Saturday 4 February 2017

The news from Romania


I started this blog to write about Romania but other things happened instead. Recently Donald Trump happened.

I even failed to blog about the new Social Democrat (PSD) government that took power, in coalition with a small party, the misnamed Liberal Democrats, at the end of last year.

Now Romania is second item on the BBC World Service news, above Trump’s visa policy.

Readers who follow Romanian politics know what to think. For those who don’t, but are interested, I’ll fill you in.

Romania, like all her post-Communist neighbours, has been a by-word for corruption. But for the last three years Romania has become famous as a country where corruption is being tackled very effectively and in the most remarkable way.

The success of the Romanian anti-corruption drive is not just cleansing the Augean stables here. It is an example to the rest of the region. People in nearby countries look in astonishment at what is happening.

And now it is all about to end.

Late at night on Tuesday, without warning or consultation, the new government issued an Executive Order, to take effect after ten days, removing from the Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) the remit to investigate abuse of office if the sum involved come to more than €44,000 and ordering the release from prison of a large number of inmates, including politicians and businessmen, on the grounds of prison overcrowding.

Within half an hour of the order being announced people came out onto Piata Victoriei, the square in front of the government headquarters in Bucharest. Soon, thanks to Facebook, thousands were in the snow-covered square

Each night, in freezing weather, vast crowds (150,000 it was estimated on Wednesday, which is 8% of the city's population) have been besieging the government building. They are friendly crowds, except for the suspicious incident when some violent football hooligans turned up in the early hours of Thursday morning and attacked the police. The crowd at that point dispersed and many think the thugs were arranged by the PSD to discredit the protests.

The journalist Michael Bird was precisely accurate when he said, 
'Romania’s Government has declared a war on the war against corruption.' 
All Romanian parties have been corrupt but famously the most corrupt are the Social Democrats, the successors to the Communist party. They represent an important part of the deep state that really runs things here.

Things changed, however, to everyone's surprise, when a remarkable, very driven youngish woman called Laura Kovesi became chief prosecutor of Romania's National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) in 2013. 

She is a sort of Joan of Arc and has extraordinary passion. Under her leadership of the DNA, a legal, social, economic and political revolution has taken place in Romania. Countless officials, businessmen and politicians of all parties have been prosecuted and gaoled for corruption.

They include very many very powerful and famous people and some of the richest men in the country. 

The former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase was gaoled twice. The last PSD Prime Minister is awaiting trial.

It reached the point long ago that it was impossible to keep up with who was in prison, who was awaiting trial and who had not been fingered.

The Romanian ex-Communist aristocracy of crooks and nouveaux riches was going on for being decimated. 

The Romanian president is directly elected by the people, as in France. Klaus Iohannis was elected two years ago pledged to clean up the political class, but he didn’t have to. The DNA did it for him.

In fact, it looked at one time almost as if the DNA were going to wipe out the political class altogether.

The culmination of the anti-politician drive was the creation, after huge street protests just over a year ago against the last PSD government, of a new government of non-political technocrats. 

But Romanians got tired of experts and, despite steady economic growth, the PSD have returned to office, much stronger than ever. They won power on a platform that promised spending increases and tax cuts. They are genuinely populists, a much misused word.

And that’s where we are now.

Let’s see whether moral pressure from the streets and from the EU and Council of Europe can have an effect.

Romania was the only country where Communism came to an end after a violent revolution and that revolution has created a very strong tradition here that political protest can change things.  

It seems impossible but Romanian governments are always much weaker than they look. And they do tend to do what the EU and more especially the Americans tell them. Let’s see.

If the government does not back down even worse things are likely to happen. 

It is said that the government intends to merge the DNA with another, much less effective, anti-corruption agency. If they do, you can be very sure that Miss Kovesi will not be the head of the new merged body.

Two last things. 

Please do not be influenced by the occasional article in the press (paid for by rich Romanian felons) saying the anti corruption prosecutors are politically biassed and it's time for a South African style amnesty and general forgiveness. There is a very useful debate to be had about the role of the very powerful secret service, that provides the DNA with the information that leads to prosecutions. There are no valid grounds to allege that the DNA is a political operator. Most importantly, the people who end up convicted receive fair trials and are in almost all cases guilty as charged.

Second, do not make the mistake of imagining the Social Democrats are left-wing in any sense other than being the party that gets the votes of the masses, especially older people living in terrible poverty, in return for higher pensions and a higher minimum wage. 

They are a party run by multi-millionaires and people join it to enrich themselves and their families, not to make the world a juster place. They are about money not ideas, but they are at least as nationalistic, socially conservative and as refreshingly lacking in political correctness (or as racist, sexist and homophobic, depending on your point of view) as most people are in Romania. 

