Sunday, February 22, 2015

Romania's Roma

The art of exclusion
A wall that segregated a town's Roma becomes an “art project”—which still segregates the town's Roma


Feb 20th 2015
The Economist

“THIS is a wall built to hide our poverty,” says Alex Banta (pictured), a 53-year old Roma from the northern Romanian town of Baia Mare. To its detractors, the wall is also a clever example of how governments can use ersatz urban-renewal projects to get away with discrimination. In 2011 Baia Mare erected a concrete wall around a Roma neighbourhood. Later that year, Romania's national anti-discrimination body fined the town 6,000 lei ($1,530) and ordered it to take the wall down. The mayor, Catalin Chereches, paid the fine, appealed the ruling, and lost. But last November, instead of demolishing the wall, he invited art students to paint graffiti on it, and then claimed he could no longer remove it; it was now a work of art.

The wall encloses three apartment buildings. The one in the middle has been ruled unfit for habitation; it has no heating or running water, and rubbish lies piled up to the first floor. Mr Banta lives on the third floor of this building, with his wife and 14 children. Some families have been moved to better housing conditions, he says, but only after paying bribes, which he refuses to do. The mayor argues that the wall was erected to protect Roma children from being run over by cars, but Mr Banta says this was unnecessary. The community has only one use for the wall: "When we wash our carpets in the summer, it is perfect for drying them.”

Poverty, illiteracy and discrimination are the main obstacles facing Romania's Roma, who number 621,600 out of a total population of 20m, according to official statistics. (Demographers think their real numbers are at least twice as high, as many Roma prefer not to declare their ethnicity.) In Baia Mare there are around 1,500 Roma families, says Mr Chereches, a 36-year old arts lover who likes to describe himself as an “administrator, not a politician”. In his spacious mayoral office in the centre of the old mining town, a wooden sculpture of a pig sits on the desk; paintings by local artists line the walls.

There is nothing discriminatory about the wall, he says. In his view the National Council for Combating Discrimination issues fines for “anything that has to do with Roma, Hungarians and other minorities, no matter whether you were wrong or not.” The mayor claims that the street in front of the Roma neighbourhood saw 20 victims of road-traffic accidents per year, and that the wall has put a stop to them. The town has built several housing projects to de-segregate Roma communities, as well as an education centre, complete with a kindergarten, which runs adult literacy courses. Mr Chereches says that Mr Banta's building, the one declared unsafe, is slated for renovation this spring, and that the families living there will be re-housed in non-Roma neighbourhoods.

Mr Chereches was regarded as having clean hands when he won election in 2012 with 80% of the vote. That image has been tarnished by a corruption probe launched against him in 2013 for allegedly taking bribes from firms that won public tenders. (The mayor would not comment on the corruption allegations.) He has also fallen out with the Arts and Design University in the nearby city of Cluj, whose students were enlisted for the graffiti project—unwittingly, the school says. The project was organised by a teacher who sits on the Baia Mare city council.

The arts university has since reprimanded the teacher, and erased its logo from the graffiti wall. Its deputy dean, Mara Ratiu, says the graffiti project tainted the school's image, but that she was pleased by the civil-society criticism that ensued. "From now on we will be extra vigilant in selecting partnerships with public institutions,” she says.

Istvan Szakats, who runs an NGO that helps integrate Roma families in Cluj, says the problem of the Roma wall is not one of backwardness or corruption. Baia Mare is seen as a well-managed, civilised town, he notes. The problem is "latent racism". When the town administration evicted Roma from a local shantytown, Mr Szakats expected a public outcry; instead, the mayor's popularity increased. “With the wall, it’s like this: people like it," Mr Szakats explains. "Not only in Baia Mare."

Friday, February 20, 2015

Romania anti-sleaze drive reaches elite

BBC News

The long faces emerging from the building resemble a soap opera procession of the once high and mighty.

Former government ministers, media moguls, judges, prosecutors, and even former President Traian Basescu's favourite, Elena Udrea - dubbed "the president's blonde" - are all under investigation.

Ms Udrea, a former minister of tourism and former presidential candidate, was arrested last week. She is currently an MP.

The DNA's latest targets include Social Democrat Prime Minister Victor Ponta's mother, sister and his brother-in-law Iulian Hertanu.

Eight years after joining the EU, and 13 years after the DNA was set up, Romania seems to be finally getting serious with organised crime - and winning praise from the European Commission.

EU pressure

"Romania is on the right course and needs to stick to it," said Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans last month, commenting on the latest EU report on Romania's battle with corruption.

