Politeía Digest

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

NYT: The Curse of Corruption in Europe’s East

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BUCHAREST — This summer, after the police arrived at the handsome villa of the former Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase to arrest him on corruption charges, he apparently pulled out a revolver and tried to kill himself. Millions of Romanians watched on television as Mr. Nastase, 62, was carried off on a stretcher, a Burberry scarf wrapped around his neck. He survived, and one week later was behind bars. But this is Romania, where everything, it seems, is a matter of dispute.

Anti-corruption advocates hailed Mr. Nastase’s downfall as a seminal moment in the evolution of a young democracy. Others have called his conviction for siphoning $2 million in state funds for his presidential campaign a show trial. Mr. Nastase’s opponents now allege that he faked a suicide attempt in an effort to avoid prison. His son Andrei Nastase, who was at the house at the time, said the accusation was absurd.

Whatever the truth, Adrian Nastase now occupies a cell measuring 4 square meters, or 43 square feet. On his jailhouse blog, he recently recounted how prisoners ate cabbage and potatoes, braved rats and had hot water for two hours twice a week.

Today, analysts here and abroad say the Nastase case has come to reveal as much about Romania’s political polarization and dysfunction as its halting steps toward greater democracy. It comes amid heightened fears in the European Union that its newest and weakest members are not up to the task of rooting out corruption that is a legacy of decades of Communist rule and, indeed, of weak governance before that.

Across Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, countries are experiencing a surge of instability that, analysts say, stems almost in equal parts from endemic corruption and the sometimes ham-fisted efforts to combat it in the context of bitter political rivalries.

The European Union, with 27 member nations, is so concerned about creeping lawlessness among its new members that Romania and its neighbor Bulgaria, which both entered in 2007, have not joined the bloc’s passport/visa-free travel area. On Thursday, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, said concerns about corruption and fraud in Romania had prompted it to block E.U. development aid, potentially worth billions of euros.

In Croatia, which is set to join the European Union next year, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader has been charged with embezzlement.

Romania, in particular, has struggled to overcome the aftermath of the ruthless, corrupt dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Over the past six years, 4,700 people have gone to trial on corruption charges, including 15 ministers and secretaries of state, 23 members of Parliament and more than 500 police officers.

To many, Mr. Nastase, a former member of the Communist elite who was prime minister from 2000 to 2004, is emblematic of a generation of still active politicians who assumed that power and influence could shelter them from the law. Once asked to account for his apparent wealth, he defiantly roared, “Count my eggs!” a Romanian slang word for genitals.

Monica Macovei, a former justice minister who is close to Mr. Nastase’s archrival President Traian Basescu, said that “There are too many people from the Communist era like Nastase who are still in power, and this has polluted the political class.” Read more in The New York Times.

Aggressive opportunist

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Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta risks all.

Victor Ponta has a taste for the political ambush. In 2010, he won the leadership of Romania’s Social Democrats (PSD) within five days of announcing his candidacy. This summer, in the space of four days, he used his position as his country’s stop-gap prime minister to suspend the president and remove the speakers of parliament and the national ombudsman.

Ponta is clearly a man who strikes fast and effectively. To have become a prime minister at 39 also suggests an astute, calculating brain. Yet within weeks of President Traian Basescu’s suspension, the European Commission – and, crucially, Germany’s Social Democrats – forced him to issue a mea culpa in the form of 11 promises of corrective action. Somehow, a man who has a decade of political contacts with the European Union, and whose wife is a member of the European Parliament, had misjudged the EU.

A polyglot who speaks English, French and Italian, Ponta comes from a modest family that had moved from southern Romania to Bucharest. Vladimir Tismaneanu, a professor at the University of Maryland, recalls Ponta as the leader of the PSD’s youth wing as a “flamboyant leftist militant with an unabashed admiration for Che Guevera” and some admiration for Chinese communism. “I thought he was a relatively naïve east European leftist”, he says, though Ponta was already the head of the Government Audit Agency. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Theophyle

October 24, 2012 at 11:25 am

NYT: Symbol of Romanian Leadership? Hands on a Throat

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BUCHAREST, Romania — Perhaps the best that can be said of relations between the president and prime minister of Romania is that they are unambiguous: they can’t stand each other.

That is less than surprising, given that one of the first major actions taken by Prime Minister Victor Ponta after he came to power in May was to push for a vote on whether to impeach the president, Traian Basescu. The attempt to oust Mr. Basescu failed in July, but the poisonous effects are still being felt.

