dumitruRăzvan Dumitru

The underlying economic basis for the Anti-Corruption Discourse

In Romania, a special type of political economy in which the boundaries between politics and economy were not at all clear had been built upon the destruction of the socialist system. Business people well connected with the political elite had made fortunes and privatized the most valuable assets of the socialist economy assets in the 1990s context.

After 2000 an increasing number of foreigners and foreign companies entered the country helped by the political willing to couple to the western markets. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) government led by Adrian Nastase rapidly privatized some of the remaining state companies to European but also Russian based companies and gave big fat state contracts to foreign contractors.

Traian Basescu, the mayor of Bucharest was one of the harshest allies of foreign capital. In the early 2000s he took active measures to close down the kiosk retail trade dominating the city streets thus allowing big international chains, such as Carrefour, to enter the market. International retail chains and the first shopping malls entered the biggest human agglomeration of the country, Bucharest. In the same period the first major infrastructure projects were started contracted by foreign companies and some of the socialist built industrial complexes were sold to foreign corporations.

The arrival of foreign capital took parts of the Romanian workforce, especially some of the better trained and educated ones, out of the control of the local business and political elite, allowing them to live on the incomes controlled by foreign capital. It also helped develop markets outside of the locally controlled financial flows.

As the parliamentarian and presidential elections were approaching, rumors were circulating that contracts with investors had a cut for the prime minister, who was perceived as an intermediary in the business deals with the state. As a matter of fact the SDP have been perceived by large sections of the population as the locus of political corruption and abuse in the transition period. The SPD has been the strongest party in the post-socialist period and the inheritor of the Communists Party, dominated by local “barons”.

In 2004 Traian Basescu, a latecomer in the electoral campaign, ran the first anti-corruption electoral campaign in post-communist Romania, picking up the public mood. He accused Nastase and his government of buying Romania’s admission in the EU, scheduled for 2007. Basescu abrasively called for corrupted politicians to be “impaled” in front of the government’s building. Acting as an outsider and a victim of the powerful prime minister he managed to rally a slight majority of the voters and won the elections unexpectedly against the less charismatic Adrian Nastase.

The Political Uses of the Anti-Corruption Discourse

In December 2004 after the presidential elections, which were also held together with the parliamentarian ones, a new coalition, excluding the SDP, was formed. It included two of the opposition parties the Democrats (Basescu’s party), the Liberals (led by Tariceanu who was nominated as the new prime-minister) and a small party, the Humanists, led by a controversial figure, Dan Voiculescu who had worked for the Ceausescu’s secret services.

The harsh and intransigent discourse of the charismatic Basescu propelled the political coalition to higher ratings in the opinion polls, surpassing the score of the votes. Nastase was publicly accused of corruption in the media and an investigation was opened on his name. A few months after the elections, the president was pushing for the de-structuration of the allied parties. His line of attack was making it clear that corrupted politicians fed by big businessmen controlled the parties. He also suggested that the political interests of local oligarchs were behind the opening of many of the TV channels.

With the SDP cornered because of Nastase’s image the next political goal of Basescu’s aim was to break the National Liberal Party and to create a big party on the center right under his supervision. The Liberal prime minister was targeted for his friendship connections and willingness to promote the interests of a business tycoon – Dinu Patriciu – a long time supporter and financial aide of the Liberals in the state.

The Anti-Corruption Institutions

The discourse of anti-corruption was quite soon backed by the president’s support for anti-corruption hard liners in the Justice Ministry. Also two anti-corruption institutions, the National Directorate for Anti-Corruption (known as the DNA) and the National Agency for Integrity (known as ANI) were taken out of the direct political control of the parties.

In 2005 the DNA opened already an investigation against Dinu Patriciu and other important public figures for money laundering and the stock exchange manipulation. However, the investigation was closed. But this gave a signal that the anti-corruption institutions could touch the most influential and wealthy people. An open conflict between the president and the political class at large brewed. As a result at the beginning of 2007 an impeachment procedure against the president was launched in the Parliament supported by the majority of the MPs. The media conglomerates, controlled by wealthy businessmen took sides and many of them started to promote a discourse focused on the authoritarian tendency of the president and his attempts to establish a dictatorship.

In the referendum campaign that ensued Basescu sustained a populist discourse of anti-corruption and self-victimization. It led him to great success. The referendum reversed the impeachment procedure of parliament and gave a strong support for the president. As a consequence, the wing of the Liberal Party closer to the president split and formed a new party together with the Democrats called the Liberal Democratic Party, which became a presidential party.

