Dealers in nationality can turn you into a Romanian with forged documents

Obtaining Romanian nationality means freedom of movement and free access to the labour market in the EU for Moldovans

[Jurnalul Național, Thursday, September 13, 2012]

Stalin would not have been amused in the slightest had he found out that a great-grandson of his named Vladimir stands on the threshold of acquiring Romanian nationality, a Romanian passport and with it, the right to work in the European Union. Vladimir’s grandparents were Romanian nationals born at the beginning of the 20th century, long before the country joined the European Union. They lost their nationality at the end of the Second World War, when Romania ceded Bessarabia to the Russians. Today Vladimir is entitled by law to acquire the Romanian citizenship that was taken away from his grandparents. His grandmother’s name is Svetlana Alliluieva; she shares that name and a birthday with the daughter of the former Soviet dictator.

Vladimir is among the thousands of Moldovans with Romanian ancestry who regard the border between Romania and Moldova to be a mere bureaucratic invention. But Vladimir is keeping a secret from the officials who are about to let him enter the European Union, because his grandparents are, just like the border, also invented. According to certificates that we have acquired from the state archive of the Republic of Moldova, Vladimir’s illustrious grandmother was married to Ostap Bender, a notorious con-man and fictional character from the novels by Ilf and Petrov: “12 Chairs” and “The Golden Calf”.

Passport for the EU

The certificates handed over to us by the official from the archive in Chișinău abound in historical coincidences precisely because that is what we requested. Ostap Bender was born on June 28, 1914, on the exact date when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that triggered World War One. Ostap and Svetlana were married, according to the same documents, on September 2, 1945, on the very day when Japan was unconditionally surrendering to the Americans. It is highly unlikely that a woman named after Stalin’s daughter married a notorious fictitious trickster at the very end of the war.

Today however, it is entirely possible for a person who pretends to have such grandparents to buy his right to work in the European Union. All he needs in order to get into Europe is patience, money and connections among citizenship brokers and corrupt officials in Bucharest and Chișinău. Moldova was part of Romania between 1918 and 1940, and again between 1941 and 1944 when it was annexed to the Soviet Union, becoming an independent republic in 1991. In the same year Bucharest adopted a law granting those Romanian citizens who had lost the citizenship for reasons not attributable to them, and to their descendants, the right to apply for Romanian citizenship. Romanian officials have since then processed an estimated 225,000 citizenship applications from Moldovans, according to a study published in April 2012 by the Soros Foundation. The study was compiled from data provided by Romanian institutions, but some of the figures are still in dispute. In the absence of exact data, the Soros report argues that 225,000 is the most accurate approximation of the number of people who have been granted Romanian citizenship in the last 20 years. The annual number of citizenship applications from Moldova has been rising steadily and this rise has coincided with changes in Romanian legislation, but especially with Romania’s entry to the EU. Moldova is the poorest country on the border of the European Union; many of its citizens seek a better life working abroad. The study also shows that Romania started processing citizenship applications faster since 2007; of all applications submitted, more than half – approximately 116,000 – have been handled in the last four years. Many Moldovans regard the Romanian passport as a key for entering the European Union. This aspect was also mentioned by Romanian prosecutors who investigated and sent to trial a network of approximately 40 touts and state employees who were expediting citizenship applications for money. “Acquiring Romanian citizenship is particularly important for Moldovan nationals because on this basis they can obtain a Romanian passport which would allow them to move freely and work in the countries of the European Union without having to apply for a visa”, it is stated in the documents of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

According to the prosecutors Moldovans mostly request Romanian citizenship and implicitly a Romanian passport in order to be able to work in the European Union. An official from the National Citizenship Authority in Bucharest confirmed, off the record, that Moldovans had shown little interest in acquiring Romanian nationality until 2007, the date when Romania joined the European Union. Romanian President Traian Băsescu said in 2009 that approximately 800,000 Moldovans that is, almost a quarter of the population of the Republic of Moldova, were waiting to acquire Romanian citizenship; he had repeatedly promised that he would cut red-tape. However, this article will show that Moldovan citizens prefer to acquire Romanian citizenship through unofficial channels. They frequently pay hundreds of Euros to brokers in the hope of expediting their application.

