Romania’s Winter 2017 Protests: Behind the Power Struggle of the Secret Services, Politicians, and Soros NGOs
March 5, 2017
Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: George Soros’ web of intrigue is coming under increasing scrutiny, from America to Eastern Europe. Yet while it is commonly believed Soros only supports leftist causes, the case of Romania shows that his political support can change to match his unclear interests.
This exclusive analysis reveals how, while retaining his traditional method of infiltrating the judiciary and government through NGOs, Soros in Romania is also active in politics and the deep-state struggles in which officials, secret agents, businessmen and anti-corruption interests converge.
In the beginning of 2017, Romania witnessed a series of anti-government protests. These were generally depicted as manifesting civic opposition to a corrupt government trying to end Romania’s fight against corruption.
A closer investigation, however, reveals that this thesis does not seem to stand and a new hypothesis is more likely; this would suggest that Romania’s recent protests actually represent a fierce struggle for power between the state secret services and Romania’s president, Klaus Johannis, on the one side, and the political coalition that won the last parliamentary elections in December 2016 (PSD-ALDE), on the other. The political and secret service-supported protests were also fueled by persons and entities close to various NGOs associated with Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.
Further, the political dimensions of the protests also reveal that George Soros retains strong influence in Romania, even though here he is not on the “side” he usually plays (i.e., the left-wing parties). As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it thus seems that the billionaire has allied with elements of the Romanian secret services and prosecution – key actors in the country’s ‘deep state’ – for his own unclear purposes.
We will discuss the protests and this activity towards the end of this analysis. But first it is necessary to outline the structural problems affecting the Romanian secret services and especially, the role of the state bodies investigating corruption cases.
A Structural Problem: No Democratic Control over the Secret Services of Romania
Despite some public debate, in its 26 years since the collapse of the socialist system, Romania could not reform its secret services, which continued to grow unabatedly, outside of any real democratic control.
During the last years, more and more controversies have occurred publicly with regard to the secret services’ involvement in media, businesses, politics and the judicial system. While the current Romanian legislation forbids the secret services from having any interference in politics and judiciary, no law is actually broken when media is infiltrated or when the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) establishes its own covert commercial companies, NGOs, foundations or associations.
Although not illegal, as Adrian Țuțuianu, the president of the current parliamentary commission for the control of the SRI recently declared, the presence of undercover agents in newspapers offices was often linked to the SRI’s involvement in politics and press freedom limitations. In 2012, for instance, one of the four chief-editors of the Romanian newspaper Jurnalul Național was uncovered as an SRI agent whose mission was not only to monitor what happened in the newspaper’s office, but to gather information on the sources of documentation used in ‘sensible’ articles and to influence its editorial policy.
A Recent Scandal
A recent scandal seemed to confirm rumors and speculations that some media have claimed for years. Sebastian Ghiță and Elena Udrea, two very controversial members of the former Romanian parliament, publicly declared that SRI systematically acted to control newspapers and to pull down TV stations that were critical of particular politicians (specifically, of former president Traian Băsescu). According to these two, the main instrument used to take down political adversaries was through the so-called anti-corruption fight, carried out by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), working very closely with the SRI.
Sebastian Ghiță, now on the run, was often accused by the media of being an undercover SRI agent himself, or at least an SRI agent of influence. He was a member in the former parliamentary commission for the control of the SRI, and the owner of several companies- allegedly, SRI covert businesses. It is, however, legal for SRI to own and operate its covert commercial companies, as it is legal to own covert NGOs, associations, foundations. In 2013, ten MPs from the National Liberal Party initiated a law for the abolishment of all commercial companies, NGOS, associations and foundations owned by the SRI, in part or entirely, directly or through intermediaries.
Three parliamentary commissions opposed the proposal then. Now, Sebastian Ghiță has disappeared, being accused of corruption by the DNA in several criminal cases. He was also involved in a series of revelations that ended in January 2017 with the suspension and investigation of general Florian Coldea, First Deputy Director of the SRI.
