Saturday, March 28, 2015

TOL: Shaken by Court Ruling, Romanian Church Comes Roaring Back

With the public firmly on the side of teaching religion in school, the debate shifts to the rights of non-Orthodox students.
27 March 2015

Religion classes have been a normal part of the Romanian child’s school day since the advent of democracy more than 20 years ago. In a country where more than four in five people follow Orthodoxy, “religion” usually meant Orthodox teachings, and the small number of pupils who preferred not to take the classes often had no choice, as many schools offered no alternative subjects.

Under the law, children could not be required to take religion, but until last year parents who wished to remove their children from the classes had to opt out by submitting a request to the school.

That was until the Constitutional Court turned the procedure on its head. In November the court found parts of the system unconstitutional and installed an “opt-in” system instead, requiring parents to request that their children be enrolled in religion class.

The Romanian Orthodox Church was rocked by the ruling, calling it “discriminatory and humiliating,” and quickly assembled a support group of celebrities for an online campaign to explain the new law and persuade parents to keep their children in religion class.

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, groups like the Secular Humanist Association were delighted. For association president Alexandru Toma Patrascu, children are too often fed an intolerant, manipulative message instead of being taught to understand religion in its broader context.

He gives the example of religion textbooks that contain pictures of a child being hit by a car as a punishment for lying, or the admonishment not to make friends with children of other faiths.

In agreeing to hear a complaint against the religion law brought by an activist for secular causes, Emil Moise, the Constitutional Court tried to unravel the tangled legal relationship between the churches and the public schools, which in effect made religion class both mandatory and optional. The Romanian Constitution guarantees the right to study religion in public school, and the education law enshrines religion classes in the core curriculum throughout a student’s school life starting from the first year of primary school. But paradoxically, taking part in religion class was optional in what is, after all, a constitutionally secular republic.

Moise argued (pdf) that the education law violated the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The court took a middle course. It found that the constitutional right of parents to raise and educate their children also grants the right to enroll their children in religion classes.

But since parents cannot be forced to expose their children to religion, the court put the onus on religious parents. From now on, not enrolling in religion class would be the default mode; parents who wish to sign up their children for such classes would have to opt in.

And opt in they did, in a big way. The Education Ministry set 6 March as the deadline for parents to decide. If the Orthodox Church and Romania’s 17 other recognized faith groups ever were seriously worried about secularists undermining their moral authority – atheists and those who profess no faith make up a negligible 0.2 percent of the population – they needn’t have been. By deadline day, 89.75 percent of parents had enrolled their children in religion class for the next school year.

With publicly subsidized religious studies firmly entrenched, the debate is swinging back to those who opt out of the classes. Secular campaigners like Moise and Patrascu, joined by some liberal believers, say the state needs to pay attention to their constitutionally guaranteed rights, as well as the rights of non-Orthodox believers to learn about their own religions in public schools.

The question of what to do for the more than 200,000 children whose parents kept them out of religion classes next year remains unresolved. Education Minister Sorin Campeanu suggested holding religion classes at the beginning or end of the school day in order not to affect the schedules of the other 10 percent.

One idea discussed by parliament’s education committee, but so far only there, is to offer civic and moral education as an alternative to religious studies. Spain introduced such classes in 2006 as part of its own long process of diluting the Catholic Church’s role in public education.

Mother and broadcast journalist Adriana Ene maintains that the value of religion classes goes beyond teaching the basics of (usually) Orthodox belief, and in this she probably speaks for the silent majority of Romanian parents.

Her two sons, 10 and 14, not only learn “why there is an icon on the classroom wall” and why the saints make good role models, she says.

“I wanted them to go to religion class, because there they learned that they can bring books and clothes for poor children. And because the religion class is like an oasis of peace and of good examples they can take with them at home or wherever they go,” she said.

Romania is far from the only European country to agonize over the role of the churches in public education.

In Spain, like Romania a society dominated by a single religion, the Catholic Church plays a far smaller role in schools than in the past. But even though schools now must offer social and civil values teaching in addition to optional Catholic religion classes, two of three students opt for Catholicism, El Pais recently reported.

