Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I T A:
The Carpathian Godfathers
Gang violence comes to Brasov

Catherine Lovatt

Violence, corruption, gang warfare are all components of classic American gangster movies, such as The Godfather. However, these acts are not only found in movie scripts - a product of the imagination - they are also part of reality. All societies are witness to some form of gang rivalry, and Romania is no exception.

Recently, Brasov, a small, quiet, picturesque town set in the Carpathians was host to clashes between two dangerous gangs. The conflict arose after some men working for a local underworld leader, Marius Ilie, sought protection money from some of Brasov's hard currency dealers. The latter grouped together with local businessmen and reported the gang to the police. At the same time, they complained about a rival underworld group headed by "Stoleru" (as he is known in the media). The police failed to take immediate action and even released some of Ilie’s men who had previously been arrested. The hard currency dealers and businessmen decided to take the law into their own hands. Armed with Molotov cocktails, axes and ninja swords, the businessmen and the now united rival gangs confronted each other, only just being kept apart by police. For four days, the two rioting groups paraded through the Noua district in Brasov until the militia and the police decided to calm the action and make arrests.

Such clashes between underworld gangs have occurred before. Bucharest, Timisoara, Resita and Caracal have all experienced similar events in the past two years. However, the Brasov incident is the first to question the reliability of the police and regional officials. Although the police managed to prevent a violent clash between the two groups, the Romanian press have criticised them for not taking firmer action. At the height of the tension on Saturday 25 September no arrests were made despite many of the gang members openly revealing weapons. Prime Minister Radu Vasile added to the criticisms, declaring that the lack of police action was unacceptable. Vasile also called for action against the Brasov Chief of Police who is accused of negotiating with the gang leaders.

Further concerns have been voiced over the role of local prosecutors who, despite a vast amount of television coverage of criminal activity, are slow in prosecuting rioters. Their excuse - they don't have enough evidence. However, the head of the Prosecutors Office with the Brasov County Court has now given assurances that there is enough evidence to bring the rioters to trial.

Local prosecutors have not only come under attack in Brasov. In Craiova a public scandal has been raging over the immoral conduct of two prosecutors, Sorin Ciontu and Relu Serbanescu. In response, the Justice Minister, Valeriu Stoica, has been communicating with the Romanian Chief Prosecutor, Mircea Criste, to develop measures to resolve the scandal and to remedy the poor relationship between prosecutors and police.

Incidents such as these question the viability of the "rule of law" in Romania. Laws protect and punish, hopefully deterring potential offenders. If society cannot rely on the legal system to protect them, the people will take the law into their own hands. In Brasov, the lack of co-operation between the police and the prosecutors provided ineffective protection for those businessmen most at risk and for the residents of Brasov.

The events in Brasov bring into doubt the legitimacy of the state legal system. The hard currency dealers and the businessmen could not depend on the local authorities to protect their rights. Consequently, they undermined the "system" and took the task upon themselves. Bureaucracy, inefficiency, lack of co-operation and communication, and possibly corruption, are problems that hound the Romanian legal structure. These problems have to be resolved before Romanians accept the rule of law as legitimate, and before Romania is seriously considered for entry into the European Union.

Despite severe problems, Romania's stand against organised crime, and its improved law enforcement and improved protection of human rights are not passive. The American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have complimented Romania on its fight against crime and are to set up an FBI office in Romania. Also, Romania is to be the base for the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI). The SECI Centre will be opened in Bucharest to fight regional corruption and organised crime. If Romania's legal system were a sham, it would be unlikely to attract support from the FBI or be used as a base for a regional crime initiative.

President Emil Constantinescu has also provided his comment and advice about corruption and illegal activities in Romania. During a visit to France he claimed "there is no corruption at the level of the state" (Monitorul, 30 September 1999). He also called upon businessmen to report any illegal demands made upon them. However, when this had happened in Brasov only days earlier, Romanian businessmen had largely been ignored and felt forced to take the law into their own hands.

Crime is a problem for every country in the world,and Romania has its fair share of criminal activity. The incident in Brasov not only provides an example of organised crime but raises concerns over the legitimacy of the state legal structure. A state constructed around the rule of law must have a legitimate legal system before the rule of law and, consequently, the state are accepted by the nation. Those in the higher echelons of power recognise this, but transition from Communism is a slow process and often throws obstacles in the path of development.

Catherine Lovatt, 18 October 1999



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