By Adrian Mogos and Vitalie Calugareanu
Vladimir’s ‘grandmother’ Svetlana Alliluyeva shares a name and a birthday with Stalin’s daughter.
Stalin would not have been amused. A man named Vladimir, apparently the Soviet dictator’s great-grandson, stands at the threshold of acquiring a Romanian passport and with it, the right to work within the EU.
When he crosses that threshold, Vladimir will reverse one of Stalin’s achievements. His grandparents were citizens of Romania in the first half of the twentieth century, long before it joined the EU.
They lost their nationality at the end of the Second World War, when Romania ceded the territory of Moldova to Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Today, Vladimir is entitled by law to acquire the citizenship that was taken from his grandparents, one of whom shares a name and a birthday with Svetlana Alliluyeva, the Soviet leader’s daughter.
He is among hundreds of thousands of Moldovans with Romanian ancestry who regard the border between the two countries as nothing but a bureaucratic invention.
But Vladimir is keeping a secret from the bureaucrats who are about to let him into the EU – his ancestry is also invented.
According to certificates acquired from the Moldovan state archive, his illustrious grandmother was married to one Ostap Bender, who shares a name with the con-man antihero of the Soviet novel, The Golden Calf.
The papers from the archive reveal a past rich in historical coincidence. Ostap’s Moldovan birth certificate says he was born on June 28, 1914 – the day of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and the start of the First World War. The marriage certificate meanwhile shows that Ostap and Svetlana tied the knot on September 2, 1945: the day Japan surrendered to the US.
It is highly unlikely that a woman named after Stalin’s daughter took a husband named after a fictitious Soviet trickster on the day the Second World War ended.
Today however, it is entirely possible for a man claiming to be their descendant to buy the right to work in the EU. All he needs are patience, cash, and the right connections among the citizenship brokers and bureaucrats of Bucharest and Chisinau.
Passport to the EU
The territory of Moldova was part of Romania between 1918 and 1940, and again between 1941 and 1944. Formerly known as Bessarabia, it was annexed by the Soviet Union during the Second World War and became an independent republic in 1991.
In the same year, Bucharest adopted a law granting foreign nationals of Romanian descent the right to become citizens of the country. Since then, Romania has processed an estimated 225,000 citizenship applications from Moldovans, according to a study published in April 2012 by the Soros Foundation in Romania.
The study was compiled from data provided by Romanian institutions, much of which is incomplete or in dispute. In the absence of exact numbers, the Soros report argues that the figure of 225,000 serves as the “most relevant approximation” of the number of people who have been granted Romanian citizenship in the last 20 years.
The Soros study shows that the annual number of citizenship applications from Moldova has been rising steadily. The rise has coincided with changes in Romanian legislation, and with Romania’s entry into the EU in 2007. Moldova is the poorest country on the bloc’s borders, and a large proportion of its youth already work in wealthier economies abroad.
The study also shows that Romania has begun processing citizenship applications faster since 2007. Of all applications processed by Bucharest since 2002, more than half – around 116,000 – have been handled in the last four years. Again, the study does not provide a breakdown of how many of these applications were successful.
Many Moldovans regard the Romanian passport as the key to the EU, according to Marian Gherman, a Bucharest prosecutor whose office has investigated a network of touts and bureaucrats who were expediting citizenship applications for money.
“Everybody knows it,” he said. “They ask for Romanian citizenship only because it gives them the freedom to travel and work within the EU.”
An official from the National Citizenship Authority, NCA, in Bucharest, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Moldovans had shown little interest in acquiring Romanian nationality until 2007.
Moldovans may have several good reasons to seek Romanian nationality – especially where they are legitimately entitled to it. Romanian President Traian Basescu said in 2009 that up to a million Moldovans – representing more than a quarter of the population – wanted to acquire his country’s citizenship. He has repeatedly promised to help applicants by cutting red-tape.
However, this investigation, sponsored by the European Fund for Investigative Journalism, reveals that many Moldovans still prefer to acquire Romanian citizenship through unofficial channels. They frequently pay hundreds of euros to brokers in the hope of expediting their applications.
