Bucharest's corruption crackdown may be doing the country more harm than good

On paper, the east Romanian port town of Constanta looks like an economic success story. With investments pouring into renewable energy, shipping, real estate and agriculture, GDP per capita is 16% higher than the country average, in line with the most prosperous cities in Europe.

But such development has been made possible under the maverick reign of the city's mayor, Radu Mazare, who was arrested in April under accusations that he had taken €9m in bribes – and the scars of his rule are visible everywhere. The historic centre looks like a city abandoned. Crumbling Ottoman-era buildings stand derelict on streets that run to dirt halfway. Roads stop abruptly where brand new mansions have been erected, jostling to get a view of the sea. Stray dogs roam the roofs of unfinished tower blocks. Queues wind out the front doors of hospitals.

"Mazare is a king in Constanta," says Sebastian Bodu, a member of the European Parliament and former president of the National Agency for Fiscal Administration. "The city is his empire. He has established a system where any economic initiative has to go through him. Now he's been arrested, nothing happens – no one knows what to do."

Mazare's reputation rests as much on his ability to play the clown as it does on his open embrace of foreign investment. He has dressed as a Nazi general and a Roman emperor for the press; posed on a silver throne surrounded by naked models for the cover of Playboy magazine, and regularly arrives for political debates dressed in full Che Guevara garb, cigar included. The proud owner of a fleet of vintage sports cars, multiple houses and an estate on Madagascar – despite earning an official salary of just €495 a month – Mazare has somehow managed to keep the public's trust. At the last poll, he was re-elected with 62% of the votes.

Such levels of popularity might seem incongruous, but in Romania the idea that corruption is the only way to ensure economic development is ingrained. There is a popular parody of a political campaign slogan that shouts: "Corruption: the backbone of Romanian Society".

"Corruption in Constanta has helped growth in a way," says Bodu. "It lubricates the wheels as all you have to do is pay a little and all of a sudden there are no regulations. But it is not the kind of growth that truly benefits a city."

Government sources insist that a crackdown on corruption, which has seen a number of high-profile politicians imprisoned in recent months, may be doing the country more harm than good, bringing about a consequent "economic standstill". While the Romanian anti-corruption agency, Directia Nationala Anticoruptie (DNA), has been toppling politicians steadily for over a decade, ever since Klaus Johannis, an ethnic German was voted in as president last November, it has gone into overdrive.

House raids have uncovered Picasso and Renoir paintings, gold bars and wads of cash in the houses of ministers accused of bribe-taking – such as the country's finance minister, Darius Vâlcov. As a result, with the threat of a DNA investigation hanging over them, ministers have become reluctant to approve infrastructure and investment projects, at least temporarily. Public investment as a proportion of GDP has dropped to its lowest level since Romania joined the EU seven years ago. Private investment has also slowed.

"Taking bribes for public projects is so endemic in the Romanian government that almost everyone has something to hide," says Sorin Ionita, a legal expert with the anti-corruption think tank, Expert Forum. "They think that if they hold out while the DNA spotlight is on them, they can weather the storm and later on begin business again as usual."

Ordinary people are being hurt by the backlash. Since politicians were exposed last year for working with companies to syphon off public money being paid for Microsoft products, schools and hospitals have been without functioning computers as politicians try to distance themselves from the danger. In Bucharest, Romania's capital, the construction of new train lines has ground to a halt after government ministers were accused of taking bribes to approve inflated rates from the company providing the trains. Elsewhere, roads remain half built and in winter snow is often uncleared, leaving remote villages cut off from the outside world.

The idea that anti-corruption efforts are doing Romania more harm than good has become pervasive enough for leaders to attack the DNA head on. When Prime Minister Victor Ponta said earlier this year that the DNA was taking Romania "back to the times of Ceausescu or Stalin", much of the government roared in support. Ponta's brother-in-law and father-in-law are both currently under investigation by DNA.

And as the politicians fall, the government is struggling to find people to replace them, leaving many positions either empty or filled with inexperienced candidates. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a government adviser says that "people wanting to get into politics for the economic benefits are avoiding it for now, while those with better intentions have no desire to be part of a corrupt system. It means the country is at an economic standstill."

Nevertheless, polls show that the DNA is trusted by twice as many people as the government itself, while at rallies for last year's presidential elections, a common chant was "DNA for president". But there is also a running joke in Romania that politicians quietly welcome a period in prison so that they can catch up with their friends, and that they remain confident that, when they come out, the empires they had assembled for themselves in government will still be waiting for them.

Andrei Mascut began his political career before jumping ship to work at corruption watchdog Romania Curata. "There is a kind of initiation ritual into Romanian politics," says Mascut. "The first thing to happen is that a senior politician will take you under his wing and ask you to get into business with him or his friends. Then you are on record as sharing corrupt business interests, and you can be blackmailed. Only then are you in a position to run for office. No one wants anyone who is clean as they become a threat to the whole system."