In Eastern Europe, the transition from communism to market economies created fertile ground for corruption, and more than a decade after the fall of communism there are still severe problems. Romania, with 22 million people, is one of the larger countries in the region, and its citizens say corruption is widespread. Now that Romania has been invited to join NATO, many people hope the discipline imposed by requirements for membership will help bring about reforms.
Everybody talks about corruption, but nobody seems to do much about it. That is what many Romanians say, from people on the street to politicians and academics. There are several reasons for the problem. When property was privatized after the fall of communism, lots of money changed hands, much of it in private deals that skirted the law, but were very lucrative. Another channel for abuse came from banking. Many people took loans, but did not pay them back, leading to a banking crisis.
In addition, while some Romanians adjusted to the new freedoms and became wealthy, others, long accustomed to the support the communist system once provided, never adjusted and became poorer.
According to political science professor and analyst Stelian Tanase, the extremes of wealth and poverty are alarming. "Romania is a very divided society, with very deep cleavages, fractures," he said. "It's a very thin minority who made a very large fortune, billions and billions of dollars. You have a very large collection of Porsche, Rolls Royce, Mercedes, BMW cars in Bucharest, maybe the largest in Eastern Europe. Because it's a very thin strata with corrupt people who succeed to bankrupt a lot of banks, to take credits [loans] and don't give them back, or something like this, with the support of politicians. And we have a very large part of the population who live in very poor conditions. Poverty, I think, is one of the most important problems in Romanian society."
The Party of Social Democracy, made up of former communists, heads the present government. It took power after the 2000 elections, and is the largest single party in Parliament
The opposition accuses the government of using money to reinforce, or change, political loyalties. Traian Basescu, the reformist mayor of Bucharest and a key opposition figure, says the government has used its power to undermine the opposition. "Our actual government, issuing the laws in favor of their clients, huge amounts of public money are drained in [go into] the pocket of clients of the government, at national level and at local level," he said. "We lose more than 200 [opposition] mayors in different cities and villages of Romania. Why? Simply because if they are not the same political color [of] the government, all the financial resources for the village or city, were canceled by the government."
The government, however, says it favors steps to fight such conflicts of interest. And Prime Minister Adrian Nastase argues that more efficient institutions are needed. "In our country, like in other East European countries, there is a huge gap between resources and aspiration of the people," said Adrian Nastase. "I think that by eliminating, little-by-little, the situation of relative poverty, is one of the ways to deal with the temptation for corruption. And, of course, I think it's important to have better legislation for the conflict of interest at the political level. And it is also important to have more efficient institutions dealing with those who infringed the law."
You do not have to go to professors or prime ministers to hear about corruption. The Romanian people are more than willing to tell you all about it.
"It is serious, because, maybe you can see in all the institutions, this is a bad thing. It is very present," said one Romanian.
Another added, "Corruption is everywhere; is in local administration; is in central administration; is everywhere. You don't see corruption, you feel it. Is the distance between my salary, $100 [per month], and huge benefits uncalculated and unseen for fiscal institutions who have to control [oversee] the benefits of all people in Romania, and do not control anything."
"The difference between the lower class and the upper class - it's horrible. The people from NATO should come here to see the real thing," observed one woman.
Still another Romanian felt there might be a slight improvement. "Corruption I think is almost everywhere. But I've seen that people try to get rid of it, and are more correct in last months. They are trying to change," he said.
Many observers here say, corruption and poverty are the two biggest threats to Romania. If nothing is done about them soon, says former Finance Minister Daniel Dainu, the patience of the people could run out. "There is a lot of corruption. It comes out in the polls," he said. "It seems to be one of the highest priorities of the people at large, the citizens, more than politics. This is very interesting. If I were a politician, I would be very concerned about it. People may accept a tougher period of time and sacrifices. But, if there is a combination of hard times and declining incomes, with a feeling that people are abused, [that] they are taken advantage of, [that] they are not respected, that's not going to produce a good result."
Romanians say they are patient people. They say, perhaps, they have been too patient. They are dealing with hardships, but want to attain Western political and economic standards. Many hope the requirements needed to achieve membership in NATO and the European Union will force the reforms needed to eliminate corruption and other abuses.