberal mayor of German origin and protestant religion Klaus Iohannis. The former based his campaign on the revival of nationalism by using slogans such as ‘Proud to be Romanian’ with attacks aimed at the Transylvanian Saxon opponent on the grounds that he was neither Romanian nor Christian Orthodox and that the country could not be run by a foreigner.

The first ballot saw a very poor organisation in the diaspora and Romanians found themselves queuing for hours in front of Romanian embassies only to be denied the right to vote at 9 p.m., when polling stations closed. Following the disastrous first round, thousands took the streets in Romania in support of those turned away from exercising their fundamental right. Although declaring their commitment to addressing these issues for the runoff, the Government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were neither able to create additional polling stations nor extend voting time, citing a strict interpretation of the law. The second round mirrored the events of the first, with an even higher number of voters lined up to cast their ballot. As many were unable to vote, embassy staff called local law enforcement to subdue their compatriots who were protesting the closing of the polls. The poor organisation of the vote resulted in the resignation of two Foreign Ministers in the space of three weeks.

With polls showing a lead of 10 percent in favour of Ponta, Iohannis’s victory with 54.5 percent of the votes came as a huge surprise that shook the entire Romanian society. While some saw the results as a protest vote against the current government, others see the desire of Romanians to witness a different kind of politics as the key trigger for voter choice and mobilisation. In a conservative, majority-orthodox country like Romania, the election of a president from an ethnic and religious minority goes beyond the USA’s Obama moment. Stemming from his exceptional reputation in reforming the medieval town of Sibiu, Iohannis is seen as being a symbolic figure of the German spirit – hardworking, trustworthy and honest – virtues appreciated by Romanians.

Nobody is above the law – anymore?

Although with a very slow start, Romania has a renewed sense of justice. Building up on previous reforms, the 2014 election won by Klaus Iohannis – who centred his presidential campaign on the promise of safeguarding the independence of the judiciary and continue anti-corruption efforts – promises to continue this trend in the years to come.

In an overview of past activities presented earlier in the year, DNA put forward striking figures from 2014. Several premieres were seen as part of the DNA report – the highest number of indictments, criminal cases and high level officials under investigation. The DNA’s 97 prosecutors had over 9,100 cases, with an average of over 300 dossiers per prosecutor at the same time. 2014 saw the prosecution of over 1,100 defendants with over 1,130 sentences given. Corruption in the judicial system is still a big issue in Romania with 35 magistrates under investigation (20 sentences have been issued so far).

The past year has shown a high increase in popular confidence towards the work of the DNA, reaching a striking 55 percent. In addition, the number of complaints received from citizens increased by 78 percent in 2014. In 2015, the activity of the DNA continues – with investigations underway across the party spectrum in the cases of former members of parliament, ministers, magistrates, local council presidents, local mayors, heads of local police, two former presidential candidates, the head of the Directorate for Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism, the head of the National Integrity Agency (ANI) and one of the nine Constitutional Court judges.

The main areas targeted by DNA are health, education, public procurement and EU funds fraud, which constitute the most problematic fields of the country. When coupled with the inability of the authorities to effectively recover financial embezzlement and Parliament’s reluctance to allow criminal prosecutions, the DNA has a particularly daunting task ahead of them.

RO_2015-3_Spec_Palace of Justice
Source: Alexandru Panoiu | CC BY 2.0

Palace of Justice in Bucharest, Romania

RO_2015-3_Spec_Vote of toothbrushes
Source: Paul Arne Wagner | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Vote of the toothbrushes: voters in front of Romanian Consulate General in Munich, Germany ahead of second round of presidential elections in 2014

RO_2015-3_Spec_Romanian Presidential Election
Source: Paul Arne Wagner | CC BY-SA 2.0

Romanian Presidential Election 2014, Round II at the Consulate General, Munich, Germany

RO_2015-3_Spec_Klaus Iohannis
Source: European People's Party | CC BY 2.0

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis

Related topics

Barack Obama
Christian Orthodox
Constitutional Court of Romania (Curtea Constituţională a României)
Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM)
European Union (EU)
Klaus Iohannis
National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA)
National Integrity Agency (ANI)
Schengen Agreement
Victor Ponta

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