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Romania: EU Warns Bucharest Over Corruption

The European Union this week said that one of Romania's top priorities in its efforts to meet EU admission criteria must be to tackle widespread corruption. The EU warning comes after U.S. and European officials this month repeatedly urged Bucharest to fight corruption, which they described as a crime that was endangering Romania's development. The Romanian government says it has taken new and firm measures against corruption, but Western officials and analysts say Bucharest must rapidly implement such measures, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 30 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Western officials are signaling they are increasingly worried about widespread corruption in Romania, despite Bucharest's recently adopted anti-corruption measures.

European Union enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen on 28 April called on Romania to firmly tackle corruption at all levels, and outlined the fight against corruption as being one of Romania's top priorities in its efforts to meet EU admission criteria.

Verheugen's statement is the latest in a series of warnings this month from both U.S. and European officials, who are calling on Romania to take concrete action against corruption.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Guest on 15 April urged Bucharest to focus on direct actions against corruption. In a strongly worded speech, Guest called corruption "a shame" for Romania and said that he was completely aware of the gravity of the situation.

Guest said that he understood "too well why businessmen with inside connections do not want new, tighter laws to be passed or implemented." He also blamed corruption for failure to privatize key companies or prosecute those who steal from the state.

Guest's remarks were echoed by Obie Moore, the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bucharest, who said corruption could hamper Romania's efforts to join the EU in 2007.

The European Commission's representative in Bucharest, Jonathan Scheele, said he totally agreed with Guest's remarks.

But Romania's chief EU negotiator, Vasile Puscas, told RFE/RL that the Western official's statements were, in fact, "a show of support" for the government's anti-corruption strategy. "The government has taken action against corruption even before it presented the [anti-corruption] law package to parliament [last month], I am referring to the anti-corruption strategy and program, and especially to the creation last year of the National Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office, which has become operational in September 2002 and its results are already being noticed in the media and in public speeches. Thus, I reckon that these interventions [by Western officials and diplomats] are a show of support for Romania's current anti-corruption efforts." The Romanian parliament on 31 March passed a package of anti-corruption laws.

Guest acknowledged in his speech that the current social-democratic government has done more to tighten laws and strengthen institutions than any other previous government. But he added that authorities must focus more on implementing the measures.

Few high-profile corruption cases have been under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office, leading to the accusation that the government was tackling "corruption without the corrupted."

According to Transparency International's 2002 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Romania ranks 77th out of 102 countries -- coming last out of all EU candidate countries.

Bulgaria, the only other East European EU candidate not to be admitted in the 2004 wave of enlargement, ranks 45th in the world -- much better than Romania.

Sara Morante, Transparency International's representative for Southeastern Europe, told RFE/RL that the CPI is based on accounts given by foreign investors, and thus it does not rate actual corruption, but the perception of corruption.

Morante said it is very important for a country to have a good image among foreign investors.

"Part of the perception comes, of course, from investors, businesspeople, who have looked at the country trying to seek the opportunity to invest there, and this is one of the key points for which the corruption issue is very relevant to the country, together with the future membership of the EU. And if you look a little bit at the position the EU and its representative to Romania has taken recently, this seems to indicate that Romania is still some steps before concretely trying to get the situation under control," Morante said.

Romania over the past 13 years has attracted relatively little foreign direct investment compared to other former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The London-based Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that Romania attracted a total of less than $9 billion in foreign investment, that is, some $410 per inhabitant, compared with a central and east European average of almost $1,600 per head.

Many analysts say that Romania's perception as a relatively corrupt country is playing a major role in keeping investors away.

Media reports say some investors have been turned away by bureaucracy, unclear legislation, and widespread corruption among public servants.

Romanians, too, have to deal with omnipresent corruption on a daily basis, being forced to pay corrupt public officials bribes -- called 'spaga' in Romanian -- even for the most basic services.

In a rare high-profile corruption case, the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office last year arrested Fanel Pavalache, an adviser to a government minister, on suspicion that he had asked for a $4 million bribe from a businessman in exchange for a favorable judicial decision concerning a commercial lawsuit.

Pavalache is currently under investigation.

Romanian investigative journalist Cornel Ivanciuc, of the "Academia Catavencu" weekly, says that reports are circulating in the Romanian media that Guest's strong warning against corruption was determined by complaints from many Western businessmen that they must bribe their way into the ministries they want to do business with.

"In order to come into contact with some ministers one has to pay 'a door tax' bribe, 'spaga' as it is called, just to be admitted in the office of some minister. Of course, I cannot imagine that a minister could inspire such a practice. But I recall the 'Pavalache affair' and [think of] some other lower rank officials from the government building who could come up with such schemes in order to give the impression that they are the contact people who can open the doors of some ministers," Ivanciuc said.

The anti-corruption measures adopted by the government meanwhile have come under criticism that they are too lax and have not been subjected to public debate for long enough.

Transparency International's Sarah Morante said the laws contain loopholes that will allow a proliferation of corruption.

"The impression it [Transparency International Romanian branch] has is that the government has not involved the society properly in terms of consultation. They [non-governmental organizations and media] didn't have time, for example, to seriously comment on the 50 pages of legislation that they were given. The legislation that has been proposed, rather than making concrete steps to fight corruption, is rather continuing a lot of loopholes which will allow further corruption practices. So the issue is now very much how this legislation is going to be amended in a way which the national chapter [TI Romanian branch] and the other civil society groups who have been monitoring the anti-corruption developments in the country think will be appropriate to completely fight corruption," Morante said.

Among the loopholes identified by analysts are the lack of sanctions for officials who fail to fill out the required income and asset declarations. The form itself was criticized as incomplete, omitting real estate abroad, art collections, or jewelry. In cases of conflicts of interest, the law package also fails to provide for an authority that could decide cases involving the prime minister.