Romania's War on Corruption

Romania is a modern European state, but it has one of the EU’s worst corruption problems – a problem that has stained politics and public life for decades and undermined faith in government and state institutions.

One leading Romanian activist told Al Jazeera: “This country has suffered for many, many years because of important people that can do whatever they want and not get punished.”
But now some people are trying to root it out, through a powerful, judicial, anti-sleaze campaign that is reaching the highest levels of government.
It’s had some high profile successes, but will it ultimately make a difference?

Last December Klaus Iohannis was sworn in as President of Romania. No one expected such a rank outsider to beat Prime Minister Victor Ponta who was seeking to consolidate his hold on the country by moving on to higher office. But in the wake of mounting corruption scandals Iohannis was swept to power on an anti-sleaze ticket. Among his first words to Parliament were: “The whole political class must understand there is no way forward for Romania except that of a country rid of corruption.”

For many it was confirmation that 25 years after the last revolution, Romania is in the grips of a new one. The woman at the center of this still unfolding drama is Laura Kovesi, the chief prosecutor at Romania’s anti-corruption agency, known as the DNA. Under her formidable leadership, and with the public backing of the new president, she has been making the impossible become possible. The country’s powerful elite are finally being held to account after decades of corruption that has had sucked the lifeblood out of this beautiful but impoverished nation. Ministers, judges and mayors, have been put behind bars for graft. Even the country’s prime minister has just been indicted.

It’s a fascinating story and it’s drawn me here to Romania for this film for People & Power.

There’s a rundown splendor to Romania’s capital Bucharest. It’s had its share of bad luck over the years, most notably in the shape of its Communist-era dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu, who tore the heart out of Romania’s once beautiful capital and replaced it with his Palace of the People, a titanic marble monstrosity beaten in size only by the Pentagon building in Washington DC. There was also the earthquake of 1977 which took out many splendid old villas and left many more in a perilous state. But look around and you can still see why Bucharest was once called The Little Paris of the East.

Now though, a new earthquake is hitting the city and this one is likely to take down most of the political elite. Its epicentre can be found in an office at the DNA, Romania’s Anti-corruption Agency, in downtown Bucharest. From the outside it’s a fairly non-descript block, but the hyped-up camera crews waiting on the pavement by the entrance make clear that this is anything but an ordinary building.

It’s Sunday morning and I’m here too. I have to be – it’s my first morning in Bucharest and I awoke to the news that the city’s mayor, Sorin Oprescu, had been arrested overnight night and that it’s expected he’ll be brought to the DNA for questioning.

Suddenly a photographer stationed down the street shouts, “Fresh meat!” The news crews scramble. A car pulls up; four masked policemen jump out and drag a middle-aged man into the DNA.

“It’s not him,” I’m told by a local reporter, “probably his driver.” Disappointment fills the air. A crowd has assembled hoping to catch sight of disgraced politician, some 30 onlookers, and about a dozen cyclists in fancy dress who have come to poor scorn over the mayor. We wait most of the afternoon but nothing else happens.

Next morning over breakfast I watch the TV showing endless clips of the mayor and a succession of the other suspects being pulled ignominiously from their homes in handcuffs. It’s like an episode in seedy crime thriller – but the country is gripped by every instalment.

My first interview is with the writer Ion Cristoiu, a popular but controversial commentator, who is one of the few journalists to openly criticize what’s going on. Why, I wanted to know, was he so uncomfortable with the anti-corruption battle taking place in his country?

“The main reason is that for some years the investigations by the DNA have also involved the Romanian Secret Service and the RSS even admits this fact. The Romanian Intelligence is a secret organization; which even under the conditions of a democracy keeps things secret.” (It strikes me later there may be unintended irony in his words. Much earlier in his career, Cristoiu, or so I’ve been told, was something of an admirer of Ceausescu, who of course used the same state security services to keep opponents in check.)

But what about the DNA, I ask, aren’t they doing a good job, I mean all these powerful people would never have been held to account previously?

