A couple of days before I am to fly to Bucharest for the first time in too long, I receive a worrying text message: “Can we speak? I have a problem.” I am suffused in the perennial panic of journalists: that treasured scoop/interview or whatever is at the last minute going to evaporate.
Moments later I hear the confident voice that has steered so many Romanian prosecutions in recent years. I exhale. Laura Codruta Kovesi, the prosecutor whose adamantine record has led her to a shortlist of two to head a new EU office with sweeping anti-corruption powers, is still up for an interview. She is just worried that if we stick to the Lunch with the FT protocol of asking the guest to choose the restaurant, her enemies will accuse her of breaking the law by promoting a business interest.
Paranoid? It may sound that way but after jailing dozens of senior figures linked to the ruling party, including a former prime minister, she has powerful foes — and they want revenge. A few weeks earlier she had briefly been barred from speaking to the media and leaving the country on seemingly the flimsiest of grounds. “These are not normal times,” she laughs.
Two days later, I arrive at her chosen venue and breathe a sigh of relief: literary camouflage will be simple. Our agreement was I would describe but not name. Kovesi has picked a classic dark-beamed, under-lit Romanian restaurant, the likes of which as a young correspondent I frequented in the aftermath of Nicolae Ceausescu’s downfall. All that is missing is a Roma band playing the lambada, the unofficial anthem of the Christmas 1989 revolution.
An old friend has joined me in case Kovesi’s English and my rusty Romanian need reinforcing. We sit in front of a dresser adorned in folk pottery toasting the triumphs — and bemoaning the disappointments — of the new era.
On my way along Bucharest’s triumphalist avenues I had passed the government building. It is draped in imagery feting Romania’s EU membership. But, as with Hungary and Poland, the relationship with Brussels is souring these days as the government pursues an illiberal agenda — as Kovesi knows too well.
Kovesi arrives to a flurry of excitement from the staff. Just about wherever she goes the paparazzi follow. She is headline news and not in a way she appreciates when it comes to coverage by outlets aligned to the governing Social Democratic party (PSD). Not that the imposing 45-year-old — she is just shy of 6ft — seems ruffled. What does irk her is that I had arrived before her. “I always like being early,” she says as she plumps herself down in front of a wall covered in images of wild animals. “I believe in being prepared.”
This has stood her in good stead. After becoming Romania’s youngest and first woman prosecutor-general, in 2013 she became head of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA); over five years her clean-up offensive reverberated across the continent. The European Parliament has nominated her to run the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which will investigate crimes using the EU’s budget.
One might think this a striking accolade for Romania, which currently holds the EU’s rotating six-month presidency — not least given that Brussels fears Bucharest is backsliding in tackling corruption. But at home Kovesi is a polarising figure. The PSD are throwing everything at her to block her chances. She was fired last year as head of the DNA. Since then she has faced a flurry of accusations of abuse of office, including claims that her use of wiretaps is reminiscent of Ceausescu’s hated Securitate.
It is a hot afternoon. I order a large glass of white wine from Oltenia, the sunny slopes south of the Carpathians. Kovesi sticks to sparkling water and an espresso. She is fasting for the Orthodox Easter, she explains, and anyway rarely drinks. A huge goblet arrives all but overflowing with a dry white, the colour of hay. It is from the 300-year-old Prince Stirbey vineyard and a fine riposte to the western European wine snobs.
Kovesi has just walked for 30 minutes across Bucharest to avoid being stuck in traffic. I had walked twice as far to make our date. If car sales are the test, I observe, then post-revolutionary Romania is a triumph. We agree that it is in many ways transformed. I also, however, put to her the question facing the whole of eastern Europe: how much is society still struggling to shake off the legacy of the communist era?
As the waiters bustle around, she reminisces in excellent English about growing up under Ceausescu in the Transylvanian town of Medias.
“We didn’t have gadgets,” she says.
“Not just gadgets,” I say. “You had nothing,” recalling the barren shelves of early 1990.
“Well yes, no cinema, no TV schedule ... But you could read and you could play sport.”
