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Romania: Bringing Europe into the future, or holding it back?

2019 marks a momentous year for Romania’s past, present and future. Three decades ago, the Berlin wall was torn down, opening the iron curtain and beginning the country’s rapid modernisation process. January 1st this year, Bucharest kicked off its 6-month presidency of the European Council, drawing the spotlight to the uncertain state of its domestic democracy and rule of law. And yet, as a leader in technology and cybersecurity, Romania could prove itself a crucial asset to NATO and the EU’s future as the upcoming European elections make the prospect of Russian cyber attacks ever more likely.

Following the repeated pattern of apparent Russian meddling in the American, French and potentially more western democratic elections, it comes as no surprise that 61% of Europeans polled in November by Eurobarometer said they feared elections could be manipulated with cyber attacks. The May European Parliament elections will most likely also be targeted, and Romania could offer much-needed expertise in the field.

In 2017, Romania emerged as the fastest growing European economy, and in 2018 the country saw the lowest unemployment rate in 26 years, becoming the European country with the 8th lowest unemployment rate. Perhaps the most interesting positive development of the country has been the astounding and sustained growth of its technological sector. Boasting a rich heritage in maths and sciences already in the pre-democratic era, the Romanian workforce has proven highly competent in both technical and language skills, becoming an established source of talent for established tech firms and a nest for startups. Of the 15 fastest growing tech companies in the world, 8 have offices in Romania. UiPath, a Romanian company that develops robotic process automation, became the country’s first unicorn last year after tripling its valuation to $3Billion in less than six months.

Even the darker parts of Romania’s technological development have become sources of strength.

The country known for being the ‘Hacking capital of Europe’ (There’s even an HBO series called ‘Hackersville’ set and filmed in Romania), has also grown an industry out of its antidote: cybersecurity.

Home-grown Cyber Smart Defense reels in 1.45Bn in revenue and the largest Romanian cybersecurity company, Bitdefender, finalized its acquisition of Dutch company Redsocks in October to now serve over 500 million users, placing it on equal terms with global anti-virus giants McAfee, Norton and KasperskyLab.

The rapid growth of Romanian cybersecurity has not been limited to the private sector, however: NATO itself recognized the competence of the country’s intelligence service (SRI) when Romania was tasked with leading the organization’s project on Ukraine’s cyber defence in 2014.

Yet Romania’s recent internal frictions might undermine its ability to fulfil this crucial role in the approaching EP elections. The dismissal of Laura Kovesi, head of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) last July, started to ring warning bells in Brussels. During her presidency, the DNA grew into an independent Judicial force to be reckoned with, convicting over 1000 politicians of corruption after due process since 2013. Her thoroughness made her popular with the western press as well as the Romanian people, sharing her ambition of meritocracy and transparency, to the point that a recent poll showed Romanians trusting Kovesi more than the head of the Orthodox church. The process also won her several enemies. When the DNA convicted prime minister and SDP(socialist and democrat party) leader Liviu Dragnea in June, the political establishment hit back. In a trademark step towards democratic backsliding, the SDP openly criticized the legitimacy of the independent body and pressured president Iohannis to sack Kovesi, a pressure to which he succumbed. Since then, several pieces of legislation have dramatically reduced the DNA’s freedom of operation and the extent of its authority, while Dragnea has been given amnesty, a move Juncker urged president Iohannis not to allow.

Former DNA director Laura Kovesi (right) at a press conference with President Klaus Iohannis, who eventually ordered her dismissal.

Now only the political choice remains: will Dragnea prioritize the SDP’s clash with Brussels on Romania’s weakened rule of law and passively let European elections be meddled with, or will he place the European interest above this clash and offer active Romanian leadership on cybersecurity which could confirm Romania’s commitment to the Eurogroup? Romania has embarked on a troubled yet successful journey since the death of Ceaucescu and the beginning of its path to modernity. 2019 offers a crucial choice: will the country consolidate or backtrack on that progress?

Pablo Fernandez Cras


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