BALKAN BLOG: Discredit and rule tactics in Romania

BALKAN BLOG: Discredit and rule tactics in Romania
Removing Laura Codruta Kovesi from her position would ultimately be down to President Klaus Iohannis.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest February 21, 2018

Romania’s ruling parties have stepped up their apparent campaign to discredit both the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) and NGOs critical of their attempts to overhaul legislation that observers say will undermine judicial independence.

The latest scandal concerns allegations that DNA officials in the regional Ploiesti office fabricated evidence in a high-profile case, and comes as the justice ministry is preparing to publish a new report on the DNA’s activity. Given the standoff between the government and the DNA for more than a year now, the report is expected to be negative, and there is speculation it will lead to a push by the government to depose the DNA’s head Laura Codruta Kovesi, who spearheaded the agency’s aggressive push to bring top officials — including sitting ministers — to account in the last few years.

Removing Kovesi from her position would ultimately be down to President Klaus Iohannis, who is on the opposite side of the political divide from the centre-left government, and would also inevitably spark a backlash from civil society and ordinary Romanians who protested in their hundreds of thousands early last year. Iohannis has already said he will resist attempts by the government to remove Kovesi. Still, the matter might not stop there; ruling party leaders have previously hinted they would not shy away from attempting to impeach the president should he stand in their way.

The media storm about the Ploiesti scandal — especially in media close to the ruling parties — also comes as the government gets ready to push through judicial reforms that have been widely criticised by the European Commission as well as opponents within the country. The laws have been approved by the parliament, where the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and its coalition partner the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (Alde) have a majority), but following objections from the Constitutional Court they will be amended and their final form is not yet clear. However, critics say their overall aim is to increase government influence over the judiciary.

At the centre of the case currently dominating headlines in Romania is businessman Sebastian Ghita, who escaped police custody in Romania at the end of 2016 and is now in Serbia. He is being investigated in connection to several corruption scandals, including one concerning a €220,000 payment allegedly indirectly made to former prime minister Victor Ponta, a close friend of Ghita’s. The money would have reportedly been used to finance a conference attended by former UK prime minister Tony Blair.

Ghita’s associate, businessman Vlad Cosma, initially agreed to collaborate with DNA prosecutors and testified against Ghita, but he now claims that he fabricated the evidence together with DNA prosecutors and says one prosecutor demanded a €260,000 bribe. Cosma has since made public tapes of his discussions with DNA prosecutors.

Eerily reminiscent

It’s eerily reminiscent of the situation a year ago when Ghita released a series of videoed statements where he made other claims against Kovesi, including that she and the executive head of the Romanian intelligence service (SRI), Florian Coldea, were “agents” propelled in their careers by “foreign secret services”.

Those were released just as the former government, also composed by the PSD and Alde, made its first major push to undermine Romania’s anti-corruption drive, by issuing a decree that partly decriminalised abuse of office.

The move was seen as intended to help top officials including PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, avoid prosecution, enable Dragnea, who has a two-year suspended sentence for voter manipulation and is barred from holding office as a result, the chance to become prime minister. This backfired, outraging Romanians who took to the streets in the largest protests since the fall of Communism, forcing the government to reverse the decree.

Undeterred by this, however, successive governments (current Prime Minister Viorica Dancila is the third appointed by the PSD-led coalition since the December 2016 general election) embarked on what NGO Initiativa Romania has described as a “year of undermining the rule of law in Romania”. In a strongly worded letter to MEPs ahead of the European parliament session on the issue on February 8, the NGO details the repeated attempts to first decriminalise abuse of office, and later to amend the judicial rules.

This has been accompanied by repeated attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the DNA and Kovesi personally. Ghita's revelations came alongside a series of articles in the international media penned by various “useful idiots” claiming the anti-corruption fight had gone too far and highlighting links between the DNA and the SRI intelligence service.

Not content with the efforts to discredit the DNA, NGOs opposed to the judicial reforms claim they have been the victims of a similar campaign, though one played out less dramatically in the public eye.

“We emphasise that the entire legislative process undermining the rule of law in Romania is simultaneously accompanied by an aggressive public campaign of discrediting and harassing civil society organisations and leaders,” says Initiative Romania. It goes on to detail “media and political campaigns targeting the credibility of the independent watchdogs and human rights organisations via fake news, changes in the financial regulations regarding the funding of the NGOs by private companies of citizens, a surge of nationalism in the mainstream political discourse targeting the European project and democratic standards.”

This echoes a similar criticism by Transparency International’s Romanian chapter back in December. The watchdog claimed: “Transparency International Romania has been subject to a campaign to discredit its executive director Victor Alistar for his role representing civil society as member of the Superior Council of Magistrates (CSM).” Alistar had “made their concerns about the new legislation public”, the organisation said.

So far this has been a year-long campaign with no winners; the DNA continues to do its job but the ruling parties are now very close to having the controversial judicial reform legislation adopted. With what seems to be protest fatigue keeping the numbers at recent demonstrations in the tens rather than the hundreds of thousands, they might just succeed in their goal. That would turn Romania from a success story in the fight against corruption, that stands out in contrast to neighbours such as Bulgaria, to one of Eastern Europe’s laggards again.