In some Romanian towns, when the mayor is caught stealing, citizens take to the streets to defend him from justice. I have entered the world of Navodari’s mayorship for three months in order to understand how a community can support a leader accused of corruption.
Navodari’s celebration days are held a week before mayor Nicolae Matei’s celebration, however it is hard to see the difference between these two events. Thousands of people have gathered on a football field which has been transformed into a fun fair. The name of the leader can be seen in the background, on a stage where his favourite singer Antonia is shaking her thing. Nicolae Matei, himself, is watching the show from a nearby white tent protected from the July afternoon heat.
One by one, the artists thank him for the invitation. At the end the mayor walks relaxed over the thinly spread turf, through the coloured lights, under the barbecue smoke and has photographs taken with the citizens. His cream-coloured suit is sparkling. He stops to punch a boxing machine and he manages to flip the punching bag, much to the delight of the crowd of people surrounding him, who start to laugh and congratulate him.
It has been 254 days since mayor Nicolae Matei has been in pretrial detention for corruption. He has been accused of trying to bribe a police officer in order for him to get rid of another ten criminal case files. Back then, a thousand Navodari residents took to the streets to ask for his release. “It’s, like, our father”, an old man said to Litoral TV. “He is the soul of the town.”
“We want our mayor back!” and “Give us our man, give us our life!” was written on the banners. Among the protesters there were priests, teachers and secondary school students some of whom drew his face on cardboard pieces. Some of them wept.
This type of reaction from people has multiplied in Romania, an odd result to an increasing number of arrested politicians that have been accused of corruption. Those that have been accused are trying to be cleared of corruption charges by using their economic influence that has been gained during their term, the connections with the Orthodox Church, the biased press and the naive electorate.
The decline and rise of Romanian politicians began at the National Anticorruption Directorate. The building is situated in Bucharest on a narrow street, suffocated by cars. Here, every day the same scene repeats: around 20 journalists, film crews and press photographers smoke, drink coffee and watch the institutions’ brown door with a dark window like hawks. At any moment, a mayor, a parliament member or a minister could come out. Some of them come handcuffed, some just sweaty. Some of them with a smile.
From his first floor office, deputy chief prosecutor Nistor Calin can see the Parliament’s grey building, where many of the individuals investigated by him and his colleagues are located. For him, the prosecuting job is like a hunt and the big politicians are the trophies. “It is one thing to hunt a large prey and another thing to handle a small prey.”
Last year, the DNA prosecuted four members of the Parliament, 25 mayors and 8 deputy mayors. The number of convictions has doubled compared to 2011: from 743 definitely convicted individuals in 2012, due to DNA investigations, 2 were parliament member, 1 minister, 9 mayors, 3 deputy mayors and the big trophy: former prime minister Adrian Nastase.
Many of those investigated are still popular and still benefit from people’s support when they have problems with the justice.
Navodari is not the only place where this is happening. Similar protests have been held in larger cities such as Craiova and Baia Mare. At Ramnicu Valcea, the mayor Mircia Gutau was awarded honorary citizen in 2010, despite the fact that at that time he was already convicted of corruption. The mayor of Jilava, Adrian Mladin and the mayor from Magurele, Dumitru Ruse have been re-elected while they were in pre-trial detention for corruption. They took an oath under police escort and after that they were returned to prison.
I went to Navodari to try and understand how the victims of corruption end up protecting those accused of stealing.
The town seems a strange mixture for a traveler. The bridge through which you enter the town is decorated with golden mermaids, but it opens up to a view filled with furnaces, industrial cauldrons and weeds.
When Nicolae Ceausescu began to industrialize the Black Sea seaside, Navodari was a small fishing village. In 1968 it became a town 15 years later 26.000 people were gathered here from all over the country to participate in the development of the Romanian petrochemical industry. Today, the town has got around 40,000 residents and the economy is still based on the nearby Petromidia refinery.
On the main street women, that wear t-shirts with the name of the mayor on their backs, are sweeping around the metallic trees that have plastic flowers. At night, the trees are flickering with blue, green or red lights. Through the communist housing blocks you can see Greek columns soaring, dolphins jumping and peacocks flaring. Wire made giant rabbits display Easter eggs for passers- by.
