Romania: A Balkan imbroglio
Late on June 20, police arrived at Adrian Nastase’s elegant Bucharest villa to take him to jail. The former prime minister asked to fetch some books from his library. Instead, according to reports, he picked up a revolver and aimed at his head. As a policeman lunged, a shot rang out, injuring Mr Nastase in the neck. In images that stunned Romania, one of the big men of post-communist politics was stretchered into an ambulance, his neck wrapped in a Burberry scarf.
Hours earlier, Mr Nastase had become Romania’s first former premier since communism to be sentenced to two years in prison for corruption. It was, said anti-graft campaigners, a breakthrough: a sign even senior politicians were no longer above the law.
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But Mr Nastase’s camp blamed his arch-foe, President Traian Basescu, calling the case politically motivated. Victor Ponta, the youthful social democrat prime minister who has called Mr Nastase a mentor, was his first hospital visitor. “I wonder if Basescu is happy now,” Mr Ponta said.
The fall of Mr Nastase came amid an increasingly bitter stand-off between Mr Ponta’s centre-left alliance – which came to power in May after a centre-right administration collapsed – and the president. The premier had spent days fighting allegations that he plagiarised chunks of a doctoral thesis – which Mr Nastase, a law professor, had supervised. He claimed Mr Basescu planted the allegations. He and the president had clashed, too, over who should represent Romania at June’s European Union summit.
Within days, Mr Ponta and his alliance partner Crin Antonescu, a liberal leader, unleashed a war on the president that has plunged the EU’s seventh-largest member by population – but second-poorest – into deep crisis. It orchestrated a referendum to remove the centre-right Mr Basescu for allegedly overstepping his presidential powers – allowed by the constitution but bending rules heavily along the way. It used emergency decrees to try to curb Romania’s constitutional court and change referendum rules, replacing key officials.
The president’s camp has called it, with some hyperbole, an attempted coup; Mr Ponta was lectured last month on the rule of law by the European Commission president. Investors, fearing the turmoil could torpedo Romania’s fiscal stability – after it imposed some of Europe’s toughest austerity measures – have taken fright, sending the currency to record lows against the dollar and euro.
Some 87 per cent of voters in the July 29 referendum backed the dismissal of Mr Basescu, his popularity battered by austerity – but the president had urged his supporters to boycott the vote. The government and constitutional court are now wrangling over whether turnout, officially 46 per cent, in fact beat the 50 per cent needed. A ruling is due only on August 31 – leaving the whole political system currently in limbo.
Coming after Hungary’s premier Viktor Orban railroaded through a much-criticised new constitutional order since 2010, Romania’s blow-up highlights how some former eastern bloc members are still wrestling with communist-era demons. It shows adopting thousands of pages of EU law cannot transform political cultures overnight and that hard-won democratic progress can slide back.
The Bucharest crisis has reignited debate, too, over the politicised decision to admit Romania and Bulgaria to the EU in 2007, although their reforms lagged behind eight other ex-communist countries that joined in 2004.
Yet the fact some EU-mandated mechanisms in Romania have belatedly started working – notably in fighting corruption – may, paradoxically, have helped trigger the political ructions. They are signs, some analysts say, that the anti-graft battle is striking at the nexus between politics and money that has characterised post-communist life, particularly in the Balkans.
“For the last 20 years, we have had a most important evolution: the rediscovery of money,” says Dorel Sandor, a political analyst. “All the other things – freedom, competition, democracy – are only instruments to accumulate power and make money.”
In Romania, as in many post-communist states, building market democracy has been intertwined with a struggle to control former state property, through often skewed privatisations, and for lucrative government contracts and EU money. The old nomenklatura, or communist and security elite, were among the biggest winners; they had contacts and funds. Political parties and media often became tools of these wealthy vested interests. Stelian Tanase, a writer, says 80 of the 100 richest Romanians had nomenklatura backgrounds.
Similar phenomena have provoked backlashes elsewhere, often from parties cloaking themselves in conservative-patriotic garb and using tactics that make west European democracies blanche. In Poland, today arguably Europe’s most successful post-communist state, the Kaczynski twins’ Law and Justice party held power from 2005 to 2007 vowing to purge post-communist networks. In Hungary, Mr Orban’s Fidesz party says it aims to complete a stalled systemic change after 1989.
Romania, by the 1980s one of Europe’s most benighted countries, had special problems to overcome. Its leader Nicolae Ceausescu impoverished his people in a dash to pay off foreign debt, even while building himself a 1,100-room palace. The secret police, or securitate, were ubiquitous.
Its 1989 revolution was bloodier and murkier than those in central Europe – part popular uprising, part palace coup; Ceausescu was shot. Within months, former second-ranked communists came to power under president Ion Iliescu, who ruled until 1996, while pursuing only limited reforms.