Romanian Deep State- Spies in Parliament
As already noted, different MPs were suspected of being if not secret agents, at least agents of influence of the SRI. Such MPs were supposed to block laws and initiatives unwanted by the SRI, limit or block any democratic control by the parliament over the SRI, support political groups favored by the SRI, increase the SRI’s annual budgets and so on. Journalists emphasize that the SRI’s agents infiltrated not only the media or the Parliament, but also governmental agencies, such as the National Agency for Fiscal Administration.
Such accusations have been repeatedly denied by the SRI and, given the secrecy that inherently characterizes the secret services sector, it is very difficult to have access to reliable evidence and information. Still, in this house of mirrors, there are some very clear facts, including the one that no post-communist parliament or government has ever initiated an effective reform within the security sector. Thus, the question ‘who’s controlling who’ has never been convincingly answered.
Reasons for the Current Situation
Media often speculate that politicians seem to be terrified that they could be criminally investigated by the DNA, should they pass laws that might displease the SRI or the DNA. The same fear also seems to affect the judicial system, according to some reports pointing to judges being arrested by the DNA when they ruled against it.
In this context, several professional organizations of magistrates have asked more than once for “clarifications” on the involvement of the secret services in the judicial system. They have pointed, for instance, at how the SRI is illegally used during criminal investigations, or at the existence of secret agents illegally infiltrated among magistrates.
A (Not So) Democratic and Transparent Fight against Corruption
Every year, the DNA proudly reports tremendous success in its fight against corruption. The more politicians and judges arrested and imprisoned, the better for the fight against corruption. In 2016, for instance, Laura Codruța Kovesi reported that DNA obtained, the previous year, convictions in over 90% of its cases and that DNA in 2015 filed complaints and indicted one prime minister, five ministers, 67 deputies, five members of the Senate, 97 mayors and deputy mayors, among others.
International media, as well as American and European institutions, all seem to gullibly believe such numbers and reports. They consider Kovesi a ‘crusader against corruption’- despite the fact that such a high percentage should raise considerable suspicions. On 23 February 2017, DNA reported that in 2016 it had indicted 1,270 defendants, of which one-quarter were charged with abuse of office, with a total damage of $260m.
Dana Gârbovan, however, the president of the National Union of Judges in Romania, argues that such numbers are greatly exaggerated while the methods used to reach them remain highly problematic.
Foreign Perceptions of Corruption
A widely spread public perception, both domestically and abroad, is that Romania was and is the most corrupt (Eastern) European country. Therefore, its European and American partners have constantly asked Romania for more and more proof of its commitment to the anti-corruption fight; presumably, this fight cannot look genuine and successful, unless the DNA reports thousands of arrests and convictions. However, in this context, new threats seem to take form:
- the fight against corruption appears to have been carried out, far too often, through illegal, unconstitutional means, with little respect for human rights;
- the anti-corruption crusaders seem to have their own very dark spots;
- the Romanians’ trust in the DNA and the judiciary in general is constantly decreasing.
Any honest person looking at this picture will see more questions than answers. Are all criminal cases under DNA’s investigation genuine cases of corruption, or is the anti-corruption narrative being used as a pretext to put down adversaries, including or especially political ones? Is Romania, with its politicians and institutions, as corrupt as the DNA reports, or does the DNA itself have a less visible agenda? How does this fit into the mainstream narrative of Romania’s corrupt past, present and future?
The Struggle against Corruption, Sometimes Fought with Illegal Means
Examples exist to suggest that illegal methods have been used by the Romanian authorities in order to pursue corruption cases. In January 2017, the National Union of Judges in Romania published the point of view of the Department of the National Security within Romania’s Presidential Administration with regard to the SRI’s activity in the judicial system and to the fight against corruption. According to this document, the Presidential Administration admits that during the last 12 years the Supreme Council of National Defense in Romania (CSAT) made (secret) decisions that allowed, facilitated and enlarged the implication of the secret services in the fight against corruption, outside the existent legal framework.