Lions are the masters of this entire metal fauna. Gilded lions come up everywhere in diverse dimensions and positions: they jump on the back of an stone elephant or guard a water fountain, they crane toward the blocks. A few miniature lions rest on the shelves in between the icons in the city hall guesthouse.
The mayor Nicolae Matei is born under the sign of Leo: “Everyone has a whim”, he explains amused. He is not content with the stone lions, he has bought two real animals from a private zoo and now he raises them in a cage at the front of his house, along with lamas, baboons, macaques, mouflons, squirrels and ostriches.
Saturday morning and Nicolae Matei is drinking his Turkish coffee in the turret in the middle of the garden. He raises his arms over the backrest and calls to the animals “Come to daddy!”
“It’s like a jungle” he says proudly. He gets up and goes to feed them. The macaques prefer blueberries and grapes, the lamas get bread, but they don’t bother him for it, the baby deer is quickly drinking two bottles of milk. The lions eat big quantities of meat from Matei’s farm: It’s always boiled to decrease their aggression. Even so, when the male roars, you can hear it in the town, even from a long distance. It is the symbol of power and firmness, the mayor thinks.
Some time ago Nicolae Matei called himself “The Emperor of Navodari”. The title is mentioned in one of the interceptions obtained by the prosecutors that arrested him on the 15th of November, 2012. A month before it is said that Matei tried to bribe a judicial police officer in return for protection from the ten criminal case files that were being handled by the Constanta Police Inspectorate.
Because he was afraid of being recorded, the mayor wrote the offer on a small note: two pieces of land that are worth 59.000 lei. His lawyers denied the accusations and invoked in his defense the fact that “he is appreciated for his activity as a mayor”.
The judges were not convinced and the mayor spent five months and two days in jail. “Death would have been easier”, Matei says about the time he spent in jail. “It is really hard to accept to being humiliated.”
The day he was released from arrest he cried, surrounded by dozens of Navodari residents.” More people waited for me now than when I won the elections”, he recalls.
Now he is back in the mayor’s office. He is a 46 year old, short man, with a bunch of black hair that is going grey around the temples. His arched eyebrows and his crooked nose make him look authoritarian and suspicious.
Nicolae Matei is not from around here, he is from Olt, from Slatioara, Valcea county. He came to Navodari for the first time in 1985, to visit his relatives. He liked the town very much. He loved the sea, even though he is a fire sign. Soon he got hired at the distribution section of the local chemical composting plant.
With moving gestures he lights up a candle, he makes the sign of cross and sits on the sofa. He says he went into business immediately after the regime fell in 1989, in a time where other people not yet woken up from the dictatorship era.
This story is similar to many other local business men: he rented a warehouse where he opened a shop, there he was selling all sorts of merchandise from Turkey, from jeans to industrial tools. He then became the regional representative of several factories from around the country. He started to handle agricultural equipment and chickens.
“I have never cheated on anyone and you will never hear that someone cheated on Matei,” (he laughs) ”and I made money“, he says. In 2000 he entered politics and immediately was elected deputy mayor. He ran for the mayor position in 2004, but lost by a whisker. He won four years later, after he organised a campaign in which he gave away eggs on which he stamped the message ”VOTE MATEI FOR MAYOR”. In 2012 he was re-elected with 70% of votes. He is also the president of the Towns’ Association of Romania.
He sips tea and starts to explain his vision of justice. He believes that arresting business men is “sheer stupidity“, because it destroys the economy.
“Do you think the others did not do wrong, do you think God gave westerners what they wanted, do you think He parachuted them everything? How do you think they developed? (…) They don’t eat by themselves. Do I drive two cars? Do I eat with two mouths? Do I wear two suits? No; just one. I have employees that are better dressed than me, who go on holidays more often than me”, explained Nicolae Matei.
During Navodari celebration days, between concerts, the journalists asked the mayor for a declaration. “Navodari has proved once again that it is a big, united family.“, he said. Indeed, the Navodari residents that I have talked to seem to support him unconditionally.
Constantin Balaceanu is retired and believes Navodari has never had a better mayor. He looks around and shows the results of five years of term of office.”Look, this pavement. Think what the mayor has done, nobody else will ever do. (…) That’s why we feel sorry for him.”
