May 15, 2008 / 12:19 AM / 9 years ago

In Romania, high-level corruption resists reform

<p>Former Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase addresses the media after exiting a courtroom in Bucharest in this file picture taken June 25, 2007.Mihai Barbu</p>

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Chocolate and candy are among the things a Romanian football club owner said he wanted his representatives to buy with 1.7 million euros, found in a car near a restaurant where they were watching a match.

Gigi Becali, owner of Steaua Bucharest, later said the money was to buy a plot of land. He is now under investigation for alleged corruption related to football championships.

In the same week, Romanian President Traian Basescu called the country's Constitutional Court "a shield" for corruption.

The comment earned him reprimands from politicians across the spectrum. Combined with the Becali affair, it shows how corruption is a day-to-day concern in Romania.

Basescu's comments touched a raw nerve in the Black Sea state, which many observers say has regressed in reforms against high-level graft since joining the European Union last year.

As Romania heads into local government elections on June 1 with the ballots rife with candidates tainted by corruption accusations, the worry is that reforms have not been sufficient to keep corrupt officials from office.

Basescu was referring to a ruling by the Constitutional Court in March requiring prosecutors to seek parliament's approval for checks on some senior politicians.

That decision opened doors to new delays in investigations of corruption, adding to accusations that the establishment is not serious about fighting fraud.

A handful of probes into allegations of abuse among former and current cabinet ministers, including ex-prime minister Adrian Nastase, are already stalled by other delays in courts and changes in legislation.

"Other than with prosecutions, there is no progress since 2005," said Laura Stefan of the Romanian Academic Society, a think-tank. "The message to the people is that to have a nice life you have to be rich and powerful.

"There is no law but power."

FAR-REACHING PROBLEMS

Bucharest's struggle to clean up is raising concerns in the European Union as diplomats say Romania may have joined the bloc too early. Brussels monitors the reform progress but its ability to enforce the new members' commitments wanes after accession.

Such disappointment in Brussels may make it harder for other countries in the Balkans to join the wealthy bloc, analysts say. They argue the EU will be more cautious in setting entry targets and much tougher in demanding reform results.

"The lesson is that if there are things you don't seem able to resolve in the run-up to accession, then we are not confident you will able to achieve them afterwards," said Katinka Barysch from the Centre for European Reform in London.

<p>Former Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase addresses the media after exiting a courtroom in Bucharest in this file picture taken June 25, 2007.Mihai Barbu</p>

For Romania, the foot-dragging means slower transformation from the brutal pre-1989 regime of Nicolae Ceausescu towards democracy as Romanians are reluctant to trust state institutions. According to Transparency International, Romania is the most graft-prone EU member.

Its ruling centrists argue they are doing what they can to combat widespread abuse and reform the judiciary.

They point to statistics from the anti-corruption prosecutors' office (DNA) showing hundreds of people have been indicted in recent months and dozens convicted.

"Of course there is resistance to strong reforms," Justice Minister Catalin Predoiu told Reuters. "I wouldn't believe in reform measures that do not face the tendency to preserve the status quo. However ... I am happy to see that both the government and parliament showed commitment to fighting corruption."

Despite the tough rhetoric, results in the war on top-level crime are scant.

The Romania Libera daily newspaper said its research showed almost every county is fielding a candidate for the local election who is either being investigated for graft or has faced accusations of abuse.

One of the highest-ranking officials to be sentenced to jail on graft charges, Nicolae Mischie, is now running for office again, after switching allegiances from the ex-communist PSD to the nationalist New Generation Party of soccer tycoon Becali.

Mischie was sentenced to four years for abusing power while he headed a county council in southwestern Romania.

DEEP ROOTS

Civil society observers and diplomats say too many Romanian politicians are entangled in powerful interest groups that oppose reforms while others simply protect their own practices.

An example, they say, is a protracted parliamentary debate over Romania's new criminal procedure code, which some observers have said could effectively prevent prosecution of graft if introduced in its full form.

Romania's Senate has improved the draft, including removing a ban on wire-tapping phones before pressing criminal charges against a suspect. But resistance is strong.

"The system is far more powerful than we thought," said Stefan. "People are defending themselves like crazy."

In coming weeks, parliament is also due to decide whether to approve prosecutors' request to investigate former Prime Minister Nastase, former Transport Minister Miron Mitrea and current Labor Minister Paul Pacuraru. All three face corruption charges which they deny and label as politically motivated.

"Nobody believes the deputies will hand them (the politicians) over to the Justice Hall," wrote Mircea Marian, a columnist for Evenimentul Zilei daily. "Their files of corruption will be lost forever."

(Additional reporting by Radu Marinas and Iulia Rosca)

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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