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23 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

The battle to clean up Romanian politics has a long way to run

Alleged links between the country’s anti-corrpution directorate and its intelligence services are undermining the country’s efforts to escape its past.

By David Clark

It’s been more than a year since mass street protests forced the Romanian government to withdraw two emergency decrees limiting the scope of corruption investigations, but the underlying conflict over how to clean up the country’s politics remains unresolved. Last month, the Justice Minister initiated proceedings to dismiss Laura Kovesi, the head of Romania’s powerful Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), accusing her of repeatedly abusing her authority. Although a decision by President Iohannis is pending, he is widely expected to veto her removal.

The issue is divisive because many Romanians continue to see the DNA as the only way to hold a predatory political elite to account. Efforts to challenge or reform it are therefore quickly dismissed as self-serving. Even so, the muted public response to the latest row reflects the fact that the DNA’s record has recently come under closer scrutiny. The terms of debate have changed thanks to a series of scandals that have called its methods and motives into question.

The first of these broke last summer when an audio recording emerged in which Kovesi could be heard instructing her subordinates to pursue investigations against the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues in order to “put pressure” on the government in retaliation for their efforts to limit her authority. Although Kovesi insists that the recordings were doctored, she has so far failed to produce any independent or verifiable evidence to back up her claims. 

A further set of recordings surfaced in the media last month, revealing attempts by two senior DNA prosecutors in 2015 to force a witness to fabricate evidence in the case against Sebastian Ghita, a media owner and former MP who fled Romania the following year. According to the witness – another former MP – prosecutors threatened to target his family unless he co-operated and claimed that they were acting with the approval of their superiors, including Kovesi.

More evidence has emerged as part of a parliamentary inquiry into the activities of the intelligence services launched last year. Among other things, this has revealed the existence of 65 secret protocols linking the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) with the DNA and a wide range of other law enforcement, judicial and administrative agencies. Serious questions about human rights and constitutional propriety have arisen in the process.

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There is, for example, a very obvious conflict of interests in the fact that one of these protocols is with the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM), the body responsible for regulating the activities of judges and prosecutors. A covert relationship might lead the CSM and the judges it appoints to favour the interests of the DNA and SRI. Conviction rates of more than 90 per cent go some way to justifying that concern.

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It is also claimed that the protocols are used to bypass constitutional safeguards in the gathering of evidence. According to SRI whistle-blower, Daniel Dragomir, the DNA has a confidential agreement with the ANCPI, the public land registry and real estate agency, giving prosecutors direct access to its database. This allows the DNA to procure a wide range of sensitive personal data – including contracts, property transactions, credit agreements and mortgages – without the need for a warrant or any proof of wrongdoing. This breaches Romania’s constitution as well as international instruments such as the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Taken together, these scandals go a long way to substantiating the most serious allegations that have been levelled at the DNA by its critics, including those targeted as a result of its investigations: that the agency pursues politically-motivated prosecutions, that it fabricates evidence, that witness testimony is extracted through intimidation and blackmail, and that it acts without regard to constitutional limits, democratic scrutiny, the separation of powers or the rule of law.

Most troubling of all for a country that experienced the brutality of the Securitate, the communist era secret police, are revelations detailing the close and secretive relationship between the DNA and the SRI, and the role they jointly play in manipulating the criminal justice system through covert and extra-constitutional means. It was already known that the DNA relies on the SRI for wire tapping and other technical support, and that the SRI, in exchange, gets to direct certain DNA prosecutions. It now appears that the SRI exerts influence over the courts when DNA cases are brought to trial.

In November, Dragomir wrote that that an SRI General, Dumitru Dumbravă, had used a cover identity on Facebook to interact with judges and DNA prosecutors about ongoing cases. The same General had previously described the court system as a “tactical field” of operations in which the SRI retained an active interest until the conclusion of each trial. In one case, he is alleged to have met a judge face-to-face during his final deliberations. Under the Romanian constitution, the involvement of intelligence officers in such activity is categorically unlawful.

There are suspicions that SRI involvement may go deeper still. Longstanding calls by the Romanian Union of Judges for an investigation into allegations that the SRI has maintained the old Securitate practice of planting penetration agents in the judiciary have been repeatedly ignored. Yet these suspicions were given added plausibility last year when a former Director of the SRI, George Maior, admitted that it still ran networks of informants inside the Romanian media. In the eyes of some, this SRI/DNA nexus is nothing less than a Securitate 2.0.

The reforms needed to address these problems in a way that strengthens rather than weakens the fight against corruption are unlikely to be agreed in the current atmosphere of partisanship and mistrust. Nor can Romania expect much in the way of wise counsel from its international partners. The European Commission’s monitoring reports on Romania are negligent in failing to acknowledge, let alone confront, well documented concerns about standards of justice and the covert role of the intelligence service. If Brussels prefers convenient fiction to hard fact, Washington is no better. The US sees Romania as its most important security partner in South East Europe because of its willingness to host missile defence facilities. The last thing it wants to do is raise awkward questions about the activities of the Romanian deep state.

After almost thirty years of struggling with its corruption problem, Romania now finds that it also has a problem with the debased version of anti-corruption that has grown in parallel. Difficult as it may be, it won’t be able to tackle either unless it finds a way to tackle both.