Laura and Iulia are two young mothers that are walking with their babies in the new park on the outskirts of the town. It is nice now, at lunch time: everything is new and it smells like freshly cut grass. Would they forgive their mayor if justice proved he stole from the public purse? “Yes”, Laura answers with determination, “because all politicians steal”. Iulia completes her friend’s answer “In any job, if you don’t steal, you will not get anywhere. This is how it is these days,”. “Seriously, who has never stolen?“, Laura says.
Corruption is no longer so important in the collective conscience of Romanians, says sociologist Barbu Mateescu. “As long as the individual does something or he pretends to do something, corruption is secondary and can be forgiven”, he explains.
How did people come to accept corruption in a country where, once with integrated in the European Union, they accepted as a priority to reduce this phenomenon? Navodari offers some answers.
In an industrial town, frozen in a painful transition, the profile authoritarian leader with solutions is successful. Nicolae Matei considers himself this type of leader: “Don’t you think I wear gloves with my people. Yesterday I replaced five service managers from the town hall.“
All the local politicians have gathered around him. His three biggest political opponents- two of them who have competed against him for the mayor position- did not even enter the local Council anymore, using all kinds of excuses. All 114 Navodari Local Council decisions from January 1st to September 3rd 2013 were unanimously voted. This happened in spite of the fact that after last year’s elections four political parties were represented in the Council.
His influence was still strong even when he was in jail. Nicolae Matei consulted deputy Mayor Florin Chelaru on town matters at least twice a week. Even his political opponents refuse to talk about him. The previous mayor, Tudorel Calapod, convicted for corruption in February, ran for the mayor position against Matei in June, 2012, but he says that he is now retired from politics.
The mayors’ power has grown in the last few years, at the same time the administrative decentralization was established. “The corruption phenomenon has amplified at local level. The public purse is defrauded systematically in these local communities”, says Horia Georgescu, president of the National Integrity Agency.
In many cases, mayors build and consolidate their power with the local press institutions, then they use them to annihilate their opponents, whether they are political or from the judical institution.
In Navodari, the press is represented by a local television station called Litoral TV, the electronic publication Navodari Gazette and CFM radio station. The Navodari Gazzete publishes every day beneath his picture, a column called “Matei’s succesful sayings“. On August 8th , the saying was “There is success that brings you down and defeat that lifts you up“.
When Nicolae Matei was arrested, Litoral TV showed lots of positive material about the mayor and critical material about those that were handling the case.
This type of situation is similar to many others in the country. The European Commission of Justice report from January 2013 mentions “harassing media campaigns” targeted towards Romanian anticorruption prosecutors.
In Navodari, a part of the community money is redistributed in a bizarre system. In the last two years and a half, 6.300 families were exempt from paying for heating, after a monthly lottery.
Ion Cicu, a Navodari resident, won in December, 2012. He has to pay 310 lei for his two bedroom flat, which he shares with his three other family members. He is the only one that has a job, so this helped him.
Cicu has a very good opinion of Nicolae Matei: “He is our mayor and deserves to be supported. (…) I believe people will support him, because I do not think he stole so much.“ There is also aid that comes without the lottery: for Christmas and Easter, a few thousand poor families receive chicken, eggs and oil packages.
The local administration spends other money to build churches and for religious ceremonies. Due to the fact that 86% of Romanians are orthodox and most people believe in church, politicians often look for the priests’ support and offer material benefits in exchange. Last year, Navodari town hall has spend 280,000 euro on religious services, double than what it spent in 2011.
Mayor Matei is member of the Diocesa gathering of Archbishopric of Tomis. At the last autumn’s meeting, the town’s priests have said prayers so the mayor will be “forgiven of sins”. A month later, the local council transferred for free the pices of land belonging to local churches to the parochial houses.
Priest Andrei Salomia, the vicar of the Buna Vestire church (and previous local counselor) believes that people would forgive their mayor even if he did wrong:
“I prefer someone that works and does mistakes than somebody that does nothing. It is natural to make mistakes, all of us do it. And it is natural for us to forgive each other”, he says.
There is also football, an investment that can’t go wrong for any town hall in Romania. After the last seasons’ investments, the local team, Sageata Navodari managed to qualify in the first League.
Nicolae Matei has a very good relationship with schools. At the last autumn’s rally, students came out with banners on which the names of the schools were written along with support messages for the mayor.
