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Hybris and the city: Romania vs. Croatia in the competition for corruption at the top

Liviu Dragnea, the indicted Romanian Socialist boss

The Romanian strongman and Socialist boss Liviu Dragnea spoke last week to a crowd gathered by his party to applaud him in the southern town of Craiova, enjoining them: – “You all said,” Liviu, if they arrest you, we will come and pull you out of jail.

What would seem to an outsider a brazen assault on the institutions of the state and on the very notion of justice was just one of the numerous instances of a Romanian Socialist (PSD) official showing disrespect for the state of law of the country the party is ruling in a coalition with the minor ALDE group.

What Dragnea did, however, by launching an appeal for collective violence and disobedience for him to be eventually pulled out of jail is called “Public Incitement” (Article 368) and is punished by imprisonment from 3 months to 3 years. If the deed is committed by a civil servant who performs a function involving the exercise of state authority (i.e, the President of the Lower Chamber of Parliament, Liviu Dragnea), the punishment is from one to five years imprisonment.

Dragnea was twice convicted, for vote-rigging and corruption. The second conviction, three years and six months in prison, is on appeal. The convictions are the reason Dragnea is not officially heading the government: after his party’s victory in the 2016 elections, the conservative, centre-right president Klaus Iohannis refused to accept him as prime minister.

Dragnea is also under investigation in Brazil, for money laundering, after having bought a luxury villa on a secluded beach there, through a local intermediary. To top it, one former friend and aide, Costel Comana, the man who helped Dragnea make his first million, died in murky circumstances: he allegedly hanged himself, in February 2015, in the toilet of a plane that was going to land in Costa Rica. 

The arrogance of the SPD high officials is so high, that the party’s secretary general, Codrin Ștefănescu, summoned today, 22 April, as a witness in the trial of the former chief accountant of the party, accused of embezzlement, claimed that an inquiry into the finances of the party (which come mostly from public money) are: “an abuse and an interference in the life of a political party”.

In the same way, Dragnea felt entitled, from the height of his office, to invite the people to rebel in order to defend him. This kind arrogance reveals a mood that the ancient Greeks called hybris.

«Hybris» is the permanent state of mind of the hero who thinks he is invincible. The man touched by hybris is guilty of arrogant happiness. It is the feeling of impunity that brings arrogance. The sufferer of hybris, of this delusional insanity, believes that he rightly benefits from supernatural luck. He lives in a permanent state of autosuggestion. The Greeks considered this a form of madness. They knew that nothing lasts forever. In the end, the hero is doomed to fail, and he finally falls. The mental state of hybris always ends in comical disaster, usually not only for the hero, but also for those around him, who followed him and believed in him.

The Croatian case of hybris

Croatia offers the similar case of the recently (re)convicted former prime minister Ivo Sanader. The Supreme Court in Zagreb last month increased Sanader’s jail term from four-and-a-half to six years for taking more than €2 million in kickbacks from a real estate deal while he was in power from 2003 to 2009. Sanader was also told by the court to return more than €2 million in gains from corruption.

The six-year sentence came from the prosecutor’s appeal of Sanader’s conviction in 2017. He was found by the court to have pushed his cabinet to buy a Zagreb building for the rural development ministry at twice its market value. Of the €10 million paid by the government, €2.3 million was given directly to Sanader.

At Ivo Sanader’s trial. Dan Alexe sits in the audience, second row.

Tall and seductive, with a powerful voice and an elegance that reminds one of George Clooney, Sanader was between 2003-2009 prime minister of a country deeply scarred by war, the country with the most absurd shape on the planet, where everybody in the West wants to buy a holiday house on the Dalmatian coast. Sanader managed to brilliantly lead Croatia into NATO and supervised most of the successful negotiations that were to take it into the EU. He renovated the nationalistic party founded by the late authoritarian ruler Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian Democratic Party (HDZ), and handed over to the international justice the most wanted Croatian fugitive, accused then of being a war criminal, Ante Gotovina.

But who was he in reality and how did he land in jail? A women’s man, mentor of Croatia’s first female president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, Sanader is clearly afflicted by what the ancient Greeks were calling “hybris”.

Knowing all this, one can understand the nature of Sanader’s flight on a highway to Austria, in December 2010, when he was first arrested for corruption. The way in which he fled, unprepared, in a derisory tentative of escape, without a B-plan, full of apprehension, “like a decapitated chicken”, as they say in Croatia, this is exactly the way in which ends the hero afflicted by hybris. As things go with hybris, it is the very power that Sanader was looking for which in the end blinded his judgment.

What did Sanader do well for Croatia? He started by showing that the Croatian right is a modern, European movement, pro-EU and with social preoccupations. He thus managed to shed the dark, pro-Fascist image that the HDZ party had until Tudjman’s death. He also pushed out of the HDZ the most rabid hardline ultranationalists, getting rid of the nostalgic pro-Ustashi wing and thus really cleaning the foundations of the party. Sanader was thus the total opposite of someone like the Slovak nationalist leader Vladimir Mečiar.

Actually, in a way that is coherent with his personality, Sanader had no real interest in ideology. It seems that if, by chance, he would have grown up in a Leftist environment, he would have made a passable Socialist. He was only interested in money.

To sum it up, Sanader’s flair and stubbornness led to the renovation of HDZ’s image, and also to his main, uncontested success: Croatia’s quick advance on the road to the EU accession. Sanader subordinated everything to this, by making it his unique political card and leaving aside everything else, and mostly the economic situation of the country. It was practically his only real political goal: to remain in Croatia’s modern history as the man who brought the country into the EU. Of course, this is also a part of the personality of a man affected by hybris.

In 2011, Sanader was already indicted together with the whole HDZ party, accused of having put in place, between 2003-2009, an internal system of black funds and occult financing. The system has been called ”Sanader‘s ATM“ machine -“Sanaderov bankomat”- and it was another example of how the parallel system of power that Sanader had introduced allowed also for a parallel system of accounting, creating inside the HDZ a potentially endless source of black funds.

The two cases, the one of the Romanian Socialist leader Liviu Dragnea and the one of the Croatian nationalist Ivo Sanader show that in the Balkans, the moderate, pro-european right (Sanader in Croatia) could prove to be as corrupt as the old, nationalist, isolationist left (Dragnea in Romania).

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