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Romania On Edge After Premier Refuses To Quit Over Corruption Charges

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta (left) and President Klaus Iohannis

The Romanian president's fears of a political crisis could be realized now that the country's prime minister has rejected calls to step down after he was indicted for corruption.

President Klaus Iohannis had urged Victor Ponta to resign after anticorruption prosecutors charged the prime minister with forgery, money-laundering, conflict of interest, and tax evasion.

"Taking into consideration that the worst thing that could happen to Romania now is a political crisis, I call for Prime Minister Victor Ponta's resignation," the president said in a televised address on June 5.

But a message subsequently posted on Ponta's Facebook page shows that the prime minister is digging his heels in.

"I have been appointed by Romania's parliament and only the parliament can dismiss me!" Ponta wrote. "I believe that respecting the principles of the Constitution is essential for our society."

He said he could not "under any circumstances" accept a situation under which the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) was "above the Parliament, the government, and the citizens of this country!"

This, he added, "would mean a dictatorship, and I believe that 25 years after 1989 that would be a great error for all of us!"

The DNA earlier announced in a statement that Ponta was under investigation, among other things, for receiving up to $72,000 from the law firm of a close associate for fictitious legal work between 2007 and 2008.

The associate, legislator Dan Sova, went on to hold several positions in Ponta's government, including that of transport minister, and is currently himself under investigation for corruption in a separate case.

The DNA statement said Ponta used the money to buy two flats in Bucharest after forging documents to cash in on legal fees paid by Sova's law firm.

Prosecutors say they will file a formal request with parliament, which would have to strip Ponta of his immunity for the probe to proceed.

President Iohannis officially called for Ponta's resignation after meeting with him at the presidential palace following the prosecutors' move.

Iohannis beat Ponta in a dramatic presidential runoff in November, running on an anticorruption ticket and pledging to safeguard the independence of the judiciary.

This is not the first time that Ponta has courted controversy.

Immediately after becoming prime minister, a panel of scholars found that Ponta had plagiarized his doctorate. Ponta rejected the accusation repeatedly, but relinquished his PhD in December 2014 after losing the presidential election.

Once seen as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, Romania's anticorruption drive has intensified in recent years, despite political pressure from the governing coalition led by Ponta, who is also the head of the ex-communist Social-Democratic Party.

In 2014, the anticorruption office secured a record 1,051 convictions, including a former prime minister, seven former ministers, a former deputy prime minister, four lawmakers, one member of the European Parliament, 39 mayors, 25 magistrates, and two tycoons.

Unstable Regional Situation

Ponta, in office since 2012, is the first serving prime minister to be indicted. As head of the Social Democrats however, he is also a legislator, and members of parliament are immune from prosecution unless there is a vote to lift their immunity.

Ponta's close associate Dan Sova has survived two feeble attempts to lift his immunity in the social-democrat-controlled Parliament.

Analysts say Ponta's refusal to step down could cast a shadow on the political stability of EU and NATO member Romania, which neighbors conflict-torn Ukraine as well as Moldova, where Russia has around 1,500 troops stationed in its separatist Transdniester region.

Cristian Pantazi, editor-in-chief of Romania's portal, says "intensive" discussions may already be under way between Bucharest and its Western partners following Ponta's indictment.

"Unfortunately, this is a major vulnerability for Romania amid a very tense and unstable regional situation... to have as head of government a figure who is suspected of corruption," says Pantazi.

Pantazi says Ponta's only option would be to resign immediately in order to protect Romania's interests.

"This scandal completely undermines the credibility of Premier Ponta and his government," says Pantazi. "Very few EU and NATO leaders would probably agree to meet with someone who is under criminal investigation. [This scandal] casts a shadow over the whole political behavior of Romania's government."