It’s quite simple: Romania has got a civil society, and it works!
Hundreds of thousands of outraged protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks as the country’s new Cabinet swiftly tried to unravel its hard-earned anti-corruption progress. And the protesters are winning.
Romania’s Cabinet of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu and the Social Democratic Party, which came in first in the December 2016 general elections, first adopted a draft bill on pardoning a large number of prisoners because of overcrowding.
It then issued an emergency decree amending the Penal Code so as to decriminalize several corruption offenses such as abuse of power, conflict of interest, and negligence at work if those caused damages worth less than RON 200,000 (approx. USD 48,000).
Five days later, on February 5, 2017, following Romania’s largest street protests since the fall of communism in 1989, the Romanian Cabinet withdrew the controversial decree. And yet, Romania’s mass protests against corruption appear set to continue.
It’s yet to be seen how fast Romania will improve even further, but with hundreds of thousands of Romanians ready to march in defense of honesty and morals in politics in the face of regressive politicians obviously seeking to preserve corruption, the country and especially its civil society are emerging as the new former communist success story. Not unlike any success story, this one, too, has a complicated history.
The Communism –> Corruption Causality
Romania, which is one of Europe’s larger countries, was among the bleakest places in the former Soviet Bloc. That was true even when taking into account that the entire Soviet Bloc was extremely bleak.
It was also the only communist country in Eastern Europe where the downfall of communism went violent, and whose communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was hastily tried and convicted by a military tribunal in December 1989, and was executed by firing squad.
Nonetheless, former communist apparatchiks and agents of communist Romania’s intelligence, the Securitate, remained well-positioned, and, technically, in power.
In fact, in this regard, the Romanian coup of 1989 was similar to the “overthrow” of communism in Bulgaria and other “former communist” countries in Southeast Europe and the former Soviet Union (not so much in Central Europe): one brand of commies subverted and overthrew another brand of commies so that the commies as a political species can survive and remain in power as long as possible, or even forever, but this time by overtly robbing their nations through privatization.
Largely because of rampant corruption, throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Romania remained relatively destitute despite the size and potential of its economy.
Together with neighboring Bulgaria, it did make it to an admission to NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007, and presently ranks as the second-poorest EU member state in GDP per capita (Bulgaria being the poorest).
However, the Romania of 2017 is certainly not the Romania of 1997 or 2007 for one very good reason: the country has made substantial progress in the fight against top-level corruption in the past few years, with the indictments of dozens of former Cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, senior magistrates, police officers, and customs officers.
This progress is largely attributed to the efforts of Monica Macovei, Romania’s Justice Minister in 2004–2007 and a member of the European Parliament since 2009, who managed to reform the country’s National Anticorruption Directorate. By staffing it with whatever “honest” prosecutors she could find, Macovei enabled it to become an independent and efficient body, cracking down on high-level corruption.
While the average Romanian might not be so outspoken about it, Romania’s progress in cracking down on corruption is strikingly obvious; it is compared with the situation in its southern neighbor, Bulgaria.
Largely because of its abject failures to get rid of their communist legacy in which former apparatchiks, communist secret police agents, and criminal post-communist oligarchs have been running the show, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the West packaged Bulgaria and Romania together on their way to NATO and EU accession.
What is more, ever since their EU accession in 2007, both countries, which didn’t exactly meet the EU’s high standards on the rule of law but were rightfully admitted to the Union for political reasons, have been subjected to the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).
The CVM is a tool allowing the European Commission, the EU executive, to monitor their “post-accession progress” on problem areas such as the rule of law, top-level corruption, and organized crime.
Every January–February, the European Commission would publish its annual CVM reports on Bulgaria and Romania, which would usually state how little progress the two countries had made (Bulgaria more so than Romania).
Of course, in recent years, Romania’s considerable crackdown on high-level corruption has been noted by the EC. This has been the main difference between the two countries in the past several years.
A curious side note is that even though they had been packaged together by the EU, Romania has been facing only a severe corruption problem, whereas Bulgaria has been plagued with both rampant corruption and organized crime.
One plausible explanation for this difference, namely that it resulted from the specifics of the two countries’ communist regimes and their secret police / intelligence services, was offered by Bulgarian criminal journalist Slavi Angelov. He had been covering the Bulgarian mafia for decades when I interviewed him in 2010.
In Bulgaria, the communist intelligence (the DS, or “State Security”) established and ran organized crime networks and channels, mainly between Europe and the Middle East, and then “privatized” them after the collapse of the regime in 1989.
In contrast, in Romania the Securitate cracked down very hard on any kinds of organizations outside the official communist regime to root out any potential for dissent, including criminal networks.
So, Bulgaria is a very useful example when analyzing the situation in Romania, which must be kept in perspective.
Joining the Success Stories
Unlike Bulgaria, Romania appears to be making steady progress toward the betterment of its politics and society, and, hence, toward its economic well-being. Romania has already outpaced Bulgaria in GDP growth and GDP per capita, including in terms of catching up with Central and Western Europe in GDP per capita of the EU average.
Romania might be something of a newcomer to Eastern Europe’s post-communist success stories, which include mostly the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; the Central European states of Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary (despite Hungary’s regress under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban); and Slovenia and Croatia (if you count the former Yugoslavia, which was not in the Soviet Union or the Soviet Bloc).
However, Romania already has a solid foundation to build upon in terms of fighting corruption and upholding the rule of law. The situation in the country seems more hopeful than that of Orbán’s Hungary to the north and a muddled Bulgaria to the south.
The underlying factor for all this, however, is that Romania appears to have a strong civil society that’s ready to march out to prevent the rebirth of impunity and ensure the nation’s future.
Any contribution is appreciated!
*Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on intelligencerpost .com.