The Transparency International latest report ranks Romania as one of the most corrupt countries in the EU (in third place, right after Bulgaria and Hungary). Corruption has always been Romania`s “demon” since the communist rule fell (and not only). However, since Romania joined EU in 2007, significant progress has been made, as law reform has enabled judicial institutions to truly become independent and effective: prosecutors and judges have been freed form political pressure and the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) got its first noticeable results.
However, its activity has been significantly improved since 2013, when Laura Codruta Kovesi has become chief prosecutor of DNA. Under her management, conviction rates have risen remarkably, winning plaudits from European Commission, who has Romanian justice system under special monitoring – the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. “The action taken by the key judicial and integrity institutions to address high-level corruption has maintained an impressive momentum”, the CVM report said in 2015, as anti-corruption prosecutors pursued investigations against former ministers, MPs, mayors, high-level officials or judges.
During the last five years, DNA have sent to court 68 dignitaries or high-ranking officials: 14 ministers and ex-ministers, 53 members of Parliament and one member of the European Parliament. Of these, 37 were convicted as follows: 9 ministers and former ministers, 21 deputies, 6 senators and one member of the European Parliament, out of a total of more than 4000 convictions. During the same term, DNA has taken measures to insure more than 2.3 billiard dollars. For DNA`s outstanding results in the last 5 years, that placed the institution the top five anticorruption bodies in Europe, Laura Codruta Kovesi received several distinctions, such as the Legion of Honor National Order’s Knight distinction from France’s Ambassador to Romania or the title of Commander of the Order of the Polar Star, awarded by the King of Sweden. She was also the Winner of the ‘European of the Year’ 2016 award, granted by Reader’s Digest, while the US government and United States Secret Service have awarded Laura Codruta Kovesi distinctions three times.
However, none of these mattered to the PSD-ALDE coalition since the political parties took power in 2016. Since then, the assault against the independent justice became their main concern, despite never mentioning it during the campaign. The laws governing the justice system, the penal code, DNA, all became subjects of the coalition`s unparalleled efforts to hinder the fight against corruption. Since dozens of PSD and ALDE leaders are under investigation or already serving time, their aim is crystal-clear: to avoid imprisonment and to get rid of their corruption charges. Among the beneficiaries is Liviu Dragnea himself, head of PSD and President of the Chamber of Deputies, already convicted for electoral fraud. Last month, Dragnea received another prison sentence over a fake jobs scandal.
First, it was January 31st 2017. Then, in the dead of the night, the PSD-ALDE cabinet passed an emergency ordinance (number 13) that decriminalizes abuse of power for a range of instances, including for all damages of up to 200,000 lei, reducing prison sentences and weakening provisions around conflicts of interest and whistleblowing. The result? The world has witnessed Romania’s largest protests since the 1989 Revolution, as 600000 Romanians marched in the streets, all across the country and in the diaspora.
Then, the coalition`s approach changed, as they preferred a less sinuous road, but heading to the same destination: weakening the independence of justice and dismissing of chief prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi. This time, it was Parliament`s to tackle the fight against corruption, as their top priority became changing the penal code, the rules of criminal procedure and the laws governing the magistrates` status.
Furthermore, just one year after the huge protests in February 2017, Justice Minister Tudorel Toader launched a process to oust Laura Codruta Kovesi, citing violations of the constitution and attempts to damage Romania’s image abroad. Despite multiple anti-corruptions street protests and the negative opinion of Romania’s judicial watchdog, the government took the case to the constitutional court, which stated that the President was not authorized to oppose the dismissal request. In addition, the European partners` warnings were unequivocal: the European Commission said recently the independence of Romania’s judicial system and the fight against corruption were of “paramount importance.”
In the end, Kovesi has been sacked, stating an alarming precedent: the political subordination of prosecutors. PSD and ALDE claimed this was a victory against the “parallel state”, a fictitious system of power, labeled dangerously similar to the ones invoked by authoritarian regimes, such as Erdogan`s rule in Turkey. However, Kovesi`s credibility is still high, basically because she is regarded by the people as an enemy of the crooked politicians, but also because under her management the National Anticorruption Directorate proved to be a functional institution, that delivered the results most Romanians expected.
These days, the next chief prosecutor of DNA will be chosen by the Justice Minister. The decision is crucial for our country`s progress, as it will provide us with answers regarding Romania`s future direction: is our country going to be a democracy or a kleptocracy? A pro-Western regime or a captured state, maneuvered from Kremlin? A country where the rule of law is non-negotiable or another member of the EU`s problematic group consisting of illiberal states such as Hungary and Poland?
Written by: Alin Iliescu and Sebastian Burduja
Alin Iliescu is a communications and public affairs expert. He publishes articles on a regular basis for some of Romania’s most prestigious media outlets (Republica, ziare.com, Adevarul). He is currently the executive director of PACT pentru Romania. He previously served as communications director and press secretary for several key organizations active in Romania’s civil society and political arena.