Arguing that the laws of the security sector were too old and outdated and that corruption was a matter of national security, CSAT ‘completed’ the current legislation with secret decisions. Thus, as cjr.ro reports, since 2005, the fight against corruptions has been fought by quasi-legal means and without sufficient transparency, while the legislation in the anti-corruption field was de facto adopted outside the legal framework, in secrecy and independently of the laws in force.
There is an apparent striking contradiction here. On the one hand, Romania had a series of Parliaments which during the last two decades were unable, unwilling or simply not allowed to reform the security legislation in the country while, on the other hand, Romania’s security structures complain of the existing outdated legislation. This perceived lack, they say, requires the issuing of additional secret rules within CSAT.
A second example illustrating how extra-legal means are used involves a recent meeting of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, Romania’s General Prosecutor, Augustin Lazăr admitted that a secret protocol was concluded between the SRI and DNA, according to which joint teams of DNA prosecutors and SRI agents have investigated together criminal cases; the law, however, explicitly forbids such practices.
The DNA has repeatedly denied such accusations, while the SRI declared that there is no protocol between the SRI and the DNA. There are, however, perfectly legal protocols that have been concluded between the SRI and other institutions, the SRI’s spokesman said. The website luju.ro, however, continues to present evidence suggesting that such a protocol did exist, being concluded on 4 February 2009.
A third example of this trend involves a decision made by Romania’s Constitutional Court from March 2016, which admitted that SRI illegally intercepted people’s conversations. The Court ruled that such a practice might end and that the DNA cannot base its criminal cases on such evidence that was illegally obtained by the SRI and provided by the SRI to the DNA.
The Anti-corruption Crusaders Have Their Own Problems
Laura Codruța Kovesi served as Romania’s Prosecutor General between 2006 and 2012. Since 2013, she has been chief prosecutor at the DNA. She was caught up in an odd sort of European scandal that is not taken as seriously in other countries: plagiarism. She was accused of plagiarizing her PhD dissertation in Law, a charge that resulted in an inconclusive finding by a Ministry of commission. It decided that just 4% of the whole thesis was lifted, though the scientific quality of the work was sub-par. For many Romanians, it was ironic that such an individual was also a crusader in the fight against corruption.
Moreover, the results of the DNA do not seem so spectacular at a closer investigation. As Cotidiaul.ro reported, 60% of the convictions obtained by the DNA in 2015 were in fact suspended sentences, while 10-12% of its criminal cases in that year ended with acquittals in court. According to luju.ro, in 2016, DNA managed to reach the counter performance of getting 109 acquittals in 51 days, most of which were due to a lack of evidence. Moreover, many of the DNA criminal cases were based on abuse of office or other charges which are rather vaguely defined by the current legislation.
More than once, CEDO reversed decisions by Romanian courts in DNA cases. One recent example is that of the mayor of Râmnicu Vâlcea. He had been accused by DNA of bribery and was sentenced to three years and six months of prison. In 2016 this mayor, Mircea Gutău, was acquitted by CEDO on the grounds that his right to a fair trial was not respected. This DNA case was based on a transcript which CEDO dismissed as falsified by the DNA investigators.
The DNA relies extensively on wiretapping and covert filming. Thus, far too many times, the DNA was accused of abusive or illegal investigative methods and of infringing on human rights, including people’s presumption of innocence. Suspects in corruption cases are paraded in front of the TV cameras in handcuffs, publicly accused and compromised. Their carriers are ruined as are their families, and after many years of trials, a court rules that there is no evidence supporting the DNA accusations and the case ends with an acquittal. Given the examples above, one additional question arises: is the war against corruption a form of corruption itself, if or when it is waged by illegal means?
How Corruption Insinuations Affected the New Head of State
This general trend and practice has also manifested in political life. Klaus Johannis himself was unable to convincingly explain the source of his fortune. In 2015, Rice Project revealed that “most of the real estate property owned by the family of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis was obtained as a result of property restitution based on forged documents”. After a trial that lasted 15 years, in February 2017, a Romanian Court of Appeals ruled against the Johannis family, which irrevocably lost the property obtained through forged documents. How does this personal experience fit into Johannis’ anticorruption narrative?
