As the January 1 inauguration of Romania’s European Council Presidency approaches, concerns have been raised from many quarters about the country’s readiness to handle the challenges ahead.  A major contributing factor to the sense of unease is the confused domestic political situation and the heated struggle over broad rule-of-law issues, particularly those involving Romania’s ongoing efforts to battle corruption.  At this juncture, there is no indication that the depth of Romania’s anti-corruption and associated governance problems is understood abroad, and based on the latest EC Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) reports, clearly not in Brussels.

Romania’s anti-corruption activity is headed by the National Anticorruption Directorate, widely known by its Romanian acronym DNA. Formed in 2002, it has been through several reorganizations and name changes, but its core structure continues to follow a European model also used in Italy, Spain and Norway.  In its current form the DNA’s leader, called the Chief-Prosecutor of the Directorate, is operationally subordinated to the Prosecutor General of the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the High Court of Cassation and Justice, which is the country’s supreme court.  Senior level staff of the DNA are nominated by the Minister of Justice and approved by the president.  The DNA is mandated to deal with the fight against high corruption offences, when damages exceed €200,000 or if the object of the crime is property/money exceeding €10,000.

Great record fighting corruption, until one looks deeper

In recent years the DNA’s track record, in terms of convictions, has been impressive, earning it much support from Brussels for its unexpected efficiency in gathering information and using it to prosecute and obtain increasing numbers of convictions, but its image has been tarnished as information about its operational methods and politically-driven leadership has been revealed.

In particular, Romania’s political establishment has been shaken this year following a revelation that the country’s intelligence service (SRI) had signed a set of protocols back in February 2009 with the General Prosecutor’s Office, the country’s Superior Magistracy Council, the High Court of Cassation and Justice, and Judicial inspection that provided the SRI with the capability to circumvent the authority of prosecutors in criminal investigations while at the same time regulating the delivery of  important wiretap information from the SRI that was needed for convictions.  At least 65 SRI protocols with numerous government agencies/units have been exposed by a Parliamentary Committee inquiry in Bucharest.  These revelations generated suspicions that SRI has been quietly tampering with the justice process and has been helping the DNA, if not actually using it as a tool, to put away top-level politicians when this coincides with its own agenda.

Ongoing power struggle

The allegations should be viewed in the context of a wider conflict between the current ruling coalition and the main prosecutorial bodies in Romania. The ruling parties, namely PSD (Social Democratic Party) and ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats(Romania) – not the Brussels based ALDE party), have long asserted that there is an illegal power structure in Romania, based around the SRI, but cooperating actively with the DNA and other institutions, which hopes to extend its control over domestic political developments and key components of the private sector.

The DNA and its supporters have been saying that the ruling coalition’s attempts to reform the justice system and curtail DNA authority was simply designed to protect corrupt politicians, some of whom have already been sent to court, and to discredit Romania’s judiciary for moving aggressively against corruption.

Tarnished image of the DNA, but new political powers emerge

As many Romanians continue to see the DNA as the only way to hold a predatory political elite to account, any moves to challenge or reform it are usually viewed as self-serving.  But as the material is released regarding the DNA’s internal processes and especially the motivations of its past and present leadership, public support for the organization as it is currently structured appears to be declining.  Recent revelations in Bucharest that there was likely substantial external funding for last August’s anti-government protests led by the “#resist” movement, aimed at forcing the government to back off from its amendments to existing anti-corruption laws, is also helping to tip the balance.

In this context, new political entities are emerging. Among them, “Romania 3.0”, a new political movement that is struggling to attack the protocols and the results of the abusive practices of the new Securitate – with quite a critical view both of the system in Romania, and the reception of these views in Brussels and the EU.

What are they reading in Brussels

The European Commission released their Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) reports on Romania and Bulgaria November 13 and for Romania at least the report was not encouraging, with the report’s drafters concluding that the country is actually regressing in respect of the rule of law and its justice system.   While links to the reports follow at the end of this section for readers to peruse, it is unclear why the drafters did not tackle the protocols issue head on, and instead appear to continue on with their other recommendations as if this is of no concern.  Nothing could be farther from the reality on the ground.  Some EC officials appear to understand some of the details; First Vice-President Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament plenary, when he addressed the situation in Romania, that there should be an investigation of the protocols.  The time is now.