Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why corruption will last in Romania

By Valeriu Nicolae - 27.08.2012

This summer has shown up the nature of Romania's entire political class.

Early this summer, there were signs that this would be a good summer for Romania.

A former prime minister, Adrian Năstase, a man recognised even by party colleagues as one of Romania's most corrupt politicians, had just received a two-year prison sentence. A government that had been completely unable to curb the corruption rampant among the political elite was removed from power. Several of the most controversial ex-ministers had resigned or had been forced to resign after their parties had lost local elections in early June by a large margin. The new prime minister – a smart young man – had nominated a number of well-known experts and public personalities as his advisers. The transition government was led, for the most part, by people with good records. All in all, it looked much better than previous governments.

What followed was a surprise even for the most sceptical of us.

Năstase tried (or, at least, made a good show of trying) to kill himself, but failed. The reaction was a show of incompetence that could also be interpreted as a clever attempt to manipulate public opinion towards a presidential pardon of Năstase. Fortunately, President Traian Băsescu resisted the huge pressure in the first days following the suicide attempt. Slowly but surely, the mass media started to ask some uncomfortable questions about what really happened to Năstase. Some appalling decisions were exposed, people were investigated. Finally, Năstase ended up in prison.

Then, predictably but still somewhat surprisingly, politicians migrated in large numbers towards the centre-left government, reversing a migration that happened when the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) was in charge of the government. This happened even though both the party leaders now in charge of the government – Prime Minister Victor Ponta, of the Socialist Democrats (PSD), and Crin Antonescu of the National Liberal Party (PNL) – had in the past come out strongly against such practices, calling for a ban on ‘political migration'.

Throughout this torrid political summer, the rhetoric has been vitriolic. Senior politicians regularly call each other thieves, crooks, and Mafiosi.

Very quickly, the new ruling coalition absorbed some of the most corrupt, but low-profile, members of parliament, people happy to jump boat if doing so meant staying in power – a sine qua non condition of retaining access to state contracts. As for the coalition, it needed them to exert convincing control of the both chambers of parliament.

Once this happened, the coalition quickly moved to take complete control of the state institutions, then managed to suspend the president and initiated a referendum to impeach him – a process accompanied by so many questionable legal and political steps that the European Commission intervened.

On top of everything else, Ponta was proven to have lied about a master's degree and to have plagiarised much of his doctoral thesis. The accusation came from the camp of President Băsescu, who seems oddly unaware that himself exaggerated his own daughter academic credentials in 2009 when defending her nomination for a place in the European Parliament. (Some of Basescu's closest, and most powerful, allies are doctors in science without any peer-reviewed scientific publication.) Two of the ministers appointed by Ponta proved to have serious problems – one was dismissed as he plagiarised the other presented herself falsely as a graduate of a prestigious US university. Ponta resolved the issue by dismissing the governing body of the expert group that had accused him of plagiarism, claiming that it was staffed by Băsescu's supporters.

The run-up and aftermath of the referendum were shameful to a European democracy. Băsescu and his party called for a boycott of the referendum, advocating a rejection of a democratic process in the knowledge that his only chance of staying in power was to invalidate the referendum, by helping to ensure the turnout was below 50%. That is what happened: just 46% of voters turned out. That low turn-out should not disguise the fact that over 7.5 million Romanians voted against Băsescu, well above the number (a little under 5.3 million) that voted him back into office in 2009.

Then the government tried to pressurise the constitutional court into declaring the referendum to be valid, arguing that the electoral lists were full of errors. Băsescu's PDL is also alleged to have applied serious pressure. (The court on August 21 ruled that fewer than 50% of the electorate had voted, rendering the referendum invalid and ending Băsescu's suspension as president.)

In addition, scandals engulfed both camps. In a leak that suggests that Băsescu and his supporters control much of the secret services, transcripts of a number of phone calls were leaked that demonstrated that serious pressure was being exerted on two ministers – Ioan Rus, minister of the interior, and Paul Dobre, minister for public administration – to ensure the referendum's result was validated. (Citing that pressure, both later resigned from the government.)