"Tackling corruption remains the biggest challenge and the biggest priority."

The EU's Co-operation and Verification Mechanism was set up in 2007 to monitor judicial reform and the fight against corruption in Romania and Bulgaria. Positive reports are crucial for Romania to be allowed into the EU's open-border regime, the nations in the Schengen group.

Last year alone, 1,138 leading public figures, including top politicians, businessmen, judges and prosecutors, were convicted by the DNA, whose crackdown is being led by chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi - a rate of more than four a day (excluding holidays). So what has changed in Romania?

"In just three years, both big parties - the Orange [Democratic Liberals] and the Reds [Social Democrats] - have been defeated in elections," says analyst Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. She is president of the Romanian Academic Society, an independent policy institute.

The result is that what she calls the "trans-party mafia" that used to run the country, hand out procurement deals involving huge sums of EU money, dodge tax and buy off prosecutors and judges is in disarray.

Prosecutors at Romania's DNA are going after some big fish now

Under surveillance

Equally important, she says, is the character of Klaus Iohannis, elected Romanian president last November. As a political outsider, he is not a signatory of the secret deals between the main parties that have plagued Romanian politics for 25 years.

A typical DNA conviction was that of Monica Ridzi, 37, the former sports and youth minister. She was sentenced to five years in prison for abuse of her position, by spending $800,000 (£518,000) of state funds on youth concerts at inflated prices, using her favourite companies. The proceeds were allegedly divided between herself and her party.

The DNA relies on the secret services for wiretaps of senior figures. "Until now, the services were rather selective about who they investigated. But no longer," says Ms Mungiu-Pippidi.

Corruption in Romania

The Economist

Cleaning up
Romania’s anti-corruption agency makes welcome waves
Feb 21st 2015 | BUCHAREST | From the print edition

ROMANIANS had assumed that Elena Udrea, a former tourism minister, was too powerful for prosecutors to touch. The ex-wife of a rich businessman, she is a protégée of Traian Basescu, a former president. Yet the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) has arrested her for helping to launder millions of dollars her former husband made from charging the government inflated prices for software. Her prosecution is a boost for the DNA, which is slowly convincing observers of progress in tackling corruption.

The DNA’s chief prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, a basketball star in her teens, rose through the magistracy before getting the top job in April 2013. Some feared she would be unable to protect the agency’s reputation, but in fact the pace of high-level cases has increased. In 2014 the DNA secured convictions of 1,138 people, including 24 mayors, five members of parliament, two ex-ministers and a former prime minister, Adrian Nastase. More than 90% of its indictments led to convictions.

Such good deeds have not gone unpunished. Last year, Ms Kovesi says, “every evening on television, there were attacks on my personal life.” A TV station owned by an oligarch accused her of taking bribes. (She sued for libel.) The DNA faced interference by Victor Ponta, Romania’s prime minister, who before his election in 2012 called it a successor to the reviled security police of communist days. In October 2013 the DNA’s senior anti-corruption prosecutor was replaced. And Mr Ponta’s party pressed for an amnesty that would have made it impossible for the DNA to act against high-level politicians.

Today Mr Ponta is keen on the DNA. The 42-year-old prime minister, himself a former prosecutor, proudly quotes a positive assessment the agency recently won from European Union anti-corruption monitors. The amnesty law was struck down in January, he notes, and talk of reviving it is “not serious”. Indicted MPs are forced to quit. As for Ms Kovesi, he says, “I was the one who appointed her!”

In fact, Ms Kovesi was Mr Basescu’s candidate. She won Mr Ponta’s support as part of a power-sharing deal. But Mr Ponta’s enthusiasm speaks volumes. “It shows how popular the DNA has become,” says Cristian Ghinea of CRPE, a think-tank. It is Romania’s fourth-most-trusted institution, after the church, army and security services. Insiders say Mr Ponta’s attacks were meant only to please his party. His loss of November’s presidential election to Klaus Iohannis, who ran on an anti-corruption ticket, underlines that political success lies in fighting graft, not excusing it.