“They carry on a huge manipulation of the media to the disadvantage of the accused,” he insists. “We can take the example of the recently arrested mayor: from Sunday morning on we could only hear the point of view of the DNA regarding his guilt, without any proof. For the judge it’s very difficult to stay independent, if all day long the TV stations declared the accused is corrupt and a criminal, therefore he has to be arrested.”

But few Romanians I met agreed with them. After seeing their country plundered by successive corrupt administrations, the DNA and Laura Kovesi are widely regarded as doing a great job.

It’s day three and my fixer turns up for breakfast with a pained expression on his face. He tells me that a previously arranged interview with the president, Klaus Iohannis, has been cancelled. This is frustrating as Romania’s new leader is seen as something of a hero figure in the fight against corruption and his insights would have been valuable. Then later I hear on the grapevine that the president has cancelled other interviews too. I wondered whether it could it be connected to a report that surfaced here a few days earlier concerning his own finances? It alleges that whilst mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu, Iohannis falsely obtained property in a process known as ‘retrocedation,’ whereby land or buildings seized by the communists are returned to the families of their former owners.

The accusation appeared on the website of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, known here as RICE. It’s a body with an impressive pedigree of nailing serious criminals across Eastern and Central Europe and I wonder why they’ve gone after a man who is so publicly ant-corruption.

As their office is just a short drive away, I pop in to ask its director Paul Radu about the president’s money. “Basically we think all his wealth is based on forgery. Based on a forged document he managed to get hold of this property. It’s a big building in downtown Sibiu. He rented that property out to a bank here in Romania and with that money out of that rent he bought more property and he got more rent and he grew rich.”

He shows me various documents, including one with what he says is a forged singature. “We tracked down the paper trail,” Radu continues, “all the way to the 40s. Looking into what was the history of this building and how Mr Iohannis got possession of it. We also posted all the documents on line for the people to see. After we published he just posted a statement on the presidency website saying that what we posted is not true but without any argument about the evidence in the story.”

But wasn’t this president elected on an anti-corruption ticket? I ask him, and hasn’t he called for transparency in politics? Radu agrees, “Yes, he’s giving these messages from time to time. He asked for Mr Ponta, the prime minister of Romania, to resign, and what was interesting was that when we published the investigation of his fortune and his wealth and his property, Ponta jumped to the rescue, he posted on Facebook this message, and I am paraphrasing: See Mr Iohannis, You asked for my resignation a few months ago and now you’re in the same position, you’re accused, I don’t believe any of this. And that was very surprising to see political enemies coalescing in a way, Mr. Ponta jumping to the rescue of Mr Iohannis.”

On the face of it Radu’s assembly of documents and evidence looked compelling. If his story is true then it might be yet another blow to the body politic of Romania. However, unlike other leading politicians, the president is constitutionally immune from any legal action until he leaves office in 2019.

My next appointment is with Laura Stefan who probably knows more about corruption than anyone else in Romania (with the acceptation of the country’s politicians that is). We meet at her office high up in a crumbling but elegant old building in the center of the city. “My staff don’t like it here,” she tells me as we set up the camera, “because if an earthquake comes we’re finished.”

I think about the other earthquake, the political one, and ask her how big the problem of corruption is here. How many of the current generation of politicians are bent?

“Almost all of them,” she says, “the question is: who comes next? The current active political class is in one way or another going down. The problem is who is going to replace them, because you can’t do without political parties and politicians, and unfortunately the problems which generate corruption are so deeply rooted in the way politics works in this country that it’s hard for me to imagine that the new ones are going to be any different from the old ones.”

I ask her about the latest arrest of the mayor, Sorin Oprescu, and she laughs again. “It’s almost as if citizens accept and expect politicians to be corrupt,” she tells me. I was talking to a lady when Oprescu was arrested and I was saying how did the inhabitants of Bucharest vote for this guy twice – and she said “who should we have voted for, the others were just the same – do you think that if we had elected someone else the story would have been different?”

