Romania’s ‘Mrs Justice’ Takes on Corruption

Is the anti-corruption campaign in Romania led by Laura Codruta Kovesi really about to eradicate widespread graft in the Balkan country?

Laura Codruta Kovesi | Photo: adevarul.ro
Laura Codruta Kovesi | Photo: adevarul.ro

Besides Transylvania’s beautiful landscape or its cinematic new wave, Romania is most often mentioned in the Western media for its anti-graft drive.

The latest example is a recent feature published by the Politico website featuring 28 people from EU states who are “shaping, shaking and stirring Europe”, in which Romania was represented by Laura Codruta Kovesi, the woman leading the country’s battle against corruption.

But why is Kovesi so outstanding in contemporary Romania? The answer is simple: not entirely, but largely due to her, a remarkable change is now taking place in the country. Somehow, the mentality of people here is starting to change, with ordinary citizens seeing that no one is above the law and that they don’t need to pay bribes in order to get what is due to them. At the bottom of this change is the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, DNA, a body created in early 2000 to fight high-level graft in the years when Romania was preparing to join the EU.

Since 2013, Kovesi has presided over the DNA and has made a real impact. So how was this possible?
First of all, due to pressure from the EU, which is demanding regulatory compliance, and from the US, which is pushing anti-graft efforts as part of its policy of containing Russian influence in Eastern Europe, Romania has had to reform its judiciary and to open up career opportunities for young, honest lawyers. Kovesi, now aged 42, was one of them. A decent basketball player in her teens (“sport taught me to stay focused and to fight for victory,” Kovesi has said), she rose through the ranks, becoming the general prosecutor of Romania for six years before getting the DNA job.
Many feared that she would be unable to move the agency forward, but the pace of high-level cases has increased significantly.

Last year, the DNA secured the convictions of 24 mayors, five MPs, two ex-ministers and a former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, not to mention more than 1,000 other individuals, including judges and prosecutors. This year, another 15 MPs were investigated, four of them former ministers, including ex-Prime Minister Victor Ponta – plus Bucharest’s mayor, Sorin Oprescu, and many other low-ranking officials. Such good deeds have not gone unpunished.

Kovesi often faces attacks about her personal life in some media or is accused of taking bribes herself. Moreover, the DNA has been accused of being political biased, though the agency has successfully gone after plenty of politicians on both sides of the parliamentary aisles. But the biggest challenges for prosecutors come from politicians. Even as they loudly voice support for the anti-corruption efforts, in practice politicians often try to change or amend legislation in order to limit the DNA’s scope for investigation. In such situations, the DNA or Kovesi herself have been going public and taking a stand. And it has worked, due to strong public support.

The anti-graft body is now among the most trusted institutions in Romania, together with the church and the army.  A recent poll suggested that over 60 per cent of Romanians trust the agency, while only 11 per cent trust parliament. What the DNA and Kovesi have been doing in recent years is unique, at least in Eastern Europe, and its effects are not completely visible yet. People have seen that high-ranking officials previously considered untouchable have been arrested, but many of them still do not have total confidence that the current reformist campaign won’t be reversed.

At the same time, graft remains a part of life at all levels of society. It is still common to pay cash gifts to secure medical treatment, to get essential paperwork from government offices or to pass school and university exams. Demonstrations against corruption and incompetence recently led to the resignation of the government of former PM Victor Ponta.

But changing all graft-related habits as well as a dysfunctional political system remains a difficult, long-term project.

Balkan Insight 

07 December 2015