Romania: Corruption contagion deepens as DNA under threat

Tens of thousands of protesters lined the streets of Bucharest in January to protest against new legislation that they say will hinder the country’s fight against corruption.

As the work of Romania’s main anti-corruption agency continues to be under threat there are growing questions about the country’s ability to uphold the rule of law.

Romania’s track record on tackling corruption has attracted great scrutiny ever since it joined the European Union in 2007. Some of the concerns started to dissipate as the country’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) launched a slew of investigations into allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government, the judiciary and across business sectors such as pharma and healthcare.

Hundreds of public officials have been prosecuted, namely former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who was indicted in 2015 over allegations including tax evasion and money-laundering and forced to step down.

Kiran Sharma

Above: Laura Kovesi, Chief Prosecutor at Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate, 2016 

In June 2016 Laura Kovesi, the DNA’s Chief Prosecutor, told Global Insight in a filmed interview that she thought Romania had turned a corner on corruption. ‘Ten years ago we could have said that corruption in Romania was a systemic problem,’ she said. ‘Now things are different because of the DNA’s actions. We’ve started to have these high-level investigations that are very visible. The European Commission mentioned the DNA as one of the five best examples of anti-corruption agencies in Europe, so things are starting to change.’

However, roll on 18 months and the country’s Judicial Inspection Unit, which is tasked with investigating magistrate misconduct, has launched disciplinary action against both Kovesi and her deputy Marius Iacob for allegedly committing transgressions.

Bruno Cova, a partner at Paul Hastings in Milan and Co-Chair of the IBA Anti-Corruption Committee, says such news is extremely perturbing. ‘Whenever one sees an anti-corruption authority being attacked, one wonders why this is happening and certainly what is happening in Romania is a concern as much as what is happening in other countries that are facing similar situations,’ he says.

‘‘The amendments brought to the laws of justice, along with those brought to the criminal codes, when adopted, will lead to the end of the fight against corruption’

Laura Kovesi
Chief Prosecutor, Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate

Responding to Global Insight via email from Bucharest, Kovesi said the latest legislation ushered in by the Romanian government had sounded the death knell for anti-corruption efforts in the country. ‘The amendments brought to the laws of justice, along with those brought to the criminal codes, when adopted, will lead to the end of the fight against corruption,’ she says.

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 the European Commission established a Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) to keep tabs on both countries’ progress on judicial reform and combatting corruption. As Kovesi told Global Insight in 2016, the CVM has helped bring the country ‘in line with other European countries’.

However, today she says the new legislation poses a genuine threat to the independence of the country’s judiciary. ‘There is a risk for us to go back 15 years ago when prosecutors were under political control, when there were not any high-level corruption cases prosecuted, and when prosecutors did not have the freedom to open serious investigations,’ says Kovesi. ‘In addition, the prosecutors’ tools will be reduced and it will be even more difficult for prosecutors to identify and prove corruption offenses.’

Elena Casistru, chair and founder of Funky Citizens, a Romanian NGO that focuses on anti-corruption, believes events in Romania must also be viewed in the context of recent attempts elsewhere in Europe to bring judges and prosecutors under greater political control. ‘In my opinion it’s very important to put this into a European perspective,’ she says. ‘We’ve seen what happened in Hungary, what’s currently happening in Poland and this is not going to stop without very decisive action. Unfortunately we’ll see how well the government in this country copes with this contagion and tendency towards attacking the independence of the judiciary and I would say that it has become a very worrying trend that should somehow be mitigated before it goes mainstream.’

Romania is currently the fastest-growing economy in the EU, but Jörg Menzer, a partner in Noerr’s Bucharest office and former Co-Chair of the IBA European Regional Forum, says it is struggling behind some of its European counterparts because of the political turmoil. ‘The anti-corruption movements in the last couple of years were very much welcomed by international investors as a sign of positive development in Romania,’ he says. ‘The recent discussions around that topic, the mass protests and the thus created political instability are threatening investors away. This is a pity as the positive economic development is needed to create a working civil society.’

Despite this, Cova says the public pushback in Romania against corruption sends a clear signal to the international community, as well as investors and those looking to do business in the country: ‘On the positive side, though I notice a great deal of hope and interest given the reaction of the people. Clearly public opinion has understood how important fighting corruption is, how corruption halts the very basic [workings] of the democratic system, it halts fair competition and so on, and so the people have decided to do something about it. That, I think, sends a very clear, powerful message to the people that think the fight against corruption is just a matter of paying lip service.’

‘I am disappointed about what is happening in Romania, but also encouraged by the fact that it is no longer something that is of concern only to international organisations,’ adds Cova. ‘It is something that is also on the agenda of the people of Romania.’