Inexperienced Moldovans risk being ripped off when they use illicit intermediaries. But the unofficial channels can also be very efficient. As this investigation shows, they can even generate proof of Romanian ancestry where none exists.
The EU does not interfere on citizenship, describing it as a sovereign matter for member states. However, Romania’s policy has long prompted accusations in the media that it is operating a “backdoor” into the EU, allowing impoverished Moldovans unlawful access to the bloc.
In 2010, France spoke out against Romanian efforts to join the EU’s border- free Schengen zone. Among other factors, the French EU affairs minister at the time, Pierre Lellouche, cited “the distribution of Romanian passports” to Moldovans as a cause for concern.
The April 2012 report by the Soros Foundation in Romania argued that many of these fears were unfounded. While criticising Bucharest for an apparent lack of transparency, the study said there was no evidence to support claims of Moldovan migrants surging unchecked into Europe. Nor did the report find any evidence to support Basescu’s statement that a million Moldovans were seeking Romanian citizenship.
The Soros foundation is one of several groups in the Open Society network that aim to promote democracy in eastern Europe.
[Disclosure: Open Society contributes to the European Fund for Investigative Journalism. Funds affiliated to the European Union and to Open Society also contribute to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s programmes.]
The authors of the Soros Foundation report said Romania’s naturalisation programme – although disorderly – had created proportionately fewer citizens than similar efforts in countries such as the UK or France. The study also attributed the steep rise in citizenship awards after 2007, the year Romania joined the EU, to the simplification of the process for awarding passports.
Our investigation does not confirm that Romania is operating a “backdoor” for unchecked and unlawful migration, as some within the EU fear.
Indeed, many Moldovans may use brokers because they are frustrated with the slow pace at which Romania processes citizenship applications. According to Gherman, the Bucharest prosecutor, the grey market is attractive even to legitimate applicants because it operates faster than the official process, which can take up to six years to award nationality.
Some Moldovans may also turn to intermediaries because they are already working illegally in western Europe, and cannot leave to apply for citizenship in person. “They can’t come to Romania… because they cannot go back to their jobs,” Gherman said.
However, our investigation does reveal the existence of a thriving grey market for Romanian nationality, intersecting official and unofficial channels. Above all, this calls into question assurances by Romanian officials that all citizenship applications are checked thoroughly to weed out fraud.
By working with a man posing as a citizenship hopeful, “Vladimir”, we showed that the procedure for acquiring a Romanian passport cannot distinguish genuine applicants from those whose grandparents are plucked from Soviet history and literature.
After acquiring birth and marriage certificates for Ostap Bender and Svetlana Alliluyeva, we used the same intermediary to get hold of police records from the Moldovan and Romanian authorities, confirming that Vladimir did not have any criminal convictions.
Along with the certificates from the Moldovan archive, these documents were presented at the citizenship bureau in Bucharest, where an official confirmed that they appeared genuine.
According to the official, Vladimir could apply to take the oath of citizenship once he had completed a few more formalities – namely, submitting his identity card, an application form, and a statement from a notary.
The official’s confidence was not misplaced. Vladimir’s documents have the seals and signatures of all the appropriate institutions and officials in Moldova and Romania. But while the papers may be legitimate, the means with which they were procured were not.
Fresh from the archive
We joined Vladimir as he set off on his quest for EU citizenship in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. The touts were easy to spot, having practically set up stall outside government ministries and the Romanian consulate. They wore pouches around the waist and carried business cards in their hands. At the gates of official buildings they huddled together, drinking coffee or speaking intently into mobile phones.
One of the touts, identifying himself as Vadim, boasted of his contacts with Romanian officials in Bucharest and in the eastern cities of Iasi and Vaslui. He led us to a lady who introduced herself as Maria. As she could not arrange documents in under six months, we continued our search.