A Weak and Fluid Political Class
While the mainstream narrative (especially abroad) sees the DNA as Romania’s only non-corrupt entity, much of the result of the last parliamentary elections on 11 December 2016 can be explained by the people’s increasing lack of trust in the DNA and its investigative methods against corruption, as well as by the people’s suspicions towards the involvement of the SRI in their lives.
The elections resulted in a 39.44% turnout, with the Social Democratic Party (PSD) obtaining 45.48% of votes and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 5.62%. PSD and ALDE formed a parliamentary majority and after some delay caused by President Johannis, the Sorin Grindeanu cabinet was sworn in on 4 January 2017. The opposition parties obtained the next-best results in elections: the National Liberal Party (PNL) with 20% of the votes, the Union Save Romania (USR) with 8.87%, and the People’s Movement’s Party (PMR) with 5.35%.
On 18 January 2017, president Johannis publicly announced the cabinet’s alleged intention to pass in secret two emergency ordinance bills – one designed to change the Penal Code in relation to the decriminalization of abuse of office, and the other in relation to granting pardons to thousands of convicted criminals. The Minister of Justice published the bills on its website and sent them to several judicial institutions for consultation.
A Problem of DNA
The DNA, as well as the High Court of Cassation and Justice, the Superior Council of the Magistracy and the Public Prosecutor’s Office issued negative opinions, a result that may or may have not been influenced by public pressure. President Johannis publicly argued that the bills were the attempt of a corrupted political party to dismantle the fight against corruption and to release from prison its convicted members. In reaction, protests were sparked around the country; international media presented it as the largest in Romania’s history, numbering between 25,000 people (in its first day, 18 January) and 500,000-600,000 people (at its peak, on 5 February). The move by the Grindeanu Cabinet was criticized, both in Romania and abroad, along the following lines:
- The bills were issued in the outmost secrecy, and intended to pardon several convicted politicians and to cease ongoing criminal investigations into corruption cases involving politicians;
- The bills undermined the activity of the National Anticorruption Directorate and Romania’s general fight against corruption;
- The protests were spontaneous, civic, i.e non-political, and attended by young and very creative people, honoring Romania’s quest for justice;
- President Klaus Johannis supports the DNA’s fight against corruption, while the government and the parliament secretly try to reverse the anticorruption fight.
This narrative was presented in a series of Romanian and international mainstream (online) newspapers and news agencies, such as Hotnews.ro, Ziare.com, Adevarul.ro, Reuters, Time.com, The Guardian, New York Times, Deutsche Welle etc. In short, this narrative says that a corrupt government (backed by a corrupt parliament) tries to secretly change the legislation in order to avoid its own criminal prosecution for acts of corruption and to pardon criminals already convicted for corruption.
Legal Debate, the Need for Reforms and Protests
The legal debate regarding the real meaning and the legal consequences of these two bills got fierce. The cabinet argued that such accusations were false and more or less great specialists in law debated for both sides.
A reform of the penal legislation in Romania is badly needed. The PSD-ALDE coalition won the election, but seemed to be unable to govern, for reasons involving both its intrinsic weaknesses and the pressure (if not control) exercised by some covert forces.
The appointed head of the parliamentary commission for the control of the SRI, Adrian Țuțuianu declared that the commission aims to eliminate the public perceptions that the members of the commission were merely spokesmen for the SRI, and to bring evidence to the public that the commission actually controls the SRI. In the light of this declaration it seems that there is no danger for this commission to convincingly investigate the SRI’s alleged illegal working relationship with the DNA, its alleged illegal activities and their impact on human rights, its involvement in politics or in the judiciary. It seems also rather unlikely for this parliament to be able to reform the security sector, to control and limit the SRI or the DNA’s reported abuses, and to reestablish the supremacy of the law and of human rights.
What about the 2017 Anti-government Protests?
