Long Plagued By Corruption, Romania Seeks To Make A Fresh Start

Dec 27, 2014
Originally published on December 27, 2014 11:10 am

Romania is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Europe and it's been that way for years. It's a tough legacy to overcome, but there are signs the country is trying to make a fresh start.

Klaus Iohannis, an underdog presidential candidate who campaigned on a platform of fighting corruption, won a surprising victory last month over the ruling party's nominee. Iohannis, 55, was sworn into office last Sunday.

To make headway, he'll need to work in tandem with Laura Codruța Kövesi, who heads Romania's National Anti-Corruption Directorate. She faces the tall task of rooting out graft that has plagued the country since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe 25 years ago.

Kövesi is lanky 41-year-old, a former teen basketball star with a tough-as-nails reputation. She says the legacy of her prosecutor father and her strong Romanian Orthodox faith inspire her to seek justice.

Kövesi says her agency sent some 890 defendants to trial, including former ministers, parliament members and even the ex-president's brother and the head of Romania's organized crime and terrorism investigation unit.

One of her high-profile cases involves software licenses sold at inflated prices for use in Romanian schools. Nine former cabinet ministers are under investigation in that case.

The nearly $200 million confiscated by the courts in connection with those cases are more than seven times the directorate's annual budget, she says.

"It is encouraging for the Romanian people to see that we take action, that the authorities function so well," says Kövesi. "It leads to an increased trust in our institutions and also encourages more people to come here and file complaints."

And yet Kövesi acknowledges that corruption is deeply ingrained in the Romanian psyche.

She and other anti-corruption figures say that attitude developed in the years following the collapse of communism, when law enforcement was weak and opportunities were rife for politicians and businessmen to make money from the shift to a market economy.

"The transition period is one in which law enforcement bodies were weak, when even police were afraid to go out on the street," recalls Monica Macovei, an EU parliament member and outspoken Romanian anti-corruption activist. "So you have a lot of money in the public budget being transferred into private hands without knowing how to do it."

Macovei says an independent judiciary and Kovesi's directorate are forcing Romanian politicians to be more accountable, something the Romanian public is demanding with a vengeance.

During November's Romanian presidential elections, thousands of Romanians took to the streets in Bucharest and other European capitals to protest mismanagement of the polls.

At issue was the right to vote abroad. Many expat Romanians were prevented from voting during the first round at their embassies in Paris, London and Munich, among other cities.

Those complaints sent a surge of sympathetic voters to the second round and swept Iohannis to victory over the candidate of the ruling Social Democratic Party, Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

Iohannis, the former mayor of the Transylvania city of Sibiu, is of German descent and is the first Romanian president from one of the country's ethnic minorities.

"We are a nation that has shown the world that we embrace democratic values, that we want courage and that we want change," Iohannis said earlier this month.

He agreed in writing to 10 measures to clean up corruption and ensure transparency, says Macovei.

"I have some worries deep inside, but I don't want to discourage him or anyone else. I just wish him to be strong and not to listen to those in the parties, so I wish him not to listen to these voices coming from a dark past," Macovei says.

In Iohannis' hometown of Sibiu, many believe he can succeed.

He served as mayor for 14 years in the city, where he once taught high school physics and has one of the few homes here outfitted with solar panels. He is credited with turning the city into a popular tourist destination.

The president's Lutheran pastor in Sibiu, Kilian Doerr, says when Iohannis was first elected as mayor, a local taxi driver commented: "Now we can leave all the doors open here, no one will steal anything anymore."

That may be wishful thinking, but Doerr believes that under Iohannis, "corruption and misuse of public funds won't be allowed anymore."

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Romania is one of the poorest countries in the European Union. It's also one of the most corrupt. In the past year, dozens of public officials, including the head prosecutor for organized crime, were charged with accepting or paying bribes. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Bucharest.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Laura Codruta Kovesi heads the Romanian agency charged with stopping corruption. It's one of the tougher jobs in the country - one fraught with political pressure and risk, given close ties between some Romanian politicians and crime bosses. But Kovesi, a lanky 41-year-old who was a teen basketball star, says she doesn't worry about danger.

LAURA CODRUTA KOVESI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: She says people know better than to threaten her or her family, not only because she's guarded by the Romanian government's protection service, but because she refuses to be deterred from her mission. This year alone, the Anti-Corruption Directorate sent some 890 defendants to trial under her supervision. The nearly $200 million in court-ordered confiscations related to those cases are more than seven times the annual budget of her National Anti-Corruption Directorate.

KOVESI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: She also boasts of her 93 percent conviction rate. Nevertheless, Kovesi acknowledges Romania's reputation as one of the most corrupt nations in the EU.

KOVESI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: Kovesi believes corruption is deeply ingrained in the Romanian mentality. Anti-corruption leaders say that attitude developed in the years following the collapse of communism, when law enforcement was weak and opportunities rife for unscrupulous politicians and businessmen to make money from the shift to a market economy. Monica Macovei is a European Parliament member and outspoken anti-corruption activist in Romania.

MONICA MACOVEI: We made the first privatizations without legislation. So you have a lot of public - of money in the public budget; no possibility to punish anyone if the state was damaged, which happened very often.

NELSON: But Macovei says the recent election of a little-known Transylvania mayor running on an anti-corruption platform to be Romania's new president shows how determined Romanians are to change course.

MACOVEI: We had rallies on the street before the second round, so that was very encouraging that people reacted. And you could hear, during these rallies, a lot of denia (ph) shouting as a slogan.

NELSON: Denia is the name of Kovesi's Anti-Corruption Directorate. Macovei says she's holding new Romanian President Klaus Iohannis's feet to the fire, forcing him to sign a 10-step agreement on tackling corruption and making the Romanian government more accountable. Mircea Geoana, a political rival and former Romanian ambassador to the U.S., agrees the new president is in a good place to beef up anti-corruption efforts in Romania.

MIRCEA GEOANA: And in a way, the fact that he's coming from a smaller city and he's not part of the inner circle of the Bucharest politics is a good thing because I think he's not part of any significant national kind of machinery. He's not indebted to anybody in a negative sense.

NELSON: Prosecutor General Kovesi is more cautious. Many had predicted Prime Minister Victor Ponta would rein her directorate in for political reasons if he had won the presidential election. The new president, Iohannis, is also from a different political party than his predecessor who appointed Kovesi and therefore also poses a threat.

KOVESI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: Kovesi says we'll have to see if I can expect more support from the new president, but it's important for him to back our anti-corruption fight. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.