By Paul Ciocoiu
Romanian police and anticorruption prosecutors raided another customs checkpoint on Thursday (February 24th), checking local import-export firms and customs workers suspected of bribe taking, media reports said.
The sting, carried out at Ploiesti in the south of the country, was the second of its kind this week. An earlier operation at the Albita checkpoint on the Moldovan border resulted in 55 arrests.
These are the latest in a series of raids carried out this month by Romanian authorities, who are intent on demonstrating to the EU that the country is taking steps to firm up the borders. In all, nearly 200 border police officers and customs workers are under investigation for alleged corruption and smuggling.
Romania is due to join the EU’s Schengen border-free zone in March. But the Balkan country has come under fierce criticism from Western European countries such as France and Germany, which have voiced their concern about border security due to widespread corruption in Romania and Bulgaria.
“The customs system is a vulnerable one in terms of exposure to corruption and that has been also shown in our systematic analyses. So far there’s been no political will to tackle and eradicate this problem, namely corruption in the customs system, which has been out there for years,” Victor Alistar, executive director of Transparency International Romania, told SETimes.
On February 8th, an operation at the Stamora Moravita checkpoint on the Serbian border resulted in over 100 officers being investigated for graft and cigarette smuggling. The prosecutors also searched custom officials’ homes and workplaces.
About 500,000 euros worth of smuggled cigarettes were confiscated.
Nearly 60 officials were arrested for cigarette smuggling during the first operation at the Siret checkpoint on the Ukrainian border on February 3rd after a six-month stakeout.
According to the National Anti-corruption Department (DNA), bribes at Siret were not random. The process was co-ordinated and hierarchically organised — every official had a well established position and was rewarded according to his contribution.
That operation resulted in the removal of Customs Chief Radu Marginean on charges of corruption.
The police and customs union, however, insist only the pawns have been sacrificed while the queen remains unhindered.
“The sums are collected through an organised and centralised system which leads to persons who finance political parties,” the union alleges. The union also maintains that those in charge of border checkpoints are politically protected.
“The queen is among the union leaders,” President Traian Basescu retorted, rejecting the accusations.
According to Alistar, the recent stings may be too little, too late.
“These actions can hardly help Romania now in terms of a possible good impression made a month before the decision on its accession to Schengen is taken,” he cautioned. “On the contrary, I am afraid France’s and Germany’s fears concerning corruption on EU’s external borders are confirmed after the recent developments.”