28 November, 2023
Codru Vrabie (photo: Vlad Stanciu/Asocaţia INK)

The expert on good governance talked with Baricada about the evolution of anti-corruption fight in Romania, about the deficits of the current discourse on potential union with the Republic of Moldova and about the need for concrete steps for better communication and closer ties between Romanians and their neighbours

Vladimir Mitev

Codru Vrabie is a civic activist, trainer and consultant on topics related to good governance, transparency, accountability and integrity in the public sector. He has contributed to a lot of reforms in the judiciary and public administration of Romania. Vrabie has BAs in legal and political sciences (Romania, Bulgaria, USA) and MAs in administrative sciences and European affairs (Romania, Netherlands, Spain). He has been working for the Romanian civil society since 1998. Starting in 2010, Vrabie works with the „Leaders for Justice” programme, which was replicated in 2017 in the Republic of Moldova. In April 2018, Codru joined the team of the site telegraful.net, where he works on the podcast series ”Hypotheses” – a project of Association ”Courage Ahead” (Curaj Înainte).

Baricada talked with Vrabie about Romania`s anti-corrupion`s direction of movement, after a member of the parliament from the ruling Social Democratic Party proposed in April 2018 changes to the penal legislation, which are believed to be beneficial for those accused of corruption and to make the work of prosecutors more difficult. Ever since 2017 there has been a tendency for redefinition of Romanian fight against corruption. Another imporant issue in the interview is Vrabie`s criticism towards the current discourse on unification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. Vrabie also shared his thoughts on regional cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe and on Romanian-Bulgarian relations. 

Mr. Vrabie, for many years the Romanian anti-corruption was given as example to be followed in the country and in the region. It look like now the government in Bucharest says that the followed way was wrong. What happens with the anti-corruption fight in Romania? Is it going to cease? Or, in fact, aren`t we seeing a fight about who will realise the anti-corruption and against whom will it be directed?

I usually restrain to say that the Romanain anti-corruption could be an example. I have always shown that there is progress, but I have also underlined the deficiencies that must be corrected. Led by the the desire to finally brag about something, some opinion-makers started to promote this idea some 5-6 years ago. It looked like Romania now had something to export at the level of good practices. As it usually happens in such situations, professional lauders appeared. But it looks like the institutional actors who had the responsibility to correct the deficiencies didn`t want to work and didn`t have somebody to talked to, so in the created atmosphere they didn`t act towards problems resolution.

It looked like Romania now also had something to export at the level of good practices. As it usually happens in such situations, professional lauders appeared. But it looks like the institutional actors that who had the responsibility to correct the deficiencies didn`t want to work and didn`t have somebody to talk to, so in the created atmosphere they didn`t act actually towards solving the problems.

The camp that sustains the anti-corruption efforts concentrated excessively on the penal component, on punishment for those who were unveiled to be implicated in corruption acts, but forgot to work on the administrative component, the control, or the managerial component – prevention. In contrast, the camp that opposes the anti-corruption efforts noticed that the first camp`s attack is focused exlcusively on penal legislation, and counter-attacked where it was most easily for them – through the government and the parliament, going on to change the penal legislation.

In other words, it is possible that the fight against corruption in Romania could take a new form, but I don`t think that it will cease. The role of DNA (the anti-corruption prosecution) may be diminished, because the on-going modification of the penal legislation will make the work of anti-corruption prosecutor much more difficult. It doesn`t mean that the legisaltive modifications will be easy to be adopted. The process lasts almost a year and a half now, and may not reach „a good“ resolution until the forthcoming elections (in the end of 2019 there will be presidential elections – note of the editor). This slow movement is explained by the fact that there are actors involved  from outside Romania: The European Commission, The Venice Commission, GRECO (anti-corruption entity within the Council of Europe) or UNCAC (an anti-corruption entity within the UN). My hope is that the civic support, which we have observed in the last year will help for the creation of new anti-corruption mechanisms, especially in the field of prevention with managerial tools.