Patrascu favors the system used in the Netherlands, where teaching about individual religions is offered almost exclusively outside of the public school system. Romania could adopt a more values-based system, putting more stress on the history of religion and less on the ideology of the Orthodox Church, he argues.

The Orthodox hierarchy’s panicked reaction to the November court ruling harks back to a time, only a generation ago, when religion was taboo in public life. Leading Communist officials were not allowed to be seen going to church, even for a baptism or wedding, and many churches were demolished on the order of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. With the regime’s fall in 1989 came a renewal of public displays of faith. The Orthodox Church was the main beneficiary, as it regained its old position of moral authority and state benefits began to flow in, a situation that led to criticism and complaints about the wealth of the church, which is financed by the state yet pays no taxes.
Soon after the change of regimes, schools began introducing religion classes, usually led by priests until enough specialized teachers could be trained.

“Religion is important for the development of a child because it contributes to shaping his personality and it helps him to learn positive moral behavior,” said Laura Tonghioiu, a religion teacher in Bucharest.

She denies that children are manipulated by religion teachers, the argument put by Patrascu and others who say religion plays too big a role in Romanian life. Rather, they learn to be respectful, civic-minded citizens through studying moral and religious teachings. Religion does not impose, it proposes a way, she says.
For Ene, religion class imparts useful information like any other.
“Just as my children are taught Romanian, mathematics, biology, music, so in the same way they should know their religion and its moral significance. To be good, to help others, to learn about God, there is nothing wrong in this.”

Where moderate believers like Ene and secularists do find common ground is on the need to reform the way religion is taught. Although the Romanian constitution states that children from all faith groups should be able to study their own religion, this happens only on paper, Ene acknowledges, owing to the lack of specialized teachers in faiths other than Orthodoxy.

“Children who don’t want to study religion, or those of a different confession, have no alternative,” Ene said.

The predominance of Orthodox teachers led parents to complain to the Secular Humanist Association, Patrascu said.

“There were situations when parents wanted their children not to study religion, but they had to stay in the class because there were no alternatives,” he said.

Romania’s education law makes no mention of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Rather, it says schools “will ensure their constitutional right to participate in the religion class to students belonging to religions recognized by the state, regardless of their number and according to their own confession.”

But a protocol signed by the Orthodox Church and the Education Ministry in May gives the church an advisory role in the writing of textbooks for Orthodox religion classes. And the church has the final say over the teachers of such classes. They must obtain written approval, or a “blessing,” from the Orthodox hierarchy, and if the blessing is withdrawn for good reason, the teacher’s employment contract is terminated.

Patrascu says parents sometimes complain of abuses such as religion teachers taking their pupils to church during class time – with some justification, Ene agrees.

"I would take the side of parents who confront extremist religion teachers, or teachers who lack dedication,” she said. “The children should be taught religion with kindness and responsibility. … There are extraordinary teachers and those who are not so good for this job, like anywhere else.”

Lorelei Mihala is a journalist with Romanian National Television.

Romania PM picks EU funds minister as new finance minister


(Reuters) - Romania's leftist prime minister, Victor Ponta, said on Friday he had appointed the government's EU funds minister, Eugen Teodorovici, as the new finance minister.

Ponta had briefly taken over the portfolio following the resignation earlier this month of Darius Valcov, who faces accusations of corruption -- charges he has denied. Parliament voted on Wednesday to allow prosecutors to arrest him.

Teodorovici, 43, faces potentially difficult talks in April with the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission, where he will seek backing for Romania's plans for sweeping tax cuts in 2016 to 2019.

On Friday, the IMF said the planned tax cuts threatened to undermine five years of fiscal consolidation and urged the cabinet to reconsider their size and timing.

Romania has a standby 4 billion euro aid deal with the IMF and the European Commission, which is tied to its performance in implementing reforms and keeping the deficit in check. The accord expires in September.

The tax cuts were formally approved by the government on Wednesday and will be debated in parliament before a final vote that is expected by June.

Romania's talks with the IMF ended without agreement in February as Bucharest resisted calls for gas price hikes and restructuring state-run coal firms.

Including Ponta's brief stint, Teodorovici will become the sixth finance minister since Ponta took office in May 2012. The premier has jokingly referred to the position as a "kamikaze" role.

