Corruption and Cur-rupt-ion  

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A recent Op-Ed in New York Times seems to have caused a fair amount of consternation in both Romania as well as among my diaspora friends. Ion could equally be Ion Iliescu, recently green-lighted to be re-investigated in the “Mineriada” file, Adrian Nastase, the suicidal former premier and failed presidential candidate who had become the first test case of prosecutorial overreach in the case of an elite aparatchik, or even Patrick Basham, not afraid to confront the warm, fuzzy racism/scepticism/antiziganism-fuelled consensus that Romania is “doing something”.

cur-rupt-ion-FBIf I understand him correctly, Patrick Basham argues that the current prosecutorial fervour is not indicative of an independent judiciary / stable democracy, but rather of a hysterical, politicized justice system and a suicidal political elite, not all that different from the Stalinist Bolsheviks (at least, that is what I personally would argue for).

Let’s start with a quick summary and memorable quotes from the Op-Ed (nyt-antic).
  • little Paris – reign of terror
  • Basescu’s anticorruption support belated, Iohannis went into overdrive
  • After a judicial sweep that started under Mr. Basescu netted more than a thousand convictions (csm-1000) of politicians and businessmen last year, the campaign proved a key electoral issue.
  • courts convicting at a rate of more than 90 percent, scores of politicians from all the main parties (phf-scores) have been disgraced
  • Condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, Bucharest’s jails are desperately overcrowded; the justice minister recently announced (br-jm) that he was seeking European funding for several new prisons. Little else looks as if it’s being built these days.
  • 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.
  • 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 (nyt-kovesi), everyone knows the courts are not as politically independent as they should be.
  • Another unintended consequence of the anti-corruption campaign is that it has fuelled 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.
  • 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.

Though the slight confusion in his discourse might suggest it, Mr Basham is not at the first treatment of this topic.

In an answer to Teodor Stan published on Carnegie Council’s site (cc-edge), the same Basham was writing in January attacking the same themes.
  • During the recent presidential election campaign, he [Teodor Stan] candidly and comprehensively recounted the respective highs and lows of Romania's democratic transition. (See ts-verge) He also assessed the leading candidates for the nation's highest office, concluding that, "[I]rrespective of the final electoral tally, the country will continue to consolidate state institutions with EU and U.S. support. Indeed, it offers a remarkably resilient alternative liberal model for the Wider Black Sea region." Unfortunately, his forecasts about Romanian democracy already have been overwhelmed by events in Bucharest and elsewhere.
  • Romanian politicians have adopted a two-pronged tactical approach. First, to satisfy the pressure from Western leaders, they claim to engage in the ‘rooting out' of corruption. In practice, this simply, but tellingly, entails the removal of their respective political opponents, both inside and outside of their own partisan organizations. Such a superficial display of anti-corruption endeavour nonetheless impresses, even satisfies, naïve Western onlookers.
  • One area of public life where the absence of corruption is essential to democratic governance is the rule of law. In this vein, Stan lauds the Romanian political class's cross-partisan, prospective commitment to an independent judiciary. However, respective incidents of politically-influenced ‘justice' and prosecution strongly suggest that it will require a sea-change in outlook for Romanian leaders to inoculate the country's courts and policing from the virus of political intervention.
  • The current case of the persecuted publisher, Dan Adamescu, is a most tangible demonstration that the current political leadership's commitment to the rule of law and an independent judiciary is illusory. In a new policy paper (PDF), the Henry Jackson Society's Ola Cichowlas (ind-bio) and Andrew Foxall (hjs-bio) review the prosecution of Adamescu and find that:
    Dan Adamescu, the owner of the critical and independent newspaper Romania Libera, is under house arrest, on what appear to be politically motivated corruption charges. Maintaining that Adamescu supports Basescu (the outgoing president and Ponta's chief political opponent), Ponta allegedly fabricated a corruption scandal in which he accused Adamescu of embezzling money, in order to finance Basescu's campaign, from Astra Asigurari, Romania's largest insurance company that Adamescu owns. Although all of these allegations turned out to be false, Ponta used them as a justification to expropriate Adamescu and place Astra Asigurari under direct government control.

Maybe I have expected too much clarity from Mr Basham, because although we seem to agree on some points, I cannot possibly agree with the general direction of his paper.

Here’s a summary of my views:

  1. The type of corruption that overcrowds Romanian prisons is inherent to representative democracy.
  2. Though the prosecutorial overreach is sometimes justified by a perceived need to show progress to the EU bureaucrats in the hope of Schengen inclusion, it has zero effect in that direction, as European scepticism toward Romania has purely a racist/antiziganist flavour.
  3. Even though I don’t like him, Nastase got it much harder than he deserved.
  4. The net effect of the current witch hunt is probably negative on balance.
  5. Most such prosecutions are indicative of a politicized judiciary as the presumption of innocence gives way to “everybody knows” rationalizations, which have no place in a mature, stable judiciary.
  6. The sheer amount of corruption prosecutions in Romania is not there because Romania is more corrupt – Romania is just as corrupt as other countries – what Romania has more is a “perception” of corruption and a self-incriminating, almost masochistic streak.

And here’s an archive of a few other POVs.

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To be complete, this article should contain examples from other countries, such as Canada, since it is probably much easier for the average Romanian to read and understand others’ flaws than those obvious in the Romanian system.

*(*This article is unfinished – it was scheduled to appear in the hope that it will be finished before, but since this message is here and until it is removed, the article is to be considered work in progress*)*.

Sources / More info: nyt-antic, cc-edge, ts-verge, hn-straniu, bl-bonk, csm-1000, phf-scores, br-jm, ind-bio, hjs-bio

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