Romania Is Changing and Is Steadily Decoupling from Bulgaria
Adelina Marini, 19 November 2014
The status quo in Romania has lost. It was defeated by the determined Romanian citizens who stated firmly that they want a new Romania. The presidential elections in the country, which ended on Sunday (November 16), will reaffirm and enhance further the already ongoing process of change of the Romanian society and state. At least. this is how it looks on the surface. The biggest surprise at the elections was the victory of Klaus Iohannis (National Liberal Party, member of the EPP) by 54.5% over Prime Minster Victor Ponta who received the support of 45.5% of the voters with almost all votes counted. A surprise because it seemed that the victory of the controversial Ponta was foretold. How did this happen? The turning point was when the Romanian citizens living abroad organised massive protests against being forced to wait in huge queues for hours to be able to vote in the big European cities.
Martina Gancheva, a journalist with Bulgaria on Air TV and a specialist on Romania, told euinside that the Romanians abroad can seriously influence the election results. There are around four million Romanians across the globe. Only in Germany live 260 000 Romanians with a right to vote but only five polling stations were opened there. She recalls that in 2009 the outgoing President Traian Basescu won the presidential elections with an advantage of 70 000 votes because he managed to secure three fourths of the votes abroad. The problem with the voting of Romanian immigrants led to the resignation of Titus Corlățean, the minister of foreign affairs, after the first round of the presidential elections and to the resignation on 18 November of his successor Teodor Meleșcanu only eight days after his appointment. The reason is simple, according to Martina Gancheva. Responsible for the opening of polling stations abroad is not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the Central Elections Commission. This is decided by the government and especially by the prime minister.
Victor Underwood's failure is a chance for Romania
In Romania, the president appoints the prime minister and the chief prosecutors, including the special prosecutors of the national agency for the fight against corruption. According to Martina Gancheva, Victor Ponta hoped to install a convenient premier, like Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu and also to secure an umbrella against corruption prosecution. Tăriceanu was prime minster of Romania in the period 2004-2008. Ponta was so obsessed with his thirst for power that Romanian journalists compared him with Kevin Spacey's character from the famous American TV series House of Cards, Frank Underwood - the politician who is ready to even kill to become a president. Power at all cost, the journalist says. In the EU, however, it is enough to be named Victor to evoke associations with Viktor Orban. In the social networks currently very trending is a photo on which a Hungarian depicts how many Victors have remained in Europe as a synonym of unscrupulous rule.
The problem with the appointment of prosecutors is especially crucial for Romania's radical change. A change which has already been underway because the work of the anti-corruption agency is key for the implementation of the recommendations under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) which Romania joined the EU with in a package with Bulgaria in 2007. The EU agreed back then to a compromise by accepting the two countries unprepared because of their firm commitment to complete the reform of the judiciary and the fight against corruption and, in Bulgaria's case, organised crime too. The European Council endorsed the new instrument proposed by the Commission which guarantees that these two countries will succeed. In the beginning, they moved together very slowly and unconvincingly. From one report to the next the situation started to deteriorate. Two years ago, though, a serious change began on behalf of Romania.
Then, a little before the summary report of the five years of functioning of the CVM were to be published, in Romania a huge political crisis broke out which endangered Romania's chances to become a rule of law country. At the time there was a bitter conflict between the young Socialist Prime Minister Victor Ponta and the long-serving President Traian Basescu. A conflict that escalated into an open war with the Constitutional court, demands for impeachment of the head of state and attempts for constitutional and other legislative changes that were to practically limit the independence of the already fragile state institutions. In Romania, there have been numerous attempts to limit the independence precisely of the anti-corruption agency because it started working as it should - independently to pursue corruption even at the high levels of power. In the last report under the CVM, the Commission pointed out directly that, currently, the biggest hurdle in front of the agency's work are the members of parliament.
Nevertheless, Romania is making huge strides in this area. Martina Gancheva tells us that all of Victor Ponta's political friends are being investigated as the Agency worked tirelessly even during the election campaign. "The MP from the ruling Social Democratic Party and former minster of transport Miron Mitrea, from the government of the scandalously known Adrian Năstase, was sentenced to two years in prison. The investigation against him started in April 2006. Back then Europe, Brussels, in particular Commissioner Olli Rehn, wanted him behind bars. The reason - embezzlement, document forgery and corruption.
Nine former ministers are being legally pursued on suspicion of money laundering, abuse of power, bribery in connection to providing licences for software in schools. According to the prosecution, all of them signed and then prolonged contracts for buying software licenses from Microsoft for schools in the period 2004-2009. This happened without public tenders and government officials took advantage of a 47% discount from the official price and put the difference into their pockets. The estimated damages are worth more than 1 billion dollars and the signal was received by the FBI as well", writes Martina Gancheva in her answers to euinside. In the past year, there were reports on arrested or convicted high level officials almost on a daily basis and this, according to Martina Gancheva, will lead to a positive report for Romania in January.