Valcov quit after prosecutors alleged he had favored a firm for a public works contract in exchange for about 2 million euros ($2.20 million). Prosecutors subsequently accused him of unlawful gains after they discovered cash, gold bars and a French Impressionist painting in his safe.

NYT: Romanian Ex-Minister Suspected of Accepting Renoir as Bribe

BUCHAREST, Romania — Prosecutors detained Romania's previous finance minister Wednesday on suspicion that he took bribes, including gold bars and a painting by French Impressionist Auguste Renoir, when he was mayor of a southern town.

Prosecutors said Darius Valcov had hidden the painting, three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of gold and stashes of cash worth $410,000 in a friend's safe from 2011.

He was detained for 24 hours.

Valcov resigned as finance minister on March 15 after prosecutors charged him with taking 2 million euros ($2.1 million) in bribes when he was mayor. He denies wrongdoing.

In another development Wednesday, a parliamentary vote ruled against lifting the immunity of a Romanian senator from the ruling party who prosecutors say is suspected of corruption.

Senators voted 79-67 in favor of lifting the immunity of Dan Sova, a former transportation minister, but fell short of the 85 votes required.

The vote was criticized by the U.S., British and Dutch embassies in Romania who said the legislature should not prevent anti-corruption probes.

Prosecutors want to arrest Sova on suspicion that as a senator he illegally earned 3.5 million lei ($870,000) as a lawyer in the privatization of several electricity companies in his constituency and destroyed computer files to cover his tracks. He denies wrongdoing.

After the vote, Sova left leadership positions he has held in the ruling Social Democratic Party.

Prosecutors in Romania have launched a series of high-level corruption investigations in the past year.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Romanian PM nominates himself as interim finance minister

By Radu-Sorin Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's prime minister nominated himself to take over the finance ministry portfolio temporarily he said on Friday, after the previous minister became the most senior sitting politician to be investigated in a corruption crackdown.

Victor Ponta would be taking over days before his government is set to approve sweeping tax cuts for 2016-2019 designed to stimulate economic growth, but which analysts have criticized as unsustainable. Ponta has insisted his government's fiscal policy would not be derailed by ongoing corruption probes.

Ponta also faces potentially difficult talks in April with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to negotiate the terms of an ongoing standby aid deal that expires in September. Talks ended without agreement in February as Bucharest resisted calls to raise gas prices and restructure state-run coal companies.

"I will take responsibility as interim for the finance minister until March 25," Ponta said on his Twitter page. "After fiscal codes are adopted, I will submit a proposal for a new minister to the president."

Former Finance Minister Darius Valcov resigned after anti-corruption prosecutors accused him of taking kickbacks worth about 2 million euros in a previous role as a provincial mayor. Valcov, who has denied wrongdoing, cannot be arrested until parliament votes to allow prosecutors to do so.

Valcov has joined a growing list of senior figures -- from a top judge to the prime minister's father-in-law -- to be investigated for graft in an energetic crackdown by prosecutors that has won praise from Brussels.

Ponta would become the government's fifth finance minister since his government took office in May 2012, and the premier has jokingly referred to the position as a "kamikaze" role.

Three senior officials from his ruling Social Democrat Party told Reuters earlier in the day that Ponta will nominate himself.

"We couldn't yet find a successor to Valcov, not that there aren't willing takers. It's that we have yet to find a suitable person to handle this," another senior ruling party member told Reuters.

Ponta is due to meet President Klaus Iohannis, who must formally approve the appointment.

Romania, one of Europe's poorest states, has emerged from deep recession after a real estate crash to grow 2.9 percent last year while keeping its fiscal deficit under the limits agreed with the IMF and the European Commission.

Once the IMF deal expires, Ponta has said Romania could seek a new type of arrangement such as a flexible credit line, which would come with fewer conditions than the quarterly reviews the country has had to pass to keep its aid deals going since 2009.

Romania insists US-led missile system is defensive

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romanian officials insist a U.S.-led missile defense shield planned for Romania is for protecting NATO members from attacks — not a threat to Moscow.

The comments came after Russia's ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, said warships from the Scandinavian NATO country could become targets for Russian nuclear missiles if it joins the alliance's missile defense system.