The principal of the Grigore Moisil primary school, Ligia Mangri, says there was no organisation. Teachers, students and children just wanted to show their solidarity. “We were beside him, including children and old people. It was a normal reaction and I think the reaction of the town also gave the mayor strength.”
Anthropologist Vintila Mihailescu explained how citizens lost their faith in the fact that institutions can solve their problems, so they prefer to trust individuals on the basis of non-classical values. Such as the religious ones.
“In a traditional society, such as the Romanian one, in which State institutions have made themselves felt present relatively late, the Christian morality tends to rule the law.” Mihailescu has also heard lawyers saying “He made mistakes like any human being, but he paid his sins through all the good he has done”.
“He paid his sins”, is a religious perspective. “He did good” is a moral one. “I trust him because he helped us” is an interpersonal psychological one, but the legal criteria does not appear anywhere. He can even be God but he broke the law, it is called corruption. For most Romanians, ”that is not the case”, explains Mihailescu.
Three decades ago, Monica Macovei applied to law school because she was intrigued by what Gelu Ruscanu, the main character in the “Fairies’ play”, said “Justice is inhuman”. She wanted to see if it’s true or not.
She became the ministry of Justice at the end of 2004, in a moment when Romania had big delays in applying reforms in the justice field. She created the DNA on the ruins of the National Anticorruption directorate and brought Daniel Morar, an unknown district attorney from Cluj, to lead it. She organised the National Integrity Agency with the purpose of investigating the politicians’ wealth. And the big corruption cases started to flow.
The DNA prosecutors are proud only because of the number of convictions. They can’t do anything if the convicted ones return to politics. “It’s about the Romanian society’s level of education and behaviour, which is tolerant to corruption”, says district attorney Nistor Calin when talking about the large number of mayors who relaunch their career after being convicted.
Daniel Morar moved a few months ago into a spacious office on the first floor of the Palace of Parliament, in the corner that is reserved for the Constitutional Court’s main offices. Here the silence is broken only by a clock’s tick. In front of the building there are no journalists who smoke and drink coffee. The present judge says that the rallies of support might be immoral, but they are irrelevant for the prosecutors.
“Everybody has to know that justice is not done by the masses, no matter how many protests they organize”, he says.”In this world, justice is done by professionals” , says Morar.
From what the prosecutors report, it is not surprising that people sustain the corrupted; it is more surprising that DNA has survived until now.
To reform justice means to convince politicians to take decisions against their own interests. Monica Macovei believes “This can be done successfully only in periods of pre-accession to NATO and the EU, when politicians can’t do anything.”
Macovei believes that Romania had a good period during the 2000’s. Immediately after the accession, the politicians started to regroup and tried to destructurize the new institutions.
“The politicians believed that we can turn back to where we came from and it will be again ‘business as usual’, says Laura Stefan, the former director of the Ministry of Justice, now consultant of the European commission. “Fortunately, we did not go back”.
What stopped them was the mechanism that was imposed by the European Union as a condition for integration, so they concentrated on uncrediting anticorruption prosecutors. Some Romanians believed it. “It is not a morally healthy state“, Macovei states.
Constanta, June 19th 2013: This morning brings a new term in Matei’s trial. The mayor arrives just a few minutes before the meeting has to begin, so he walks up the stairs in a hurry and with a frown on his face. For bribery he could serve a prison sentence of between six months and five years.
He confuses the floors, calls somebody on the phone and then comes back to the ground floor. It is a rather small room, with two rows of five small wooden low benches. The judge calls his name- Defendant Matei Nicolae, and he comes into the middle of the room, next to the first bench. He is holding his hands in front of his body.
He asks the judges to let him leave the county from time to time so he can fulfill his duties as the president of Romanian Towns Association. He adds medical reasons: he needs medical investigation and treatment.
His case is closed and three quarters of the room stands up. They came for him. Nicolae Matei heads towards the door and welcomes the crowd. He smiles and shakes hands with everyone, just like winners do.
Reporter: Vlad Odobescu
Translation: Micha Williams, Simon Yorke
This project about the local politics in Romania was done with the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, initiated by Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation and Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (editor Neil Arun).
The working months transformed into stories for Casa Jurnalistului, The Black Sea, Balkan Insight and New Statesman.