Codru Vrabie: Romania’s anti-corruption was problematic, but its non-existence today creates danger

The second part of the podcast on social change and agency in Southeastern Europe deals with Romania and change

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship

Codru Vrabie is a civic activist, trainer and consultant on good governance, transparency, responsibility, and integrity in the public sector. He has contributed to many reform measures in justice and public administration. Vrabie has BAs in legal and political sciences (Romania, Bulgaria, the USA) and MAs in administrative sciences and European affairs (Romania, the Netherlands, Spain). He has worked for various Romanian civil society organizations since 1998. In 2010, Vrabie started working with the “Leaders for Justice” programme, which was replicated in 2017 by the Republic of Moldova.

See the contents of the second part of the podcast with Codru Vrabie:

00:00 Romanian anti-corruption and current politics (intro) 

03:21 No more high-profile cases of anti-corruption prosecution in Romania. Judicial system took heavy blows in 2017-2018 and never managed to recover. Political parties in power mainly hate the idea of separation of powers 

04:47 Why the former justice minister Stelian Ion didn’t abolish the special section for investigation of crimes in the judicial system? 

10:11 Vladimir’s take on Stelian Ion’s lack of action: reopening of anti-corruption should mean a leader of the type of Laura Koveși and maybe would mean further division in society and political system, but political parties generally agree that there will be no more cutting of meat from them 

11:15 Pre-2018 golden era of anti-corruption was empowered by secret protocols between the anti-corruption prosecution DNA and the secret services 

16:02 When anti-corruption is not strong, isn’t there the danger of big money corrupting everything in the public sphere? 

22:25 To what extent Europeanization is Romania’s vector of change? 

29:16 European legislation and Romania 

31:52 The rise of sovereignism in Romania 

33:55 Romanian sovereignism has nothing to do with national capital 

35:40 Explanation for the rise of sovereignism in Romania 

41:58 The change, which sovereignism brings or will bring to Romania

Now, let’s start now with the countries we are interested in. And first of all, Romania, of course. You are an expert on good governance and you have given a number of interviews on Romanian anti-corruption. We know that after 2016, and especially after 2018, a lot of things changed in the Romanian anti-corruption fight. Of course, there are some cases when people are still brought to justice, but generally this whole campaign, which was going under Laura Kövesi, was stopped. And a lot of people I speak with and even in Romanian media discussed that now we are in another era, let’s say, of Romanian politics, where the old parties, the so-called parties of transition, are in power. And I have here a number of questions maybe to ask you and to understand what happens with Romanian corruption. 

Romania had between 2019 and 2020, if I’m not mistaken, or maybe not, in fact, in 2020-2021, a justice minister from the party of Union Save Romania, who was promising to abolish the special section for investigation of crimes in the judicial system, that is effectively the brake which blocks the old type of anti-corruption and he didn’t abolish this special section. My first question would be why this didn’t happen?

On the other hand, maybe you are aware of a number of reports where big money seemed to corrupt Romanian security and judicial institutions? I refer especially to the Recorder report on a policeman who claims an influential businessman from one of the regions close to Hungary had access to his personal data within the system of the police. And maybe there is also another case in this sense about a judge who was accused of corruption and caught with some money. But after that, the case went in such a direction that the judge was reinstated. At least my impression from talking with people is that big money corrupts Romanian institutions, including the press. There is reporting again from Recorder about how big party money spoils the media. So with this big context in mind, what goes on with Romanian anti-corruption and with justice in general in Romania after 2018?

Oh. Romanian anti-corruption is sort of dead in the water, if you look at the anti-corruption prosecution DNA. Because they are no longer active on high profile cases. There are many explanations for that.

When you look at justice in general, the Romanian judiciary received extremely heavy blows during 2017-2018 and never managed to recover. It didn’t get any help from any politicians. And I think the overall discussion related specifically to rule of law is that the political parties that are in power, mainly hate the idea of separation of powers.

Now, given these three initial hypotheses, we can go back and discuss the details of your specific questions. You started with the mandate of Stelian Ion – the minister of justice back in I cannot remember 2020 or 2021. That was a time, when after the parliamentary elections, the Liberal Party, together with the Save Romania Union, put together a cabinet, I think together with the Hungarian minority as well. And for one year they ruled together now. Most of the Save Romanian Romania Union is or was perceived as a very progressive, reformist party, somewhat technocratic, as you put it. But I think they were not prepared to join the cabinet. So I think Save Romania Union got the mandate for minister of justice without having a very clear plan regarding what to do with its minister.