In August, Danes agreed to contribute to NATO's shield with at least one frigate with advanced radar capacity. Russia strongly opposes the missile defense system, with bases planned in the Romanian town of Deveselu and Poland.

Romanian Defense Minister Mirce Dusa said Sunday "we don't agree with such a statement ... the anti-missile system is a defense system," echoing comments made earlier by the foreign minister.

NATO also reacted, with alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu telling Danish daily Berlingske that NATO has told Russia its missile defense isn't directed against them.

"Denmark is a staunch NATO ally and NATO will defend all its allies against any threat," she wrote in an email, according to the newspaper. "We have made it clear that NATO's missile defense is not directed at Russia or other countries but is intended as a defense against missile threats."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Romania opens criminal probe into ex-president over threats to senator

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian prosecutors said on Wednesday they had opened a criminal investigation into former president Traian Basescu over threats he made to a senator while still head of state.

Last year Basescu warned leftist senator Gabriela Firea on television to mind her own business and to take care of her husband, Florentin Pandele, the mayor of a small Romanian town near the capital Bucharest.

Basescu, who is from the center-right, then said Firea "might not find him at home one day if she is not careful".

Firea, then spokeswoman for leftist Prime Minister Victor Ponta's failed 2014 presidential campaign, said the comments were "clearly aimed at threatening a senator and humiliating a citizen of this country" and she filed a complaint.

Basescu, an outspoken former sea captain who served as president from 2004 to 2014, lost his immunity from prosecution after stepping down as head of state.

"In the case that started as a result of the complaint filed by Gabriela Firea ... prosecutors have proceeded with a criminal investigation on suspicion of committing blackmail," the Prosecutor General's office said in a statement.

"Traian Basescu came to the prosecutors' headquarters today to be notified of the charges and his defenders have requested a deadline to study the file."

Basescu declined all comment. He has previously called Firea a "blackmailer".

He has a track record of inflammatory comments and accusations. In 2007, in a private conversation with his wife that was recorded, Basescu called a reporter a "filthy gypsy" and was reprimanded by the national anti-discrimination office.

The case is also the latest in a series of setbacks for Basescu, whose brother is under investigation for allegedly taking a bribe to help keep an underworld boss out of jail.

His former protege and presidential candidate Elena Udrea is also under investigation for graft amid an ongoing crackdown on high-level corruption. Udrea has denied wrongdoing.

In a separate case, prosecutors are also looking at the circumstances under which one of Basescu's daughters purchased farm land.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Romania detains head of second-tier graft watchdog on graft charges

By Radu-Sorin Marinas

BUCHAREST, March 16 (Reuters) - Romanian prosecutors detained the head of a European Union-backed anti-corruption watchdog on Monday, suspecting him of inflating the value of real estate by 75 million euros ($79 million) in a land restitution scam.

The detention is the latest in a parade of arrests and convictions of high-ranking officials in Romania, one of the EU's most corrupt countries. Finance Minister Darius Valcov resigned on Sunday, accused of taking money in exchange for favours to a business while a provincial mayor.

Prosecutors on Monday detained the head of the National Integrity Agency (ANI), a watchdog set up after Romania joined the EU in 2007 to investigate suspiciously wealthy politicians, which won praise from Brussels but was often resented by MPs.

Unlike the main anti-corruption agency, the DNA, the ANI does not have the power to prosecute.

Prosecutors said ANI head Horia Georgescu would be detained for 24 hours, on the "reasonable suspicion" that he had abused his powers in a previous role at a government agency that restores property seized under Communism to its rightful owners.

Georgescu denied the allegations, according to a statement by his lawyer to Realitatea TV. Valcov also denied wrongdoing.


"Specifically, in (2008-2009), the Central Commission to set property compensation ... part of the National Authority for the Restitution of Property, of which Georgescu was a member, approved evaluation reports for three dossiers ... with over-valued real estate compensation," the DNA said in a statement.

Thousands of Romanians are waiting for compensation for property seized under Communism, which fell in a bloody revolution in 1989 after four decades of dictatorship. Disputes over land ownership, the inefficiency of the judicial system and red tape have hampered efforts to return property.