During the next couple of years a few ministers and parliamentarians were brought under investigation by the National Directorate of Anti-corruption and the most prominent figure was the former prime-minister Adrian Nastase. Among with him other big tycoons openly involved in politics, some of them in ministerial positions were brought under accusation for money laundering, the manipulation of the stock market, fraudulent privatization schemes.

The Debates about Corruption in the Public Space

A documentary movie released in 2010 called Kapitalism – our secret recipe (dir. Alexandru Solomon), pictured the self-styled stories of a few renowned local businessmen. They depicted a menagerie of economic predators in no-rules and free for grabbing business milieu going back to the early 1990s.

Some of them legitimized their public image with media conglomerates and acted as social benefactors with charity foundations who granted scholarships, awards and grants for pupils, students, journalists and other aspirant elites.

From the onset of the anti-corruption measures the media channels owned by the businessmen were hammering the DNA and ANI as they open more and more cases for investigation. Journalists and other public commentators are questioning their independence and created studio based scenarios in hours long discussions in political shows about the political machinations that supposedly underlined the investigations of corruption against politicians and businessmen. The claims revolved around suspicions that the president controls advances his personal power through these agencies which are fed by information collected by the secret services. A few media channels supported the anti-corruption policies but these were mostly a few newspaper and online news websites, the TV channels gathering the biggest audience were targeting the president for his behind the scenes manipulation of the anti-corruption institutions and the justice system.

Anti-corruption and political competition

In 2008 the parliamentary elections were won by a slight margin by the PDL (the party supporting the president). The PDL was however far from having enough seats to form a majority in the parliament. However, backed by the president they were able to form a minority government. In 2009 presidential elections followed. During the presidential campaign focused on the influence of the tycoons in Romanian politics at the final public debate of the finalists Traian Basescu (the president in function) and Mircea Geoana (the new president of the SPD) Basescu reveals the latter late night visit to the house of an important media tycoon, one of the most controversial figures of the post-1989 transitions involved in many public scandals and accusations of fraud and money laundering. The reveal paralyzed Geoana in the TV debate and provided the slight margin that Basescu needed to win another 5 year term.

In the next few years the battle between Basescu and the big business tycoons and the parties represented in the parliament continued relentlessly. One of the major impediments in bringing MPs to face trial was a special law that gave the parliament the right to veto the decision of the prosecutors to send the accusations to courts. The law is still active as of today. One of the most notorious figure who was protected for several years was the former prime minister of Romania, Adrian Nastase which had several files for corruption documented by the DNA.

As a result of the increasing prosecutions against MPs in the parliament there were signs that even people from the presidential party (PDL) were not happy about the willingness of the prosecutors to open up investigations on politicians. Both the opposition and the parties in power seemed to agree on the right of the parliament to block trials of the elected.

The propaganda led relentless on TV channels has its impact and the public opinion started to resemble an echo chamber of the media. People are more and more divided among supporters and haters of the president. However, there is a common opinion in the public that there is a widespread corruption at the political level. Some people meet with skepticism investigations and there is widespread perception that trials are part of a political game or a strategy of deceit to cover the real culprits.

In 2010, a year after the height of the global economic crisis, the government supported by the president cut the salaries in the public sector with 25% and raised the VAT with 5% for all merchandise, additional cuts in the social security system were also introduced along with higher taxes on fuels and electricity consumption and production. The opposition tried to stir social discontent that year stirring trade union demonstrations and general strikes but to no avail.

A year later public discontent erupted suddenly as the president tried to push for the privatization of the state emergency system and got into conflict with his main organizes. At that time the country had in place a pretty efficient public emergency system.

Basescu’s push for further public cuts triggers a wave of riots in central Bucharest. People demanded the president and his government resignation. The media channels long pledged against Basescu, rushed to report the demonstrations and encouraged their audience to get to the protests. However, even if people encouraged to demonstrate by the TV channels and opposition parties were numerous, many other protestors relayed a message deeply skeptical about the parties and the political elites claiming that all parties are the same.

While the protests were short lived, they caused the resignation of the government.  A new government with new figures from the same party was voted in the parliament but did not last long. After a few weeks a new coalition emerged in the parliament the Social Liberal Union (made of SPD and the Liberal Party) long enemies of Basescu. The new alliance gave a no-confidence vote to the new government and then proposed a new prime minister, the mayor of Sibiu – Klaus Iohannis. Since Basescu rejected his nomination they proposed the president of the SPD, Victor Ponta, as the prime minister, whom the president accepted. An article published shortly after by Nature magazine revealed that Victor Ponta’s PhD was plagiarized but he got away with it.