I could be more concrete: the directors of local administration institutions, which are closest to the people, because they deliver public services (authorisation, assistance, certificates, licences, etc.), could be confronted by street pressure. They might be pressed to dismiss from the ranks of public institutions those individuals, who are known to abuse their power. These directors might realise the need to apply the prevention measures of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy. But this time round, these public administrators might be pressured to do this because they are asked for that from below, from the ordinary people, from their own voters. We already know that they haven’t responded favourably, when they were asked to do that from the centre, from Bucharest. But things are still too complicated and I don’t think that predictions could be made about the new direction of the Romanian anti-corruption. We only see that we a a crossroad.

In your podcast „Hypotheses“ you comment the recent discovery that a collaboration protocol was signed in 2009 between the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) and the General Prosecution. According to the Constitution the intelligence services must stay away from the judiciary. You say that corruption acts could be neither defeated, nor corrected through illegal means (two wrongs don’t make a right). You also add that this protocol might lead to the eliberation from prison of people who are already convicted for corruption or that even Romania could be condemnated by the European Court for Human Right in Strassbourg, because these people might have been sent to prison through abuse of law. Will the redefinition of Romania’s anti-corruption mean that it will be liberated from its deviations or, on the contrary, that the anti-corruption abuses are used as an alibi to introduce new rules against the judiciary?

The protocol from 2009 was declassified by the authorities, even though the public opinion was warned back in 2015 that such protocol may exist. In other words, it took us 3 years until we found this small part of the truth. In the last month we also learned that SRI has signed such protocols with the National Integrity Agency, the Judicial Inspections, the Superior Council of Magistracy and even the High Court of Cassation and Justice. The act itself – to make such a protocol for collaboration or institutional cooperation with other institutions – is not illegal. But it is a little bit suspicious that SRI wanted to have such protocols with the key institutions in justice and anti-corruption. The gravest problem was that these protocols were classified.

It is very probable that there are other secret protocols from before 2009. The most important one we suspect to have been signed in 2005. In this context it is important to remember that after the elections in 2004, former president Traian Băsescu adopted a new defense strategy for the country. There corruption was listed as a vulnerability to the national security. Even though law didn`t permit explicitly that SRI collected information about crimes of corruption, it looks like this strategy might have given the idea for secret collaborations to the General Prosecution (but I think that this secret collaboration is older, from the beginning of the `90).

Returning to the declassified protocol from 2009, there are provisions, that could be interpreted as illegal. There is a possibility that prosecutors might have obtained evidence on the base of these provisions. But this might mean that this evidence could have been obtained illegally. If it is true that means that there are people, convicted for corruption, who can ask for revision of their court cases. Some of these people might be reabilitated, could get smaller sentences or even be liberated before the end of their sentence. Everything is possible! If such people have stayed illegally in prison, they will certainly have to be paid compensation.

If we return to your last question, we don’t know yeat how things have unfolded: some prosecutors might have not had the knowledge about the illegalities of the protocol and to have used in good faith the information and the evidence to which they have had access. It is obvious that the parliamentary majority generalises some unproven yet presuppositions, so that it could modify the penal legislation. The meaning of these modifications is to make the work of the anti-corruption prosecutors more difficult, as if the Romanian state took sides with the corrupted against the honest citizens! Unfortunately, it wouldn`t help for the deficiencies in anti-corruption to be corrected. It would rather create new problems for Romania’s judiciary.

If you look at what has been taking place in Romania in 2017 and 2018, is it possible that we are seeing the birth of a new political regime with the Social Democratic Party (PSD) at the top, a party that will continue to change the balances in its advantage? What is the essence of the political, fiscal and judicial changes, which the PSD has been realizing so far? Are we seeing the end of the occidental project for Romania`s modernisation through anti-corruption and cleaning up the political class or, on the contrary, PSD enters in its own way in the occidental vision for Romania, through loyality towards the current ruler in the White House and through buying of American armament?

I am not able to comment the Romanian external policy, but there are some things that are well known to all: Romania struggles to maintain the good relations it already has with the White House. It is a strategic objective and all the political forces agree with it. The buying of American armaments was a common objective,  upheld by all political forces in Romania who signed the Defense pact in the beginning of 2015 – the new president Klaus Iohannis and the presidents of the parliamentary parties. In other words, this is no surprise. The course of action, in my view, is the same, regardless of who’s in power. Yet, it is true that we hear the two ruling parties` (PSD and ALDE) rhetoric deeply conservative, autarhic and anti-European rhetoric (reminds me of the former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu).