A tout calling himself Emil told us he was not doing anything illegal – merely using his influence. “I have a lawyer in Bucharest who can speed things up,” he said. He handed out a business card, advertising a website which promised Romanian citizenship for anyone, anywhere.
The prices quoted on the site varied according to how fast the application would be processed. For €700, all the essential citizenship documents could be arranged within 15 months. Payment of €1,000 guaranteed the documents within 10 months, while a fast-track application – completed within five months – cost €1,500. Once citizenship had been acquired, further payment of €95 and a 10-day wait would secure the applicant a Romanian passport. A Romanian ID card would cost an extra €140.
Back on the streets, another tout said he could arrange the necessary birth, marriage and death certificates for €300. A young woman, claiming to be a university student, interrupted the conversation and promised to lead us to a reliable intermediary. She introduced us to Arghira, a lady in her fifties with a bruise above her eye. She too quoted a price of €300, which was then reduced to €250. Arghira led us to a public notary, in whose presence Vladimir signed a document. But despite this promising start, Arghira proved to be unreliable, demanding more money at every meeting.
Eventually we struck gold with a middle-aged man who gave his name as Ion. He promised to procure the necessary documents for €70 each. By the end of February 2012, he had provided birth and marriage certificates for Ostap and Svetlana. The documents were freshly issued by the Moldovan state archive, and they confirmed that Vladimir’s “ancestors” had once been citizens of Romania. Shortly afterwards, Ion also provided statements from the police in Romania and Moldova, showing that Vladimir did not have any criminal convictions.
As confirmed by the official in Bucharest, Vladimir was now on the brink of taking the oath of citizenship. In the interests of timeliness, we decided to end our pursuit of Romanian nationality at this point.
Had Vladimir gone on to receive citizenship, he would then be in a position to apply for an identity card, which is regarded as the ultimate objective of the citizenship process.
New citizens from Moldova prefer the identity card to the passport because it attracts less scrutiny at EU borders, while offering the same privileges. Recent recipients of Romanian citizenship are still regarded with suspicion at some borders. The identity card, unlike the passport, does not reveal how long its holder has held the nationality.
In order to qualify for an identity card, a citizen must show that they have been resident in Romania for a minimum specified period. Here too, the network of illicit intermediaries is ready to assist, by fabricating proof of residence.
The classified section of a newspaper in Iasi, a large city in eastern Romania, carries ads looking for locals to host Moldovans that are seeking the ID card. One such ad promises €40 per guest for anyone willing to host up to 20 people for short periods. In reality, the host is being paid to say that the “guests” are staying at a particular property. The ad asks only that anyone interested have “contacts with the police precinct”.
It is not hard to find further evidence that the intermediaries are helping applicants forge their residency. Several citizenship websites contained a picture of the same Romanian ID card, apparently a specimen advertising the final product. While key details on the card had been deliberately blurred, we were able to establish the name of the card’s owner and his place of birth – a town in Moldova. The address on the card led to a one-bedroom apartment in a run-down district of Bucharest. No one answered the door. However, a search through online registers revealed that the same address was used by several Moldovans with Romanian citizenship, as well as some Romanian and Chinese firms.
Although it is not illegal for several citizenship applicants to claim residence at the same address, some Romanian officials have tried – without success – to clamp down on the practice.
Victor Gindac, a director in the Office for Immigration, said he began receiving reports in 2009 of individuals who had been tricked by brokers and lawyers in the residence racket. He added that his employees received threats after attempting to unmask lawyers in Bucharest who had helped forge proof of residence.
The NCA has also tried to warn applicants against using unofficial brokers and lawyers to expedite their citizenship applications. However, a statement to this effect on the NCA website, posted in February 2012, provoked fierce complaints from lawyers in Bucharest. The online warning was duly amended to exclude lawyers from the category of intermediaries.
Migrants go legal
Romania carried out its most high-profile crackdown on the citizenship racket in March 2012. Dozens of people were arrested and thousands of euros were recovered in a series of raids. NCA employees as well as brokers holding Moldovan and Romanian nationality are among those now awaiting trial.
According to Gherman, the Bucharest prosecutor, they formed part of a network that was responsible for handling around 1,000 citizenship applications. Court documents said US investigators had helped trace the group’s financial transactions.
Moldovan officials also say they made several arrests in concert with the Romanian crackdown in March. Anastasia Mihalceanu, a spokeswoman for the anti-corruption agency in Chisinau, said some 80 people had been questioned over the citizenship racket – all of them brokers or people employed by them. “Here in Moldova, no officials were involved,” she added.
Separately, Moldovan prosecutors and anti-corruption officials say they have been making arrests throughout 2012. Of the nine people questioned over citizenship rackets since January, some have reportedly been state officials or lawyers. Only two of the nine cases have proceeded to trial so far. There have been no convictions.
Our investigation shows that the grey market has continued to thrive, despite arrests on both sides of the border. The birth and marriage certificates for Ostap and Svetlana were procured just weeks after the March crackdown.
And while Mihalceanu says state employees were not among the 80 arrested in the Moldovan sweep, our investigation suggests they are nonetheless complicit in the citizenship racket. How else could the state archive in Chisinau deliver legitimate-seeming records for fictitious individuals?
At best, the March crackdown may have succeeded in temporarily slowing down the illicit citizenship business. In April, we met a Moldovan man outside the passport directorate in Bucharest. His Romania-based broker, a lady named Oxana, was due to procure his identity card – but had been scared off by the recent arrests. “She knew somebody in a high position – but now she wants to lie low for a while,” he said. The man, who gave his name as Andrei, said it had taken him a year to acquire his Romanian citizenship through intermediaries, at a cost of almost €1,500.
Meanwhile in Chisinau, several Moldovans said they had used their new nationality to take jobs in the EU. All said they had migrated in order to support families struggling in dire poverty.
Alexandru Covas, a garage employee, said he used to work illegally in Italy and would dread being stopped by Italian police – until he received his Romanian citizenship. “The passport is a salvation but I can’t stand the Romanians,” he said. “They are selfish, treacherous people.”
Interviewed while visiting his hometown in Moldova, Veaceslav Mandis said he did not feel he had profited unfairly by becoming a Romanian national: “Nobody asked my grandfather when they took away his Romanian citizenship in 1945.” A former teacher who now works as a truck driver in Italy, Mandis said the passport meant he did not have to break any laws.
Liuba Carpineanu, a Moldovan who has worked in Italy as a carer for the elderly, said her Romanian passport spared her from using people traffickers. “The first time I left Moldova, we had to pay €4,000 to a guide who took us through swamps and forests,” she said. “I don’t want to remember what we went through.”
While the advantages of acquiring Romanian citizenship are obvious, the number of beneficiaries remains in dispute.
Efforts to draw conclusions about the process are hampered by a lack of clear data, and by dramatic discrepancies in the figures provided by various institutions.
For instance, the NCA told us it had approved around 15,000 applications in the period 2007-11. It said it had rejected around 1,000 applications in the same period. Taken together, this would mean the NCA had processed around 16,000 applications in that time.
However, this contradicts official figures quoted by the Soros Foundation’s April 2012 study, which say that the NCA had processed 116,000 applications between 2007 and August 2011.
While the study did not have exact figures for how many citizenships were granted, the authors suggested that most of the applications in the 2007-11 period would have been successful.
The NCA did not comment on the discrepancy, only saying that its figures were correct. The Soros Foundation is also standing by the figures. The study containing them was released in the presence of NCA representatives.
The NCA insists it carries out thorough checks on all citizenship applications. “If there are any suspicions over a document [such as a birth or marriage certificate], there are supplementary verifications,” NCA spokeswoman Gabriela Neagu said.
A Moldovan citizenship broker offered an alternative guarantee. “Give me a Russian from Siberia,” he boasted, “and I will make him a Romanian citizen.”
Additional reporting by Vitalie Selaru in Chisinau and Lina Vdovii in Bucharest. Editing by Neil Arun for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
This article was produced with support from the European Fund for Investigative Journalism.