The EU’s demands for regulatory compliance have opened up career opportunities for clever, honest lawyers. (Many now work for Ms Kovesi.) America is aggressively pushing anti-corruption efforts as part of its policy to contain Russian influence in eastern Europe. American officials hammered that message home during a visit by Victoria Nuland, an assistant secretary of state, to Bucharest last month.*

Romania’s corruption-fighting efforts may have been noticed in Washington and Brussels, but they have yet to make much impact on foreign investors. The country came 69th last year in the corruption index produced by Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog, a ranking unchanged from 2013. Mr Ponta has just been to America, wooing investors. No doubt he spent much time telling them about Ms Kovesi and the DNA.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

From basketball to law courts: Romanian prosecutor wins fans fighting graft

By Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Such has been the success of Romania's anti-corruption prosecutors that television crews are now permanently stationed outside their offices, waiting for the next politician, businessman or judge to be hauled in.

Romania's corruption-fighting agency, known by the local acronym DNA, secured a record 1,138 convictions last year, pursuing people who might once have been untouchable.

Graft has long been a deterrent to doing business in Romania, which is joint last among EU countries in Transparency International's corruption perception index and has been singled out by the European Union along with Bulgaria for special monitoring of its justice system.

But investigations into the prime minister's brother-in-law and father-in-law - himself a powerful member of the ruling party - as well as a sitting president's brother, government ministers and the head of a midsize political party have made for a steady stream of headlines.

The efforts of the DNA's more than 100 prosecutors have proved that many state contracts are handed out in exchange for favours or bribes, and about 7 percent of lawmakers elected in 2012 have been convicted or are under investigation for corruption.

Meanwhile, political pressure to drop cases touched a new peak last year as investigations reached the highest levels of politics, DNA chief Laura Kovesi told Reuters in an interview.

But if the earnest, towering 41-year-old former basketball player is worried, it doesn't show.

"If anything, prosecutors' resistance to such pressures has grown," said Kovesi, who was Romania's youngest prosecutor general and the first woman to hold the office.

"The pressure will continue for as long as we investigate such cases. But I think it is important for the political class to reach a certain maturity and understand that all prosecutors want ... is to get to the truth in criminal cases, and that we don't have any other interests."

DARK HINTS

The politicians' complaints have grown, as have the protests outside DNA headquarters. But Kovesi, whose father was also a prosecutor, has a protection detail similar to that of other officials, and says her life outside work is normal.

In January, a former presidential candidate under investigation hinted darkly that Kovesi owed her position to the influence of a senior secret service official, an accusation she dismissed as a smear.

Cristi Danilet, a judge who sits on the supreme magistrates' council, Romania's judicial regulator, said he was "scared by the extent of corruption cases because they point to a society that is sick from top to bottom".

"From the education and health sectors and all the way to the judiciary, politics and business - corruption is everywhere."

Graft exists in the judiciary partly because top prosecutors and some others are political appointees. But there have already been significant attempts to tackle the problem.

Last year, seven judges and 13 prosecutors were jailed for corruption. A judge at Romania's top court has been charged with joining an organised crime group, as well as accepting a BMW car and two dresses for his wife as bribes.

And no lesser figure than the chief prosecutor in charge of fighting organised crime is herself under investigation.

"It is definitely a conscious effort by the judiciary to solve its own problems," said Laura Stefan, a legal expert at the Expert Forum think-tank.

MAGISTRATES STILL BREAKING LAW

"The half-empty part of the glass is that the numbers are very high for a country like Romania. There remain many magistrates still breaking the law."

Romania started implementing judicial reforms as an aspiring member of the EU in 2004, when magistrates' independence was legally guaranteed for the first time.

The DNA, founded in 2002, was overhauled by narrowing its scope to focus only on high-level corruption. The first major cases went to trial under Kovesi's predecessor in 2005-2006. They resulted in a string of convictions, notably including former prime minister Adrian Nastase.

Prosecutors gradually gained expertise, and the number of cases started to rise, helped by intelligence service wire taps.

Now, the DNA enjoys something of a cult status among younger Romanians, and is trusted by twice as many people as the government. At rallies around last year's election campaign, there were shouts of "We love DNA!" and "DNA for president!".

The number of tip-offs has consequently grown, as has the number of politicians taking to the media to complain of "witch hunts".

"They say their political opponents are controlling the judiciary, or that prosecutors are controlling judges, and now that secret services are controlling prosecutors," Danilet said.

The European Commission's latest review praised Romania's judiciary, but noted that problems remained, especially in parliament, whose approval is required for a sitting MP to be investigated. Only this month, it blocked an investigation into a current senator and former economy minister.

Legal attempts to strengthen parliamentary immunity or weaken the judiciary are not uncommon, and Kovesi takes nothing for granted.

"Laws ... are constantly shifting and so there are some concerns that one legal change could confound or even block judicial reform," she said. (Editing by Matthias Williams and Kevin Liffey)