Yes, there was pressure for him to get rid of the special section that investigates crimes committed by magistrates. But he didn’t do it. And I think, first of all, he didn’t do it, because there was not a majority within the cabinet of ministers to make this decision. The Liberals and the Hungarians really didn’t want to take on this reform. They preferred for the special section to remain in power, this special section having been established back in 2018, I think, by the Social Democrats.

So basically Save Romania Union was a sort of minority party in terms of visions and values. It was also a minority party in the governing coalition. And on the other side of the bench, there was a huge majority created by the liberals, the Hungarian minority and the Social Democrats. So from this perspective, If you don’t have enough power to make a transformation, then maybe you don’t make it. 

Later on, Ion was forced out of the cabinet. And the Liberals with the Hungarians joined forces across the aisle with the Social Democrats. And that created the so-called so-called rotational arrangement for the Romanian Cabinet. Prime Minister Ciuca from the Liberals maintained this position for about a year and a half, and now we have Mr. Ciolacu from the Social Democrats again for a mandate of about a year and a half because we’re going to have elections, probably in December next year. So this is a sort of a brief way of answering why Stelian Ion didn’t go on with that reform.

First of all, I think he didn’t have this reform as part of his plan. Secondly, I think he miscalculated the resources that were needed in terms of votes. And then when he realized that there was no political support for this particular reform, then he simply quit the idea. Does it make sense?

It sounds plausible. If you wish, my opinion…. I don’t have a fixed opinion on that. There is this understanding that anti-corruption may also lead to a division in society. These are my memories from what I remember in 2018. So reopening of anti-corruption should mean a leader who does this anti-corruption and maybe if there is a leader of the type of Laura Koveși, it would also mean further division. And maybe that has some logic – that Romanian political elites have agreed that there will be no such type of cutting of meat from them, no matter if even if you are a technocrat, even if you are progressive or whatever.

I understand that Romania really doesn’t have an anti-corruption champion. I know that Mrs. Koveși is seen in Bulgaria as a sort of a messiah of anti-corruption. But I have my reservations. I would like to remind you and our listeners that the glory days of Koveși’s DNA in terms of anti-corruption in Romania were related to a time when they were working very, very closely with the Secret Service. And then a lot of questions arose: to what extent then I was really doing anti-corruption or wasn’t it simply serving the agenda of the Secret Service?

In 2016, if I’m not mistaken, we all learned in Romanian society about the secret protocol of cooperation between DNA, the anti-corruption prosecution and SRI, the Romanian Intelligence Service. And from then on Koveși was no longer seen as the pure messiah that was going to save the nation. In 2017 when Mr. Tudorel Toader as Minister of Justice ”reformed the Romanian judiciary”, he basically did everything in his power to make sure that DNA will never have the ability to put politicians in jail or to confiscate their wealth. And then in 2018, if I’m not mistaken, Mr Tudorel Toader managed to kill DNA forever by removing Mrs. Koveși from her office. Now, this particular chain of events was extremely detrimental to the independence of Romanian judiciary because all of the magistrates (both judges and prosecutors in Romania, are magistrates), all of the magistrates in Romania learned that politicians always have more power. And they can kill any idea of reform. So this is the stage where Stelian Ion came in as Minister of Justice, without really having a reform agenda. And then very soon he learned that he doesn’t have enough allies, supporters to take that particular reform and make it happen. I’m not trying to defend Stelian Ion. On the contrary, I am very critical. But I am also critical of Mrs. Koveși. And I think from this particular perspective, when you look at Romania in terms of anti-corruption, you see that two wrongs do not make a right, but rather two wrongs create a larger wrong.

Okay. I saw in your answer, something which makes sense for me to ask another question. If you say there is an even larger wrong, isn’t there now this problem which I mentioned to you, that big money, that corrupts everything. I mean, politicians, media, even the security and judicial institutions, maybe. Of course, it’s easy for a journalist to speak sensationalist, but if this strong anti-corruption entity is stopped, uh, who is now countering corruption in Romania? Is there this danger or is it already happening that big money spoils everything and something has to be done?

The danger basically came to the surface when the National Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party joined forces to create the new government. We have always suspected that there was some type of cooperation behind the scenes between these two parties. But now since the new coalition with Prime Minister Ciuca and then Prime Minister Ciolacu, this is very much in your face. There is a reform “taking place in the background”.

It started in 2015-16, when Romania changed the law on party finance and since the National LIberal Party (PNL) started cooperating on this particular reform. You can see the budget for political parties increasing almost eight times. That means that now political parties in Romania, especially the ones in power, PNL and the Social Democratic Party (PSD) have a lot of money that they can dispense outside of any public scrutiny with no transparency requirements and they pump a lot of money into corrupt media.

