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Wiping the state clean

Join a political party or buy your way in are the two routes to success in a corrupt society, argues think tank leader Alina Mungiu-Pippidi - and Romania gives an opportunity for both

February 2011 - From the Print Edition

Romania’s electorate is growing intolerant with the failure of the political classes to purge corruption emanating from local and central Government.
They are also fed up with having to give bribes across all spheres of public life - from officials to doctors and nurses to gain a building permit or driving license or clean sheets in a hospital bed.
Backed by think tank the Romanian Academic Society (SAR), a new portal Romania Curata (Clean Romania) plans to assemble this silent mass of angry people and hand them a megaphone.
“Most people think corruption is so strong and networks are so entrenched that there is nothing we can do,” says pioneer of the programme Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. “But either we manage to challenge this now, or we have lost.”
All countries suffer from corrupt practices, but Romania is infected with endemic bribe-taking, back-handers, fixed public auctions and influence peddling at national and local levels.
A classic structure is where Governments draw up tenders for a public bid using criteria which allow only a specific company to win the contract. The victor is connected to the Government Minister, state secretary or one of their close business associates.
From court transcripts and leaked documents published between members of Government, Mungiu-Pippidi says it is clear that “top business people call party heads and they plan policy together”, with such a network discussing political appointments.
This is not a CEO turning up at a restaurant and passing a suitcase of cash to a middle-man, but a group sitting around a table, deciding who will be in charge, who will be the business and who will be the politics.
This masterminded theft resembles the Italian model of corruption, run by ‘business politicians’, who denature the development of local and national governance to line their own pockets.
“This is not about bribery,” says Mungiu-Pippidi. “It is the politician himself who is involved in business and designs policies and legislation to favour his own business – or to favour business people of his own party.”
But what about the poor foreign investor who wants to develop on a new market niche in Romania and make a quick buck?
“For a businessman who is not involved in any network, it is quite difficult to do business in Romania,” she says. “Bribery appears as a way for people who are not in the circle of corruption to cut their way in.”
However businesses are one of the least vocal parties in complaining about graft in Romania - they almost never articulate specific complaints on-the-record and are careful how they communicate to public officials.
“Businesses are never very active in promoting anti-corruption,” says Mungiu-Pippidi. “For a good reason - they are afraid. Corruption is mostly about public contracts and the distribution of the public pie. They are afraid that if they expose themselves, they will be cut out from these kind of contracts.”

Tough at the bottom

At the local level, Mungiu-Pippidi says there are further examples of blackmail that depend on access to local Government power. In a village, a local mayor tells an independent store-owner he needs 100 votes. The shop owner says he is not interested. But the mayor argues that if he does not deliver on the votes, there will be trouble. The store-owner asks: what can I do to secure the votes? The mayor asks the shop-keeper if he gives his customers credit. The shopkeeper says yes. ‘Everyone who owes you something, ask them to vote for me,’ says the mayor. In some villages the town hall has resources, including licenses and permits, which it can supply to the loyal and deny to those who refuse to play their game.
“What is corrupt for this village is if someone tries to come in from outside and start a business, they will have to make a deal with these people and there will have to be some kind of financial exchange,” says Mungiu-Pippidi. “In big cities this has been challenged – here you have politics and you have pluralism. Instead of having one network, there are two or three competing networks.”
Romania Curata wants to mobilise people in this situation to resist this blackmail. The portal’s aim is to build a surveillance community, where everyone “watches the whole street, not just their own yard” - a society of whistle-blowers who can get in touch with anti-corruption lawyers or the media through Romania Curata. The portal also asks businesses to sign up to its charter, stating they will not concur with corrupt practices. It could become a piece of good PR for a business - or an embarrassment if a company rejects signing such a pledge.
“We have to turn from a passive to an active victimised community,” Mungiu-Pippidi adds.
But the fear that many critics of this system raise is – what kind of protection can an NGO offer to a whistle-blower? In Italy and Mexico, when the state takes on organised crime or institutionalised corruption, the level of violence against whistle-blowers and magistrates has escalated.
What if a volunteer handing out Romania Curata stickers and fielding phone-calls for the portal ends up in a ditch with their throat slit?
Mungiu-Pippidi says that Romania is a simple country when it comes to corruption.
“We [at SAR] have targeted corrupt politicians for over ten years – the worst thing that has happened to me is that they have taken me to court,” she says. “This is not a country of violence.” Mungiu-Pippidi also argues that the risk of violence “decreases exponentially” if people who have courage to take action are not isolated.

