When Romanian Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu appeared on a live TV phone-in talk show last month, a caller accused him of lying and tolerating corruption.
It was the president. A feud between Tariceanu and President Traian Basescu, both 55, threatens to split the governing coalition that enacted measures to strengthen the judiciary's independence and liberalize the capital markets, enabling the former communist state to join the European Union on January 1.
„The only reason they got along in the past was because they had to join the EU, and Brussels was pushing them to make changes,” said Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a political analyst who heads the Romanian Academic Society in Bucharest. „As of January 2, the music changed.” The dispute is preventing the leaders from agreeing on how to meet further EU demands to crack down on graft in a nation that Transparency International, a watchdog group, says is the union's most corrupt.
It also may delay the creation of programs needed to collect as much as €32 billion ($42 billion) in EU subsidies through 2013. Financial aid for the Balkan nation of 22 million people is linked to whether Romania succeeds in cutting bureaucracy, setting infrastructure projects and establishing educational programs on EU benefits.
The country, which lagged behind other former Eastern bloc nations in developing a western-style economy and central bank and anti-corruption measures, joined the trading region with limitations on its eligibility for some financial aid and access to markets, because its judicial system and health standards weren't up to standards. Clashes between the president and premier range from the trivial - Basescu once made fun of Tariceanu's bow tie, and Tariceanu called Basescu a „scandal-monger” - to accusations of corruption.
The skirmishes have split the ruling coalition, which is dominated by Tariceanu's Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, which is loyal to Basescu. Their minority government holds only 200 seats in the 467-member parliament after a third faction quit in December. Basescu and Tariceanu campaigned together in 1994 elections against the Social Democrat Party, which was formed mainly by ex-communist officials. They often appeared on stage embracing, shaking hands and delivering the same promises to fight corruption and bring Romania into the EU.
In a speech on January 18, Basescu said the relationship soured shortly after the government came to power in January 2005. He accused Tariceanu of asking him early that year to interfere in a tax-evasion probe into a company run by a friend. „The effect was a loss of trust between myself and the prime minister,” Basescu said. „The prime minister was proposing a partnership between me and our oligarchy.
That type of partnership is unacceptable.” The same day, Tariceanu accused Basescu of using his authority to help a private company obtain favorable contracts. On the February 20 talk show, each accused the other of lying, and denied allegations of wrongdoing. Basescu, without giving details, said a company complained to him that it needed to go to the Industry Ministry every year with „suitcases of cash” for the right to some energy contracts.
On 10-point scale, with 10 being graft-free, Romania scored 3.1 on Transparency International's 2006 international corruption report card. Romania was rated as more corrupt than, among other nations, Burkina Faso and Mexico. Bribery in Romania ranges from „tips” to speed up government paperwork, obtain a passport or avoid a traffic ticket to larger-scale institutional corruption.
A 2005 World Bank study found Romanians pay about $1 million a day in bribes to doctors alone for preferential treatment. Most cases go unreported. Victor Alistar, Transparency's director for Romania, said in a March 2 telephone interview that the accusations between Basescu and Tariceanu may convince some Romanians that denouncing corruption is useless. The fight „shows that powerful people can denounce corruption at a high level and there will be no legal consequences,” he said.
„This decreases the willingness of citizens to fight corruption.” The December defection of the third coalition member, the Conservative Party, has left both parties vulnerable only halfway through the government's four-year term. „So far they have been very careful not to let the crisis get out of control,” Dorel Sandor, a political analyst and director of the Center for Political Studies in Bucharest, said in an interview. „But if they spend too much time walking a tightrope, accidents may happen.” (Bloomberg)