Despite the mainstream narrative, there is consistent evidence supporting the idea that the protests were political in nature and that the secret services and the DNA may have not been completely innocent as far as the protests were concerned.
During the protests, the DNA publicly announced that the Grindeanu bills undermine the anti-corruption fight, as they were intended to release from prison convicted criminals and to cease ongoing criminal investigations involving corrupt politicians. According to Romanian law, the government is entitled to issue emergency bills but, arguing that the measures taken by the Grindeanu Cabinet ‘were not opportune’, the DNA opened an investigation into how the bills were adopted. Since then, different ministers of the cabinet have been summoned to the DNA headquarters to give explanations in this regard. On every such occasion they are paraded in front of the TV cameras.
On 27 February, Romania’s Constitutional Court (CCR) ruled that the DNA had exceeded its constitutional restrictions with the investigation of the legality and opportunity of the Grindeanu Cabinet’s ordinance bill. DNA breached the separation of powers principle, according to the CCR’s ruling. By 1 March, an anti-CCR campaign was already launched. A small but increasing part of the online media says that the CCR ruling is ‘controversial’, ‘strange’, and designed ‘to protect as much as possible the any-Justice attempt’ by the Grindeanu Cabinet. There are also voices trying to compromise the judges of the Romanian Constitutional Court, looking for so called evidence of their corruption and dubious links with the PSD.
Different Facebook accounts announced protests around the country for the evening of 5 March, against the CCR’s ruling in support of the DNA and its anticorruption crusade. For Bucharest, the protests were announced to take place in front of the government and parliament buildings. Thus, it seems that the allegation that there is no institution able or capable of limiting, amending, correcting or punishing the DNA abuses is just about correct. Anybody that attempts to state or correct the DNA’s misconduct ends up being accused of being corrupt, of opposing the DNA’s anti-corruption struggle and of being hand in hand with the PSD.
SRI Denies Involvement
The media speculated as well on the SRI’s involvement in the anti-governmental protests, pointing to the fact that the secret service has the right to own covert NGO’s, for instance. But the SRI denied any involvement. It has been also speculated that SRI supported the USR, during the election, while the USR was one of the political parties that instigated the protests to take action against the cabinet. USR is led by Nicușor Dan, former head of the NGO Save Bucharest (an association financed by George Soros).
The speculations were similarly denied by both the SRI and the USR. Speculations have been voiced regarding the SRI’s role in Klaus Johannis’ election as Romania’s president in 2014, against the PSD candidate Victor Ponta. Such speculations were also rejected. After the election, prime minister Ponta was indicted by the DNA, charged with falsifying documents, tax evasion and money laundering.
Political Protests as an Extension of Election Defeat
The political character of the protest was clearko. The leaders of the parliamentary opposition parties (PNL, USR) have been repeatedly seen among the protesters, asking for the bills to be revoked, for the resignation of the entire cabinet and even for snap parliamentary elections. Members of the former technocratic cabinet headed by Dacian Cioloș (which supported the PNL during the election campaign) were also repeatedly seen in Victoriei Square, among the protesters, as was Romania’s President Klaus Johannis on 22 of January. All of the above participants incited people to protest against the allegedly corrupt government and parliament.
The presence of the parties that lost the 2016 elections in Victoriei Square, as well as their request for the resignation of the cabinet and for snap elections prove the political character of the protests, in the opinion of many. Moreover, according to an opinion poll, 83% of the protesters against the Grindeanu Cabinet did participate in the 11 December election, while over 80% of them placed themselves on the right and center of the political spectrum.
The same opinion poll indicated that the protesters perceive the PSD as the most corrupt political party. This suggests that the majority of the protesters voted during the elections with the current political opposition and that the protests were a delayed reaction to losing the elections in December 2016.
While the international media pointed to the anti-corruption and pro-justice slogans chanted during the protests, around the country many slogans were political. Protesters asked for the imprisonment of the entire government and parliament, for the DNA to ‘come and take’ them all, as they were all ‘thieves’, they also uttered terrible obscenities to the government and parliament members, but especially to the PSD and its leaders. The PSD was also called ‘the red plague’ – as an indication to its alleged links with the communist past older demographic. All these are elements pointing not only to the political character of the protests, but also to their anti-PSD nature.