The acrimony has dashed the high hopes that accompanied the electoral victory of the 40-year-old Mr. Ponta, who promised to usher in generational change in a country that has struggled to overcome one of the harshest Communist legacies among the former Soviet bloc states.

The two men are now locked in an uncomfortable cohabitation until elections in December, leaving this poor Balkan nation adrift. And even that vote, analysts say, may prove inconclusive.

In an interview at the gargantuan and opulent 1,100-room Palace of Parliament, built by the former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as a monument to his authority and grandeur, Mr. Ponta acknowledged mistakes but fell short of expressing outright regret. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Theophyle

October 22, 2012 at 10:38 am

Stratfor: Defining al Qaeda

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“Defining al Qaeda is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

By Scott Stewart

The Obama administration’s efforts to counter the threat posed by al Qaeda and the wider jihadist movement have been a contentious topic in the U.S. presidential race. Political rhetoric abounds on both sides; administration officials claim that al Qaeda has been seriously crippled, while some critics of the administration allege that the group is stronger than ever. As with most political rhetoric, both claims bear elements of truth, but the truth depends largely on how al Qaeda and jihadism are defined. Unfortunately, politicians and the media tend to define al Qaeda loosely and incorrectly.

The jihadist threat will persist regardless of who is elected president, so understanding the actors involved is critical. But a true understanding of those actors requires taxonomical acuity. It seems worthwhile, then, to revisit Stratfor’s definitions of al Qaeda and the wider jihadist movement. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Theophyle

October 19, 2012 at 10:09 am

The Economist: For richer, for poorer

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Growing inequality is one of the biggest social, economic and political challenges of our time. But it is not inevitable. In 1889, AT the height of America’s first Gilded Age, George Vanderbilt II, grandson of the original railway magnate, set out to build a country estate in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. He hired the most prominent architect of the time, toured the chateaux of the Loire for inspiration, laid a railway to bring in limestone from Indiana and employed more than 1,000 labourers. Six years later “Biltmore” was completed. With 250 rooms spread over 175,000 square feet (16,000 square metres), the mansion was 300 times bigger than the average dwelling of its day. It had central heating, an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, lifts and an intercom system at a time when most American homes had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Theophyle

October 15, 2012 at 8:16 am

Government, Geography, and Growth

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The True Drivers of Economic Development

According to the economist Daron Acemoglu and the political scientist James Robinson, economic development hinges on a single factor: a country’s political institutions. More specifically, as they explain in their new book, Why Nations Fail, it depends on the existence of “inclusive” political institutions, defined as pluralistic systems that protect individual rights. These, in turn, give rise to inclusive economic institutions, which secure private property and encourage entrepreneurship. The long-term result is higher incomes and improved human welfare.

What Acemoglu and Robinson call “extractive” political institutions, in contrast, place power in the hands of a few and beget extractive economic institutions, which feature unfair regulations and high barriers to entry into markets. Designed to enrich a small elite, these institutions inhibit economic progress for everyone else. The broad hypothesis of Why Nations Fail is that governments that protect property rights and represent their people preside over economic development, whereas those that do not suffer from economies that stagnate or decline. Although “most social scientists shun monocausal, simple, and broadly applicable theories,” Acemoglu and Robinson write, they themselves have chosen just such a “simple theory and used it to explain the main contours of economic and political development around the world since the Neolithic Revolution.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Theophyle

October 10, 2012 at 12:45 pm

NYT: The New World

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By Frank Jacobs and Parag Khanna

IT has been just over 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the last great additions to the world’s list of independent nations. As Russia’s satellite republics staggered onto the global stage, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was it: the end of history, the final major release of static energy in a system now moving very close to equilibrium. A few have joined the club since — Eritrea, East Timor, the former Yugoslavian states, among others — but by the beginning of the 21st century, the world map seemed pretty much complete.

Now, though, we appear on the brink of yet another nation-state baby boom. This time, the new countries will not be the product of a single political change or conflict, as was the post-Soviet proliferation, nor will they be confined to a specific region. If anything, they are linked by a single, undeniable fact: history chews up borders with the same purposeless determination that geology does, as seaside villas slide off eroding coastal cliffs. Here is a map of what could possibly be the world’s newest international borders. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Theophyle

September 29, 2012 at 8:36 am

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