Romanians struggle to fight corruption as crackdown is reversed

Cardboard cutouts of the Romanian Justice Minister, Tudorel Toader, Social Democrat Party leader Liviu Dragnea and Senate president, Calin Popescu Tariceanu dressed in prison garb are seen while people protest a government move to call for the sacking of the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor in Bucharest, Romania, February 25, 2018. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS

Public protests are a symptom of social health and civil awareness. In early 2018, demonstrations all over Romania showed the world and the Romanian diaspora the strength of feeling over a proposed roll-back of anti-corruption legislation. These protests echoed many of the concerns of last year, which saw the largest rallies in the eastern European country’s post-communist history.

After that, further escalation came with when repeated “attacks” on the National Anti-Corruption Directorate and continuous attempts to revoke its chief-prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi. These came from senior government figures, such as the Justice Minister, at the time Tudorel Toader.

As well as causing a negative response in mainstream European public opinion, such actions also gave EU leaders the opportunity  to warn Romanian political leaders about overturning hard-earned results of anti-corruption campaigns.

In Romania, two camps quarrel relentlessly.  On the one side are the upper reaches of the government, tightly controlled by the ruling Social Democrat Party, which won with a comfortable majority in the last parliamentary elections.

On the other side is the Romanian presidency, along with some institutions partially under its control. The president, currently Klaus Iohannis, has the power to appoint Supreme Court judges as well as the directors of Secret Service agencies and, of course, the Anti-Corruption Directorate. Allegedly the reasons for the government to start closely scrutinizing the Anti-Corruption Directorate were to do with preferential and prioritized treatment of certain files, along with proof of human rights abuses during investigations. The overall claim was that the Directorate had behaved as a repressive institution, acting at the political will of certain factions, with no “democratic control”.

The opposite camp counters that the activities of anti-corruption prosecutors are vital for a country like Romania, a liberal democracy still afflicted by the scourge of corruption.

On top of that it appears a bit ridiculous that both camps claim to stand and act on behalf of the  separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.

There is an argument that many of the current Social Democrat MPs have a personal interest in intimidating and delaying the anti-corruption investigations. There is also evidence proving the Directorate’s efficiency in recent years, especially when regaining funds by which Romanian state had been prejudiced.

During hard times, hard measures are to be undertaken. This was and still is a dominant ideological mantra in Romania. European Union officials also strongly encouraged, on repeated occasions, the “fight against corruption” as a critical measure for a country still lacking the appropriate mechanisms of institutional check and balances.  Moreover Romania is periodically “slapped” in the face with Transparency International annual statistics in the Corruption Perception Index, displaying Eastern Europe in a notorious, “corrupt” dark red.

Similarities with Ukraine

The purpose of this article is to analyze some myths about the social and economic implications of corruption and its causality. For a parallel situation in Ukraine, a very insightful scrutiny has been done here by Alexander Motyl. Three essential things apply in the same manner to Ukraine as to Romania: the way the “fight against corruption” is depicted in the mainstream media, the implications of corruption on economic growth, and measures to eliminate it.

Ukraine has made good progress since the Maidan protests of 2014. Part of that was about trimming the bureaucratic apparatus and reforming health and educational systems, as an EU report revealed in 2016. Unfortunately this did not attract mainstream media attention at that time, but now, suddenly, the country appears swamped  by corruption, in a battle which looks to be lost more than ever. Much the same could be said about Romania; moreover, Romanian public opinion reached a certain awareness about how critical is to counteract this scourge, and how resolute anti-corruption activists must be.

Furthermore, corruption and economic growth went well together. During the last two-three years Romania consistently had one of the highest growth and productivity rates in EU; such a confluence has existed for centuries. For instance, countries such as China and Brazil, having enjoyed in the past years high rates of economic growth, or as Chile or South Korea, having those growth rates in the 1970s and 1980s, were often associated with huge corruption scandals. However this did not stop European and American leaders from closing big deals with those countries, as well as expressing their sympathy for their leaders.

Myth that political will is the only thing needed

Lastly one myth which should be debunked is on how to counteract corruption. Romanian mainstream public opinion has a consensus that this can be solved easily with political will, and that this is the biggest hurdle we need to overcome to become a liberal functioning western European economy.  “Fight against corruption” provides an easy theme around which a political message can be organized in order to weaken the democracy. It’s a simple alibi for local politics to structure a narrative of “us vs them, the corrupt ones,” and to use to appeal to the West. Apart from that, it has a catchy tune for EU politicians since  it gives them the means to control and in some cases to dictate a political and social agenda for countries like Romania.

If we were to zoom in further and go beyond this dazzling “anti-corruption” context, there are some unfortunate social realities. Romania still, after 10 years of EU integration, has a significant sector of the population living on the poverty limit, and has huge social contrasts and huge concentration of wealth. During the last two or three decades it experienced, along with its neighbors in the region, the largest population depletion worldwide, apart from countries at war. These were also unfortunately social realities which were exploited at the last parliamentary elections, assuring the Social Democrats a comfortable ruling majority.

As a conclusion I would like to come back to the protests as a means of civil health. Some time ago I read an article asking why people weren’t out on the streets because of the Paradise Papers tax evasion scandal. Following the same reasoning, I would wonder why there were no reactions at all in Romania about huge, and sometimes frantic, protests about commercial agreements such as  TTIP or CETA  about NATO activity, about G20 summits, about modifications of social laws and collective contracts between business sector and working people?

Had those really nothing to do with corruption?

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