Sunday, November 2, 2014

NYT: Spy Allegations in a Presidential Race Conjure Romania’s Authoritarian Past

BUCHAREST, Romania — The front-runner in a presidential election here on Sunday disappointed his 10-year-old son recently by informing him that, contrary to feverish talk on the campaign trail, he was not a Romanian James Bond.

“I told him: ‘I am sorry. I am not a spy.’ He said, ‘What a pity as that would have been nice,’ ” Romania’s center-left prime minister and presidential hopeful, Victor Ponta, recalled in an interview.

When Romania’s departing conservative president, Traian Basescu, first declared last month that Mr. Ponta, long a political enemy, had worked as an undercover agent, he tapped into a rich vein of Romanian political culture clogged with accusations and counteraccusations of undercover skulduggery.

“We are obsessed with spies,” said Robert Turcescu, a prominent television journalist who shocked his colleagues, his viewers and also his own family by suddenly announcing on air last month that he was until last month an undercover agent for Romanian military intelligence, though he had never informed on his colleagues.

Too many Romanians still have what he called “incomplete résumés,” he said in an interview, and needed to come clean about their hidden allegiances. Only then, he added, will the country finally overcome the traumas left behind by Nicolae Ceausescu, the Stalinist dictator who ruled here from 1965 until 1989.

A bloody and still murky revolution that toppled Mr. Ceausescu in December 1989 overthrew Eastern Europe’s most authoritarian government, ending a paranoid dystopia in which one in every 30 Romanians worked as an informer for the ruthless security agency, the Securitate.

But it left in place a vast network of security officers and their collaborators, whose connections and access to compromising information made them powerful figures in the post-Communist order. While Poland and most other former Communist countries moved swiftly to come to terms with the past, Romania long dodged any reckoning.

Only in October did it finally put on trial 88-year-old Alexandru Visinescu, a sadistic former prison commander whose prosecution had long been sought by traumatized former inmates.

Mr. Ponta, the prime minister and presidential candidate, was 17 when Mr. Ceausescu lost power, so he had no connection with the old Communist government. He described this Sunday’s election, the first stage of a two-round contest that will finish on Nov. 16, as “the end of a special period in our country’s life, the end of the transition from Communist time to a clear and consolidated democracy.” All the leading candidates are under 50, he said, “so none of us had any position in the Communist period.”

Referring to the departing president’s allegation that he served as a spy in the 1990s, Mr. Ponta denied having a secret past and predicted that “this is the last time you will see these kinds of allegations and obsessions in the Romanian political environment.”

Others, however, expect Romania’s spy mania only to grow in intensity as fading phobias inherited from the Ceausescu era are eclipsed by a new source of anxiety, at least among corrupt politicians and businesspeople, over the influence of the still-powerful security organs.

Armed with evidence collected by the domestic security service from phone taps and other forms of monitoring, Romania’s anticorruption agency, known by its Romanian-language initials D.N.A., has in recent weeks arrested a host of prominent figures, including previously untouchable political barons like Viorel Hrebenciuc, the parliamentary leader of Mr. Ponta’s Social Democratic Party.

“Politicians who are corrupt are very frightened now,” Dan Suciu, a former government official and journalist, said. “They are getting paranoid about spying and worry that everything is being listened to and that everyone is being watched.”

Anticorruption campaigners, previously loud critics of the role played by the security organs in fostering and protecting corruption, now welcome their focus on fighting graft, particularly now that they have been mostly purged of old Securitate officers and, overhauled with help from the United States and Europe, bear little resemblance to their brutal and omnipresent Communist-era predecessor.

A clear sign that security work has shaken off much of its past stigma is that a former head of the foreign intelligence service, Teodor Melenescu, is among those running for president while the current head of the domestic security agency, George Maior, is widely expected to replace Mr. Ponta as prime minister if the latter wins the presidential election.

Currently, the most determined critics of the domestic intelligence agencies are for the most part those who worry most about being accused of graft. “Hysteria against so-called Securitate methods” in the fight against corruption is “entirely manufactured” by powerful figures who fear arrest and the media outlets they control, said Sorin Ionita, a policy analyst at the Expert Forum, a research group in Bucharest.

“Romanian politics are not about ideology, about left or right. All our political battles are about corruption and the rule of law,” Mr. Ionita said.

He said he was skeptical about Mr. Ponta’s assertion that a new generation now coming to power marked a decisive break with the old elite that dominated the early post-Communist period.

“They speak foreign languages and know how to behave in Brussels, but this doesn’t automatically make them any better,” he said. “They were created by the old networks according to the old criteria, mainly the belief that they should be above the law.”

This belief put down deep roots thanks largely to the legacy of the Securitate, remnants of which protected and promoted its own and its favorites long after Communism collapsed. “After 1989 many of the people who had been in power before or collaborated with Securitate were reactivated,” said Mr. Turcescu, the television journalist who outed himself. “They looked like you and me, but they had a black past linked to the security system.”

Through blackmail, protection rackets and other schemes, he added, former Securitate officers “poisoned the whole system and created fear among political leaders of doing anything that would go against the interests of those connected with the security system.”

Over the years, accusations of links to the security services either before or after the Communist period have been leveled at just about every prominent figure in the country, the second poorest in the European Union, including the president, Mr. Basescu. He has denied that he collaborated with the Securitate while serving as a merchant navy captain and has now in turn accused Mr. Ponta of working as a secret agent for S.I.E., Romania’s foreign intelligence service.

“Victor Ponta must admit that he was an undercover officer of S.I.E.,” the president told a Romanian television channel. “This isn’t a bomb,” he said, but “a reality which I am ready to prove.”

The foreign intelligence service has little of the sinister baggage associated with the domestic service, but the allegation that Mr. Ponta worked as an agent while serving as a prosecutor is still potentially damaging and could, if proved, expose the prime minister to prosecution.

But the spy allegations could even help Mr. Ponta’s chances by adding a dash of glamour and adventure to his otherwise humdrum image, as the candidate himself freely admits. In the past, said Mr. Ponta, Mr. Basescu “has tried to depict me as a weak person and called me pussycat,” but “the moment he promoted me to the position of James Bond he in fact did me a favor.”

His main rival in a field of 14 presidential candidates is Klaus Iohannis, a slow-talking and uncharismatic provincial mayor whose main promise is that he will bring efficiency and probity to a country better known for its bad roads and disorderly ways.

Another prominent candidate, Elena Udrea, is backed by the president. But she, too, has become entangled in an allegations of espionage after photographs popped up on the Internet last week that showed her on a visit to Paris early this year with friends. Also posted were receipts from her stay at a luxury hotel. News media outlets, even those controlled by her political rivals, declared her the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by intelligence operatives, possibly Romanian but also perhaps French.

Mr. Basescu said the photographs of Ms. Udrea were “again evidence that the services have been involved” in the election campaign. Speaking to the Romanian news media, he said he had tried to restrain Romania’s security agencies during his 10 years as president but now, “at the end of my term, there are some games at the top that I do not like.”

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