Oct 22nd 2011
TAKING on corrupt judges is never easy. But under pressure from the European Union, Romania has launched a fresh series of investigations into magistrates and other public officials.
Don't expect quick results. Last week prosecutors raided a villa belonging to Corneliu Birsan, Romania's envoy to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They were interested not in him but in his wife, Gabriela, who sits on Romania's supreme court. Ms Birsan stands accused of receiving jewellery, a trip to Indonesia and free housing for her son in Paris.
Her supposed benefactor is Gabriel Chiriac, a businessman, who, say prosecutors, was seeking positive verdicts in several court cases, including one for tax evasion. Prosecutors say Ms Birsan did not act alone: one of her deputies is also being investigated. Mr Chiriac has been reported as saying the gifts were given out of "friendship".
In a letter Ms Birsan accused her fellow magistrates of lacking "humanity" in approving the house search. She had invited women judges over for coffee, she said, and her husband had written recommendation letters for young magistrates. All this had been forgotten for the sake of a "media lynching". (She maintains her innocence.)
The case may well go nowhere. Mr Birsan has invoked the diplomatic immunity to which he says he and his family are entitled under his position at the ECHR. (The court hasexpressed its concerns about the Romanian prosecutors' actions.) Separately, Ms Birsan has appealed against the case on procedural grounds—as has every other high or mid-level politician facing corruption charges in Romania.
Most big corruption cases in the country are delayed for years, often on irrelevant grounds. Decebal Traian Remes, a former agriculture minister, was sent for trial in 2009 in the famous "sausage-and-brandy" case (details here). But the case is grinding along at snail's pace, after two years of procedural wrangling. The same is true for Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister, who faces several corruption charges.
Many Romanians believe that justice is only for those with money and influence. "Anti-corruption seems a lost battle", writes Andreea Pora, a well-known commentator. She sees no difference between Ms Birsan, clinging to the diplomatic immunity of her husband, and Adrian Severin, one of three MEPs caught up in a cash-for-amendments scandal uncovered by the Sunday Times earlier this year. (He also maintains his innocence.)
A few weeks ago Romania's failure to tackle corruption cost the country membership of the EU's border-free Schengen area. Nothing will move on that front, say officials from sceptical countries like Finland and the Netherlands, until Romania—and its fellow 2007 EU entrant, Bulgaria—get their house in order.
A culture of graft makes life difficult for businesspeople across Romania. Last week Steven van Groningen, head of Raiffeisen Bank Romania, complained that the business environment was "too corrupt", hurting investments as well as the country's international reputation.
Growth forecasts for next year have recently been slashed to 1%. More austerity measures are looming. Time, surely, for Romania to get a grip on its endless corruption problems.