Laura Codruta Kovesi, the young prosecutor who heads Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), yesterday staged her most dramatic coup. She charged the Social Democrat Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, with seventeen offences including money laundering, forgery, embezzlement and tax evasion. Forgery is a much more serious matter than plagiarising ones doctoral thesis. If found guilty, the Prime Minister faces gaol and the DNA are painstaking people, whose allegations rarely fail to stick in court.
The study of Romanian politics since the 1989 revolution properly belongs not to historians or political scientists but to criminologists. Bribery, blackmail, spying and prostitution have been the pillars on which post-1989 Romanian politics rested. Romanians know that and, if some trusting people didn’t, the revelations of the last six months will have convinced them.
Miss Kovesi is the Joan of Arc of Romania, doing battle with the, often very high-profile, corrupt politicians and officials whose stranglehold on public and business life in Romania everyone thought was impossible to break. Not entirely but largely due to her a remarkable revolution is taking place in Romania. A real revolution, comparable to the one in December 1989 that was stolen by the Communists.
Four party leaders have been put in prison and very many other famous politicians and businessmen. Arrest follows arrest. So many of the country’s most famous and powerful men and a few women have been investigated, arrested, found guilty and sent to gaol that even people who follow the news avidly find they can’t remember who’s in gaol and who’s in Parliament.
The Microsoft scandal, in which large numbers of politicians allegedly took sometimes huge kickbacks for contracts at hugely inflated prices, implicates so many people that it reads like a Who’s Who of Romania, a sort of arriviste-criminal-Romanian version of the Almanac de Gotha.
In the second half of last year a great number of leading names were arrested. When I asked people why I was told it was because Laura Kovesi, who became head of the DNA in 2013 and electrified the organization, was rushing to finger as many people as she could while President Traian Basescu was still in office. Everyone expected that Victor Ponta of would replace him and would prevent the DNA continuing its work. Instead, unexpectedly, he lost to Klaus Iohannis.
After that, the DNA went into overdrive, making one high-profile arrest after another. I ask well-informed Romanians in all walks of life why this is happening suddenly and everyone gives me the same answer:
I don’t know.Mr. Iohannis had become president pledging to clean up the political class but, without his doing anything, it seems like the political class is about to be swept away, swept in many richly-deserved cases into prison.
Victor Ponta’s party, the PSD, is home to more of the people incriminated by the DNA than the other parties. One reason is because it is the largest, one because it is notoriously corrupt, one might be because the other parties have more swing with the secret service that provides the DNA with evidence, but this, though possible, seems inherently unlikely.
Whatever the reason, Mr. Ponta has up to yesterday given the DNA his support and ensured that the parliamentary immunity of most PSD members of parliament implicated in crimes has been lifted. In February he assured the Economist that those accused of corruption would not be permitted to enjoy parliamentary immunity. Now he is relying on parliamentary immunity himself.
In the case of Elena Udrea, a political opponent of both the ruling party and the main opposition party, parliament met on Saturday to lift her immunity. She was taken off in handcuffs to a prison cell which, the press said, she shared with several others including a porno actress and a rat. Handcuffing well-known politicians, who are unlikely to run from the police to make a getaway, is one of the operatic things about Romanian politics. We shall see if Mr. Ponta is led off in handcuffs to a prison cell. His predecessor Adrian Nastase was, twice.
Parliamentary immunity was lifted for most PSD politicians but not for two or three and not for Dan Sova, the Minister of Transport. The struggle to lift Mr. Sova’s immunity has been the big political story here for some time and thereby hangs our tale.
Mr. Sova and Mr. Ponta, who are both lawyers, go back a long way, but Mr. Sova didn’t keep his immunity because Victor Ponta has a soft spot for his old confrere. Mr. Ponta does not have soft spots for people. He’s not that kind of man. It's true that both men come from Oltenia and regional loyalties are important in Romania's semi-tribal society (think Saddam Hussein trusting people from Tikrit). Still, that was not a reason. It was much more likely that Mr. Sova was protected because he knew things.
Yesterday the DNA suggested what those things might be and accused him of making payments to Mr. Ponta back in 2008 against receipts, but without Mr. Ponta having done any work in return. Money-laundering, in other words. According to the DNA, in 2011 he and Mr. Sova then forged documents purporting to show that Mr. Ponta had done some work in exchange for the money.
As soon as the DNA made its accusations and summoned Mr Ponta to answer questions, President Iohannis asked Mr. Ponta to step down. The Prime Minister has refused. The President could suspend the Prime Minister from office (he cannot dismiss him) but has chosen not to do so. We’ll see how long this stand-off lasts. If Mr. Ponta resigns the President chooses his successor and the President is from the opposition Liberal Party, so the Social Democrats are supporting the Prime Minister faute de mieux.
Mr. Ponta once compared the DNA to the Securitate, Nicolae Ceausescu's feared secret police. That was years before he lent the DNA his insincere support. Yesterday, he said that only Parliament could depose him. He was eerily reminiscent of Mr. Ceausescu saying at his trial, twenty-five years ago,
I do not answer, I will only answer questions before the Grand National Assembly. I do not recognise this court. The charges are incorrect.History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, as Marx said of the French revolution of 1848. Victor Ponta will not die before a firing squad, like Mr. Ceausescu, but his political life is probably up.
I said that after he lost the presidential election last November, but this time I am right. I think.