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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The end of communism in Eastern Europe two decades ago came quickly and unexpectedly. The uprisings were largely peaceful in every country except the last regime to fall: Romania. Its communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, epitomized the iron-fisted dictator. His rule ended in a revolt that left more than a thousand Romanians dead.

Today, that country is a member of the European Union, with a shaky economy and a passionate, if hectic, political life. And its dogged by rampant corruption.

NPRs Eric Westervelt concludes our series on Eastern Europe, 20 Years On.

ERIC WESTERVELT: There is corruption, and then there is Romania: medical care, education, justice, religion. In Romania, theres a pretty good chance youll have to pay a bribe. You want to become a Romanian priest without bothering with theology schools, seminary study or basic qualifications? It will cost you.

Mr. RAZVAN CHIRUTA (Investigative Reporter): The corruption got very high in this matter.

WESTERVELT: Investigative reporter Razvan Chiruta with the paper Romania Libera and a colleague recently went undercover as prospective priests. They videotaped Archbishop Theodosius of Constanta, one of the highest-ranking officials in the Romanian Orthodox Church, allegedly agreeing to sell them positions in the priesthood.

Whats the going price to get close to God in Romania in 2009?

Mr. CHIRUTA: Well, it goes from 3,000 euros, as we were asked, until 50,000 euros. It depends where you become a priest. If you become a priest in the countryside, it's cheaper.

WESTERVELT: Despite the video evidence, the archbishop today remains in his post. A spokesman says he denies the charges. Romanian prosecutors and church officials say theyre still investigating.

Nothing has happened either so far to the former Romanian minister of agriculture, Decebal Traian Remes. Prosecutors caught him on tape allegedly using his ministry to steer lucrative contracts to a friend in exchange for about $20,000, a new car, 200 pounds of pork sausage and about 50 gallons of plum brandy.

Ms. LAURA STEFAN (Anti-Corruption Coordinator, Romanian Academic Society): There were discussions in forums on the Internet, and the one guy was saying, okay, now we know how much is worth the minister of agriculture. I would like to buy the minister of finance. How much would that be?

WESTERVELT: Laura Stefan is the anti-corruption coordinator for a Romanian think tank, the Academic Society. She says the corruption problem is so pervasive in Romania, its almost unbelievable.

Ms. STEFAN: We're not only fighting the communist mentality and the communist networks, which are still in place. We're fighting a mentality which is as long as Romania goes in history. When youre in power, nobody should dare ask you questions. How dare you ask us what we do with the money. It's our business. I'm the minister. I decide.

WESTERVELT: The pork and brandy scandal became the butt of jokes in Romania. But other times, corruption has resulted in tragedy. Critics here say the culture of corruption has spawned rank incompetence in key public sectors, including the courts and health care, and there is zero accountability.

Ms. ELENA LUNGU: We yeah.

Mr. NANSI LUNGU: feeding through a tube.

Ms. LUNGU: He will sit lightly since hes around one year.

WESTERVELT: In their small North Bucharest flat in a big, drab Soviet-era apartment complex, Elena and Nansi Lungu show me pictures of their two-year-old son, Sebastian, whos asleep in the next room.

During Elena's pregnancy, she bribed the gynecologist and the nurses, which is a common practice. It was a normal, healthy pregnancy. But on delivery day during the final stage of labor, Elena says she was left alone for long stretches. Then Elena's main nurse suddenly told her she was done with her shift and left.

Ms. LUNGU: Imagine a nurse who told me that she can see the head of the baby, but she must go home because her shift is finished. My time, it's over.

WESTERVELT: When another nurse finally showed up some 45 minutes later, Elena says that nurse was in a panic about what she saw: The umbilical cord was wrapped several times tightly around the baby's head, restricting the oxygen flow.

Ms. LUNGU: And after 25 minutes, Sebastian was born, but he was nearly dead. And thats why at two years old, he cannot sit. He cannot crawl. We are feeding him through a tube insert directly into the stomach. We try to accept that he will not be he will never be like a normal child, healthy. But with every step, we have to improve, a little bit, his life.

WESTERVELT: But its a struggle every day, she says.

The Lungus are now suing the Romanian Health Ministry.

Transparency International, the global anti-corruption group, says Romania has made only modest progress in recent years in combating corruption in the police force. But the group says in nearly every other sector, the problem remains endemic.

Romanian analyst and professor, Daniel Barbu, says the country threw off communism, but the rule of law here was never firmly established.

Professor DANIEL BARBU (Analyst and professor): To push forward your career or your business or whatever you need, it's man to man, face to face. We have the rule of people - people in offices, not good laws.

WESTERVELT: In light of the corruption, the European Union - which Romania joined in 2007 - has repeatedly threatened sanctions, including nonrecognition of any Romanian court ruling.

Anti-corruption crusader Laura Stefan says living conditions today are vastly better. There are basic freedoms and democracy. But she says her country is still shackled by communism's legacy.

Ms. STEFAN: We're still in the communist mentality, where stealing from the state was good - as much as you can, because it was a totalitarian regime and people tried to figure out ways to live better. But I think 20 years after the revolution, maybe time came for a mentality change.

WESTERVELT: Dan Turturica is executive editor of Bucharest daily that broke the story of the allegedly corrupt archbishop. He says it is up to ordinary Romanians to demand accountability and transparency.

Mr. DAN TURTURICA (Executive Editor, Romania Libera): This is democracy in its very essence. A protest should start immediately from the citizens who can't take it anymore. There is no other way.

WESTERVELT: But two decades after the revolution, theres little indication Romanians are clamoring for an end to corruption.

Sadly, Turturica says, after his paper exposed the cash-for-clergy scandal, readers responded with criticism, calling the series slanderous. And a leading priest went on live television and denounced the reporters as unpatriotic atheists.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Bucharest.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear all our stories in this series at our Web site, npr.org.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, on top of the money being stolen, Romanians have less and less money that can be stolen from them. The government faces a crippling fiscal crisis. This week, the countrys finance minister announced that more than a million state workers will be required to take eight unpaid days off by the end of the year. The Romanian government is also expected to freeze wages, cut pensions and fire as many as 150,000 people. The government was forced to do these actions just as the country prepares for a presidential runoff election which is coming in December.

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INSKEEP: Its NPR News.

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