When I say corrupt media, I mean corrupt in the sense of a file on your computer that gets corrupted. Not corruption in the sense of bribing. Corrupt media no longer serves the public interest to know what is going on and how political power is being exercised now. These media outlets screen off the way that political power is being exercised to serve the interest of the politicians. This is how basically the Minister of Family Matters and Social Protection managed to extend her patronage to a network of health care centers that she was basically milking for subsidies because nobody in the mainstream media, which is heavily funded by the political parties. Nobody wanted to look into this topic.

It’s only the independent media, very small outlets, most of them organized as NGOs such as Recorder that you mentioned, Rise Project or the Center for Media Investigations and De la Zero. These small outlets are the ones that shed light on decision making processes. They are the only ones that bring some transparency. And so behind the closed doors, the political parties have a huge network, where they play with public money for private interest. From this perspective, corruption in terms of medium level and high level corruption in Romania, I think increased a lot during the past, say 4 to 5 years. Even though the perception of corruption in terms of small bribery is getting better. So it looks like on the surface, in what matters to regular individuals, things are getting better. But in fact the state institutions are rotten to the core because of political corruption.

Okay. There is something which I observe is more pronounced in Romania. I mean, Europeanization as a way of change. I don’t know if you agree with that with such a label in Romania. But I am following Romanian media, especially national media, and I noticed, for example, there are, first of all, some specific media for European affairs, but also national media that dedicate a lot of attention to what is going on in Europe.

Comparing Bulgarian and Romanian debates for EU legislation such as, for example, the directive on whistleblowers, I also noticed that in Romania there was debate, there were some trainings, while in Bulgaria I have the feeling it passed somehow unnoticed that this legislation was approved. And so I noticed from the Bulgarian point of view that Romania somehow discusses more Europe and maybe makes a more conscious effort to be part of European debates or European social life. I noticed that when there are protests of some labor unions in Germany, in France, even in the UK, Romanian media report about that. So it’s important that Romanians know social life in Europe – not only who is in power in these countries, but also social life in these countries. Having said all that, I maybe need to add also that there is a policy of promotion of minorities in Romania, which I have the feeling is more complex than the one in Bulgaria and all that altogether for me suggests that there is some Romanian conscious effort to Europeanise as a way of change. And I wonder how much you agree with such labeling of Romania or such description of Romanian efforts to change.

It may be the case that I am too close to see it. So I’m not going to dispute your observation. But I would say this. I think that, because Romania has a sizable Hungarian speaking minority, many, many, many of those people also have Hungarian citizenship, and Hungary is another member of the European Union and even a member of the Schengen Agreement, it is important for Romanian society to understand how we relate to at least Hungary.

Then we do have a very large emigration from Romania. Some figures look at 4 million Romanians across borders. Other statistics look at 6 million. I don’t know the exact figure, and I don’t think it’s important. But when you have a Romanian mayor elected in Spain, that’s or in Germany, that sort of creates a need for the society in general to understand also what is happening in Spain or in Germany. When you have a German mayor in Romania – the mayor of Timisoara, of course, you’re going to also look at what’s happening with Germany on the European Sea. So the news reporting related to Europe, I think, has its roots in these two explanations.

Then you mentioned other minorities, I think. We do have seats in parliament reserved for every minority. And that also allows for these people to make news. And then of course, that news that is of public interest is newsworthy. So probably that’s why you see that preoccupation of Romanian society with minorities. But that is also true, I think, not just with national minorities, but it’s also true with, for instance, sexual minorities.

Now, looking back at this interplay between minorities and the European Union, some of the debates in Romanian society are not always about what is the right decision in Brussels. But more often is about why Brussels wants to impose this decision on us. So it’s also an outlet for the sovereignist agenda to permeate into national news. And there was a third element that you mentioned but escaped my mind. Can you please remind me what you said about Europeanization and minorities? There was also something else.

I also spoke about EU legislation, for example, on whistleblowers or in general.

Yeah. You know, when it comes to European legislation that is somehow related to corruption and anti-corruption, it’s very easy for Romanian society to be activated. But we don’t have a similar conversation about the new European legislation on artificial intelligence. We don’t really have this type of conversation about the new European legislation related to, I don’t know, agriculture, or if we do, that’s very, very rare. Most often than not, we do have debates related to anti-corruption legislation. And to some extent, the whistleblower directive was seen in Romania as directly related to anti-corruption because Romania used to have a whistleblower protection since 2004 specifically for the public sector. And many corruption cases appeared because some whistleblowers blew the whistle. That’s the explanation for that.

But, for instance, now that the European Union proposed in May a new directive on anti-corruption specifically, nobody talked about the new directive in the Romanian media because there were some other topics that superseded this new proposal for a new directive. So that’s why I’m saying that maybe your observation in a sense from outside of Romanian society may be true. I am probably too close to see it in the same way.