In a counterfactual history, with the Berlin Wall unbreached, Kovesi might have been one of those eastern European athletes of legend. When the first protests against Ceausescu erupted in December 1989, she was 16 and playing for the junior national basketball team. “A lot of citizens were in the street screaming against Ceausescu. The next day the teacher said: ‘It’s time to go home.’ ” Ten days later Ceausescu had been executed and a cabal of reformist Communists were in charge; the leftwing PSD is their successor party.
Did her basketball prowess help her as a prosecutor in taking on politicians?
“You cannot get results if you don’t work hard and follow through. I also learnt to trust colleagues, to respect the rules. It’s very important to learn how to win ... and to learn how to lose. And if you lose something ... you must give way to another.”
I wonder if she is hinting that she will be a good loser if her French rival, Reims attorney-general Jean-François Bohnert, prevails in the EU race. While the European Parliament is championing her, many national governments are not: some see it as easier to avoid the inevitable clashes if she takes on the role; others, particularly in eastern Europe, might rather avoid appointing an anti-corruption crusader. But for now we stay on the past. Her father was a prosecutor in the old era. What was his advice on navigating politics?
“He had to wrestle with this,” she says. “It was very difficult because of the Communist party ... ” That is some understatement, I suggest. We break off as the waiter returns.
We order an old Romanian favourite, salata de vinete (aubergine roasted over an open flame) and ciorba (a sour broth served all over the Balkans). For old times’ sake, on the waiter’s advice, I choose the fried pork cutlet with mujdei de usturoi thick garlic sauce — just about the only dish available in early 1990. Kovesi opts for spaghetti with zucchini. We turn to the battle at hand: the bid by the government to overturn the anti-corruption reforms introduced in 2004 as Romania was eyeing up EU membership, which came to pass in 2007.
“Everything changed in 2004,” says Kovesi as our ciorbas land. “Before then I did not hear of important cases involving important people. I don’t think people were more honest but they were not investigated because you could not do that ... It was very difficult to investigate a colleague from a party of the Minister of Justice. You couldn’t do that.”
The most patriotic Romanian would be hard-pressed to wax that lyrical about the national cuisine. Ciorba is frankly, well, ciorba — broth with a few veg and noodles swimming around. But the wine is going down a treat, and I am ravenous after a morning seeing old haunts. I have finished my bowl before Kovesi is halfway through her account of a golden age for justice when, as a prosecutor and then head of the DNA, she took on “ministers, deputies, senators, mayors, county councils, wealthy businesspeople and more.
“Before 2004 no one could touch them, because even then a lot of prosecutors and police wanted to open investigations but couldn’t because the chiefs could stop any investigation.”
Global acclaim followed. In 2016 she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for “extraordinary courage” against corruption, her second French decoration. Then came the backlash. In 2017 the newly re-elected PSD, which has been in and out of power since the revolution, started to roll back the anti-corruption reforms. They had to backtrack from a bid to reduce penalties for official misconduct after crowds took to the streets in the depths of winter to protest, but then pressed ahead passing new laws watering down the 2004 reforms and in effect unpicking the rule of law.
“Everything changed,” she says, “because of the efficiency of the judiciary.”
“Were you too efficient? Too good?”
“I think some politicians and businessmen became scared, because they saw the prosecutor could investigate them and the judges judge them. They were concerned they could not steal in quiet, as usual, and they could not steal any more.”
Her bowl, all but untouched, is cleared. I am presented with several somewhat overcooked pork cutlets and a mound of very well-oiled fries. Appropriate enough, I reflect: an old-school Romanian dish as we discuss an old-school Romanian flaw, namely the smecherie, or art of conning, that has been notorious from the Ottoman era through communism to now.
So is this counter-revolution a turning point, I ask?
“I don’t know. You can go back or you can go forward,” she says, insisting she has not given up on the political class.
“Does the class have the courage and morality to go forward?” I ask.
“We will see.”
