Romania prepares a recipe for fighting corruption

31/07/2006

Not long ago, Romania was in danger of seeing its EU accession delayed due to inadequate anti-corruption measures, but the country has since turned things around. Many credit Justice Minister Monica Macovei for mounting a resolute fight for reform.

By Gelu Trandafir for Southeast European Times in Bucharest – 31/07/06

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Romania hopes to join the EU on 1 January 2007. [File]

"For the first time in the history of the country, nobody is above the law". EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn's statement may have sounded strange to some members of the European Parliament. Just two years ago, the Union urged the European Commission to suspend talks with Romania because of pervasive corruption. And now, the enlargement commissioner was telling them a different story.

It is a story of success, although enormous challenges remain. It has been several years now since Romanian authorities took the necessary first step of recognising and acknowledging the scale of the problem. "A turning point was the first acceptance that corruption was a reality," says Jonathan Scheele, head of the EC Delegation to Bucharest. "When I first came here, government was simply in denial. If you deny a problem, you have no chance of resolving it. That changed in 2002-2003," Scheele says.

But ending denial is just one step. Keeping the fight against corruption alive also requires political will. The previous administration, led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), said all the right things, but was reluctant to take the necessary steps. As a result, rampant corruption continued, the judiciary remained ineffective and obedient to political masters, and Brussels started to doubt the government's commitment.

Tom Gallagher, professor of Bradford University, emphasises the crucial role played by NGOs and independent media. "They drew the attention of the EU to flagrant instances of corruption and raised the awareness of voters against candidates who lacked a clean bill of health. Their imaginative tactics helped to stir public indignation against a dominant post-communist force, the PSD, which had looked invincible until shortly before its loss of power in 2004 elections," he says.

Meanwhile, an important opposition party renowned for its pragmatism seized the opportunity. The Democratic Party, then led by Traian Basescu, underwent a painful reform. Thinner but cleaner, it was able to launch a successful attack on a political establishment that was too much at ease with corruption.

Basescu became president of a country whose EU bid was seriously endangered by a safeguard clause meant to delay accession -- if the Romanian government continued to be content only with paper measures.

"It was a huge challenge," Scheele said. "And it was a very good move to nominate Monica Macovei as justice minister, because she carries no political baggage." Basescu had the popular mandate to bring about change. And now he had the right person in place for the job. It was time for action.

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Justice Minister Monica Macovei. [Getty Images]

Macovei, a 47-year-old former prosecutor turned rights activist, faced strong opposition from a judicial establishment with ties to the Communist past. Nevertheless, she has been able to reform that establishment, using the remedies of transparency, accountability and competition for top positions. Her most efficient techniques: public, detailed wealth statements and the establishment of the Anti-corruption Office (DNA).

The wealth statements produced "something unseen in Romania", Macovei says. "Very important politicians, never investigated before, were questioned" after they failed to explain the origins of their wealth. The days of impunity were finally over.

Macovei strengthened the independence of prosecutors, while producing regular reports on their efficiency and assuring their accountability. "Now there is a chain of responsibilities," she explains. "If the DNA failed to accomplish its mission, I would be forced to ask for revocation of its chief. Otherwise, I would be dismissed."

The DNA proved to be effective and impartial. It accused former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase of bribe taking, but has also investigated and indicted leaders of the current ruling coalition. Recruiting people proved to be difficult. "Few prosecutors are eager to take the burden. One cannot tell there is an enthusiasm to work with the DNA," Macovei admits.

Faltering political will is a concern, according to the minister. "At the very beginning, there was no political opposition," she remembers. But the political commitment has decreased as the anti-corruption proved to be for real. The opposition has moved from the judicial establishment to the parliament's benches. Senior politicians of the ruling coalition try to change the way the DNA's chief is appointed.

"This change occurred after they realised the DNA is really an autonomous institution that they could not control. There is a fear among politicians of this independent, working DNA," Macovei says.

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The DNA has investigated former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (right) and other officials. [Getty Images]

Even her formerly staunch supporters from Democratic Party have started to distance themselves, and Macovei has now found it difficult to push through adoption of the final pieces of anti -corruption legislation: The law on political parties funding and the establishment of the Integrity Agency in charge of wealth declarations.

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Iron resolution may be required to see the process through. And in her 18 months at the job, Macovei has shown she has it. Furthermore, she enjoys the support of powerful allies abroad.

"A big part of the success of Romanian accession will have been achieved thanks to Ms Macovei," stated Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini. Despite these congratulatory words, this is no time for Romania to rest on its laurels. Rehn has delayed until September the final say on whether EU accession will take place on 1 January 2007, as planned, or be delayed under the safeguard clause. Ultimately, it is not enough for one minister to mount a crusade against corruption. Romania will have to convince Brussels that a sound recipe is in place.

Could the Romanian approach be applied to the Western Balkans? According to Gallagher, there are important contrasts. "Unlike Romania, these countries have a tradition of violent mafia which are relatively detached from major parties. The EU needs to strengthen anti-mafia operations, its own security being at risk. So, the EU is likely to be more engaged."

Romania's experience, however, underlines the importance of strengthening Western Balkan reformists. "The EU needs to team up effectively with local pro-reform actors. This only happened after the PSD lost power in 2004 and explains why the accession strategy in Romania has been plagued with difficulties," Gallagher says.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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