Romania is not a country that you hear about often in the news. Located along the Black Sea, the country has not been in the center of Eastern European crises, such as the mass refugee migrations that have shaken Hungary and Bulgaria. Though Romania may not be a sexy topic as far as international politics goes, being my first country of foreign residency, it is a place near and dear to me. When people hear of Romania, they usually think of the region of Transylvania, which inspired Brom Stoker’s famous horror novel Dracula. Some may have heard of the infamous Prince Vlad Țepeș of Wallachia, commonly referred to by the byname “Vlad the Impaler”. Older generations might recall the violent overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. However, during these past two weeks, mass protests against government corruption have cast Romania in the media spotlight.
In the summer of 2015, I worked as an intern in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania. One of the major projects I was assigned to was aiding a Foreign Service Officer with researching corruption in Romania. We hosted conferences on the negative effects of corruption and how it hindered economic development, and talks at the Romanian National Library on the benefits of open government data. The summer of 2015 was a particularly hectic time to be reporting on corruption in Romania. At the time, Prime Minister Victor Ponta, was being investigated by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) on charges of money laundering and tax evasion before his political career, and on conflict of interest charges while Prime Minister. The President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, called for Ponta to step down, but Ponta refused and fled the country for one month, claiming that he required knee surgery in Turkey. While Ponta was never convicted of the charges, he did step down in late 2015 after mass protests in Bucharest against government corruption and incompetence, which were a reaction to a nightclub fire that killed 32 people. While the fire was caused by the pyrotechnics of a metal band’s performance, the tragedy was blamed on the government, who had given the nightclub an operating license without a fire permit. The crowd of over 20,000 protestors was one of the largest the country had seen since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. However, that crowd is a mere blip compared to the 500,000 Romanians who organized in the Piata Victoriei last week.
Political scientists define corruption as, “the abuse of public office for private gain”. Although Romania is certainly not the only post-communist country that has had past difficulties combating corruption, it has interesting deep roots in Romanian culture. A culture of government bribing in Romania can be traced back to the 15th century, when the Ottoman Empire ruled over the Balkans. Though it was not an institutionalized common practice until the communist era, scholars point to what they call the “Oriental-Balkan mentality” that accompanied Ottoman rule. The tolerance of petty corruption took hold, as the practices of giving tips (bactis) and gifts (hatâr) became a justification for illegal acts of bribery. Romanians today look longingly back to the days before the Ottomans introduced these concepts. In textbooks, Prince Vlad Țepeș, albeit known for his brutality in fighting the Ottomans, is portrayed as a warrior fighting against corruption. However, the period of communism in Romania caused a total cultural shift; Romanian historian Neagu Djuvara writes that, “the most tragic legacy of communism is that over half a century it has broken our [Romanian] soul”. The legacy of communism inhabited the entire social body of Romania, including the government. When the Soviet Union arrived in Romania, writes Irina Nicolau of the Romanian magazine Dilema, “A golden age began for theft. For 45 years the state stole grandiosely: land, water, forests, all kinds of values, lives…they stole so well…that even 11 years after the fall of communism people still haven’t got back what belonged to them”. The overthrow of the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 resulted in the
integration of capitalism and democracy in Romania. As a society in transition, weak post-communist institutions have been largely ineffective in curbing a corrupt privatization process. From 1994-1998, according to the Romanian government, 2,681 people were convicted on corruption charges. Of that number, over half were convicted for accepting a bribe. During this period, Romania submitted its official application for European Union (EU) membership. As part of the integration process into the EU, Romania was required to show tangible proof of efforts to strengthen public sector transparency and the rule of law. This was addressed in 2000, when the government amended its corruption laws by increasing penalties and exacting equal punishment to private sector businesses for accepting bribes as public officials. Yet in the eyes of the European Commission, these changes did not sufficiently curb government corruption. The 2006 European Commission monitoring report stated that while the DNA had made advancements in prosecuting high-level corruption, there was particular concern about corruption at the local government level. By 2007, Romania was granted membership in the EU.