Moldovans who have no experience with acquiring citizenship risk being ripped off when they use illicit intermediaries. But the unofficial channels can also be very efficient and, as this investigation shows, they can even generate proof of Romanian ancestry where none exists. The EU does not interfere on matters of granting citizenship within its member states, describing it as a sovereign matter for those states. However, Romania’s policy on granting citizenship to those across the Prut River has been criticized as a “backdoor” into the EU for impoverished Moldovans. In 2010 Pierre Lellouche, French secretary of state for EU affairs at the time, justified delaying Romania’s joining the Schengen zone by referring to the situation of the frontier with the Republic of Moldova, which “continues to be badly managed because thousands of Romanian passports had been granted across the border”. The same train of thought was followed by Lellouche’s successor, Laurent Wauquiez. These reactions seem to have followed a statement made by Romanian President Traian Băsescu in April 2010 when he said that Romania aimed to finalize 10,000 citizenship applications per month and that the Romanian state had the necessary resources to do so. Two years later, in April 2012, the report published by the Soros Foundation argued that many of these fears were unfounded and that there was no evidence to support claims of Moldovan migrants surging into Europe. The same study criticizes President Băsescu’s statement that 800,000 Moldovans were seeking Romanian citizenship.

“Genuine documents”

Our investigation proves the existence of a black market for obtaining Romanian citizenship, but it does not confirm that Romania is operating a “backdoor” for unchecked and unlawful migration, as some within the EU fear. Indeed, many Moldovans may use brokers because they are frustrated with the slow pace at which Romania processes citizenship applications. According to the prosecutors who have broken up the above-mentioned network, the black market is attractive even to legitimate applicants because it operates faster than the official process, which can take up to six years to award nationality. Some Moldovans may also turn to intermediaries because they are already working illegally in some EU countries, and cannot leave to apply for citizenship in person because they would be denied access to those countries when they return. With the aid of our character Vladimir, posing as a citizenship hopeful, we showed that the procedure for acquiring a Romanian passport cannot distinguish genuine applicants from those who use the type of documents that we have used. After acquiring birth and marriage certificates for Ostap Bender and Svetlana Alliluyeva, we used the same intermediary to obtain police records from the Moldovan and Romanian authorities, confirming that Vladimir did not have any legal problems. We received these documents within a few days, the Romanian one having been signed by police under-commissary George Liviu Stan of the Capital’s Police [i.e. Bucharest Police, t.n.]. These documents were presented at the National Citizenship Authority, where an official confirmed that they appeared genuine, but some formalities still had to be complied with. The documents we presented have the seals and signatures of the appropriate Moldovan institutions.

Chișinău connections

In order to make our Vladimir a citizen of the European Union we started our research in Chișinău, at the Romanian Consulate. Intermediaries are easy to spot here. They swarm around the institution and around the near-by petrol station. They block the entrance to the Consulate, they wear pouches around the waist and have little bags; they huddle together drinking coffee from the vending machine. They are in fact the ones who have set up shop outside, handing out business cards and advice. One of them, called Vadim, boasted of his contacts with Romanian officials in Bucharest, but also in Iași and Vaslui. He led us to a lady calling herself Maria, who assured us that we would receive the documents in six months, so we passed. Another tout calling himself Emil told us he was not doing anything illegal, but merely using his influence. “I have a lawyer in Bucharest who can speed things up,” he said and he gave us a business card, advertising a website which promised Romanian citizenship for anyone, anywhere.

Prices varied according to how fast the application would be processed. For €700, all the essential citizenship documents could be arranged within 15 months, €1,000 guaranteed the documents within 10 months, and €1,500 within five months; a Romanian passport costs €95 and Romanian ID card €140. These prices are quoted on the site advertised by one of the Romanian intermediaries

Give me a Russian and I’ll make him into a Romanian!

