Recent articles published by The New York Times
have suggested that the anti-corruption fight in Romania has gone too far. Setting aside the question of why two major American news outfits would run back-to-back articles complaining about the efforts of a semi-consolidated democracy to clean up its corruption-plagued government, the articles deserve a response from those who know and understand the situation on the ground in Romania.
First, the argument. The authors, Luke Dale-Harris of Newsweek and Patrick Basham of the Democracy Institute, writing as an op-ed contributor at The New York Times, claim that Romania’s anti-corruption efforts are doing more harm than good in the country. The authors make four broad claims: (1) that the mechanisms of anti-corruption lend themselves to political abuse; (2) that anti-corruption efforts have gotten out of control; (3) that anti-corruption efforts are hurting the economy; and (4) that anti-corruption campaigns fuel anti-American sentiment.
Let’s deal with each argument in turn. First, it’s important to understand that any public institution, in any country, can lend itself to political abuse—even in the United States. But the history of Romanian anti-corruption institutions does not support the authors’ claims that they are primarily tools of political vindictiveness. The Romanian anti-corruption agency, Directia Nationala Anticoruptie (DNA), has a history not of targeting individuals on political grounds but of operating across the spectrum, scrutinizing figures from all parties. As a recent report by the Center for European Policy Analysis
detailed, DNA has made significant gains in recent years in revealing and dismantling corrupt networks spanning the realms of politics, business, the civil service and even magistrates—to the applause of the majority of Romanians.
Second, the claim that anti-corruption efforts are out of control mimics what some Romanian politicians themselves claim about DNA. This assertion conflicts with the previous argument: it can’t be both true that anti-corruption efforts are being employed for sinister political reasons and that they are veering wildly off the tracks. It is important to remember that that the fight against corruption is a recent phenomenon in Romania. The DNA has existed for only about a decade, during which time investigators have had to build the evidence for cases. Romania’s independent judiciary also balances the power of prosecutors, since judges ultimately decide the outcome of corruption cases. What seems like a frenzy from the outside is actually the result of many years of work, under pressure and scrutiny from the United States and the European Union (EU). Clearly, the Romanian people do not see the DNA’s work as a purposeless frenzy; 63 percent have confidence in the institution’s efforts.
Third, the idea that fighting corruption hurts the Romanian economy is baseless. In fact, the opposite is true. There is a strong correlation between the success of anti-corruption efforts in post-communist societies and economic prosperity and growth. Look at Poland. Or Estonia. In Romania’s case, there are opportunity costs to frightening away investors with corrupt business practices, as well as the direct costs of corruption itself: billions of dollars wasted on the mismanagement of public funds that could have gone to creating jobs, building infrastructure and building schools.
Fourth, the argument that fighting corruption turns Romanians against America is, on its face, bizarre. Today, Romania is one of the most pro-American countries in Europe. Romanian civil society is a close partner to the U.S. Embassy, and activists and politicians frequently call for more rather than less attention and pressure from the United States. Moreover, a significant degree of pressure for anti-corruption efforts comes from the EU, which has in Romania one of the highest approval ratings in Central Europe. Clearly, Romanians value the role that these two outside entities play in pressing the country’s leaders to clean up the system and strengthen democracy.
One common feature of the two articles was a lack of evidence to support the arguments against Romanian anti-corruption efforts. No sources were offered, no data, no figures, no comments from officials—only vague references to the views of unnamed “officials.” Neither author explained how they had come to form these (rather unorthodox) impressions. They simply asserted that anti-corruption is bad for Romania because it is widespread and zealous.
Rather than criticize Romania’s fledgling anti-corruption institutions, The New York Times and Newsweek should devote an effort to examining the very real costs and harm that corruption causes in Romanian society. If investigative journalists in the West want to turn their attention to this long-neglected subject, they might begin by asking questions such as: Where are the estimated 70 billion euros that have been stolen from the Romanian government since 1990? Why has the current government failed to collect the 1 billion euros in final judgments ordered by courts (especially since the courts have seized collateral to satisfy these judgments)? Why did Romanian politicians try to grant themselves amnesty for crimes committed in office? Why is the Romanian Parliament trying to eliminate direct elections and return to closed party lists? Why does the Romanian government bypass the Parliament and legislate by hundreds of Emergency Ordinances – many of dubious constitutionality – each year? Why does the DNA have a higher public approval rating than the government, the presidency and all of Parliament?
In asking harder questions about the extent of corruption in Romania, Western journalists and analysts should understand that corruption in the country diverts money away from healthcare and education and into politicians’ pockets. Corrupt systems frighten away many times as much investment as they attract. Across the world, corruption breeds fear, threatens lives and destroys hope. Underestimating the depth and consequences of systemic political corruption could become a major blind spot for U.S. foreign policy, including in Central Europe.
It is difficult for Americans to imagine themselves in Romanians’ shoes, or in the shoes of those in any country with deep-rooted systemic corruption. As an analogy, imagine that your children attended schools where teachers are appointed based on political patronage and are obligated to give their political party bosses a portion of what they steal from the schools. Imagine that these teachers have no skill or interest in education. Then imagine that the government is required by international institutions to initiate an anti-corruption effort, which starts convicting the teachers for theft and putting them in jail. Imagine that the political bosses intervene to allow the teachers to keep what they stole (against court judgments) and coerce the media to say, in effect, “Stop the anti-corruption work so our teachers can teach.”
Your reaction would probably be, “Hell no, the teachers don’t even know how to teach. Throw them in jail and get us our tax money they have stolen. We need real teachers and the money to rebuild our education system.” If you substitute Romanian parliamentarians for teachers in this analogy, you begin to identify with the hole Romanian citizens are trying to climb out of.
Articles like those by Dale-Harris and Basham do not help. Indeed, they do a disservice to the Romanian people, who have labored for years to free themselves from the legacy of an extractive political system. Such arguments impede those efforts and ultimately abet Vladimir Putin’s strategy of “feeding the stray dogs” (Russian code for bribing Romanian politicians).
Romania is one the few bright stories in the world today. It is remarkable that a culture so beaten down by corrupt leaders would have the courage to demonstrate how systemic corruption can be beaten. American media should cheer and encourage this process rather than present unfounded, poorly sourced and inadequately researched arguments against it.
The views expressed are those of the author.