Friday, February 20, 2015

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.

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