The Curse of Corruption in Europe's East

By Dan Bilefsky, George Calin

This summer, after the police arrived at the handsome villa of the former Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase to arrest him on corruption charges, he apparently pulled out a revolver and tried to kill himself. Millions of Romanians watched on television as Mr. Nastase, 62, was carried off on a stretcher, a Burberry scarf wrapped around his neck. He survived, and one week later was behind bars.


But this is Romania, where everything, it seems, is a matter of dispute.


Anti-corruption advocates hailed Mr. Nastase’s downfall as a seminal moment in the evolution of a young democracy. Others have called his conviction for siphoning $2 million in state funds for his presidential campaign a show trial. Mr. Nastase’s opponents now allege that he faked a suicide attempt in an effort to avoid prison. His son Andrei Nastase, who was at the house at the time, said the accusation was absurd.


Whatever the truth, Adrian Nastase now occupies a cell measuring 4 square meters, or 43 square feet. On his jailhouse blog, he recently recounted how prisoners ate cabbage and potatoes, braved rats and had hot water for two hours twice a week.


Today, analysts here and abroad say the Nastase case has come to reveal as much about Romania’s political polarization and dysfunction as its halting steps toward greater democracy. It comes amid heightened fears in the European Union that its newest and weakest members are not up to the task of rooting out corruption that is a legacy of decades of Communist rule and, indeed, of weak governance before that.


Across Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, countries are experiencing a surge of instability that, analysts say, stems almost in equal parts from endemic corruption and the sometimes ham-fisted efforts to combat it in the context of bitter political rivalries.


The European Union, with 27 member nations, is so concerned about creeping lawlessness among its new members that Romania and its neighbor Bulgaria, which both entered in 2007, have not joined the bloc’s passport/visa-free travel area. On Thursday, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, said concerns about corruption and fraud in Romania had prompted it to block E.U. development aid, potentially worth billions of euros.


In Croatia, which is set to join the European Union next year, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader has been charged with embezzlement.


Romania, in particular, has struggled to overcome the aftermath of the ruthless, corrupt dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Over the past six years, 4,700 people have gone to trial on corruption charges, including 15 ministers and secretaries of state, 23 members of Parliament and more than 500 police officers.


To many, Mr. Nastase, a former member of the Communist elite who was prime minister from 2000 to 2004, is emblematic of a generation of still active politicians who assumed that power and influence could shelter them from the law. Once asked to account for his apparent wealth, he defiantly roared, “Count my eggs!” a Romanian slang word for genitals.


Monica Macovei, a former justice minister who is close to Mr. Nastase’s archrival President Traian Basescu, said that “There are too many people from the Communist era like Nastase who are still in power, and this has polluted the political class.”


She said the former Communist bloc was struggling to root out corruption, in part because in the push to join the European Union, the new member states of the east had rushed through judicial reforms it had taken Western Europe centuries to put in place.


Mr. Nastase’s suicide attempt, she said, was pure “theater.”


While few but Mr. Nastase’s closest allies — including the current prime minister, Victor Ponta — have sympathy for a man known as “Seven-Houses Nastase” by the Romanian news media because of his opulent lifestyle, some have questioned the zeal of his prosecution.


Mr. Nastase’s lawyers gave a litany of judicial abuses in his case, chief among them that the prosecution called 972 witnesses — more than in the Nuremberg trials — while the defense was permitted to call only 5. They said prosecutors had brazenly charged Mr. Nastase as leader of a party rather than as a former prime minister to avoid the required parliamentary approval of the charges.


Victor Alistar, head of the Romanian branch of Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, said the lopsided nature of the prosecution raised questions about whether Mr. Nastase had received a fair trial, regardless of his reputation.


“If you are going to catch a big fish,” Mr. Alistar said, “you need to do it properly.”


Prosecutors said so many had testified against Mr. Nastase because the corruption was so widespread. During his trial, they charged that under Mr. Nastase’s influence, companies were pressured into taking part in a 2004 construction conference whose participation fees were used to help finance his failed presidential campaign in 2004.


He also received a separate three-year suspended prison sentence for blackmail and was acquitted of corruption in a case involving a suspicious $400,000 inheritance left to his wife.


All the while, Mr. Nastase has declared his innocence, calling the charges against him a preposterous “political game.” In court this month, Mr. Nastase asked that the week he had spent in a hospital after shooting himself be subtracted from his two-year sentence. The motion was rejected.


He declined to be interviewed. But his 26-year-old son, Andrei, a businessman, said in an interview that his father had been despondent after becoming the victim of a political witch hunt by Mr. Basescu, the president.


Andrei Nastase said in the interview that the notion that his father had faked his own suicide to escape prison was both hurtful and abhorrent. In August, the general prosecutor’s office said that Mr. Nastase’s “act” had been voluntary and that police had respected legal procedures.


“I saw with my own eyes — it was not a magic trick,” the younger Mr. Nastase said, showing blood residue on the back of his father’s silver-colored watch, which he now wears. “Mr. Basescu saw my father as a threat and these charges were created as a means to get him out of political life.”


The Romanian government recently drew European criticism for trying to influence Romania’s constitutional court after a failed effort to impeach Mr. Basescu, who himself was under fire for trying to influence prosecutors and judges.


Some analysts said Mr. Ponta, the prime minister and a former protégé of Mr. Nastase, had wanted to remove Mr. Basescu from office before he could target other senior officials in the Social Democratic Party.


In an interview, Mr. Ponta, who visited Mr. Nastase in hospital, said the attempted suicide had shocked him. Calling Mr. Nastase “the best prime minister Romania ever had,” he said the case showed how justice in Romania had become politicized.


Those skeptical about Mr. Nastase’s suicide attempt say he conspired with the police and doctors to fake a shot wound that might keep him from going to prison.


The anti-corruption agency is now investigating whether a doctor and three police officers colluded to help Mr. Nastase evade prison. Witnesses outside the villa on the evening of the apparent suicide attempt said they had never heard a gunshot. Mr. Nastase, an experienced hunter, is right-handed, but shot himself with his left hand.


Ioan Rus, then the interior minister, told Romanian reporters that he had spoken to Mr. Nastase on the eve of his arrest because he feared he would do something drastic. When Mr. Rus offered to spirit him out of his house in a police car to avoid a public arrest, Mr. Nastase declined, he said.


“‘This will never happen,”’ Mr. Rus said Mr. Nastase had told him. “‘I will never leave my home. I will decide by myself what’s to be done.”’


The New York Times