Behind the apparent success of Romanian anti-corruption initiatives

The EU is leaning heavily on Bucharest to drop its opposition to the appointment of Laura Kövesi as the bloc’s new chief prosecutor. Kövesi, the former director of Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), has earned praise in Brussels for the “fearsome reputation” she built as the head of the DNA. Focusing exclusively on Kövesi’s stack of successful convictions, however, ignores her crackdown’s troubling effects on the rule of law.

Indeed, on the surface, the DNA has been extremely efficient in its fight against corruption: in 2015 alone, for example, the agency listed among its convictions a prime minister, five Cabinet ministers, 16 members of Romania’s lower house, five senators, 97 mayors or deputy mayors, 15 presidents or vice presidents of county councils and 32 directors of state-owned companies. Conviction rates that year were a whopping 90%.

Coercion and “putting pressure”

Yet the conviction rate is so high that it raises certain questions about the methods which the DNA has used to achieve such superficially impressive results. One troubling statistic is the enormous number of files opened by the anti-corruption agency: during Kövesi’s four-year tenure, the DNA began 3,420 investigations against judges and prosecutors—over half the magistrates in the country! Few of these cases, however, actually went to trial, suggesting that many of the others may have been intended to coerce targets into testifying against bigger fish—particularly given that 70% of investigations were initiated internally—not as a result of any external complaint or allegation.

The DNA has also expanded its remit beyond corruption to go after politicians for everything from driving without a license to petty fraud. This wide-ranging and aggressive prosecution has given rise to speculation that the DNA could be used for political purposes, particularly after an audio recording emerged of Kövesi ordering her employees to “put pressure” on the Romanian government in apparent retaliation for its attempts to curb her authority.

A number of those investigated by the DNA have argued that they are being persecuted for exactly such political motivations. PSD Treasurer Mircea Drăghici, for example, has responded to charges of embezzlement and misuse of party funds by claiming that the allegations are linked with the upcoming European Parliament elections and arguing that the elections authority, not the DNA, should look into such matters.

Recollections of the Securitate

Some observers have also drawn parallels with the country’s brutal communist-era Securitate, following revelations that the DNA signed “secret protocols with the Romanian intelligence service (SRI) – protocols which were later ruled illegal by the country’s constitutional court. In response, certain Romanian politicians such as MEP and former justice minister Monica Macovei have argued that the DNA’s close links with the intelligence agencies are not unusual and that “the Securitate is long gone”.

It’s unlikely, however, that the secret police’s influence has been stamped out: unlike East Germany and Czechoslovakia, which forced communist-era agents into retirement as part of their transition to democracy, Romania allowed ex-Securitate officers to maintain a foothold in the country’s intelligence agencies and justice system. Germina Nagat, head of the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (CNSAS), frequently discovers evidence that current senior judges and politicians had links to the Securitate.

Just last week, for instance, the Romanian Prosecutor General, Augustin Lazar, was forced to deny that he was a former Securitate officer, after local media reported that he had collaborated with the feared secret police and two former political prisoners asserted that Lazar had repeatedly vetoed their release from prison. In response to the allegations, the CNSAS has ordered a new enquiry into Lazar’s past, while the country’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) has called for a referendum on barring officials from the Ceaușescu regime from holding public office.

The possibility that former Securitate officials have retained influence in Romania’s intelligence agencies casts a shadow over their collaboration with DNA prosecutors. Romanian justices and lawyers alike have underlined the problematic implications of the DNA and the SRI working hand-in-hand: Dana Girbovan, president of the National Judges Union, remarked that the protocol “breaches the constitutional and international norms regarding the rule of law, democracy, separation of powers, judicial independence and observing human rights,” while a Bucharest-based lawyer emphasized: “This is nuclear. Can you imagine how many cases were conducted under these protocols and how many people might be imprisoned as a result of being targeted under these protocols?”

Hard-handed strategy

These troubling arrangements are accompanied by worrying reports regarding the DNA’s methods. The agency has allegedly, in tandem with the SRI, relied on an arsenal of questionable tactics, including unconstitutional phone tapping, falsifying evidence, targeting suspects’ family members, and intimidating judges. For example, recordings leaked in January reportedly showed DNA prosecutors threatening to open files against judges if they did not cooperate with the agency; other judges have reported that they were threatened after failing to deliver a prosecution.

Scholars such as Martin Mendelski, from the Max Planck Institute, have estimated that these irregularities plague the entirety of Romania’s judicial procedure—from the unusually high number of national security and interception warrants granted, to prolonged periods of pre-trial detention, to televised “show trials in handcuffs” which may violate the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, as well as the European Charter of Human Rights.

Anti-corruption fight must respect the rule of law

Kövesi has consistently shrugged off these concerns over the manner in which the DNA is carrying out its mission, chalking them up to an effort by corrupt politicians to limit the efficiency of the agency’s investigations. The DNA’s zealous prosecution has also earned praise from policymakers in Brussels, who have characterised the anti-corruption agency’s thick ledger of guilty verdicts as “impressive momentum”.

On one hand, the European institutions’ embrace of the DNA’s anti-corruption crusade is understandable, given the significant problem corruption poses for Romania. According to Transparency International, Romania is still the EU’s fourth most corrupt member. The country remains under special supervision through the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), in part because Bucharest did not make sufficient progress tackling corruption before the DNA was established.

The fact that stamping out corruption in Romania is a stiff task, however, shouldn’t give authorities carte blanche to investigate and prosecute by any means necessary. Brussels should work together with Bucharest to develop a sustainable system for rooting out corruption without infringing on citizens’ rights or being open to political pressures.

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