On another front, to the surprise of many who believed that the justice system is controlled by the power holders, Adrian Nastase, the political mentor of Victor Ponta, was condemned to jail sentence for a few years for corruption charges while his party was part of the government and his novice Ponta was the prime-minister. As the police went to his exclusivist house to arrest him he tried to shoot himself. After his imprisonment public debates erupt again about the manipulation of justice by the president.

After Nastase’s sentence a few other ministers were charged with corruption but Victor Ponta defended them as political attacks instrumentalized by the president against his government.

In this heated political climate the parliament started another impeachment of president Basescu. The accusations revolved around public misbehavior and subversion of state power. As the referendum waited to unfold the USL began a huge public campaign to support to motivate voters against the president. In response, the PDL and others supporting Basescu claimed a coup d’etat to protect the corrupted political and the corrupted businessmen threated by investigations.

Even if the referendum was held and the majority of the electors voted for the impeachment of Basescu, the EU and US’ uproar against the impeachment probably motivated the Constitutional Court not to validate the referendum, motivating that the total number of voters did not reach the majority of the enlisted voters.

What follows the populism of the Anti-Corruption?

While it is easy to discern that Basescu and his allied party, the PDL, has used the anti-corruption discourse for political gains this was coupled with support for the build up of institutions with power for prosecuting and judging high level corruption. As a curiosity, by the end of 2014 all of the businessmen starring in the documentary Kapitalism, our secret receipt were in jail or already served jail time with the exception of Dinu Patriciu who died the same year.

The populist anti-corruption discourse made the general public aware that corruption represents a societal issue that must be tackled. The populist instrumentalization of anti-corruption had also other consequences, it diffused the appeal of alternative populist discourses such as nationalism or other radical political alternatives from the left or from the right. It channeled public discontent in a period of economic difficulty against corruption and its culprits. It helped settle in public opinion perception the demand for a separation between economy and politics, and society and the state.

In December 2014, in the next round of presidential elections no candidate dared to challenge openly the anti-corruption measures. The final candidates promised to maintain the accepted independent structures of the justice system. The discourse focused on political manipulation underlying anti-corruption charges of prime-minister Ponta faded in his presidential campaign.  He focused instead on the reversal of the cuts in the public sector brought by his Social Democratic Party, while Iohannis, his counter candidate, portrayed himself as a moral and decent figure, which contrasted the boasting and corrupted image of Ponta. While they both claimed that they would protect the independence of the DNA and of the justice system.

Iohannis won the elections, which were affected by organization problems for the diaspora. After the election of the new president the anti-corruption campaign continued and extended to charges against public functionaries, police officers, judges, prosecutors, mayors and military personnel, along with various business figures have been accused of corruption charges. Ponta and some of the people close to him were under investigation for money laundering and fraud. President Iohannis has been confiscated a house. Some of the people who had been finishing their sentences are brought into trials for other accusations. A few foreign companies such as Microsoft corp. have been placed under investigation for corrupted practices.

The stream of people accused, judged and condemned seems not to end.

The political and administrative consequences of a major fire at a rock concert which caused the death of 60 people until now and the heavy injury of many others seem to indicate a growing popular trend. The accident brought thousands of people to the streets demanding the resignation of the prime minister and other officials. The message picked by most of the participants and the media alike is that corruption kills after indicators showing that safety rules were ignored both by the organizers of the concert and the authorities who let the club functioning.

It may be that the decade of endless public debates and political battles opened up by anti-corruption policies and political discourse seem to press the political system for an administrative and moral reorganization of the state-economy-institutional system. At the level of daily life the changes are still in the waiting room, but a moral re-evaluation seems to slowly take place. This is more striking as petty corruption was popularly accepted as a matter of social and individual success during the last decades. Wider sections of the public swung recently in the opposite direction and stressed its immorality. The media and political actors plugged as well into this change, even if a few years ago they were promoting cynicism and moral relativism. It thus remains to be seen how much of the newly discovered moral language against corruption establishes itself in the daily lives of people and in the institutional infrastructure of the country.

Prispevek je bil prvotno objavljen v 23. številki Razpotij (pomlad 2016).