Okay. You mentioned the sovereignist Romania and its rise. That is a huge issue and I think it deserves attention. Especially in Bulgaria, there is this understanding that Romanians are some kind of excellent students of euro-atlanticism and I still wonder why Bulgarian media don’t notice that maybe somewhere around 25% or even more of Romanian votes right now are probably going to this sector of sovereignist parties.

First of all, I want to ask you, what are the reasons for this rise? But also, isn’t it time to admit that Romania, as well as Bulgaria, have such a position in international relations that they have apparently also influences from the East – Russian, Chinese and other influences from the East. I know that sovereignists like to play this card of tradition and cultural specificity, religion, traditional family, etcetera. But isn’t it also right to say that it is some kind of a political representation of national capital, which is a different story? And finally, what change does sovereignism bring to Romania? My guess is that change is never simply good or bad, but maybe change is something structural. Maybe it is qualitative. And just as it happened with the Dragnea’s stop of anti-corruption, maybe sovereignism will bring some change to Romania, which everyone needs to understand or be prepared for.

Again very interesting questions. And the combination makes me think. But I will pick on the easiest one. To what extent the sovereignist movement of Romania relates to national capital? The answer is in absolutely no way. The Romanian sovereignist party, or at least the most visible Romanian Sovereignist party is this Alliance for the Unity of Romanians. It does not unite the national capital. You have in its ranks some fringe intellectuals, combined with some of the football gallery type of people. This Alliance for the Unity of Romanians, or whatever it’s called, mostly brings together some type of fringe intellectuals with this type of football gallery, let’s call them hooligans or something. They appeal to a lot of the lower class voters in Romania.

These are namely the ones that suffer most from the economic inequality that I discussed at the beginning of our interview. So, for instance, a small accountant from an enterprise that used to be public and then was privatized. Somebody who doesn’t have a higher degree of education. Somebody who has recently come out to retirement, and suffers greatly from the failure of the Romanian social assistance system. And suffers greatly because of inflation.

It’s very easy for people like these to say, it used to be better back when. The enterprise was owned by the state. This is the type of agenda of people that are targeted by this particular party. Now, you can bring in a lot of ideological loads on this type of agenda. And you bring in the anti-vaxxers, you bring in the anti-gay, you bring in the fundamentalist religious people, whether they be Orthodox or Baptist or evangelist, some of the newer Protestant cults. And this is a true umbrella party for a so-called sovereignist movement that is very easy to capture any sort of Russian or Chinese influence. Because it goes mostly against the idea of Europeanization. It goes against the idea of change. It advocates for people to maintain our traditions and values and the old ways of doing things because we now need to chill, to relax. We now deserve quiet and peace. And all of this change brings a lot of turmoil.

This would be my explanation for this type of political movement. For the past 30 years or so, Romania has been changing rapidly. We had reform over reform, over reform, over reform in a lot of areas and fields and domains. We have never seen the end of it. So there are a number of people who can adapt to this excitement, to this rhythm of change after change. And some people, like entrepreneurs, thrive on this path of continuous change. But there are some people in society who are tired of all of this change, who are tired of all this reform, who really want to put a stop to it and enjoy the sort of benefits that they think rely on tradition, religion. I don’t know what mamaliga (polenta), instead of prosciutto crudo. I think this is the dynamics. I am not sure to what extent it is similar in Bulgaria with Vazrazhdane – Is it called? Yes. The Renaissance Party.

Revival, maybe.



But I am not surprised to see that now there is a party like that in Moldova, and I think it’s also called Vozrozhdenie, but probably with the Russian version of that word. I’m not sure how to pronounce it. This may be the case in Moldova, more of an influence from Russia. But I think maybe for Romania and Bulgaria, it’s more of a knee jerk reaction from people who are tired of all of these changes. That’s the way I look at it. And I need to go back to your question, because you put together three specific questions.

I also had the question: what change does sovereignism bring to Romania or will it bring?

Well, to be very frank with you, Vladimir, I hope I do not leave the day to see that. Because I simply cannot fathom how Romania can succeed to maintain its territorial integrity. If we no longer have money coming in from an Austrian bank, a Dutch shipyard or Brussels, European funds or resilience and reconstruction money. I simply cannot imagine how Romania can survive, based only on our own mamaliga.

If you ask some of these people from our sovereignist movement what is their vision of how Romania – I don’t know, will develop, succeed, they do not have answers. They are not concerned with creating a vision for sovereign Romania. They are only playing the game of opposing whatever is European or whatever is changing. And this is an important observation, I think, because that really proves these people do not have a concrete political agenda for the long term. They only play the populist game of being an anti-system type of movement. So from this perspective, I don’t even call them a political party, but just a political movement.

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