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Exporting Anti-Corruption, Eastern European Style

(Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP)

Note from LeftEast editors: This text was originally published by Bilten

When the French European parliamentary group that includes Emmanuel Macron’s party expressed its support for the Romanian Laura Codruța Kövesi rather than the French Jean-François Bohnert for the position of European Public Prosecutor, it became clear that very little could stand between Romania’s chief figure of the anti-corruption fight and the coveted European position. The job is still a work in progress, to be officially created next year, but the competition for it is practically over: Kövesi remains the sole candidate, enjoying the support of most European partners. Promoting Kövesi is seen as solving a problem which has become embarrassingly evident for any observer: the absence of Eastern Europeans in the top EU hierarchy. Nevertheless, the French’s move to put their bets on Kövesi is much more than that. It is part and parcel of Macron’s attempt to influence a region which has been usually neglected by the Elysée: a Eastern Europe that has been considered either Berlin’s economic backyard or Washington’s military playground. Presented as the architect of Romania’s anti-corruption campaign, Kövesi seems to tick all the right boxes.

Confronted with this impressive international support for Kövesi’s candidature, the Romanian Social-Democratic Government was put in an awkward position: after all, as head of the Romanian Anti-corruption Agency (DNA), she was the Social-Democrats’ bête noire. The turf war that had been waged between the PSD (Social-Democratic Party) and the Romanian legal system had put her in the cross-fire of governmental attacks. There were victims on both sides: the PSD party boss, Liviu Dragnea, was convicted for corruption just a few weeks after Laura Kövesi was fired, in a controversial move, from her position within the DNA. Throughout these turbulent skirmishes, intensified by PSD’s attempts to interfere with the legal system, Kövesi became a symbol. This was the case for Romania’s aspiring middle-class and other groups at odds with governmental policy, for whom anti-corruption became a substitute for political ideology and Kövesi their hero. But this was also the case for PSD who saw in her the figurehead of a “deep state” keen on bringing them down.

Anti-Corruption as an International Phenomena

No wonder then that, snubbing any diplomatic niceties, the Romanian government refused to support her application.  The refusal was severely criticized by the Romanian President, Klaus Iohannis, as well as by the liberal press which saw in PSD’s stubborn dislike for Kövesi an unwelcome internationalization of domestic conflicts. Since this discussion coincided with Romania’s presidency of the European Union, the critique was not without reasons. The presidency proved if not an awe-inspiring success, at least an efficient way of handling European affairs: fairly orthodox, somewhat unimaginative, and yet effective. By contrast with this performance, the PSD’s discursive antics seemed highly discordant: there was clearly a gap between the European bureaucrats charged with handling the presidency and the Romanian government.  

It would be inexact, however, to regard the fray surrounding Kövesi’s candidature as an unwarranted internationalization of a domestic issue, just a way for PSD to air its dirty laundry to the European public. Romania’s never-ending obsession with corruption has always been an international problem: both at its root and through its effects. First of all, the establishment of Romania’s DNA Anti-Corruption Agency in the mid-2000s built on a decades-long insistence by international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU on “good governance,” “transparency” and “the fight against corruption”. Crafted in the early 1990s as an ersatz alternative to developmental discourses, the “good governance” paradigm proved to be a central-piece of the Washington Consensus and, despite the current glitches of neoliberal doctrine, has kept a powerful influence among international bodies.  Its continuous success has been obvious not just from Romania’s pervasive debates on corruption, but also from the political role anti-corruption has been playing in countries as different as Slovakia or Brazil.

An important reason why PSD has never managed to successfully challenge the legitimacy of Laura Kövesi and the prosecuting agency built around her is exactly the network of international institutions on which “the anti-corruption struggle” was built. A similarly important reason is a direct effect of the institutional transformation initiated by the fight against corruption: the emergence of a strong group of trained down-to-earth technocrats with an international profile and for whom PSD’s shady political deals seem both nefarious and rather provincial. Through her anti-corruption stance and refusal of political games, Kövesi has become a representative for this elite employed in high-paying jobs in both state and EU institutions, at home in both Bucharest and Brussels, and for whom the “good governance” paradigm remains central. If the Romanian presidency of the EU was a relative success this is mostly due to their workings and how they have managed to navigate the Union’s complicated institutional profile and its cryptic lingos.  For the time being, PSD does not have the force to displace this highly-trained elite; nor is this in the Party’s interest since after all, any successful European strategy depends on their support. As a result, PSD’s attitude towards Kövesi has become more ambiguous after Liviu Dragnea’s imprisonment, more akin to a polite silence rather than the violent diatribes pitted against her before.

From the Periphery to the Centre

If Kövesi’s trajectory is rooted in the international context of the “good governance” paradigm, her future appointment as Chief European Prosecutor is also a rather unexpected challenge to it. Anti-corruption has always been a discourse coming from the center about the periphery: a way of rationalizing the structural failures of economic transformation by putting the responsibility on local conditions or on individual actors. This is one of the reasons why the discourse played such an important role in the reform packages proposed by the IMF or the World Bank, including for Romania. How would the anti-corruption struggle, especially the Eastern European style promoted by Kövesi, look like when applied to the center? What would be the international effects of such a reverse transfer, from Bucharest to Brussels? Can the legal framework of the European Union actually support the type of large prosecutorial powers that Kövesi enjoyed as chief of the Romanian DNA? Can the Romanian success of the anti-corruption campaign be reproduced on a European level?

It is undeniable that the possible appointment of Kövesi has been motivated by the desire to improve EU’s reputation and promote a harsher image of a Union violently clamping down on corruption. The European Public Prosecutor Office was actually created in order to deal with financial crime of an international scope, especially those related to the management of European funds. For the moment however it is still a pilot institution, set to enter into full activity only by the end of 2020. There are still ambiguities related to its legal status in connection to different national legislations. Important recipients of EU funds, such as Poland and Hungary, decided to step out of the project, not being bound by its provisions. The harmonization of national legal frameworks regarding budget fraud is still underway with no precise end point. What is clear is that for the moment only national authorities can conduct investigations and prosecute, a process which has oftentimes proved inefficient. Judged by the current shape of things, the European Prosecutor may very well be just a ghostly institution, as so many others created by the EU.

Furthermore, it would be hard to reproduce on a European level the exact circumstances that led to Kövesi’s Romanian success in the anti-corruption campaigns: the strong support of certain political actors, or the active collaboration of the Romanian secret services, without whom the DNA’s record would have been so much poorer. Regardless of the actual intentions of Kövesi or the prosecutors surrounding her, the institution she directed functioned as a political project, devised by the Centre-Right in response to the power Romanian Social-Democrats had on a local level. It is hard to see such clear stakes developing on a European level: the political landscape and its alliances is much too complex to allow a concentered effort against corruption to bear fruits.

By Mihai-Dan Cirjan

Mihai-Dan Cîrjan is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the Central European University in Budapest. His research interests include economic sociology, financial anthropology and the history of capitalism in Eastern Europe, with a focus on the first decades after the Great Depression. His current research project tackles the restructuring of the Romanian financial system after 1929, with an emphasis on the state’s sovereign debt and the private debt of Romanian citizens.