BERLIN: Dismissing claims from independent legal experts and the European Commission that the government was not doing enough to fight corruption and that it was reluctant to bring prominent politicians before the courts, Foreign Minister Lazar Comanescu of Romania said Monday that the law was being firmly applied and the judiciary was now strengthened.
Comanescu, a former ambassador to the European Union who was appointed foreign minister last April, said those who criticized Romania's progress in tackling corruption too often looked treated the issue "in a very simplistic way."
"We are kept being told that no ministers have been judged, but that is simplistic," he said an interview in Berlin. "Romania is fighting corruption. Only recently, the police force from a county close to Bucharest were dismissed and placed under arrest for producing false driving licenses," he added.
Comanescu spoke just two days before the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, was to deliver its regular report on Bulgaria and Romania, a report dealing specifically with corruption. It will also decide whether it will withhold substantial public funding for modernizing the infrastructures of both Balkan countries as the price to pay for not combating corruption.
The two countries joined the EU in January 2007, despite strong reservations by several member states, including Britain and the Netherlands, which questioned the depth and pace of the judicial reforms and the political willingness to fight corruption.
The commission's report on Bulgaria, which was leaked last week, makes grim if not depressing reading. The commission concluded that there had been widespread irregularities over the use of the funds, with senior politicians involved in siphoning off money to crime groups or awarding contracts under highly suspicious circumstances. The government, which consists of former communists, has also been slow to stop the contract killings, dismantle the crime groups and reform the judiciary.
While Romania has none of the violence or extensive crime networks of its neighbor Bulgaria, it has nonetheless been reluctant to give the judiciary extensive and independent powers to act against corruption. Comanescu, however, insisted that "the institutional framework aimed at fighting corruption has been put in place."
He said a new Agency for National Integrity, established in 2005 but only now beginning to function, "was really working." The agency is supposed to oversee the activities of all civil servants - including members of Parliament - monitor their asset declarations and look for conflicts of interest.
But a report written by for the European Commission by Willem de Pauw, a Belgian prosecutor, said the authorities in Romania were still doing too little to reform the judicial institutions.
For example, the Romanian Constitutional Court recently decided that the rules of immunity would apply to former ministers as well as ministers holding office. "This means," wrote de Pauw, "that a criminal investigation concerning former ministers must always be preceded by the procedure to lift his or her immunity."
The Constitutional Court also ruled that all investigations of high-ranking politicians must be sanctioned by Parliament. The British ambassador to Romania, Robin Barnett, criticized that decision this month, claiming Parliament was effectively shielding former politicians, including Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and former transport minister, Miron Mitrea. Barnett said the measures by the Constitutional Court "serve to raise obstacles in the fight against corruption."
De Pauw, in his investigative report on the Romanian judiciary, also said that the indicted were notified in advance of searches carried out on their premises by the judicial authorities. "Indeed, more than five years after the start of Romania's anti-corruption drive, the Romanian public is still waiting for one single case of high-level corruption to reach a verdict in the first instance. It should be no surprise then, that Romania remains dangling at the bottom of every corruption perception index, consistently showing the worst results in the EU."