This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
A VICE exclusive has revealed the Romanian Ministry of Justice is investigating hundreds of cases of Romanian passports allegedly being granted to people without proof of Romanian heritage. As detailed in the Ministry of Justice report seen by VICE Romania, the scheme has allegedly allowed a large number of Russian applicants, among other nationalities, to not only skip the queue for citizenship but dodge legal requirements for Romanian and EU citizenship.
According to the report, which examined citizenship applications between 2017 and 2019, the EU member allegedly gave citizenship to Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans and Belarusians with no connection to Romania. According to the accusations, the applications were pushed to the front of the queue and personally approved by high-ranking Romanian officials. The report pushed for the dismissal of the institution's three leaders: president Andrei Tinu and vice presidents Varol Amet and Sorin Bozgan. The Autoritatea Națională pentru Cetățenie (National Citizenship Authority) has rejected most of the report's claims, but confirmed it has asked the head of its Citizenship Committee, assigned with checking documents and granting citizenship, to resign over the scandal.
Under normal circumstances, Romanian citizenship is pretty hard to get. According to Article Eight of the Romanian Citizenship Law, you need to have lived in the country for at least eight years, or be married to and live with a Romanian citizen for five years. On top of that, you need to pass a Romanian language and culture exam that even some Romanian-born citizens find tough.
But there’s a shortcut. Article 11 grants the right to “regain citizenship”, to people who lost it against their will, say when a Romanian territory was taken over by another country after a war. This applies to relatives up to the third generation. Basically, if you can prove that a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent lived in former Romanian territories, like today’s Republic of Moldova or in the city of Chernivtsi in Western Ukraine, obtaining Romanian citizenship becomes a mere formality.
According to a statement issued to VICE by the National Citizenship Authority, nearly 97,000 of the roughly 100,000 citizenship applications filed each year are based on Article 11. In 2018, only 412 people became Romanian citizens through the pathway established in Article 8, while 45,000 applications were approved citing Article 11. But the inspectors suspect many applicants (or their relatives) were not born in areas formerly administered by the Romanian state.
Nicolae Țîbrigan of the Informational Warfare and Strategic Communication Laboratory – a non-government body that researches disinformation – told VICE that the scheme could pose a serious security threat to the EU. This is particularly risky as Romanian passports are currently available to people in frozen conflict areas like Transnistria, “where mercenaries are being recruited to this day", Țîbrigan said. He added that "members of organised crime groups involved in activities such as money laundering and cryptocurrency schemes" could use the scheme to operate more easily throughout the EU.
In recent years, Russia has been hit by an economic crisis caused by European and American sanctions, pushing wealthy urban Russians to seek out EU citizenship. VICE found a number of websites that promise to help them successfully apply for Romanian citizenship for a fee. The number of Russian applications has rapidly grown in the past years: in 2015, it was 950; three years later, 3,500. According to the report, the number had already hit 3,150 in the first eight months of 2019.
Romanian law requires all citizenship applications be approved by the Citizenship Committee, a National Citizenship Authority body that was until recently headed by president Emilia Gina Tache. The committee can request extra paperwork to prove the applicant’s descent and contact their country of origin to verify the papers. However, the report found 1,600 examples of applications where supplementary documents were requested but never delivered. Instead, the cases were labeled as "urgent" without a plausible cause and reassigned to high-ranking committee members who approved them without checking the extra documents. In 363 cases, the paperwork simply vanished.
The General Prosecutor’s office told VICE a criminal case had been opened into allegations that public officers destroyed documents and received bribes to push through invalid applications. The report described president Tache as having a history of approving questionable requests and pressuring colleagues to do the same. In 2012, she was investigated and detained pending trial in a similar case, but the charges were dropped for reasons not made public. Tache denied any wrongdoing in a statement attached to the report.
The report also implicated National Citizenship Authority vice president Sorin Bozgan in the scheme. It's alleged that higher-ups within the institution (mainly president Andrei Tinu and vice president Bozgan) often met with citizenship lawyers within their inner circles, before bypassing the official process to grant citizenship to their clients. "The situation thus discriminated against the rest of the applicants," detailed the report, adding that the system "displays many vulnerabilities to corruption, whose nature might prejudice the applicants and the Romania state."
Bozgan was named vice president of the National Citizenship Authority in May 2018, which came as a surprise to many given his lack of experience in the area of citizenship – he came from the Ministry of Environment. He has also worked as an officer with the General Directorate for Combating Organised Crime and Drugs, where he was implicated in a scandal during the early 2000s involving the disappearance of six kilos of cocaine. The case ended with the decision not to prosecute. Sorin Bozgan told VICE he wouldn't discuss the conclusions of the report over the telephone and denied his lack of experience in the field, citing previous work with the Population Record Bureau.
In rejecting many of the report's claims, the National Citizenship Authority claimed some applicants had managed to skip the line because they showed up to the office in person and were given last-minute appointments when other applicants didn't show up. The agency's president, Andrei Tinu, denied any involvement in the scheme and told VICE Tache was asked to resign. He also accused the investigators of “severely disturbing” the National Citizenship Authority's work, and of intimidation towards staff members.
Since VICE Romania published this report in January, the Romanian government has been forced to step down after Prime Minister Viorica Dancila's government received a vote of no confidence last October. It followed a number of political setbacks for the ruling party, including losing its majority in August 2019. Until a new government is reinstated, no major decisions can be made on the case, or on the future of officials who allegedly allowed the corruption to occur.