EU backing off

The EU has adopted a carrot-and-stick formula for forcing Romania to improve its anti-corruption record. Recently influential nations in the bloc are holding up accession to the Schengen free movement of space as an incentive. France and Germany weighed in with a letter to the European Commission stating that accession of Romania and Bulgaria to Schengen would have “grave consequences” for the security of the bloc, due to the country’s failure to enforce anti-corruption strategies, judicial reform and combat organised crime.
But once this has been lifted, will the country’s anti-corruption reform agenda again be at the risk of sabotage? “Schengen will end and the EU leverage will be less than now,” says Mungiu-Pippidi. “But I do not think the EU itself can change the Governance model of a country. There is no country in the world that was cleaned from outside - it is us who have to do it.”
Arguably anti-corruption in Romania is at its most heated level. The National Anti-Corruption Department (DNA) is prosecuting more high-powered politicians than before. Meanwhile magistrates standing up to high-powered individuals in the last two years include judge Ana Maria Tranca at the Bucharest Tribunal for announcing the preventative arrest of controversial businessman and media mogul Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, Sector 1 judge Nicoleta Cristus arrested MEP and Steaua football club financier Gigi Becali following his armed kidnap of a car thief, while DNA prosecutors such as Doru Tulus, Camelia Sutiman and Claudia Rosu have proven that sentencing to jail is possible for politicians - including National Liberal Party (PNL) mayor in Baia Mare Cristian Anghel for abuse of his office and Ramnicu Valcea Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) mayor Mircia Gutau for bribe-taking.
However a constant criticism is that judges are the weak link in Romania’s road to legal reform and a final sentencing for high-level corruption is a tough achievement. But judges are under pressure. “They are not sure if the person who they are putting under preventative arrest will be the next finance minister,” says Mungiu-Pippidi.

Generation compromised

To change a politics of institutional corruption it is necessary to foster a new generation of politicians who put the needs of the country before those of their wallet. But young idealists find such a route is hard. Elder politicians expect the young will not challenge the existing practices. “Once you - as a young politician - become more established, you will be asked to deliver,” says Mungiu-Pippidi, “like the mob asking you for the delivery of your first body.” This includes securing a share of votes for money, catering for businesses close to the party or procuring public contracts for associates. “It is not as bad as a real body,” she adds.
Political analysts and some civil society NGOs have accused SAR of being close to the governing PDL and President Traian Basescu. Mungiu-Pippidi herself juggles the role of professor of Democracy Studies at the Hertie School of Governance of Berlin with head of public policy at SAR and was tipped at one point to enter into politics representing the PDL. But now many of SAR’s and Mungiu-Pippidi’s barbed opinions are targeted at the President’s closest party.
“Basescu is a mixed character,” she says. “If it were not for Basescu as a President, I think [DNA President] Daniel Morar would have been fired. On the other hand, since his own party has been in power for two years, it is doing as badly as the others.”

Clean sweep

National civil society movements have swollen into political movements across the spectrum, including the Union movement which created the British Labour Party at the end of the 19th century and the Tea Party’s recent entry into the Republican’s ranks in the USA.
If Romania Curata accelerates its national spread, it may look to uncover the types of leaders for a new party.
“If such people exist in one per county, we can popularise them and these 42 people can do whatever they want and we can support them,” she says. “We need to reach out to a different group and empower different kinds of people. The largest constituency are the people who are upset with the current system. If we do not do this, some populist politician will appear to do this. Generally speaking - this will be a bad person. It is better if a nice urban educated society builds this framework rather than a radical extremist.”

Interview by Michael Bird

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