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Corruption crackdown or political power play in Romania?

2014-08-12- Romania corruption blog.jpg

Antena 3's TV star, Mihai Gadea, surrounded by loyal fans during the 'Freedom Walk' protest. © Ana Maria Ciobanu

When the sentence came through, there was an immediate, collective response, like a gust of air blowing through the cramped room. Ten years of jail time for the notorious Romanian media mogul, Dan Voiculescu! The people in the courtroom immediately took to social media to spread the news, while journalists scurried out to be the first to broadcast it on national television.

His detractors rejoiced, his supporters shouted ‘foul play!’. At the end of a six-year trial, prolonged due to Voiculescu’s sly maneuvering of the law (which involved, among others, his two-time resignation as a national deputy), Dan Voiculescu was finally convicted on 8 August for money laundering and the $80-million financial loss the Romanian state suffered as a result.

A spate of high-profile convictions has rocked the boat of Romanian politics lately, from ex-Prime Minister Adrian Nastase to former member of the European Parliament Gigi Becali.

While the convictions were perceived by international observers as crackdowns on corruption, some Romanians saw them as ‘acts of justice’ maneuvered from the shadows by Traian Basescu, Romania’s president, against his political enemies.

These claims are fuelled by the fact that Basescu’s own party members seem to be immune to corruption charges (although his own brother has recently been questioned) and that Basescu’s legitimacy has recently come under fire following a countrywide referendum calling for his resignation.

Given that Basescu won both his terms promising a swift clean-out of corrupt politicians, one can see why he would want a couple of big names prosecuted while he’s still in office.

Romania, gearing up for what will likely be a heated presidential election later this year, reacted with mixed feelings to Voiculescu’s sentencing. In the public eye, he is one of President Traian Basescu’s most vocal critics, as well as the owner of one of the biggest media conglomerates in the country, Intact Media Group, which also happens to include the most popular TV news station, Antena 3, watched daily by millions.

In time, there has been a steady alignment between the media channel’s output and the views of its owner, up to the point that they have become indistinguishable. This state of affairs took an ironic twist when the judges also ruled that all of Voiculescu’s assets should be seized and disposed of.

Naturally, this included Antena 3’s headquarters, which suddenly saw itself on the losing side of the law, but with a sympathy vote from its audiences.

Playing the card of ‘media outlet whose voice is being censored by the authorities’ (a dangerous game to play when there are real instances of press freedom restraints in the background), the TV station organized a ‘Freedom March’ the weekend following Voiculescu’s arrest, calling for people to ‘come out and walk against the state’.

It forgot to mention that the court ruling only affected the station’s premises, not its licence to broadcast, and that the only logistical change to its situation was that it would start having to pay rent to the Romanian state.  

The protest gathered around 4,000 people in front of Cotroceni Palace, the Romanian White House equivalent, who marched against the ‘closure’ of the TV station and more importantly, against Traian Basescu. He is seen as the central figure in this political ‘plot’, lurking in the shadows of justice.

The more likely story? In a country where political influence buys you safety, where corruption is still widespread and personal politics equal power, where state procedure can be tweaked to accommodate personal interests, of course the president will be well versed in playing the game.

Are there politicians close to his heart who are corrupt and who might also benefit from a friendly visit from the DNA? There might well be, in which case we could end up hearing all about their convictions once a new president, from a different party, rolls in.

Politicians choose sides, often blatantly enough to be see-through. For example, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta seems to have done just that when writing on his Facebook page, on the day of Voiculescu’s sentencing, that ‘a free country cannot exist without a free press”, referencing Antena 3’s plight, but casually forgetting the details regarding its license to broadcast.

News outlets make or break the electoral vote, and Ponta’s political career has widely benefited from Antena 3’s support and by extension, from Voiculescu’s power capital.

Now however, as he prepares to run in the November presidential election, that political relationship can only harm him. The question on everyone’s lips is, should he become president, will he have the nerve to pardon Voiculescu?

Still, even in countries with such a delicate political balance, a time will inevitably come when important heads start to roll. When ex-prime ministers, ex-ministers and ex-politicians are behind bars for at least some of their dirty deeds; when the richest of the rich – such as Romania’s media moguls of the 1990s – finally learn that their time is up and that their vast wealth can no longer keep justice in check.

That, in itself, is a breath of fresh air, and one that brings hope to many: hope that things are changing, albeit slowly; hope that big egos and big pay cheques can no longer entirely rule the way things are run; and even hope that other big-name politicians sleep less peacefully at night, wondering when their turn will come.

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