Long Plagued By Corruption, Romania Seeks To Make A Fresh Start : Parallels The country has suffered from graft and poverty since the fall of communism 25 years ago. Can a new president and an anti-corruption crusader make a difference?

Long Plagued By Corruption, Romania Seeks To Make A Fresh Start

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Romania is one of the poorest countries in the European Union. It's also one of the most corrupt. In the past year, dozens of public officials, including the head prosecutor for organized crime, were charged with accepting or paying bribes. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Bucharest.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Laura Codruta Kovesi heads the Romanian agency charged with stopping corruption. It's one of the tougher jobs in the country - one fraught with political pressure and risk, given close ties between some Romanian politicians and crime bosses. But Kovesi, a lanky 41-year-old who was a teen basketball star, says she doesn't worry about danger.

LAURA CODRUTA KOVESI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: She says people know better than to threaten her or her family, not only because she's guarded by the Romanian government's protection service, but because she refuses to be deterred from her mission. This year alone, the Anti-Corruption Directorate sent some 890 defendants to trial under her supervision. The nearly $200 million in court-ordered confiscations related to those cases are more than seven times the annual budget of her National Anti-Corruption Directorate.

KOVESI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: She also boasts of her 93 percent conviction rate. Nevertheless, Kovesi acknowledges Romania's reputation as one of the most corrupt nations in the EU.

KOVESI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: Kovesi believes corruption is deeply ingrained in the Romanian mentality. Anti-corruption leaders say that attitude developed in the years following the collapse of communism, when law enforcement was weak and opportunities rife for unscrupulous politicians and businessmen to make money from the shift to a market economy. Monica Macovei is a European Parliament member and outspoken anti-corruption activist in Romania.

MONICA MACOVEI: We made the first privatizations without legislation. So you have a lot of public - of money in the public budget; no possibility to punish anyone if the state was damaged, which happened very often.

NELSON: But Macovei says the recent election of a little-known Transylvania mayor running on an anti-corruption platform to be Romania's new president shows how determined Romanians are to change course.

MACOVEI: We had rallies on the street before the second round, so that was very encouraging that people reacted. And you could hear, during these rallies, a lot of denia (ph) shouting as a slogan.

NELSON: Denia is the name of Kovesi's Anti-Corruption Directorate. Macovei says she's holding new Romanian President Klaus Iohannis's feet to the fire, forcing him to sign a 10-step agreement on tackling corruption and making the Romanian government more accountable. Mircea Geoana, a political rival and former Romanian ambassador to the U.S., agrees the new president is in a good place to beef up anti-corruption efforts in Romania.

MIRCEA GEOANA: And in a way, the fact that he's coming from a smaller city and he's not part of the inner circle of the Bucharest politics is a good thing because I think he's not part of any significant national kind of machinery. He's not indebted to anybody in a negative sense.

NELSON: Prosecutor General Kovesi is more cautious. Many had predicted Prime Minister Victor Ponta would rein her directorate in for political reasons if he had won the presidential election. The new president, Iohannis, is also from a different political party than his predecessor who appointed Kovesi and therefore also poses a threat.

KOVESI: (Speaking Romanian).

NELSON: Kovesi says we'll have to see if I can expect more support from the new president, but it's important for him to back our anti-corruption fight. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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