Romania, an EU success story?

ZOiS Spotlight 44/2018 by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (19 December 2018)

© Andrei Stanescu / Alamy Stock Foto

Romania is a latecomer to democracy, and a success story. By 1989, only Albania had a similar record in Europe when it came to suppression of dissent and penetration of the Communist party, which in Romania had 4 million members out of an adult population of 18 million. But the regional wave of democracy eventually swept over Romania as well, even if it took longer than in Central Europe.

In December 1989, while some senior figures in the secret police, the Securitate, and the army were plotting to unseat dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, teenagers took matters into their own hands and climbed onto tanks in downtown Bucharest. This resulted in the bloodiest regime change in Eastern Europe, with 1,000 dead, including Ceaușescu and his wife, who were executed. The event was labelled a ‘stolen’ revolution, in which the plotters, rather than the youth in the streets, controlled the rest of the transition.

A process of ‘democratisation without decommunisation’ thus unfolded. There were a few violent episodes, such as when miners descended onto Bucharest to assault students protesting for freedom, but society reconciled around the goal of EU accession when political parties signed an agreement to this effect in 1996. The Social Democratic Party (SDP), which had been dominant during the transition, conceded defeat in 1996, and elections have produced normal handovers of power ever since.

Europeanisation and corruption

Romanians are the most supportive and most optimistic about EU integration of all Europeans in the EU’s Eurobarometer surveys, although after the euro crisis their enthusiasm waned a little. The country’s Europeanisation proceeded without much decommunisation, as it was led largely by former Communists and secret service collaborators spread over the main political parties.

The price was grand corruption, but the early crony capitalism of the 1990s gradually disappeared as Romania privatised nearly all of its banks and utilities to European companies and its crony capitalists either landed in jail or became the respectable partners of Western European businessmen. While corruption persists in the form of government favouritism for public contracts, rents have shrunk significantly in many areas, such as energy, and nearly disappeared as facilitation payments.

Romania has tougher anticorruption rules than France, and its independent courts have sentenced many top politicians: eighteen ministers have been convicted in the past five years alone, including a former prime minister. More than half of the county heads and mayors were indicted for corruption before the 2016 elections, but in many cases their friends and relatives successfully defended their seats: in 2012 and 2016, the SDP was returned to power with around half of the votes, not counting the party’s allies. Unable to control the country’s prosecutors—who have been partly manipulated by the secret service, which has an agenda of its own—the SDP majority in the parliament has tried instead to water down anticorruption legislation. Opposition parties’ supporters have opposed this by regular street protests in the past two years- but the attempts to pass a no-confidence vote and even storm the government building last August (when riot police overreacted) have not succeeded in shaking the SDP majority so far.

A consensus in support of the EU

Traditional Romanian parties, Communists, and anti-Communists were all equally corrupt by 2012. This is why voters in elections simply endorsed the SDP, which was perceived to be more distributive and efficient. In direct elections for the post of president, however, the Romanian public in 2014 chose the Lutheran mayor of Sibiu, the German-speaking Klaus Iohannis, over the SDP’s candidate.

This has led to a contentious cohabitation, as Iohannis has since tried unsuccessfully to bring his own party, the National Liberals, into government. Iohannis controls the secret service, which has been proved to have organised mass wiretapping, as well as interfering excessively in anticorruption and lucrative public IT contracts. Despite the president’s open (and not quite constitutional) support for his own party, the Liberals did not manage to gain more than a quarter of the vote in the last elections, and are currently being challenged by new antisystem parties.

Romania’s Constitutional Court is over-solicited as a referee in this political conflict, a role that leads it to review and reject significant pieces of legislation. The court deserves more empowerment by the European Commission, which often seems locked in evaluating the country on whether it has taken the commission’s previous advice, rather than whether it has achieved real progress against corruption.

Despite excessive and superficial political conflict, which has reduced voter turnout to less than 40 per cent, there is a solid consensus across Romanian parties in support of the EU, NATO, and the market economy. A vote to ban gay marriage, endorsed by the Orthodox Church, failed to mobilise the required turnout. EU integration has made Romanians twice as rich in the last decade, but huge inequality persists. After the 2007–2008 financial crisis, average growth rates returned to over 5 per cent on the average, although social spending grew even faster. Three million Romanians work elsewhere in Europe, some on a seasonal basis, and their remittances are significant.

Romanians generally speak at least one foreign language, do not dub foreign films on TV, keep many shops open all night, have high-speed Internet, and enjoy safe cities and countryside. While still struggling with the quality of its public health and road infrastructure, on top of old corruption, Romania in many ways represents a triumph for the European Union, compared with the country Ceaușescu left behind in 1989.


Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (againstcorruption.eu) chairs the European Research Centre for Anticorruption and State-Building at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.