Romania struggles these days to figure out what is of utmost importance to the nation: the troubles in neighboring Ukraine and in the Republic of Moldova and its separatist, pro-Russia Transdniester region? Or the corruption scandals currently affecting the governing party and, as a reaction, attempts to redirect attention to PM Victor Ponta's archenemy, President Traian Basescu? As domestic and international expectations of NATO-, EU-member Romania intensify, Social Democrat Ponta becomes the first head of a Romanian government who while in office is mentioned in a corruption case - even though he is not personally part of the graft accusations.
The world has been looking on the region since Wednesday, when the separatist republic of Transdniester in the Republic of Moldova called on authorities in Moscow to recognize the independence of the region. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said about the Transdniester demand to integrate with the Russian Federation that people should have the right to decide their own fate and that Russia would work with its partners in this regard.
That prompted reactions in Romania:
- President Traian Basescu said in a statement that Romania stood behind the principles of international law and democratic values, that the European standards regarding the protection of the rights of minorities provided the proper framework for regional security concerns and that the country was ready to support finding solutions at a Republic of Moldova requests to guarantee the free movement of people, goods and services for citizens and companies from the separatist region.
- For his part, PM Ponta said that should Moscow answer the Transdniester request for integration with the Russian Federation, Romania's position would be fully coordinated with that of its international partners, the EU and NATO. He said Romania supported the territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine.
- And the charge d'affaires of the US Embassy to Bucharest Duane Butcher on Thursday reaffirmed the US commitment to Romania and its NATO allies in the face of the regional crisis sparked by the annexation fo Crimea by Russia. He pointed out Romania was a key ally in the Black Sea region.
But news about the situation in Romania's ex-Soviet neighbors pale compared to the struggles on the political front at home.
Two sensitive corruption scandals
PM Victor Ponta, whose Social Democrats came to power two years ago, has seen top party and government officials and some of its regional barons become the target of intensified corruption inquiries, some of which have already led to prison sentences.
But now, two of Social Democrats' most influential local leaders - the head of the Mehedinti (S Romania) county council Adrian Duicu and the mayor of the Black Sea port city of Constanta, Radu Mazare - have become subjects of such graft inquiries almost simultaneously.
Both have been seen as immovable in their strongholds. Mazare has ruled over Constanta for many years and has become iconic for many with his populist style: boy-from-the-hood speech, herding groups of girls in bikinis to vote in a referendum to bring down the president, or appearing in a nazi-like uniform in a show. So, he drew most attention when he was retained for 24h earlier this month and faces bribery charges related to a real estate deal.
- Radu Mazare's brother, Social Democratic Senator Alexandru Mazare, also faces charges starting Thursday because he failed to declare an Israeli account where part of the bribe aimed for the Constanta mayor allegedly went. The head of the Constanta county council had also become also subject of corruption accusations in a separate case recently.
But the most sensitive case is that of Adrian Duicu, who heads the county council in the Social Democratic stronghold of Mehedinti.
Anti-corruption prosecutors (DNA) started a criminal investigation against him under traffic of influence and related charges. A new dimension to the case was given when the media published the prosecutors report in the case, showing that phone calls were made from the office of the prime minister, where Duicu came to place one of his men in a position within the Interior Ministry.
DNA prosecutors so clearly noting deeds that may incriminate an acting prime minister has no precedent in Romanian politics, as HotNews.ro and other media have pointed out.
Corruption cases hit by political battles
Still, with the frail opposition parties quiet on the matter, the public debate on the issue was mostly put away by a series of other scandals and political schemes:
- PM Ponta reacted by saying that everything was a maneuver instrumented by President Basescu. He even moved office to the Interior Ministry, suggesting his office was not safe from eavesdropping - though that had nothing to do with the corruption investigation in Duicu case
- a parliamentary inquiry commission controlled by the PSD attacked president Basescu with a negative report on alleged irregularities in a real estate deal conducted by his daughter
- and president Basescu fueled a hard public reaction from the PSD and Victor Ponta when in an interview he appeared to threaten the husband of the politician who led the parliamentary inquiry commission
The internal disputes seem to expand to regional issues as well. Romania's Foreign Ministry said that it supported the continuation of the international negotiations on Transdniester in the 5+2 format, which President Traian Basescu criticized recently. But that passed with almost no debate in Romanian media.
Romania faces European Parliament elections and a presidential poll this year. The presidential poll is an especially hot potato: PM Ponta is neither denying nor confirming an intention to run for the top office and incumbent President Basescu, now ending his second term, cannot run for office again. And the opposition is still struggling to imagine a competitive candidate.
And every politician has to prepare for that. But before that, everyone watches over the Eastern EU, NATO and Romanian borders to Russia, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova. But before that, Romanians see the smoke of the battles engulfing the unprecedented wave of corruption investigations in the country.