It is perhaps the first time that Romania’s ongoing corruption scandals are more than just a scandal. They offer the possibility for serious theoretical reflection about wider social transformations. However, it is not because recent events dramatically altered the situation in new ways, but the opposite: recent events, precisely by their familiarity, allow us to see the situation anew.
First, let me present, very briefly, the facts. Elena Udrea, an MP and former minister, was arrested on February 11 for several charges of corruption, after more than a week of intricate procedural formalities, including a late evening special session of the Parliament. The case received a disproportionate amount of media and public attention not only because of the public profile of Ms. Udrea, but also due to the accusations she made public once she learned of her prosecution. Charged with several counts of money laundering, corruption and trade of political influence in three separate cases (though some accusations have been dropped since), she blamed the whole affair on the current interim head of the Romanian Secret Service, Mr. Florian Coldea. She accused him of orchestrating the whole case and, furthermore, of being involved himself in corruption. To prove her point, she made an official denouncement to the same institution that is prosecuting her. Following these allegations, Mr. Coldea was interviewed by the special Parliamentary commission charged with supervision of the Secret Service, but, after a very brief and largely perfunctory meeting, was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Ms. Udrea, meanwhile, after being stripped of her immunity, was placed in police custody for 30 days, facing further charges. Her downfall has the dramatic turn of a Shakespearean plot. During the 10-year tenure of the former president Traian Basescu she was his closest ally, collaborator, mouthpiece and, some say, very close confidante. During her presidential campaign, Ms. Udrea presented herself as the true successor of the former president and benefited from his overt and wholehearted support.
Ms. Udrea rose to the powerful (but informal) position of the first lady of Romanian politics from a modest background, but she seems to have been politically savvy: she became a lawyer (a profession usually linked with top politics), she moved from the social-democrats to the right-wing Democratic Liberal Party not long before the latter won the 2004 elections, and she married a very powerful and politically well-connected businessmen, Mr. Dorin Cocos. Mr. Cocos, incidentally, is also in jail for receiving huge bribes in order to convince the Romanian state to renew its partnership with Microsoft. His wife, prosecutors say, acted as a middleman, given her top-level political connections.
This is then the paradox: Ms. Udrea and her entourage were popularly suspected of being involved in very intricate and highly lucrative corruption cases, judged, not least, by the lavish displays of opulence in which they regularly indulged. At the same time however, Ms. Udrea, is one of the political figures closest to the former president whose entire tenure was built on a staunch anti-corruption platform. Even when his own brother was arrested for attempted trafficking of political influence, the president cried but did not come to his aid. In this light, his solidarity with Ms. Udrea is made even more suspicious, especially given that as far back as 2012 it appeared clear that she would one day be charged with corruption.
The inevitable happened and the system put in place by the former president devoured his most cherished collaborator and friend. But, as some have suggested, the next victim will be the president himself, a twist of plot that would surely be reminiscent not of Shakespeare but of Greek tragedies. The expectation that Ms. Udrea will rat on the former president was also part of the interest this case generated.
So where does this story leave us? What is the broader meaning of these overlapping stories of corruption, if any? So far, the standard narrative runs something like this: following the 1989 revolution, former apparatchiks took over and divided between themselves political and economic power. They monopolized state power at all levels in order to further their interests (usually by directly robbing the state) and used political privileges and offices in order to secure protection. They disempowered the judicial system and disenfranchised the rest of the population, which was reduced to the status of poor spectators of their enormous wealth. However, the social pressure to join NATO and the EU entailed that the governing class had to adhere not only to a neoliberal program (which in any case suited them, as they were the main beneficiaries of the privatization process), but also to an anti-corruption program. Labeled as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe (though the recent Swissleaks and Luxleaks scandals should offer a word of caution), Romania (and Bulgaria) had to accept a monitoring mechanism for measuring its reform of the judicial system as a requirement for EU accession.
Therefore, the fight against corruption became a powerful political tool for claiming state power. This led to a split within the post-communist governing class, between those so-called ‘progressive’ factions willing to implement the EU’s requirements and the so-called ‘conservative’ factions – also popularly known as “the neo-communists” – who wanted to maintain a status quo which worked in their favor. In fact, it was a struggle of the former communist technical intelligentsia that wanted to use its cultural and social capital to link up with the interests of global capital, against the local owners of capital, recruited mostly from the lower strata of the former nomenklatura. This paved the way for Basescu and his neoliberal party’s ascension to power in 2004, backed by various segments of civil society, on a clear anti-corruption mission. With the direct involvement of the US and the EU, the judiciary system was freed from its previous political shackles and turned against local businessmen and politicians. The results have been staggering and it is perhaps easier to name those who are still not indicted than those who have been. And as we saw above, this struggle does not seem to be coming to an end soon.