In the lobbies in Brussels, she said, there is talk that the Commission's report on Bulgaria will be highly critical. There is also talk that it is possible Bulgaria and Romania to be decoupled and stop being in a package. This is of great importance for their accession to the Schengen area of security. These are the only two EU member states who want but are not allowed in Schengen precisely because of failing to stick to their commitments to complete the expected reforms in the judiciary and to conduct a genuine and irreversible fight against high level corruption.
The president of the fight against corruption
Certainly, not only in Romania but in Brussels as well, people are rejoicing over the election of Klaus Iohannis (an ethnic German) for president of the country because, during his campaign, he put the fight against corruption on top of his priorities. His favourite slogan is "I want a country where, when it comes to justice, the political colour doesn't matter". According to Martina Gancheva, Iohannis is a person who loves to keep silent but to act. He has an ambitious vision about the future. The question is whether he will realise it because, according to the journalist, there is a high probability that he will face resistance by the status quo in Parliament. It will be of crucial importance to Romania to continue in the same or even more assiduous way its fight to establish rule of law because this will have huge impact on the economy as well.
Romania is one of the few EU member states that enjoy dynamic economic growth. Although it has slowed down, Romania's gross domestic product's growth continues to be high. It fell from 3.5% last year to 2.4% in the first half of 2014. The reason for the slowdown is decrease of investments. The main driver of growth are domestic consumption and net exports. The European Commission expects, in its autumn economic forecast, good growth in 2015 as well of 2.4% and 2.8% in 2016. The downside risks to the realisation of this forecast is faster than expected deleverage of households and financial institutions as well as further deterioration of the geopolitical tension which affects confidence. In this regard, it is important to note that the new president of Romania could bring change. According to Martina Gancheva, Mr Iohannis has already demonstrated his inclination to the US in his foreign policy, which will hardly be to Putin's liking.
Romania is one of the few countries in Europe which agreed to explore for shale gas. Just as Poland, Romania too allowed explorations hoping for cheaper energy. Romania is the third most energy dependent member state of the EU. During the presidential campaign, Victor Ponta announced that the country does not have the expected reserves. "We fought intensely for something we don't have", he said recently. The American company Chevron said, however, that the final assessment is not complete yet. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Romania could have reserves worth 51 trillion cubic meters of shale gas which can cover the country's consumption for more than a century. Regarding one of the sensitive issues for Romania - Moldova - Iohannis supports unification and the country's European integration. He believes that these two do not exclude each other but points out that if the authorities in Chisinau do not want it there will be no forceful unification, Martina Gancheva commented.
Some conclusions for Bulgaria
In Bulgaria, just like in Romania, there has been for years a battle to limit the voting abroad. The similarities, however, end here. If in Romania the decision about the number of polling stations is taken by the government, in Bulgaria every year and sometimes several times a year amendments are made to the electoral code just to suite those in power. This was many times criticised in the Commission's report under the CVM but to no avail. In the Commission's last report on Romania it is said that the country made significant progress in the fight against corruption although it is still not clear whether it will be deeply rooted. And about Bulgaria it is pointed out that the fight against corruption had failed. Moreover, the Commission reports about significant political interference in the work of the judiciary. After a year and a half of political instability, provoked by a series of protests, some of which lasted record long time - six months - after a record low turnout the party of former prime minister Boyko Borissov returned to power. It was during his first time as head of government when the strongest deterioration of the work under the CVM happened.
The new government of Bulgaria is a coalition of Boyko Borissov's party and a group of reformist parties. The first visible outcome is that there is a special deputy prime minster who is responsible solely for the work on the CVM and the European affairs. This is the first commissioner of Bulgaria Meglena Kouneva, who was responsible for the consumer protection, and before becoming a commissioner she was a minster of European affairs and a chief negotiator with the EU at the time when the Mechanism was drawn. It is too early to say what will prevail in Bulgaria - what Boyko Borissov and his party represent, that is the spirit of the status quo or there will be reforms. The tradition in Bulgaria is to hurry with legislative measures to obtain a "positive" report. But the situation now is completely different.
There is a new Commission but not only in terms of composition but also in terms of structure. It has a second most powerful person after the president and that is First Vice President Frans Timmermans, who will be responsible precisely for the rule of law. How he and the new Commission will assess Bulgaria's and Romania's progress we are yet to witness. Certainly, though, Romania is tangibly ahead of Bulgaria. It already has a long track record of sentences. Something that is completely absent in Bulgaria and when comparing with Romania it has become strikingly evident. If it was not for the strong pressure, the extraordinary report in which there was strong criticism against media, Romania would have hardly been what it is today and that is a country where high level corruption is no longer tolerated. A country where it has become normal to resign over a failure.
Still remains open the question why the Commission had not apply such pressure on Bulgaria as well. And is it necessary to have a political crisis so the Commission decide to react relentlessly?