Crusading justice minister is excluded from Romania cabinet

Crusading justice minister is excluded from Romania cabinet

The New York Times


BUCHAREST — Monica Macovei, the Romanian justice minister who has lost her job in a cabinet shuffle, made fighting corruption her mission and appointed a crew of tough and independent prosecutors to help carry it out.

They did so with spirit, investigating and indicting lawmakers, government ministers and even a former prime minister, as Romania tried to prove to a skeptical European Commission that it had the political will to clean up its judicial system. They made friends in Brussels, but enemies at home.

So perhaps it was not surprising that Macovei, 48, was among those cabinet members who lost their positions Monday as Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu altered his government.

“Many politicians care about their personal situation and assets, and those of their friends,” Macovei said in an interview a few days before her removal, “and not what Brussels says.” Since the country joined the European Union on Jan. 1, she added, “We are in, and they know Romania cannot be expelled.”

A soft-spoken lawyer who spent most of her career defending human rights, Macovei was made justice minister in December 2004 when Romania needed to prove to Brussels that it was serious about fighting corruption.

She earned strong support in the European Commission and the Romanian public, but was deeply disliked by legislators who were feeling the heat from her anti-corruption drive.

Her removal was precipitated by the rupture in the governing coalition between the Democratic Party, aligned with President Traian Basescu, and the prime minister’s Liberal Party.

Macovei had entered the government as a nonparty member with the strong backing of Basescu. Analysts said the president’s troubles became hers. Without a party, she had no political force behind her to support her positions.

“It’s like having your own car, but no gas,” said Dorel Sandor, director of the Center for Political Studies and Comparative Analysis in Bucharest.

Pressure on Macovei to step down began growing the month after Romania entered the EU. On Feb. 13, a majority in the Senate approved a motion to censure her and called for her to resign, criticizing her, among other complaints in the 10-page motion, for “discrediting the legislative work which is being done, both in the country and abroad.”

The deputy speaker of the German Bundestag, Susanne Kastner, condemned the move, warning that Macovei’s dismissal could activate a safeguard clause in Romania’s EU accession treaty that could result in the withholding of funds or other penalties.

Another warning came from the U.S. ambassador to Romania, Nicholas Taubman, who said last week that the political turmoil in Bucharest had “raised doubts beyond Romania’s borders about whether this is the right place at the moment to pursue investment opportunties.”

“What I know for certain is that it is very important for Romania to continue to make progress on key areas like justice reform and in fighting corruption,” he said in a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Romania last Wednesday, two days after the prime minister announced that the governing alliance was dying.

“Losing traction on these reforms would not send the right signal to Romania’s partners,” Taubman added.

Macovei has faced enormous obstacles driving through her program, and not just because of resistance to her anti-corruption measures.

Some critics said she lacks a flexible temperament and the willingness to compromise or even act politely among the legislators with whom she needs to work to realize her program.

“She is very passionate; she is a believer,” says political analyst Stelian Tanase. “She is not a politician.” Asked to comment on this, Macovei said: “Maybe it’s true. I take it as a compliment.”

The most important aspect of her anti-corruption program that she was unable to realize while in office, Macovei said, was the creation of a National Integrity Agency. The European Commission officially recommended creating such an agency as one of its benchmarks for Romania’s fight against corruption. While no party has come out publicly against forming such an agency, a political battle has raged over the details.

Macovei said the agency should be an independent institution with the resources and jurisdiction to verify the official declarations of assets and interests of thousands of public officials.

The parliamentary opposition does not want the agency to have the authority to investigate political officials, saying it would become a political weapon of the party in power.

Macovei says that under the current working version of the project, the agency would be subordinate to the Senate and would not be able to investigate politicians’ declarations of assets unless the Senate gave its approval.

“I think it’s clear that a large part of the political class is disturbed by this, to put it nicely,” Macovei said.

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