03 December 2009www.eubusiness.com
(BUCHAREST) - Romania is in a tough battle against corruption which is casting a shadow over the country's presidential contest on Sunday as the European Union is impatiently waiting for results.
According to the latest Transparency International index, Romania is one of the most corrupt countries in Europe -- with rake offs taken for the award of public contracts and ministers and magistrates all accused of taking bribes.
And the stakes are high.
If Romania does not step up the fight and reform its justice system, it could suffer the same fate as neighbouring Bulgaria which last year lost hundreds of millions of euros in potential EU aid for going soft on corruption.
A European Commission report in July criticised Romanian lawmakers for not being tough enough on graft.
But experts say that progress has been made in a country that up until 20 years ago lived under Nicolae Caucescu's brutal dictatorship.
Laura Stefan, anti-corruption coordinator of the Romanian Academic Society (SAR), said: "We've seen changes that were thought to be impossible only five years ago.
"We've seen progress we did not dare to hope for: important people being investigated, important cases reaching courts."
Romania is not the only European country facing political corruption scandals, but the key is how these cases are investigated and judged, legal experts said.
A special anti-corruption prosecution office, known as the DNA, was set up in 2002 but only brought its first major case against a politician in 2005.
Since the appointment of chief prosecutor Daniel Morar, cases have been brought against 21 former lawmakers and ministers accused of corruption and blackmail, according to official figures.
Stefanie Ricarda Roos, director of the Rule of Law Programmme South East Europe for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said Romania has made clear strides.
"If you look at the cases of ministers who have been dismissed or placed under investigation, even if some allege that the cases have been politically manipulated, it created a common sense that such behaviour cannot be accepted," she said.
Since 2005, 620 people -- magistrates, directors of public companies, former mayors -- have been convicted for corruption, according to the DNA.
But the European Commission criticised the speed at which major corruption trials are handled. "It seems courts need more time to judge cases involving politicians," DNA spokeswoman Livia Saplacan said.
Out of 21 cases sent to court, there have been only two convictions and one acquittal. The rest are awaiting trial.
European experts said defence lawyers abused the use of "constitutional exceptions" to trials and have demanded a law change to improve the judicial process.
Victor Alistar, Transparency International's executive director in Romania, told AFP more openness was badly needed in public procurement, which is a major source of corruption.
Opinion is divided over which of the presidential candidates would be tougher in the fight against corruption.
Some experts say the centre-right incumbent, Traian Basescu, has backed efforts to make it possible to prosecute high-ranking politicians, but others claim he has "politicised justice" to serve his own interests.
Alina Mungiu, president of the SAR, highlighted how some of Basescu's party colleagues were involved in corruption scandals.
But Mungiu warned that the opposition candidate Mircea Geoana's Social Democrat Party (PSD) had opposed anti-corruption measures. "If he is elected president, Geoana will have to give a clear signal that the fight against corruption will continue."