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Lawmakers Derail Romania's Corruption Fight

  • Traian Ungureanu

Former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase -- no fear of prosecution, for now

Former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase -- no fear of prosecution, for now

There is one new member of the European Union that has been working hard to undermine the rule of law and its own judiciary. Since that country joined the union at the beginning of last year, it has undertaken the systematic retraction of the pledges it made in order to enter the continent's democratic framework.

Welcome to Romania.

The process of eroding the rule of law culminated on June 24 when the parliament declined to decide whether to proceed with the prosecution on corruption charges of former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. The case is the most politically sensitive file yet assembled by Romanian prosecutors.

In late 2007, Nastase, who is widely regarded as the virtual patron saint of official corruption, and Miron Mitrea, a former transportation minister and the deputy head of the Social Democratic Party headed by Nastase, were on the verge of facing prosecution by the country's highest anticorruption authority. Both stood accused of embezzlement, bribery, and the mismanagement of public funds. However, after half a year of procedural wrangling, delays, and appeals, the politically charged files were taken out of the hands of prosecutors.

In a groundbreaking ruling, the Constitutional Court recently held that all investigations of high-ranking politicians must be sanctioned by the parliament. It ruled that both men remain entitled to the same immunity from prosecution they enjoyed when they were in office.

Romanian politicians hold their immunity dear. Last year, lawmakers amended the Criminal Code to require prosecutors to give advance warning prior to any searches involving political figures. The changes also require them to announce whose telephone calls are being monitored and to close any investigations more than six months old.

Also last year, legislators decriminalized large-scale banking fraud. They also humiliated and forced out Monica Macovei, the country's courageous and internationally respected justice minister. Macovei was removed despite the strong endorsement of the European Commission.

Last fall, parliament finally approved the creation of the National Agency for Integrity, a watchdog body promoted by the European Commission that is supposed to investigate the personal assets of political figures. But the government has yet to approve the new body's supplemented budget. Without that money, the agency's president has said it will take years simply to review the existing asset declarations.

The process of exempting the political elite from accountability reached its apogee with the June 24 vote on the Nastase and Mitrea cases. Of the 251 deputies present, only 208 cast votes, nullifying the proceedings. Just prior to the vote, however, lawmakers decided that parliament would begin its summer holiday at the end of the day, effectively leaving the matter unresolved at least until the fall session begins. At that time, though, the country's general-election campaign will be in full swing, and the public will have little attention to spare for the cases.

The June 24 indecision is the culmination of a two-year process during which parliament has de facto created a two-tiered justice system. The machine grinds away at petty cases, but grinds to a halt when those in public office face accountability.

By shielding Nastase and Mitrea -- and, by extension, the whole coterie of the country's political elite -- lawmakers have placed themselves effectively above the law.

Traian Ungureanu is a London-based correspondent for RFE/RL's Romania and Moldova Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL