Or, The Mystery of the Disappearing Prime Minister.
Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta went rogue this week (well, more rogue than usual), attending the opening ceremony of something called the European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. (No, we’ve never heard of them either. They’re big in Azerbaijan apparently).
Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis, did not attend, instead choosing to observe the unofficial boycott of the event by European Union leaders in protest at Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record. Ponta on the other hand, not really giving two hoots about human rights or any such nonsense, couldn’t resist the chance to mix with such enlightened company as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarussian President Aleskandr Lukashenko and Recep Erdogan of Turkey: tyrants one and all.
The plot then thickened on Sunday when from Baku Ponta flew not back to Romania but to Turkey, aboard Erdogan’s presidential plane no less.
Ostensibly, Ponta is in Turkey for an operation on his knee, injured last month while playing basketball. That he was due at the DNA on Monday for questioning regarding the ongoing investigation into alleged acts of corruption is of course purely coincidental. Iohannis called Ponta’s presence at the games a ‘foreign policy gaffe’ and confirmed that he had not been informed of the PM’s intention to go to Baku, nor that he would be having an operation in Turkey and therefore temporarily unable to serve as prime minister.
Gabriel Oprea, leader of the UNPR and well-known for his love of dressing up as a soldier, is Romania’s prime minister until Ponta returns to work. He can only serve as interim for 45 days however: after that Iohannis must appoint a new prime minister. Interestingly, one of Oprea’s first declarations after taking the reigns on Monday was to state that if the PSD continued with its bid to change the penal code (making it more difficult to arrest, investigate and bring corrupt politicians to book) he would have to put the national interest first and leave the ruling coalition. This has ruffled a few PSD feathers. While the government might well survive a confidence vote without the UNPR, it would be touch and go, not least as more than a few PSD members would probably take the opportunity to jump ship.
As such, Ponta’s absence – and almost total lack of communication – becomes stranger still.
We should state at this point that while it may be morally reprehensible for a Romanian politician to choose to be treated abroad, Ponta is not the first. Both Calin Popescu Tariceanu – while serving as prime minister – and Traian Basescu – while in the president’s office – underwent surgery in Vienna.
Yet Ponta’s case is still very fishy. We do not doubt the fact that he has a knee injury, but the timing of the operation, its location and the length of absence reek to high heaven of funny goings on. We have no idea what the thinking behind it all is: it may simply be that Ponta wanted to lie low for a while in the hope that the controversy surrounding him (and the pressure to resign) would dissipate. It hasn’t. Indeed, he has simply brought more light on himself. Romania awaits his return, as does the DNA.
Perhaps they will be waiting for him? That’s what happened to the Mayor of Bucharest’s Sector 1, Andrei Chiliman of the PNL, on Thursday, as he returned from a visit of his own (to Brussels) to find the DNA waiting for him at Otopeni Airport. Chiliman has been named as a suspect in a corruption case centered on the renovation of blocks in his sector (Chiliman is accused of taking some enormous bribes). Victor Ponta’s brother-in-law (See how it works yet?) is a suspect in the same case. What will be interesting is what the PNL do: if they practice what they preach he will be suspended from the party until he is either found guilty (and kicked out for good) or acquitted (and the suspension lifted).
In other crime-fighting news, the leader of the Romanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry from 2007-2014 was on Thursday convicted of peddling influence and sentenced to five years in prison.
Meantime, any dreams we may have of the Ploiesti-Brasov section of the A3 motorway being built anytime soon are further from a reality than ever. It was announced on Thursday that the government had annulled its construction and maintenance agreement with the Vinci/Aktor/Strabag consortium (worth a whopping €8.5 billion over 26 years), signed earlier this year. For the motorway, it’s back to square one, although a government spokesman did say that it remains ‘a priority.’
Not that we expect him to keep his word (he never does) but back in 2013 Ponta said that if the motorway was not completed by 2016 he would not candidate for a seat in parliament in that year’s elections. At the same time Ponta’s alleged partner in crime Dan Sova – the then Transport Minister – said that he would ‘sleep in a tent on the construction site to make sure they job got done.’
Well, maybe he would have done. The problem of course is that there is no construction site.
(In fairness, the cancellation of the contract – done in response to general public outrage at the ridiculous cost – is no bad thing. The amount was outrageous, and clearly would have been an excuse to dish out barrel loads of cash to corrupt officials. It is a sign that fear of the DNA now stalks much of the land).
Deserving bunch that they are, Romania’s parliamentarians voted this week to award themselves ginormous pensions. When asked why MPs should have huge pensions and the rest of the country shouldn’t, the delightful Marius Manolache (PSD; Ponta was godfather at his wedding – Who’d have thunk it?) said that parliamentarians should not be treated like ‘the ordinary people’ and that they deserved more money as a mark of respect for the fact that they had entered parliament. ‘There can’t be equality between MPs and everybody else, the likes of workers, engineers and doctors.’ We kind of knew that all ready.
In a first class piece of (clearly unintentional) trolling, Cristina van Bonzel Gomez – the wife of the Dutch Ambassador to Romania Matthijs van Bonzel – had orthopedic surgery on Tuesday in a Romanian state hospital. The ambassador publicly thanked the doctors and staff at the hospital in Bucharest (the same hospital our kids were born to be precise) on Facebook.