Among those ex-communists were two players in today’s drama. Adrian Nastase, the foreign minister from 1990, came from the Ceausescu-era elite. Traian Basescu, a salty former sea captain, became transport minister a year later.
Mr Nastase succeeded Mr Iliescu as head of Romania’s social democrats. In 2000 he became prime minister and helped transform Romania’s institutions – though critics suggest much was skin-deep – so it could enter Nato in 2004 and the EU in 2007.
His premiership coincided with a credit-fuelled economic boom. But many Romanians saw only mushrooming corruption. Later asked by a parliamentarian to account for his own apparent wealth, Mr Nastase answered with a pun that could be translated “Count my balls”.
Mr Basescu, meanwhile, became Bucharest’s mayor and leader of a centre-right party that split from the first post-communist government. In 2004, he beat Mr Nastase in presidential elections, standing on an anti-corruption ticket.
Since 2008, external pressures have deepened the rifts in Romanian politics.
The financial crisis froze the cheap financing that had fuelled eastern Europe’s boom, forcing Bucharest to seek a €20bn EU and IMF bailout in 2009 and swallow some of Europe’s bitterest economic medicine. Re-elected president that year, Mr Basescu and a centre-right government slashed public sector wages by a quarter and benefits by 15 per cent.
Resentment over austerity provoked protests in January, toppling two governments within months and bringing Mr Ponta’s coalition to power.
By backing austerity, Mr Basescu not only made himself unpopular but, says the Ponta government, breached constitutional rules requiring him to be politically neutral and giving him no economic powers. Mr Basescu says he showed leadership in a crisis.
The current fight has similarities with clashes elsewhere in Europe, between a pro-austerity president and a government that says it wants to stimulate jobs and growth. But it is happening in a bare-knuckle political culture, with an outdated constitution that defines political responsibilities too vaguely.
“The president has acted not only against the government but against the parliament. We found ourselves in a kind of blockade,” Mr Ponta told the Financial Times. “I tried to be a new generation [leader], but I found myself immediately confronted with a very experienced politician.”
Mr Ponta’s alliance – and many ordinary Romanians – accuse Mr Basescu of being divisive, authoritarian and cronyist. Others link the battle to the anti-graft fight. Though EU leaders agreed Romania could join in 2007, they imposed continued monitoring by Brussels of judicial and anti-corruption reforms.
Mr Basescu’s supporters and civil society groups say that, although he has faults, the president allowed anti-corruption bodies to work.
“Despite all his personal mistakes, his polemical character, his rough manners and some very human sins, Mr Basescu wants to advance the rule of law,” says Mihail Neamtu, leader of a conservative political movement, New Republic.
Supporters say Mr Basescu backed a reformist justice minister who replaced the head of Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Department, or DNA, with a young prosecutor who started targeting dozens of officials.
Most prominent were three cases against Mr Nastase who, ironically, founded the DNA in 2002. Even as the anti-corruption system began working, the EU demanded results in some high-profile cases – indirectly increasing the pressure against Mr Nastase. The former premier was given a three-year suspended sentence in March for blackmail in office. His two-year custodial sentence in June was for illegal campaign financing.
Some analysts suggest Mr Nastase’s jailing provoked today’s showdown.
“It is not about democracy,” says Mr Sandor. “It is not about competition for power, it is about who will have control of the justice system.”
Mr Nastase’s social democrats accuse Mr Basescu of using that system selectively to pursue political opponents. They draw comparisons with the case of Yulia Tymoshenko, former premier of neighbouring Ukraine, jailed for seven years last autumn for abuse of office.
Independent monitors say the difference is Romania’s anti-corruption clampdown genuinely has targeted all groups. Christian Ghinea of the Romanian Centre for European Policies says among 1,000-plus senior figures convicted of corruption in 2011, many were from Mr Basescu’s party, including mayors from the major cities of Cluj and Craiova.
Sorin Ionita, president of Expert Forum, a think-tank, agrees Mr Nastase’s sentencing was a watershed. He notes that some former pro-Basescu parliamentarians have swapped sides in recent months. “If Nastase can fall, anyone can fall,” he says. “You have an independent justice [system] that can’t be controlled by politicians, and that drives them crazy.”
Whether or not Romania’s constitutional court validates the referendum to remove Mr Basescu, the future is uncertain. Romania could face two years of turbulent cohabitation, assuming the current government wins parliamentary elections in November, with the next presidential poll only in 2014. Or a new president from the governing coalition – which campaigners fear could defang the anti-corruption agency, though the government denies such plans.
But the crisis may simply fuel disillusionment with a political elite seen as more interested in fighting than problem-solving. Some Romanians say the political system must be renewed, with new parties emerging.
“They don’t believe in anything,” said Mihnea Jida, a 23-year-old law graduate leaving a polling station on referendum day. “I didn’t have any expectations of the generation before 1989 but I had expectations of the generation from after 1989. They let us down.”