Romania is going through an unprecedented political crisis. The questioning of the rule of law in the country, a member of the European Union (EU) since 2007, is troubling for European institutions. Since the beginning of June, in the space of a week, the new majority composed of socialists and centre-right liberals has engaged in an institutional power grab which led, on July 6, to the dismissal of the centre-right president, Traian Băsescu.
To achieve this, the government of socialist Victor Ponta violated the constitution and restricted the powers of the Constitutional Court, the backbone of Romania's judicial system.
“It's a real coup d'état,” states Romanian Euro MP Monica Macovei, a former Justice Minister and the initiator of a radical reform of the Romanian judiciary who is very appreciated by the European Commission. “It is time for Romanians to look truth in the eye and for them to mobilise, otherwise dictatorship and tyranny can settle in at any time,” she adds.
Mobilising resources to impeach the president
What are the real stakes in this cacophony of Romanian politics? The speed with which the Romanian president was dismissed has raised many questions. The response is undoubtedly not strictly political. It is the fate of the justice system that is in play. A country known for corruption, Romania had, nonetheless, managed over the past few years to alter the perception of the European Commission which, each year, evaluates the status of its judiciary.
The National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), an institution placed under the high patronage of the presidency, was recently able to obtain convictions against several junior ministers, MPs, high-level civil servants, generals and other public figures until then reputed untouchable.
On June 20, following an investigation by the DNA, the former socialist prime minister, Adrian Năstase, mentor to the current head of government, was sentenced to two years of prison for corruption. That was a strong signal. The leaders targeted, some of whom benefit from parliamentary immunity, have not, however, given up.
They reacted by mobilising their resources to impeach the president, Traian Băsescu, and take over the DNA. "The goal of the parliamentary majority is to take control of the justice system," the dismissed president claims. "My dismissal is but a step down that path," he adds.
Leaders in Bucharest appear definitely compromised
The man who orchestrated this show on the Romanian political scene is Dan Voiculescu, a former high-ranking officer of the Securitate, the communist regime's secret police. Nicknamed "the monitor lizard" because of his resemblance to the large reptile, he was elected senator twice and his personal wealth is estimated at over 1.5 billion euros.
Head of a media empire [which includes the daily Jurnalul Naţional], he announced, as of May 1, the timetable for the dismissal of President Băsescu. This was followed to the letter by the socialist Prime Minister Victor Ponta.
But "the lizard" and his well-placed puppets wrongly estimated the reaction of European institutions. The report on the status of justice in Romania, released by the European Commission on July 18, cancels all the steps taken by Romania to enter Europe's Schengen free-travel zone.
With a foreign minister, Andrei Marga, who admires Vladimir Putin and who is overwhelmed by the situation, and a prime minister accused of plagiarising his doctoral thesis, the current leaders in Bucharest appear definitely compromised.
The conflict shaking Romanian politics mirrors the opposition between a Romania that wants to change, to modernise and to adapt to European standards and an immobile country, mired in the past and controlled by networks that intend to protect their vested economic interests through parliamentary immunity. The July 29 referendum will allow Romanians to settle the issue.
Watch out for black sheep syndrome
This is not Romania's first piece of theatrics to shock Europe, notes Lucas Niculescu in Revista 22. But this year the scandal has reached new heights. The upper echelons of Europe, for example, have reacted badly to the measures taken by the government of Victor Ponta that lead to the dismissal of President Băsescu. “Europe currently treats Romania worse than it did Italy under Berlusconi, France under Sarkozy in 2010 or Hungary under Viktor Orbán,” the journalist says.
Going beyond recent events, there is a core of mistrust towards the country which “entered the EU [in 2007] with difficulty, whose justice system remains monitored and which doesn't absorb European funds properly.” In short, as a European official has said: a concordance of circumstances that means that “one rarely expects good news from Romania.”
All this worries Luca Niculescu for whom —
Romania could become Europe's “black sheep”, a country considered as unpredictable; avoided by major investors. There is another, internal risk, that this severe EU criticism could lead to something that has not existed up to now in Romania: an anti-European current. With the on-going crisis as a back-drop, fuelled by shady politicians, Europe could be “de-friended”. It could be the one that criticises too much and who meddles in “internal affairs”. That would be a catastrophe.