They are as pro-American as any other party nowadays (how times change). They make no fuss about migrants because, unlike Hungary or Bulgaria, Romania is not on the migrants' route.

They are best understood as a federation of networks of influence, geared to making money and trading favours, in each of the 41 counties, plus Bucharest, which they now at last control. 

They are often described as a mafia but, in fact, as one lady who was sleeping with many of the party's leaders back in the Nastase era put it to me, it's not organised crime because they are not organised. 

But that was then and many of those people, including Adrian Nastase, are in or have been in or worry they will be in prison. 


  1. Plain truth, in plain English. Congratulations!

  2. The plain truth, in plain English. Congratulations!

  3. Paul, I do not agree with you when saying that most Romanians are racists, sexists, homophobic. We are not like this. Florian

    1. I did not say exactly that and of course it all depends on what you mean by racists, sexists and homophobic. I once about fifteen years ago said that homosexual acts were the only sexual sins that Romanians found shocking but that was not quite true then - they were shocked by quite a few things actually - and their attitudes to homosexuality have changed enormously, as have people's in Western Europe at the same time.

      Still, the idea of homosexuals marrying or adopting children would horrify most people here - there are some in the West who consider opposition to these things or thinking sodomy a sin 'homophobic'.

    2. Actually we may still be racists and homophobic, to some extent; probably not as much as in the past - as the world is changing. Not so much sexists, I would say. I live in US now and I see more sexism here - ironically.

  4. Paul well done!

    AS far as I have seen you are the only one so far who has made the statement that the articles declaring that “DNA has gone too far and unjustly prosecutes all people, violating human rights” – are paid for by the kleptocracy!

    Keep it up! Happy to see BBC up-trading the news story since 3 days ago!


  5. "They (PSD) are anti-Russian..."
    You are so very wrong!

    1. I said they are as anti Russian as other parties. Perhaps I should have said pro-NATO. Iliescu and the people in his camp were certainly pro-Russian but since 2000 the party has been pro-NATO and pro-EU. I simply wanted to explain to people abroad that Romania would not be a friend of Putin in the way that Hungary and perhaps Bulgaria are.

      I amended it to pro-American - though in the age of Donald Trump I am not clear what that means.

  6. You are as smart, acute, and principled reporting on Romanian politics as you are coarse, gloating, and basically uninformed about US politics. Actually being in a place rather than just reading Breitbart makes a difference.

    1. It makes a vast difference. In any case no one ever understands a foreign country. Please tell me where this is uninformed.

  7. Excellent article , good description of the reality - fully agree !

  8. Late in coming, Paul, but a nice summation of what is happening here. I am curious to see what will happen next.

  9. Not all Romanian parties are corrupt...what about the new USR party?

    Also, youngish? Do you also call yourself this? What does it matter?

  10. I liked your piece. A good summary of the situation. Lucid.

  11. I want to add a few things if I may: PSD may be just a scapegoat here because all politicians are in technical agreement with conflicting declarations just to manipulate people.This is basically how PSD won ellections in major cities and the parliament ones... look for example at the Mayor of Bucharest: they split the right wing leaving people no chance other than having a mayor from PSD.Because all are under certain suspicion of corruption from DNA. So DNA fighting on all fields coagulated all wings against them and this led to this situation. Even the most proeminent leader that stood with DNA Traian Basescu told this and is criticizing the activity of DNA lately....Personally? I sympathize with DNA but I am just nothing as well as many other hundred thousands educated people since none of us have any power other than speaking or shouting in the street..Solution: a leader but so far from the political power no one seems to be fit for the task. Even with USR- they were involved in losing Bucharest as much as the others.PSD really has all democratic power here and this was again not by chance but by agreement between all politicians.

  12. The last comment may be correct - but it ignores the fact that PSD has won several elections recently mostly because of low voter turn-out. If people don't vote, they don't normally get the government they would like to have. Voters in Romania are so disillusioned with politics generally that many don't bother to vote

  13. Dear Paul, I am really sorry to tell you that I cannot agree with your presentation of the situation in Romania. It is far more complex and you presented it only from the point of view of the people protesting against the Government. What about the President who refuses to sign the Budget. Have you read the Programme of PSD? It is the first valuable ambitious programme since 1989. The President is against. Why does he not support the Government? I think you must look for more diversified information.I might be wrong. You might be wrong too.

    1. You make good points. Please tell me what you think of my latest post.
      Yes. The protesters in Bucharest are, as was inevitable, being used in power games by politicians.

    2. On the other hand the original attempt by the government to free prisoners and reduce the power of the DNA, without parliament voting on it, was appalling.

    3. As Mr Basescu said the President has played this very cleverly. Some think he followed advice from abroad.