Widespread corruption has long deterred business in Romania, which is joint last among EU states in Transparency International's corruption perception index. The EU has Romania's justice system under special monitoring, together with that of neighbouring Bulgaria.

Markets shrugged off Valcov's resignation on Monday and analysts said the minister's exit would not derail Romania's fiscal policy aims.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta's government, which faces a general election at the end of next year, has announced proposals for sweeping tax cuts between 2016 and 2019.

Ponta told reporters on Monday that Valcov, one of the architects of the tax proposals, would not be replaced immediately, but that a successor would be appointed after the tax proposals were sent to parliament around March 25. ($1 = 0.9458 euros) (Editing by Matthias Williams and Kevin Liffey)

EurActiv: Romanian finance minister resigns over corruption allegations

Romanian Finance Minister Darius Vâlcov resigned yesterday (15 March), after prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into suspected abuses of power in his former role as a mayor.

Vâlcov is the most senior sitting Romanian politician to resign because of corruption allegations, amid a flurry of high-level investigations and graft trials over the past two years. He has denied taking a bribe.

Romania is seen as one of the European Union's most corrupt states but its prosecutors and magistrates have won praise from Brussels for crackdowns that have seen many members of parliament face trial.

Prosecutors said on Friday they had opened a criminal investigation against Vâlcov on suspicion he favoured a company for a public works contract in exchange for about €2 million during 2010-2013 when he was a mayor.

"I spoke with Darius Vâlcov today at lunch and he handed me his resignation," left-wing Prime Minister Victor Ponta told television station Romania TV. Ponta said he had accepted the resignation but gave no further details as to why Vâlcov had quit.

Neither Vâlcov nor ministry officials were immediately available for comment.

Ponta said he would propose a replacement after Vâlcov finalised a new fiscal code in the coming days to cut taxes and presented it to the government for approval "because it is important for Romania to have this project".

Ponta and Vâlcov announced plans in February to cut all major taxes between 2016 and 2019, a move analysts said could take an unsustainable toll on the budget.

A former two-term mayor turned senator in parliament, Vâlcov took over as finance minister in December in a cabinet reshuffle following Ponta's defeat in the 2014 presidential election. He had previously been the budget minister, a portfolio that was merged with the finance ministry post in the reshuffle.

President Klaus Iohannis asked Ponta earlier on Sunday to start the process of replacing Vâlcov, saying he was "affecting the activity and credibility of the government".

The investigation is another blow to Ponta, after he was surprisingly defeated in November's presidential election. Ponta’s father-in-law and brother-in-law are under criminal investigations in separate cases.

His ruling Social Democrats have a party congress this month where his leadership may be challenged, while opposition centre-right politicians have said they aim to file a no confidence vote against him in parliament this year. The next parliamentary election is due at the end of 2016.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

NYT: Romania’s Anti-Corruption Mania

BUCHAREST, Romania — With its wide, tree-lined boulevards and Belle Époque buildings, this city was once known as Little Paris. Today, Romania’s capital feels more reminiscent of the French Revolution as it is roiled by a legal reign of terror.

In November, the leader of the center-right National Liberal Party, Klaus Iohannis, was elected president on a populist, anti-corruption platform, succeeding Traian Basescu of the more conservative Democratic Liberal Party.

Only lately had Mr. Basescu thrown his weight behind a long-running anti-corruption drive that had seemed relatively toothless. For Mr. Basescu, it was a useful political tool to attack opponents, as well as a way to appease American and European critics of Romania’s governance. But his move was belated.

With Mr. Iohannis’s victory, the anti-corruption effort went into overdrive. While executive authority rests with the prime minister, Victor Ponta, who heads the Social Democratic Party, the presidency can be a powerful bully pulpit.

Denied justice for decades, first by dictators, then by ineffectual democrats, Romanians enthusiastically backed the anti-corruption cause. After a judicial sweep that started under Mr. Basescu netted more than a thousand convictions of politicians and businessmen last year, the campaign proved a key electoral issue.

Crude populism now carries the day. The television networks relentlessly cover every perp walk. With the courts convicting at a rate of more than 90 percent, scores of politicians from all the main parties have been disgraced.