This narrative is not necessarily incorrect. But by focusing so much on the success story of the anti-corruption campaign (a story that Romanian’s like to compare to the Italian mani pulite), it obliterates other social phenomena. Surely, everybody loves a success story, especially in Romania where corruption functions both as stigma and as historical explanation. But the real significance of the anti-corruption campaign is that it represents the growing power of the state apparatus against the political and economic class. This strength comes from the state’s ability to directly align itself with global forces, either of global capital (like the IMF), or political-strategic forces (such as the US army and US secret services, the EU bureaucracy, and so on). In so doing, it manages to by-pass almost entirely the local governing class (either its political or business factions), especially since the entire function of the state is directed towards stymieing their influence.
Therefore, the anti-corruption campaign led to the political irrelevance of the local governing class, a fact prefigured already by Romania joining NATO and the war on terror, which basically elevated the secret service beyond normal, local political control, accessible only to select few. To put it differently, the national bourgeoisie (by which I refer to that fuzzy group of businessmen and political elites, and more to the point, their relationship) has been severely weakened. Already irrelevant in terms of economic power when compared to that of global capital, its political grasp on state power is more and more superficial. Even at the local level, where “local barons” monopolized more clearly the economic and political functions and acted paternalistically, the power of the national bourgeoisie is being eroded. What is more, it becomes almost impossible to make any sort of claims to state power without presenting the anti-corruption struggle as a priority and without promising to keep the system going. The suspicion – without any evidence – that he would interfere in the anti-corruption process, for example, was enough to end the presidential bid of current Prime Minister Victor Ponta last autumn.
What we witness now in Romania is a state almost deprived of politics, which functions following a sui generis logic, a direct exercise of power from the secret police or from the anti-corruption directorate (in fact, the two are inextricably linked: the prosecuting files are mostly based on intelligence provided by the secret police). The bureaucratic class of the state is thus the de facto governing class, in conjunction with the global ruling class via its transnational institutions. As such, it seems that the national comprador bourgeoisie of the transition is being replaced by a comprador state apparatus, with a logic of its own and with increasing levels of autonomy. This autonomy is best discernable in the mechanisms of its reproduction, since access and promotion in key state institutions are more and more outside political decision or public scrutiny.
One of the standard narratives of the transition period (heard even on the left) was that of the frailty of the state, squeezed between a comprador post-communist elite and neoliberal imperatives. This was certainly the case with regards to what Bourdieu called the left-hand of the state: its welfare and social functions. Other institutions of the state – its military, police, and other repressive apparatuses – grew unchecked since they were essential for holding the whole edifice together. Furthermore, while the state is indeed in a subordinate position in relation to global capital and global institutions, it is very powerful and repressive in relation to its own citizens. Fulfilling this function is what qualifies a state as being powerful or not.
In short, the Romanian case is both one in which the interests of the post-communist bourgeois class and those of the state bureaucracy no longer coincide, and in which the autonomy of the bureaucracy from politics is historically unprecedented. In the past 156 years of Romanian statehood, the bureaucracy of the state was entirely subordinated to the class project of the national bourgeoisie, albeit with one very important exception: the 1940-1944 fascist military dictatorship, when the state apparatus, through its military wing, took over.
It was Poulantzas who noted that a significant shift in a predominant branch of the state apparatus (by which he meant the military), could not be understood as an inherent modification limited to this branch alone. The shift was always determined by the modification of the whole system of the state apparatus, which is itself brought about by changes in the relations of production and to developments in the class struggle. This is precisely how we should understand the current prevalence of the anti-corruption fight in Romania (which basically means the predominance of the secret services and of the anti-corruption directorate): a shift of the entire state apparatus towards more autonomy from (local) politics and towards an open class confrontation with it. The long term results of this process, beyond the spectacular daily arrests, remain to be seen.
While nobody should bemoan the political irrelevance of the national bourgeoisie (as some Romanian old leftists do), or confuse anti-corruption with social justice (as some NGOs do), the growing autonomization of the state from politics should definitely give us pause for thought. It describes, at least, a different domain of struggle in the post-communist world.
* This article was completed on 12 February 2015 and the details of the specific cases mentioned above may have changed.