The restoration of epaulettes. Romanian President Iohannis serves the system a gift of reconnection to funds
Flying under the radar, with a numbed press, many major state companies under the ministries left behind by the ministers of the USR-PLUS party, as they left the Romanian government in their split with the Liberals (PNL), are being repopulated by obedient people.
The contest for the leadership of DIICOT, the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigations Directorate, has been prematurely aborted, and other employment processes with clear criteria have been stopped.
A full-blown restoration is taking place, muffled by the noise of the political crisis in Bucharest, caused by the forced split between the PNL and their partners from the reform-minded party USR-PLUS. Meanwhile, more and more liberal leaders are frustrated that the president, the PNL-supported man who controls the game, has barricaded himself as if in a bunker at the Presidential Palace, making calls like a general whose orders cannot be challenged.
Shortly after taking over the positions left by departing USR ministers, Liberal interim ministers have replaced people previously anointed by USR PLUS in major company boards, which retain their reputation of permanent cash cows. The haste is hard to understand by the liberal party, who can’t stop re-inviting USR PLUS to co-govern on a daily basis. What possible collaboration could there be between the two parties, given all the acts of aggression and brutal rebuttal?
Replacing people in the Transports and Economy ministries has a financial stake. Former USR-PLUS ministers had begun removing the parasites connected to large state companies, and reform was beginning to take shape. Leaking contracts with private companies, protected for years on end, have been denounced, which meant millions of dollars of losses for the people in the ‘system’. Note that, in many cases, we’re talking about ‘strategic’ companies, subscribed to contracts with the secret services, the army, or the police, and involved in critical infrastructure development. Briefly, companies close to people within the secret services, protected even though they deliver poorly, both expensive and lacking in quality.
Unsurprisingly, there have been cases of ministers informally complaining about the top-down pressures to have people connected to the intelligence services kept in company boards.
The number of people deprived of formerly available resources has grown and achieved critical mass. They’ve seen their businesses and easy job schemes threatened, their statute downgraded. Moreover, they’ve been horrified to project that prosecutor’s offices could be filled with independent leaders, willing to unearth files buried by Iohannis’ people. And then they called all their contacts in politics so that the problem would be hastily solved.
Some liberal leaders convey in awe, in private discussions, how Liberal PM Florin Citu has rapidly vouched for these changes and for firing USR people from the second and third support tiers, even though the deal was that he would be waiting for USR to come back and co-govern once the two parties’ congresses would have elapsed. The urgency was, thus, about something else: patching the few breaches in the system created by USR-PLUS, protecting threatened deals, and eliminating transparency. And as we already know too well, Citu doesn’t lift a finger without approval from the Presidential Palace.
And this is how we end up at the presidential HQ, the kernel of the rotten fruit. The president’s role in triggering the political crisis is well known: he explicitly asked for the dismissal of former minister of justice Stelian Ion, of USR-PLUS. However, his performance afterward frustrates most of the liberal leaders: nobody knows what the president really wants for PNL, for the coalition, and even for himself once his term is over.
Iohannis has transformed Cotroceni into a bunker. A perfectly opaque military unit. He eliminated public dialogue and communication with political partners on the presidency’s contact list. The sparse press conferences (as he doesn’t take interviews) and the sporadic public consultations are just formal; the President does not share information. As former presidential counsel Alexandru Gussi notes, Iohannis has militarised the presidential institution.
From the few pieces of information leaked from Cotroceni, we know that when it comes to decision-making, the president is massively reliant on talks with representatives of militarised institutions, namely the SRI (intelligence) and SPP (protection). The team of presidential aides is trimmed to the maximum, and substantial talk with political leaders, be it from PNL or any other party, is extremely rare.
Everything that’s been written here is based on informal talks with liberal leaders for the past year. One said, „I’ve never seen competitions like this one, in which our hands are being pulled behind our backs. The feeling of ‘barracks’ is becoming more and more pungent in PNL, but nobody is willing to shoulder such a position.
There is, however, direct evidence of Klaus Iohannis’ attraction to militarisation:
First – total involvement of military structures in the pandemic crisis. The Army and the Police have taken over the responsibilities of civil structures in spring last year, with militaries on the street – unforeseen since the 1989 Revolution. Then, the whole vaccination campaign was led by the Army. ex-Health minister Vlad Voiculescu has been quickly revoked after his uncovering of the existence of secret vaccination centers for military personnel, police and services.
Secondly, Iohannis’ preference and reliance on retired general Nicolae Ciuca as prime minister come bad times. Appointed by Iohannis in December 2020, he’s the fallback option if Florin Citu ever were to fall. Out of all available options, Iohannis chose the obedient soldier over any other civilian.
There’s one more indirect evidence of this militarised approach: the way in which Marcel Ciolacu, the leader of the main opposition party, the Social Democrats (PSD), places PSD at Iohannis’ service of momentary interest. The question marks surrounding Ciolacu’s demeanour and his ties to Cotroceni have been invoked even by PSD leaders, who ask for accountability. And another aspect: have you seen any real, fundamental critique on the Presidents on Ciolacu’s behalf? The little tantrums, thrown for aesthetics, are but gentle nudges, not uppercuts.
In brief, the President now leads the political game with military rules and tactics, based on secrecy and obedience, on orders that are executed and not disobeyed. This gives true meaning to the phrase used by struggling official leader of the PNL Ludovic Orban to spearhead Iohannis into the 2014 presidential campaign: „Who’s the general who’s worth sacrificing for?”. Flanked by people in military clad, with their epaulettes on their shoulders and reactionary to any kind of change to their societal status, Iohannis leads the party, the government and the country through orders. Orders that are obeyed.
In 2014, colleague Dan Tapalaga was writing about Romania as „the country of democracy in epaulettes”. He then reported on the impact of secret services on politics, on administration and on the business environment. All data and signs point to their increasing political influence from 2014 through now. And Iohannis, an untalented and mediocre politician from the countryside, is the man who consolidated their power. He’s owed a part of the restoration we see today in ministries and institutions.
That’s why for liberals, the outcome of the political crisis as dictated by the presidency is hard to foresee. A formal or informal agreement with the opposition PSD? Or an attempted reinstatement of the coalition with USR-PLUS? Signs point to the former, but some liberals are still hoping that the President will eventually understand that an alliance with PSD would practically obliterate the liberal party. And if he chooses to reinstate the coalition with another prime minister than Citu, how would the party deal with the imminent conflict between the future party leader (most probably Citu) and the future prime minister?
Liberals are left looking for clues in the president’s public outings, until the party congress on 25th of September when all shall be revealed. An unfortunate detective novel and a tiresome hunt for answers never given in plain speech. Maximum frustration for the liberals who see the fate of the party being decided in other offices and by other leaders than their own. Maximum frustration for all who see how the President has abandoned his reformist civilian agenda and has transformed into a silent accomplice to the epaulet restoration.
The secret services were heavily present in the public life in former president Traian Basescu’s term as well, but the difference laid in style: then, the services were parading their actions (remember the DNA press releases). Now it’s all been informally hidden behind closed curtains. In either approach, the effect is devastating: arresting democracy, repositioning political decision-making from civilian offices to military bureaus, and transforming politics into an irrelevant Brownian movement whose entropy is only increasing.
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