The nation is running out of prison space. Condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, Bucharest’s jails are desperately overcrowded; thejustice minister recently announced that he was seeking European funding for several new prisons. Little else looks as if it’s being built these days. Businesspeople I’ve spoken to have become wary of public-private partnerships since they view such arrangements as too easy to construe as graft.

Bribery is, in fact, endemic in Romanian life: Politics merely mirrors social norms. Everyone in politics and business is presumed guilty of something. Most Romanians admit that they care little about shortcomings of due process, whether it’s laughably thin evidence or prosecutors’ tutoring of judges in verdicts.

The rise of the prosecutorial state threatens even its own. In November, a former top prosecutor, Alina Bica, who was appointed by Mr. Ponta to head the government’s unit investigating organized crime, was herself arrestedon a charge of receiving kickbacks while in office. She had previously participated in developing Romania’s criminal code on government standards. In Mr. Basescu’s words, “Nobody is above the law.”

It’s commonplace for suspects to be pressured to name names in exchange for possible leniency. It’s also routine for family members to be arrested as additional leverage for the prosecutors. One particularly Orwellian measure is the use of “preventive arrests” to imprison certain high-level suspects accused of white-collar crimes on grounds of stopping them from committing similar alleged offenses in future.

Despite official denials, everyone knows the courts are not as politically independent as they should be. A number of those arrested, I was told, have ties to Russian financial interests — which makes them easy to portray as serving the interests of a foreign power that many Romanians regard as a threat.

Before his election in 2012, Mr. Ponta had characterized the National Anti-corruption Directorate as a modern-day version of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s feared secret police. But as public opinion turned in the directorate’s favor, the prime minister changed his tune.

A pro-market politician, Mr. Ponta now acts as cheerleader for the anti-corruption drive — finding it a handy tool for targeting his enemies in the media, particularly the owners of critical newspapers. Soon after Mr. Ponta clashed with Adrian Sarbu, the owner of the Mediafax Group, which publishes Romania’s leading business paper, Mr. Sarbu was arrested on charges of tax evasion, money laundering and embezzlement. He has denied the allegations.

The prosecution of Dan Adamescu, owner of the independent newspaper Romania Libera, is also troubling. Mr. Ponta accused Mr. Adamescu of embezzling from his own insurance company to help finance Mr. Basescu’s re-election campaign. Mr. Adamescu was found guilty and received a more than four-year prison sentence.

The apparent political motivation behind the Sarbu and Adamescu cases demonstrates how an effort to reduce the relationship between money and politics has served instead to ramp up score-settling and judicial overreach.

Another unintended consequence of the anti-corruption campaign is that it has fueled anti-American sentiment. Because the State Department had expressed the fear that a corrupt Romania could become the next Ukraine, with popular anger at a corrupt oligarchy leading to disorder, some Romanians now view the legion of hasty convictions as a misguided attempt to impress America.

The European Union has monitored corruption levels since Romania’s 2007 entry into the Union. While Brussels has never threatened to withhold funding, there was anxiety in Bucharest that a failure to push reform could lead to Romania’s voting rights’ being suspended.

As arbiters of good governance, neither the United States nor the European Union should remain silent over the Romanian government’s abuse of prosecutorial powers. Certainly, a less corrupt Romania would be a better European Union member and a more reliable NATO ally, but it would be a mistake to accept the sheer volume of justice, rather than its quality, as a reliable metric of success.

Romania’s anti-corruption campaign has rapidly metastasized into an illiberal crusade. The public’s insatiable appetite for justice only exacerbates the threat to the country’s democratic future.

American and European governments should congratulate Romanians on their newfound determination to eradicate graft, but now encourage a change in the government’s approach. Romania’s democratic development would be better served by a public process whereby past misdeeds were acknowledged, documented and then forgiven.

Only a comprehensive process that rewards disclosure with amnesty will allow Romanians to stop looking over their shoulders, figuratively and literally. With international media scrutiny, a truth commission would make a powerful statement that democratic Romania will vigorously punish future transgressions — but in a transparent, nonpartisan and judicious manner.

Patrick Basham is the director of the Democracy Institute, a public policy research organization based in Washington and London.