But I think it is important to understand that PSD and ALDE are not explicitly opposed to Romania`s occidentalization. Their plan is to slow down the pace of social transformations, until the figure out how they could exploit it politically (in fact, electorally). I am convinced that they understand the current changes in Romania are inevitable. But they understand that these transformations lead to an electoral advantage for the other parties in the parliament especially towards the Union “Save Romania” (USR). It might also lead to advantages for the new political parties, entering the scene: Ro+ (the formation of Dacia Cioloş, former Romanian prime minister and former European commisioner for agriculture) and Demos (a social-democratic party). It seems  natural that PSD and ALDE, even the National Liberal Party (PNL), the Party of Popular Movement (PMP – the party of the former Romanian president Traian Băsescu) or even the party of the Hungarian minority (UDMR) to be able to capitalise politically on the social transformations. However, they still don`t know how to do that. That is why they still make efforts to keep the things the way they are.

Anticorruption and cleansing up the political class are not  goals in and of themselves, but rather are means for society to advance more rapidly on the road to modernisation, development and well-being for every citizen. PSD and ALDE want only to slow down the pace for a while, but not necessary to stop the process, and certainly not to revert it. I am convinced they are not crazy, but only inadequate for the times we live in.

If we pay attention, PSD and ALDE haven’t managed to change anything for good for the Romanian citizens. This shows how inadequate they are. The political changes have brought about neither stability, nor predictability. Fiscal changes or the changes in the labour market haven’t brought any plus in well-being. The changes in justce still have not been really adopted.

The result is that PSD and ALDE lose electorate, as seen in lots of opinion polls. The forced policies of these two partes and their controversial decisions cause anger, and it looks like the most progressive segments of the Romanian society started to emigrate again. In other words, “the new political regime” seems to be so toxic, that it even kills itself. I don’t see how it could resist in the long term – until 2040, as the most recent news show (PSD proposed a law on Strategy 2040, which is to set the horizon of its activity for the next 22 years).

In the last 20 years you have been active in the non-governmental sector as an anti-corruption expert. How do you see the future of the field you have been active in? Does anti-corruption have a future in Romania? To what extent the „Hypotheses“ podcasts are an attempt to find a new space for your activity?

The civil society organisations have a very difficult life. The Romania civil society faces a large deficit of resources – not only financial, but also human. Certainly, in the absence of funds it is getting harder and harder to offer decent salaries. This means that organisations have difficulties in attracting qualified people.

It is also difficult for the civil society activists to live on small salaries. Everyone of them has to pay for electricity, heating, telephone or internet. The civic activist also has to travel across the country, so that s/he could understand first hand what is not working well in the society. Then come the expenditures on research and preparation, so that s/he could find who has faced a similiar situation in Europe or the world and what was the solution.

Above all these drawbacks, comes also the pressure by politicians, exercised through changes in the legislation of civic organisations. The examples in Russia and Hungary quite telling.

Unfortunately, some Romanian organisations had to close down for lack of financial support. If some new legal modifications are introduced, increasing the bureaucratic burden, it is possible to see even more organisations closing. That is why the activists feel the need to position themselves in a different way in their relation with the public and to start using new means of communication.

Our experiment with the podcasts “Hypotheses”, hosted by telegraful.net, follows this logic. with a daily selction of relevant news about the Romanian society – without insults, without clickbait, without inflamatory comments of the type “see what X said about Y, after Y pretended that he knew devastating truths about X”. The podcasts are a means of communication, that is similar to the radio. It is easy for me, because I remember the time, when a student at the American University of Bulgaria, I worked in Radio “Aura” in Blagoevgrad under the pseudonym Goran Vrabchev (in my senior year of the faculty I was even permitted to speak in Bulgarian on the radio and I was very happy to have learned the language sufficiently well so that I could say some words).

But let me return to the question: not anti-corruption, but good governance was my central preoccupation of the last 20 years – since I’ve returned to Romania. As I said earlier, anticorruption is only a means, not a goal in itself. The goal is for people to be governed better, to receive public services and the administration they need, with the necessary quality, so that they could develop: education and health services, roads, sanitation, electricity. We pay taxes for these things, exactly with the goal of obtaining well-being, a decent living standard, a cleaner environment and a better future.