For its part, the government made public a number of documents showing that Băsescu had spent sizeable sums of public money preparing a luxurious villa for his retirement while advocating strong austerity measures for ordinary Romanians.

As for Crin Antonescu, he made a series of mistakes that made him appear unfit for his temporary post as president. He accused the US ambassador of being an ally of Băsescu and Romanian Hungarians and, thereby, of being responsible for the refereundum's failure (the counties in which ethnic Hungarians had the lowest turn-out in the vote). A video of him talking to a delegation from the International Monetary Fund showed Antonescu incapable to be in charge of Romania's foreign affairs – and to be unable to see his limitations.

A dysfunctional system

Throughout this torrid political summer, the rhetoric has been vitriolic. Senior politicians regularly call each other thieves, crooks, and Mafiosi. Romanian society is dangerously polarised and the public's disgust for the political class has reached a dangerous point.

The situation has become so critical that the US even sent a special envoy to Romania to signal how seriously it was concerned about the state of democracy.

How did we get into such a mess in such a short time?

Simple: our political system and our society are profoundly dysfunctional.

Most members of the political elite enter politics with a poor record: most of the older politicians were closely connected to the Communist Party before 1989; while most of the younger politicians have no experience of work beyond jobs that they received due to their political affiliations.

No political leader – Ponta, Antonescu, Băsescu and many others – can enjoy credibility in the eyes of the public when they inveigh against nepotism. Daciana Sârbu, Ponta's 35-year-old wife, had little on her curriculum vitae when she entered politics, but immediately became an adviser to the Năstase government – in which her father served as a minister. She is now a member of the European Parliament – one of the best-paid jobs possible for a Romanian politician. So too is Adina-Ioana Vălean, Antonescu's wife.

The ascent of Băsescu's daughter Elena to a similar position in the European Parliament was appalling even by Romanian standards. In an incredibly short time, she moved from being a model to being leader of the PDL's youth wing and then to the European Parliament. (The job that Băsescu's other daughter, Ioana, has – as a notary – may to non-Romanians seem unlikely to raise suspicions, but in Romania being a notary is one of the best jobs and almost impossible to get without very good connections.)

So how could anybody in the leading Romanian political parties dare to talk about nepotism? The sinecures enjoyed by their family members suggest to voters that our political leaders are nepotistic. Ponta now says that his wife will not hold another political post (at the EU or national level) as long as he is leader of the Social Democrats. But he also said that he would quit his position as prime minister if his thesis was proven to be a fraud. The University of Bucharest says that it is, yet he remains in his post. Antonescu also promised he will quit Romanian politics if Basescu will come back to Cotroceni – now as it is clear that will happen he decided to “continue fighting”.

A culture of cheating

Ponta's plagiarism scandal highlights a deep flaw in Romania: its politicians are adept at cutting corners. Like Ponta, many others, in all parties, have cheated the educational system. In fact, plagiarism is rife among recent generations of students.

That is just another symptom of how normal cheating is within Romanian society. Almost everyone cheats or accepts cheating. Bribery is widespread. Indeed, it may be that Romanian society currently needs corrupt politicians in order to function. An honest political elite working to reform society would lead to a collapse of the current system, since a significant number of leading business people, journalists, judges, teachers, academics, leaders of civic society and syndicates would have to be dismissed (and some imprisoned). The higher-educational degrees of many major politicians would have to be reviewed (and in many cases annulled).

In attacking politicians as corrupt, the media risk hypocrisy. Most advertising comes from the state or from companies connected, tightly or loosely, to politics. There is no truly independent media outlet in Romania and journalists are viewed as buyable. Certainly, a bad record is no impediment to success: a proven collaborator of the communist-era security services, Horia Rosca Stanescu, is a close adviser to Antonescu.

A powerful politician once told me – in what I think was a moment of truth (he was inebriated at the time and incapable of realising that I was not a member of his party) – that the only possible way anyone becomes the leader of a party is if he “can be blackmailed. Otherwise, he could fuck us all up.”

No need for that: it appears we are already there.

Valeriu Nicolae is a leading figure in Romanian civil society and runs the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities, a non-governmental organisation.

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