As Horațiu Pepine convincingly puts it, the protests seem to have been a delayed reaction to the victory of the PSD in the 11 December elections, a delayed mimicking of the anti-Trump protests in the USA, but also a movement of the young generation, while the Grindeanu bills represented just an occasion, not to say a pretext. Moreover, in the context of the last elections being won by the PSD, the rather young protesters (22 to 39 years old, according to the above mentioned opinion poll) fear that the country will champion a less liberal economic policy.
NGOs, Social Media and the Protests: the Soros Connection
Thus, these protests were not as civic, apolitical and spontaneous as some reported. As already mentioned, on the one hand, there were political parties and leaders that urged and organized people to protest. On the other hand, there were a series of NGOs involved in this process. And both used to a great extent the online social media (especially Facebook) to reach their goal.
The following example reveals to some extent the implication of some NGOs in the organizing of the protests. For instance, in the preparation of the protests on 29 January, over 200,000 people received an email from the owner of the online platform de-clic.ro, announcing protests both in Romania and in the diaspora.
According to Eugen Dinu, this platform was created with the financial support of the ‘Foundation ONG Romania’ which is operated by the Foundation of the Development of the Civic Society (FDSC). In 2016, FDSC, whose president is Ionuț Sibian, received over $1.1mn from George Soros. Between 2006 and 2012, FDSC received another over $1mn from The Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust), led by Soros. Sibian’s NGO was also linked to the fall of the Victor Ponta PSD cabinet in late 2015, as was President Johanis.
Soros in Romania since the End of Communism
Between 1990 and 2014, George Soros financed in Romania projects of about $160mn through a network of NGOs and cultural centers– many of which have been involved in the monitoring of the Romanian justice system and human rights.
Many of the Romanian foundations financed by Soros were very vocal and active in the anti-corruption fight arena, such as Foundation of the Development of the Civic Society (Ionuț Sibian), Apador CH (Monica Macovei), the GDS (Andrei Cornea), Freedom House (Cristina Guseth), Save Bucharest Association (Nicușor Dan), as well as Expert Forum (Sorin Ioniță and Laura Ștefan).
Some of these activists are very vocal outside Romania too. Monica Macovei is already famous for her stance on Romania’s alleged corruption in the European Parliament, while Laura Ștefan was interviewed on the theme by Al Jazeera, to give only two examples. Laura Pralog, councilor of the Romanian president Klaus Johannis – and also representative of the Open Society Foundation in Romania – was also one of the anti corruption activists financed by Soros.
The Romanian Center for European Policies, an NGO run by Critian Ghinea was also financed by George Soros. According to some reports, since 2012, Ghinea’s NGO received hundreds of thousands of euros from the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to represent Romania’s interests in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine in connection to NATO’s policy there. Ghinea was also Romania’s Minister for European Funds in the Cioloș Cabinet.
Some commentators saw not only a significant link between Soros and the protests in Romania, but also significant and suspicious similarities between the involvement of such NGOs in the protests in Romania in 2017 and the implication of similar NGOs’ in protests in Belgrade or Kiev.
In the middle of the speculation about Soros’ connection to the 2017 Romanian anti-government protests and in the general contexts of the global scandal involving Soros, in February 2017, the Romanian branch of the Soros Foundation was closed.
There were, however, also ordinary people taking part in the protests, genuinely convinced that Romania’s anti-corruption quest was at stake. Secretly, the protests were supported, guided, organized and encouraged by NGO’s, by the political opposition, by the Romanian president, and by the DNA. In this context, the conclusion of Roger Boyes in The Times seems just about right:
“Romania’s deep, secret state (…) has used the issue of corruption to settle scores with its enemies, erode basic rights and institutionalise a sinister connection between the judiciary, the secret police and the anti-corruption units.”