This is what we want to obtain with the podcasts “Hypotheses”: people becoming more aware of their value, of the possibilities, so they could demand accountability from authorities and politicians.

One of your podcasts is about the union with Bessarabia. In this emission you remind that in the interbellic period the Romanian governance of Bessarabia was seen by many as an occupation. You have also added that in order to succeed to unite with Bessarabia, Romania must cease to communicate only with Moldovans, who are open to the Romanian nationalist vision towards the region, and Bucharest must also attract to conversation the Russian-speaking minorities, which are alienated by the unionist discourse. Finally, you asked Romanians who want union to become Moldovan citizens and to show sincere interest towards the culture, teatre, Moldovan cuisine, to have dialogue with the Moldovan identity, instead of trying to destroy it. Why do you criticise the „traditional“ unionist discourse in Romania? What are the strong elements of the „civic“ unionism, which you propose?

I don`t like national states. If we think without impartially, we will understand that the state is an abstraction. It is something constructed in the people`s head. The same refers to the nation. Some 200 years ago as a result of political objectives at that moment of human development these two abstractions were united in one even more abstract concept: the national state. Then in the name of this abstraction people went to war, just how they did in the past in the names of other kinds of abstractions – let`s only remember the religious wars.

In our days within the EU the national state doesn`t have sense any longer. Let`s continue to think impartially. Today, in 2018, if a citizen of the Bulgarian or the Romanian state is not longer happy with the standard of living there, he can move freely everywhere in the EU. In other words, in the past we used to chose where to live and to work on the basis of some abstractions. Today we choose that in function of concrete things – where the standard of living is higher, where the school is better, where the air is cleaner to breathe. That is why I think it doesn`t make sense to appeal to national identities. We nened to appeak to the concrete benefits for the people.

Unfortunately the talk abou the Union is too burdened with nationalist elements and is too little concrete on the benefits about the casual people. For example, if the authorities at Bucharest, Chişinău, Belgrad, Budapest would decide to construct a highway or a high-speed railline from Odesa until the Adriatic Sea or towards the hear of Europe throguh Chişinău, Iaşi, Târgu Muerş, Timişoara or Cluj, it would bring the union closer than any other nationalist discourse, because it would create jobs, would raise the exchanges and the communication between people and would offer all (Ucraineans, Russian, Moldovans, Romanians, Secui, Hungarians; Serbians) a common interest for development. They will understand that only together they can succeed within the EU, without thinking what divides us, but only what brings us together.

A similiar project could be thought out with regard to the Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, if want to develop ourselves, to occidentalise ourselves, to modernise ourselves: an infrastructure project from the Baltic Sea towards the Aegian Sea. Otherwise, we may remain with a mentality from the XIX century – to be strong nationalists, but very poor, ill, uneducated and backward. I fear that this happens in Belarus. So we don`t have to look to distant, we have an example next door.

I criticise not only the lack of vision. Even within the nationalist discourse, there is a problem: there is too much words and no call to action. You either make the union, or not. If we discuss about it all the time, certainly we won’t do anything with talk. Has anybody said wher are we going to make it? I haven’t heard yeat a concrete date.

Otherwise, I agree, the evolution of the unification topic in the public agenda is interesting, especially through the symbolic union declarations, that were adopted by around 150 towns and villages in the Republic of Moldova and by some their peers in Romania. There were even declarations for union, signed by universities, high schools, agricultural cooperatives. These declarations could prepare the public for a political decision, if there are politicians that have decided to act. But I fear that it might become a ridiculous topic, laughed at, and could fade after the Hundreth Aniversary of the Big Union will be celebrated on 1 December 2018.

In our region there are few initiatives by and of the citizens for the construction of bridges that link the people. Often the curiosity towards the neighbours is translated into emotions towards the people from our ethinicity that live in the neighbouring country. To what extend do Romanians, Bulgairans and other people from our region need to overcome the limited framework of the national egoism and to look for communication and collaboratoin from the kind that exists in the heart of the EU (Western Europe)? Do you see in the last years such opening towards dialogue with the neighbours between Romanians and Bulgarians?

