Romanian prosecutors on Wednesday charged former prime minister Adrian Năstase with accepting bribes in a long-running and politically sensitive investigation that has come to define the country’s difficulties with tackling alleged corruption.
Mr Năstase, a Social Democrat who served as prime minister between 2000 and 2004, is accused of receiving gifts and services worth €630,000 ($805,503) in return for helping officials keep their jobs.
The former prime minister is no stranger to accusations that he misused his office for private gain. However, he has repeatedly denied all charges against him and previous efforts to indict him have stalled.
Romania’s alleged unwillingness to prosecute former ministers and senior officials has repeatedly drawn criticism from its European Union partners, who claim it has shirked its responsibility to tackle corruption since joining the 27-member bloc in 2007.
Transparency International last year ranked Romania, together with Greece and Bulgaria, as the most corrupt members of the EU.
“Romania has managed to reduce bribery but the idea that people pursue public office to satisfy their political clientele has been harder to eradicate,” said Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a senior visiting fellow at Oxford University.
Charges were first brought against Mr Năstase in 2006 but the case foundered when Romania’s highest court ruled that former premiers could only be indicted with the assent of parliament. Lawmakers finally gave their approval for the case to move forward last year.
The charges against Mr Năstase come as a further blow to the beleaguered Social Democrats whose candidate Mircea Geoana suffered a narrow defeat in December’s presidential elections.
Traian Basescu, the incumbent, won re-election in part because of his reputation as an anti-graft champion.
Romania has recently stepped up its efforts to tackle corruption but significant hurdles remain, experts say.
Authorities in March ordered the arrest of Catalin Voicu, a Social Democratic senator, on suspicion of accepting bribes to influence the decision of police and judges. Mr Voicu denied the charges.
The arrest marked the first time since the fall of communism that a serving member of the Romanian parliament had been detained on corruption charges.
Parliament voted to lift Mr Voicu’s immunity and several other prominent officials and businessmen were subsequently detained.
However, anti-graft campaigners reacted in dismay last month when Romania’s constitutional court voted to limit the powers of the country’s anti-corruption watchdog .
The National Integrity Agency was forbidden from publishing the financial statements of some public officials as to do so would infringe their privacy. Local media reported that the agency was investigating seven of the nine constitutional court justices at the time of the ruling. The court insisted it had no knowledge of the investigations.
After meeting José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, in Brussels last month, Mr Basescu vowed that Romania would stand by its obligations to tackle corruption.
Mr Barroso said: “Romania still needs key progress in justice reform and in the fight against corruption.”