2017: Romania’s Year of Corruption?

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Written by Caroline Holmund

For many Romanians, the beginning of 2017 was a source of relief and pride, as the biggest street protests since 1989 successfully pushed the government to withdraw decrees that would have decriminalized and inflamed already deeply entrenched perceptions of sprawling corruption in the country.

Now, however, a year that started with such lofty hopes is drawing to an anticlimactic close. Last week, the lower house of parliament, which is controlled by the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), succeeded in pushing through a controversial bill that critics say will deal a blow to judicial independence and the fight against corruption. The most controversial elements of the bill would give the government more power over prosecutors—at the expense of the President, who was elected on an anti-corruption ticket—change the way magistrates are supervised, and modify the definition of prosecutors’ activity to eliminate the word “independent.”

Over the past weeks, tens of thousands of Romanians have been protesting against the draft laws, as well as proposed legislation that would reduce the powers of the widely respected National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). The draft laws have also drawn harsh criticism from Brussels and Washington, with the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body investigating the plans and with the State Department issuing a stern press release condemning the changes. It’s no coincidence that the parliamentary commission that is driving the new bills is headed by former justice minister, Florin Iordache—the same one who resigned in February after drafting changes to graft regulations that stoked the first wave of street protests earlier this year.

With the government seemingly hell-bent on forcing through changes that will further compromise institutional independence and destroy anti-graft rules, it’s clear that Romanian civil society, the EU, and other partners will have to undertake a far more expansive battle to try to steer the country back on the right track.

Indeed, although last winter’s protest movement may have been ostensibly successful, since then, political corruption in the country has only grown worse, a backslide that was highlighted by the European Commission’s most recent report on progress in Romania under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).

Under the CVM, the EU has monitored progress on judicial reform and the fight against corruption in Romania and neighboring Bulgaria since they joined the bloc 10 years ago. While previous reports had indicated that both states were showing progress in the fight against corruption, the latest one stated that “the reform momentum in 2017 was lost overall,” citing “challenges to and questioning judicial independence” as a persistent cause of concern.

Indeed, in a chilling sign of the report’s prescience, they were issued mere days after another sign of further backsliding. In mid-November, Romanian anti-corruption prosecutors opened an investigation into allegations that the powerful head of the PSD, Liviu Dragnea, had set up a ‘criminal group’ that forged documents to steal cash from state projects, some of which were funded by the EU. Dragnea, who is also speaker of the lower house of parliament, is already under trial for separate abuse-of-office allegations. He is widely seen as manipulating power from behind the scenes, despite the fact that his criminal convictions bar him from holding the office of prime minister, and is suspected of being a driving force behind many of the proposed bills that would dilute the country’s anti-corruption laws.

Dragnea is only one of many public officials that has been keeping staff from the DNA busier than ever. Since taking the position of chief prosecutor of the DNA in 2013, Laura Codruta Kovesi has overseen investigations into more than 1,000 public officials, eventually sending to trial 68 high-ranking ministers and lawmakers. Of course, this campaign hasn’t endeared her to the PSD, which has accused the otherwise esteemed agency of leading a witch hunt. Last month, the PSD went so far as to adopt a resolution claiming that a ‘parallel and illegitimate state’ including the DNA and Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) is trying to seize the levers of political control in the country. This, despite the fact that the numbers show that the DNA has indicted a number of opposition officials in addition to PSD members. Additionally, as former Ministry of Justice directors and others have emphasized, there is nothing unusual about the collaboration between the DNA and the SRI.

Notwithstanding the emptiness of the PSD’s claims against the DNA, other targets of the agency’s probes have turned these allegations to their own advantage. One notable example involves Alexander Adamescu, the son and heir of business magnate Dan Adamescu, who was sentenced to prison in 2016 for bribing judges to rule favorably in insolvency lawsuits involving several of his companies. The younger Adamescu, who took over his father’s businesses in 2009, fled to London in 2013 to avoid being imprisoned along with his father. Since then, he has had a European Arrest Warrant issued in his name and, together with right-wing UK journalists, has been leading a smear campaign to try to destroy the credibility of the DNA and paint its investigation of him as evidence of a ‘deep state’ conspiracy—even if the evidence against him is solid.

As the year draws to a close, then, the situation in Romania certainly seems bleak. But at the very least, these past months have shown that the people of Romania—and external partners—will not take further backtracking lying down. If anything, given the government’s most recent efforts to compromise judicial independence, a renewed wave of civil disobedience and outside criticism will have to take place come January if the country isn’t to erase all the gains it has made since the fall of Communism.