The Romanian presidency was created in 1992 to allow Ion Iliescu to dominate politics without the dictatorial powers of his predecessor, Nicolae Ceausescu. On paper, Romania’s president has only circumscribed powers (foreign policy, defence and the intelligence services are his domains) but because he is elected directly by the people, in the same way that the French president is, he has a great deal of political authority.
Romanian politics is therefore eternally about the friction between the Prime Minister and the President who appoints him, even where they come from the same political camp. When they belong to different parties (the president is required to resign from his party on election to office, but it is a legal fiction that he is non-partisan) the friction becomes all-out war. At least, it has in the case of the current President Traian Basescu.
Twice this had led to his suspension from office, impeachment and a referendum on whether to dismiss him. In both cases Basescu hung on. Mr. Basescu is a political Houdini who won the presidency by a whisker when everyone expected him to lose in 2004 and held onto it after his rival declared victory five years later. He almost seems politically indestructible but he will leave the presidency for the last time at the end of this year.
It may be that his political reputation of this most divisive of figures will be so tarnished by the latest scandal that he will be for his last few months a lame duck. But Mr. Basescu does not have a lame duck sort of personality. Nor is Romania a country that is easily shocked. The great historian Nicolae Iorga was not far wrong when he said
‘In Romania it is impossible to lose your reputation’.So it will probably prove with Traian Basescu.
It seems that the president’s brother Mircea was running a thriving business in Constanta, Romania’s notoriously corrupt port on the Black Sea, using his access to political power. At one time his telephone did not stop ringing but latterly he had not been doing so well. He has now been arrested for allegedly receiving €250,000 in order to influence the judges to release a convicted underworld figure, Sandu Anghel, a gypsy known to those in the circles in which he moves as ‘Bercea Mondial’. Anghel was convicted in May 2011 for attempting to kill his nephew, Ionut Anghel, known as ‘Mercedes’ after a family argument at Anghel's bar. Anghel's son Florin, known as 'Ambasador' was gaoled as an accomplice to the crime. Mircea Basescu does not deny receiving the money from Florin Angel – he was taped doing so – but says it was a repayment of a loan.
No-one seems surprised or shocked – Romanians expect this kind of thing from their politicians.
Mircea Basescu’s wife apologised publically to the president and the country for her and her husband’s inability to “live up to the level of the office and rank” they reached and explained that the reason that she and her husband were close friends with Anghel and his family was in an attempt to combat racial prejudice against gypsies. Mircea Basescu became godfather (a very close, familial role in Romania) in 2010 to Bercea Mondial’s granddaughter, a fact that was in the papers, along with a list of serious criminal allegations as long as your arm against Mr Anghel and members of his family.
Mircea Basescu looks as if he is a (very) Romanian version of a long tradition of embarrassing relatives of political leaders. One thinks, if one is old enough, of Billy Carter, as well as of Roger Clinton and Tony Blair’s father-in-law, Tony Booth. But it is not only in Romania that family members profit from politicians. Sir Mark Thatcher made his career working for Middle Eastern businessmen because of who his mother was. Gordon Brown's brother, quite innocently, worked in public relations lobbying for nuclear power.
An audio-tape of Mircea Basescu accepting the alleged bribe came to light on a TV channel owned by Mr. Basescu’s great foe the controversial businessman Dan Voiculescu and has led the Prime Minister to demand the president’s resignation. In fact, there is no smoking gun, no evidence that the president did anything to help Anghel and the fact that Anghel remains behind bars is circumstantial evidence in the other direction. (I wouldn't give much for his chances of early release now.) However, the story is being used not just to wound or destroy the president – he will soon leave the political stage anyway - but to break the anti-corruption prosecutors who have succeeded in securing the conviction of a long list of very rich and powerful people for corruption including the former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and many others. Anghel is said to have claimed to have bribed the new head of the anti-corruption agency DNA) herself. DNA is the organisation which is arresting and successfully prosecuting so many famous and powerful establishment figures.
Even if the story that the gypsies tell about bribing the president’s brother were to be proven true it would not reflect well on them, but this has not stopped the flamboyant Mayor of Constanta, Radu Mazare, from publicly thanking the gypsies for having saved Romania. As a token of his esteem he has allowed gypsy vendors who sell corn puffs on the seafront of Constanta to do so free of tax. Mr. Mazare, who has a lurid reputation, was himself recently arrested on charges of corruption.
This is the paradox of Traian Basescu’s presidency. Under his leadership a lot has been done to reduce corruption, a lot of powerful and famous people who were guilty have been sent to gaol, yet very few indeed of those people belonged to the President’s camp or the political parties he favours.
Traian Basescu has always been a very destructive rather than a creative politician. Many usually well-informed people I have spoken to say that he himself is no saint – in the Romanian expression ‘is not the church door’. My view is that the political parties are really all one party which exists largely to enrich the politicians and their clients. They are pockets in the same pair of trousers. However, Mr. Basescu’s inability to get on peaceably with much or most of the political class, or the shadowy ‘structures of power’ which took over Romania after 1989, is his great merit. Let us hope that creative destruction continues after he retires.