There is a simple explanation why there are so few such intiatives: we don`t have the infrastructure, which could facilitate the exchanges and communication. There are only three places where one could cross easiliy the border between Romania and Bulgaria: Calafat-Vidin, Giurgiu-Rousse and Vama Veche-Durankulak. The greatest traffic passes through the Giurgiu-Rousse bridge, first of all because it is an European transport corridor. However the Bridge of Friendship looks sorry. There are mountains of rubbish both on the left and right part of the road. They don`t attract the Bulgarian to make a visit in Romania.

If we don`t construct real bridges, we wouldn`t be able to have any bridges of dialogue too. In Bucharest there used to be a Bulgairan restaurant, but it was closed. I am not aware of the existence of a Romanian restaurant in Sofia. It is good that at least we have a Romanian high school in Sofia and a Bulgarian one in Bucharest. But I haven`t heard about collaborations between the two high schools. There is not even a joint debate competition or a public speaking competition. It is probably too difficult to spend 8 hours on the road between the two capitals.

From this point of view, your effort to inform the public through bilingual articles about the news in the two countries is very well recieved, in my view. But I would ask the authorities to allow and to encourage the cultural exchanges, to decide on the allocation of money for roads, bridges, raliroads. This way people would be able to know one another without intermediaries. They would make business and projects that benefit them reciprocally. They will become true friends.

You have observed that on one hand Romania supports the pro-European course of the Republic of Moldova, but on the other Bucharest has had strong anti-European rhetoric in the recent months. In fact, the unionist discourse was asleep after the `90 years, but was reactivated 5 years ago. You have noticed also that Poland (in fact the Polish right wing forces) sustain strongly Moldova`s attraction towards the EU. They have supported Moldova through European instruments, which was not made by Romania. Romania and Polonia are often seens as states with a similiar role in geopolitical sens. What do you notice, when you compare the Polish activity and the Romanian activity towards the Republic of Moldova?

Poland has an interesting moment of impolication in the Republic of Moldova around 2011, when it held the rotational presidency of the Council of the EU. It was a moment, in which there were still talks about EU`s expansion and about the prospects of opening of negotiations with the states from the Eastern Partnership. In this context, I think Poland played a courageous card, exactly with the goal to strengthen its its influlence in the EU. The result was that the Polish prime minister of those times Donald Tusk become the president of the European Council in 2014. In other words, the Polish politicians had a clear objective, they planned well their acitivities, and then obtained the respective results.

In my view, then Moldova received incidently attention, which it didn`t expect to get. This episode from history shows through contrast that Romania is not in a state to even draw vaguely a plan for actions. That is why it doesn`t obtain any result. This is what I criticised earlier: Romanian politicians speak too much and make too little! Maybe the times has come to change that.

In your podcast you always put an emphasis on the question what the citizens could do on the issue of the respective emission – so that they get informed, make change or be happier. So far the topics of the emissions are two: anticorruption and international events/relations. How Romanians could realise a positive change in those domains through citizen activity?

Change is good where things go bad. But there are also things that go well. There is no need for change there. It is only necessary to maintain the things the way they are, so that the situations doesn`t deteriorate.

At Telegraful/Hypothese we pun emphasis often on two things: well-being and responsibility. If things don`t go well, if the road to well-being is not guaranted, this must be said loud, so that it is heard. The most important things is for the message to be heard by those who have the power to decide. They have the responsability to facilitate the processes through which durable solutions are found. If our listeners receive these two messages and accept them, surely they will learn how to combine them.

Success might look like that: the citizen no longer argues with the politician, because the latter hasn`t found a solution, but argue with him why he hasn`t made the effort to gather the best experts, to allocate resources, to facilitate the finding of the best solution. And the politician no longer fights with the voters why they have voted wrong, but thank all, who have contributed to the finding of the best solution.

This ideal is not limited only to anti-corruption and to events from abroad. It must function as a new model for society in domains such as education, health, business, or other spheres where we need state intervention. It shoud function, because it is about relations between people. In essence people respect reciprocally their human demnity, can find trust in one another, can respect the given word or the handshake. I think that thus should function the things in the world – in Haskovo, in Orhei, in Craiova, in Novi Sad, in Zaragoza or in Gdansk.

In order to achieve this, the causal people should do one an only thing: to realise the our avlue, the power we have, when we want to make something together. I hope that we will succeed to make people realise these things through our podcasts!

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