The National Anti-Corruption Directorate, DNA, is a by-product of Romania’s EU aspirations. As the country began accession talks in the early 2000s, then Prime Minister Adrian Nastase received homework from Brussels: tackle corruption in a serious way or stay outside the bloc. Nastase established the precursor to the DNA almost overnight with an emergency decree.
“This was 2002, when Romania abounded in laws and institutions that were built correctly but didn’t work in practice,” recalled Laura Stefan, director of anti-corruption policy at the Justice Ministry between 2005 and 2007. “When they built the institution, they thought it would never work. What we need to realise is the fight against corruption is not a consensual thing for politicians. They see it as a means to an end, usually in terms of EU accession.”
It was after Liberal Democrat Traian Basescu became president in 2004 that the DNA started to get teeth. Under Justice Minister Monica Macovei, a former human rights advocate, the agency was given a mandate to investigate high-level graft and the mishandling of European funds.
Meanwhile, the independence of prosecutors was strengthened through three “justice laws”, as legal experts called them. Macovei publically encouraged the DNA not to be intimidated by the powerful people it was investigating. “The DNA took off after that,” said Roxana Bratu, author of Corruption, Informality and Entrepreneurship in Romania. “It became an extremely powerful institution, with extremely powerful political support and plenty of money.”
Laura Codruta Kovesi took over as DNA chief in 2013, six years after Romania joined the European Union. Prosecutions jumped under her leadership. “An institution like the DNA showed that no one is above the law,” said Elena Calistru, founder of transparency watchdog Funky Citizens, adding that many people looked up to Kovesi as a kind of graft-busting superhero.
“Romanians, despite anything said about them, want to feel like justice is served. They look for heroes. That’s the culture we live in, and they need to see that things are moving.” After a deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest shocked the nation in 2015, many people looked to the DNA for justice. Prosecutors opened a case to see if administrative corruption was to blame but it reached no conclusions.
In January 2017, more than 500,000 people protested against the government after an emergency decree decriminalised certain types of abuse of office, chanting, “DNA should come for you!” Prosecutors opened an investigation to see if officials had been bribed to adopt the legislation but the Constitutional Court ruled that it was not the DNA’s business to investigate “political opportunity”.
“This is where civil society needs to come in and not lead people into thinking that everything can be solved with a criminal file,” Stefan said. “There’s been a lot of pressure on the DNA to try and solve every problem out there. The honest answer from them would be, ‘It’s not our job.’ But how would that be received in a society that expects everything from criminal justice?”
“I want a country without convicted criminals,” reads a placard at an anti-government protest in Bucharest in August 2018. Photo: © Octav Ganea