“You see,” she went on, “It’s almost like cynicism is suffocating the city – people don’t expect any better. I think it is up to us, the NGOs, and up to the justice sector to rebuild trust in society. To show to the people that in fact we can live a different life and we can have politicians that are less corrupt and that it’s not like a curse, that once you get into a public position you have to take bribes.”

My next move is to Transylvania. I want to find out what impact all this corruption is having on Romania’s spectacular environment. Romania’s vast forests are extraordinary, home to almost half of Europe’s brown bears, wolves and lynx, and unrivalled for their beauty. They are also, I’ve been told, under threat.

It’s a 10 hour drive to the southwest corner of the Carpathian mountains where we meet a celebrated environmentalist, Gabriel Paun, at a small guest house. I’ve asked him to take us to see what’s at stake. So before sun up we head for a place called Campusel, which has the last intact virgin forest landscape in Europe and can rightly claim to be one of the continent’s most important natural assets.

The views are stunning yet the sound of a chainsaw breaks the silence. An hour’s arduous trek and we come across a logging road allegedly being built by an Austrian timber company, Schweighofer, which dominates the Romanian industry. The road is most certainly illegal, Paun tells me. It certainly shouldn’t be here.

When we come across a gang of workers, they hurriedly down tools. But the evidence of their activities can’t be hidden; dozens of felled trees and the beginnings of a road cutting through virgin forest.

It’s a similar picture elsewhere in Romania, Paun says. Trees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Criminals exploiting the retrocedation system are a big part of the problem, because forests seized and nationalised by the communists are ‘returned’ to bogus landowners, who then strip them of wood for sale to timber mills.

Schweighofer has been accused by environmentalists and others of being on the receiving end of illegally retroceded timber. What is known for sure is that the country’s state forest authority, Romsilva, is Schweighofer’s most important supplier – and Romsilvba has been implicated in several cases of corruption over the years. Its present boss Adam Craciunescu – along with Prime Minister Ponta’s father-in-law, Senator Ilie Sarbu – is currently caught up in a case involving the transfer of a massive stretch of pristine forest away from the state to bogus landowners. The area in question is 43,000 hectates, the size of some English counties.

Paun sums up the situation for me, “in a country with so much corruption I think that when we touch the last pieces of wilderness it’s a clear signal that the situation in this country is critical.”

Back in Bucharest next morning, we push our way past the film crews stationed outside the DNA, show our IDs and are ushered through security and into the office of the chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi.

Her walls are decorated with an impressive collection of religious icons and, somewhat incongruously, a photo of Kovesi with President George W Bush. Strangely, Kovesi seems to be the most dominant figure in picture. After a few minutes of conversation I begin to understand why.

I start off by asking her how much money Romania has lost to corruption.

“We have had civil servants, public officials, who received as bribe, one, two or three million Euros, we’ve had cases which caused damages of over 300 million Euros, but I cannot give you an exact figure. The amounts are very high, though.”

So what impact is her agency’s campaign having?

“First of all there’s been a change in people’s mentality. They started to realise they didn’t have to pay a bribe in order to receive the rights they deserve and to which they were entitled. On the other hand a real myth was demolished: people used to think that high officials are above the law. Our investigations have shown that this is no longer true, since we have investigated ministers and former ministers, people with very important positions within the state, and they were not only investigated but also indicted and convicted.”

I ask her about the charges that I’ve just heard are going to be levelled against the country’s prime minister.

“Prime Minister Victor Ponta is charged with one count of tax evasion, several counts of falsifying documents and also money laundering. It is an ongoing investigation and it is our hope that it concludes soon.”

Her delivery of this is statement is flat, understated and unemotional. It’s hard to believe we aren’t just talking about anyone, rather than one of the two most senior political figures in the country. But I’ve grasped that this is the whole point of Kovesi and the DNA: everyone is treated the same regardless of status. I am left feeling that absolutely nothing is going to get in the way of this juggernaut as it smashes through Romania’s corrupt elite.

Al-Jazeera         October 24, 2015