We have been talking for an hour and a half. The enthusiastic waiter tries to tempt us with dessert. I order instead black coffee and a tuică — the industrial-strength plum brandy that kept so many going in the grim old days. I had imagined an egg cup’s worth. I am served rather more. I sniff the familiar heady agricultural odour (think raki or grappa, not Armagnac). A swig clears in an instant the residue of a lingering cold.
So is the corruption a problem of individuals or culture?
“It’s very difficult to answer. I think both. Even though each year we get more convictions, corruption is still around us. I don’t think it’s a problem for the whole society. It’s also an individual problem regarding mentality.” She cites a mayor who was caught with a bribe and was still re-elected.
“A journalist asked the citizens: ‘Why did you vote for him?’ The answers were fascinating. Some said: ‘Look, he took a bribe. But not so much as the others.’ Or: ‘Yes, he took a bribe but he built a nice park.’ This shows the mentality.”
Politicians and businessmen became scared because they saw judges could judge them. They were concerned they could not steal any more
Romania is far from the only eastern European country in the dock over corruption. Many Romanians feel they are unfairly picked on by Brussels and that Bulgaria in particular has been treated more leniently. Kovesi has a telling story from a summit of regional prosecutors. “A prosecutor [from another country] told me: ‘Look, Ms Kovesi, we are patriots; we do not steal our national money; we steal only European funds.’
“We need education in anti-corruption,” she adds. “I was very surprised [when talking to students] and I said, ‘Look, if you want to pass an exam and you give the teacher some money, it’s a crime.’ They didn’t know that. It’s a lack of education.”
“Did anyone try to bribe you in office?”
“No,” she says.
“They didn’t dare?”
“There are so many myths about me that I think they didn’t try.”
I raise the parallels between being an editor and a prosecutor when acquaintances are facing scrutiny. She nods.
“I only have a few friends. I have lots of acquaintances. You can meet someone 10 times and after that the person can have legal problems. It’s his problem, not my problem. Whether his case is in my hands or my colleagues’, he must be investigated and charged.”
I pass her a print-out of a letter to the FT two months ago by Tudorel Toader, the then justice minister. The letter, a response to an FT editorial endorsing Kovesi, accused her of coercion, false testimony and abuse of office. (Shortly before publication of this article Romania’s top court ruled decisively in her favour, saying these charges lacked precision, clarity and evidence, and dismissing the case against her.)
Over lunch I suggest she has had the last laugh as Toader was fired the previous night. Usually she “likes to fight”, she says, but not now given he’s no longer minister.
“I have said we were not perfect. I’m sure we made mistakes. I myself made a few mistakes, but I did not break the law. I did not commit any disciplinary actions. Anyone who did must be punished.”
It’s time to talk about Dragnea, I say. Liviu Dragnea is the PSD leader who pulls the party’s strings but not from government; he was barred from being prime minister because of convictions for vote-rigging and corruption — which he denies. He is also under investigation for misusing EU funds. The government is seeking to make retroactive changes to the criminal code, including shortening the statute of limitations that would strike out his convictions. Is he the key? If he retired from public life, would it be easier to clean up the state?
She judiciously declines to comment on him, but adds that “the bad things” cannot be done by one person. Many were involved in this attack against the judicial system. In my career, I faced no disciplinary investigations. Last year, I had four! A coincidence? One man cannot do all those things.”
The other customers have long since left. What of the EU politics entangling her bid? Did she feel let down that after decorating her, the French are backing her rival Bohnert? “I cannot be upset that France supports a citizen ... We have different skills. I have my atu [trump card], and he has his.”
She recalls how she put her name forward without the support of her government against Bohnert and a German, who has since dropped out. “I said ‘Oh my God. I will fight alone against Germany and France.’ OK, it’s a little difficult, but I have the support of a lot of Romanians.” Rising to her feet she delivers a last resonant appeal to the EU.
“This job is not only for me, it’s for the country, for the justice system and for all Romanians who support the fight against corruption.” Then she heads out to walk back across Bucharest, trailed by a security guard — and the hopes and fears of a nation.
• Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.