Despite admittance into the EU, corruption has remained a major problem in Romania’s government, and remains a common occurrence in everyday life. According to the 2011 Eurobarometer report on corruption, 93 percent of Romanians believe that corruption is widespread in their country. The amount of Romanian respondents saying they have been affected has decreased by 19 percent, but 57 percent say they are personally affected by corruption in their daily lives. Sixty five percent of Romanians believe that the level of corruption has increased. One year after this survey was published, the European Commission harshly criticized Romania over its lack of progress in curbing public corruption and the rule of law. That same year, the Chamber of Deputies passed an amendment to Romania’s Criminal Code that essentially made corruption legal by declaring that the president and members of parliament would no longer be considered “public servants,” thus granting them immunity from investigation by the National Anti-corruption Directorate. Two years later, the Constitutional Court of Romania declared this amendment unconstitutional. Now, Romanians face another attempt by the government to legalize corruption. This time, however, the people have led the fight against the controversial legislation.
The previous three years have seen an increase in corruption opposition, both in the 2014 presidential election and in the National Anti-corruption Directorate. Victor Ponta, the aforementioned Prime Minister who stepped down from his position in late 2015, ran against Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Sibiu. In an election that was overshadowed by several corruption cases involving members of Ponta’s party, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), Iohannis ran on a platform calling for strengthening of the rule of law. In Romania’s second round of its runoff election, Iohannis defeated Ponta by more than one million votes. This result was attributed to a surge in diaspora votes after complaints of voter suppression were directed towards Ponta’s government. Iohannis called for a strong support of the DNA against corruption, saying that, “I want to once again give a strong signal of support for fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law and judicial independence”. In 2015, the DNA led a zealous fight against government corruption, indicting 1,250 people, including Victor Ponta, five ministers and 21 members of parliament. Nine-hundred and seventy of these indicted people have been convicted. Romanians were encouraged by this successful year of anti-corruption measures.
Despite these advances, Romanians are experiencing a pushback from the government. The PSD led Parliament proposed an emergency ordinance that would legalize corruption if the, “the damage was worth less than 200,000 lei ($47,500). This measure was passed without a parliamentary vote. In a suppressing and strong reaction to this proposal, 500,000 Romanians gathered throughout Romania to protest the government, with 200,000 converging on the Piata Victorei in Bucharest. This has been the largest gathering of Romanian protestors since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. These protests, which have been composed and peaceful, have continued for over two weeks. Protestors have braved snowstorms and below freezing weather in a coordinated effort to pressure the government to drop the decree. The protestors have been praised for their coordination; at the Bucharest protest, 500,000 Romanians used the light emitted by their smart phones to create a stunning and illuminating scene that captured the attention of news outlets around the world. So far, these protests have seemed to work. The government was subjected to a vote of no confidence; even though this vote did not pass, the Parliament has accepted the call of President Iohannis to hold an anti-corruption referendum. It has yet to be revealed what the question proposed in the referendum will be.
This does not mean that Romania’s fight against corruption is over. The call for a referendum and the backtracking of the Romanian Parliament only occurred after massive protests. Leura Codruța Kövesi, the chief prosecutor of the DNA, believes that, “the risk [of legal government corruption] hasn’t changed…People who have the jurisdiction, who have the ability to amend the legislation, are saying now that there will be several additional amendments. I don’t think we can be at peace”. Kövesi, who is the first woman to hold her position in the DNA and was Romania’s youngest general prosecutor, believes that the DNA, despite being criticized for its use of wiretapping, has been working to improve Romania’s society. She believes that Romania can make tangible advancements towards uprooting state corruption. However, she says, “Without efficient and independent justice we can’t speak about rule of law in a meaningful way”.
In a democratic society, citizens have the right to know that their government is representing them with pure intentions, rather than using their office for personal gain. Romanians have demonstrated that they are tired of 27 years of a corrupt, self-serving government. But to realize this dream, Romanians, as they have demonstrated with success this past month, need to pressure Parliament to serve the people first. An independent judiciary, like the DNA, will help ensure that all Romanians, whether a factory worker in Cluj-Napoca or a government official in Bucharest, are subject to the rule of law. As President Iohannis declared when elected, his office should continue to support a strong DNA that is outside of political influence. Romanians should demand that their government be more transparent. With more open data available to the public, Romanians would have additional means to hold their elected officials accountable. Currently, the Romanian people do not trust the government. A more transparent government could help heal that divide. With dedication to the fulfillment of these initiatives, perhaps Romanians can look to the future with confidence as they have looked to the past with nostalgia.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.