Weekly review: Romanian anti-corruption fight barely survives the “black week”

Weekly review: Romanian anti-corruption fight barely survives the “black week”
By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
The closing week has been dominated by an unexpected and worrying secretive attempt by lawmakers of the Romanian ruling coalition to exempt themselves from corruption crimes amid a surge of anti-graft inquiries which mainly envisage MPs, but the move has sparked a flurry of criticism from the West and the head of the state, prompting the government to double back.
On Monday, the political and public debate was still pondering on the 0.7 Eurocents per liter fuel excise PM Victor Ponta wants to introduce as of next year with a view to cover some budgetary holes. As President Traian Basescu opposed the move, arguing the missing money can be retrieved from different sources, and warned he would reject next year’s state budget. On Monday, under the siege of the head of state, PM Ponta took a step backward and announced he would postpone increasing the fuel excise for diesel for three months. Basescu replied Ponta was only trying to steal only from one pocket though this measure. Ponta’s stance also came amid a national strike of the road transporters which paralyzed supplies right before winter holidays and which could have put the government in a difficult situation.
On Tuesday, the so-called “black Tuesday” as the Romania media labeled it, the lawmakers of the ruling coalition amended the Criminal Code in a secretive meeting of the Chamber of Deputies’ juridical committee. The legislative changes, voted without any public consultations, basically decriminalized political corruption and shielded top politicians from being held accountable for crimes such as bribery, abuse of office and peddling of influence. The amendments came shortly after lawmakers sought to pass a law on amnesty and pardon which would have released from prisons convicts sentenced to up to six years in prison and would have rehabilitated politicians already imprisoned or under advanced stages of criminal investigation. Basescu again warned against the severe effects of all the amendments secretly passed.
On Wednesday, the European Commission and the Western embassies in Bucharest took a unitary critical position against the amendments and warned they throw Romania one step backward. From Brussels, the spokesman of the European executive arms warned politicians should not be above the law and said this weeks’ activity in the Romanian Parliament would be reflected in next report which assesses the progress Romania, along Bulgaria, makes in the field of justice. Many of the Western European countries link the conclusions of this report to Romania and Bulgaria’s efforts to join Schengen.
On Thursday, ambassadors and other diplomats went to the Parliament and discussed the controversial amendments with the lawmakers of the juridical committee of the lower house. Under the heavy pressure, the head of the liberals, the junior party in the ruling coalition, said he had been misinformed about the nature of the amendments and warned his party would vote against them. Basescu warned he might dissolve the Parliament since the amendments represent a serious encroachment upon the Copenhagen criteria which lie at the roots of the functioning of the European Union, the most severe warning he has conveyed so far. On the same day, the minister of Culture, Daniel Barbu, submitted his resignation after he outraged the public with a series of comments in which he complained the budget for the national HIV/AIDS prevention program was too big compared to the one his ministry has for organizing festivals. The anti-discrimination governmental body launched an investigation against Barbu following his words.
On Friday, the same lawmakers of the juridical committee were summoned to the US embassy to explain their vote on Tuesday. The American Chamber of Commerce in Romania also issued a scathing press release in which it condemned the government’s lack of transparency in passing measures which have a major impact on the business environment and the citizens. In a new public statement, President Basescu warned that, unless the controversial amendments are reversed, Romania risks severe effects, such as losing the right to vote in the European Council which is at this point the toughest consequence an EU member state can experience in terms of serious breach of rule of law. In an interview to France Inter, PM Ponta admitted there had been no consultation with the Ministry of Justice and the magistrates’ council about the amendments, but pointed out the final form of these legislative changes would be in line with the requests of the European Commission, though it is highly unlikely Brussels would accept any proposal deemed to have negative effects on the anti-corruption fight, especially among lawmakers.