Many Moldovan citizens were swindled by intermediaries or lawyers

[Jurnalul Național, Friday, September 14, 2013]

 We met another intermediary called Sergiu right in front of the Civil Registry in Chișinău. The deal was discussed in Romanian and Russian, and Sergiu promised to deliver the documents for €300. A young woman passing by interrupted the conversation and promised to help us, but claimed that she was in a hurry to finish a story. She was a journalism student. In the same spot we met Arghira, a lady in her fifties with a bruise above her eye. Arghira became a Romanian citizen in 2010 and she too quoted a price of €300 for the deal, which was then negotiated down to €250. Arghira led us to a public notary, in whose presence Vladimir signed a power of attorney allowing Arghira to represent him at the Moldovan and Romanian authorities. But despite her bragging about the connections she had, Arghira proved to be unreliable, demanding more money at every meeting. Eventually we found Ion, who promised to procure the necessary documents for €70 each. In a few days he brought us birth and marriage certificates for Ostap and Svetlana. The documents were freshly issued by the Moldovan Civil Registry from Chișinău. Having been granted Romanian citizenship on the basis of these documents, the next step for Vladimir would have been to obtain the Romanian identity card. In order to qualify for an identity card, a citizen must show that they have been resident in Romania for a minimum specified period. Here too, the network of illicit intermediaries is ready to assist, by fabricating proof of residence for money. On Emil’s site there was a blurred Romanian identity card. We found the same ID in the online version of a newspaper from Iași that carries ads looking for locals to host Moldovans that are seeking the ID card. One such ad promises €40 per guest provided they have “contacts” with the police precinct. The ad specified that 20 Moldovans can be hosted at once whether they were actually staying at a particular property or not.

We identified all the missing data from this identity card. We were not surprised to find that the address was a student hostel on the periphery of Bucharest. We found several people from Romania and Moldova registered as residents at the same apartment, which also served as a headquarters for several Chinese companies. Romanian authorities tried to clamp down on this practice of giving residence at the same address for several Moldovan citizenship applicants, but to no avail, even though the law was modified in 2011. Victor Gîndac, a director in the Office for Immigration, said that the institution was struggling with this situation, especially as they lack personnel. “I reported that there was a problem already in 2009. Many individuals had been tricked by brokers and lawyers. They found several hosts who had offered them Romanian citizenship and residence at a single address. We identified 4-5 lawyers in Bucharest who were handling such situations. I must add that employees of the Romanian Office for Immigration have been pressured, but also threatened” Gîndac added. Functionaries at the National Citizenship Authority (NCA) have also noticed that some lawyers were into this business and they started warning citizenship applicants not to rely on the aid of intermediaries, including lawyers. This warning was retracted from the NCA’s website after repeated complaints received from some lawyers.

Corruption, sex and secret services

At the beginning of March 2012 an enormous scandal broke out in Bucharest. Sex, corruption, death, undercover officers, witness protection, destroyed evidence, and the US Secret Service, were but a few of its ingredients. The Public Community Service of Personal Records (SPCEP) in Bucharest, officers of the Civil Registry, District 1, Bucharest, NCA functionaries, had all been taking bribes. Out of the 35 people involved, whose activities had been monitored for at least three years, nine were arrested. During the searches they found typed forms, lists of people who were to be granted Romanian citizenship fraudulently, and tens of thousands of Euros. One of the NCA workers requested sexual favours from one of the applicants, besides the €50 to €100 for each fraudulently recorded file. Others have tried to dispose of the incriminating evidence. During the investigation the Chief of Civil Registry, District 1, Bucharest died of a heart attack. In the Republic of Moldova 80 people involved in this case have been investigated. After the scandal broke out some of the intermediaries were afraid to operate in plain sight. In front of the Passport Directorate in Bucharest we met Andrei, a Moldovan citizen who was waiting for his “agent”, Oxana. She had promised to help him get his passport quicker, but the scandal had frightened her. “She knew someone high up, but who was now taking cover” Andrei told us; he confessed that he had paid €1,500 for the Romanian citizenship. So did other Moldovan citizens with whom we talked in Chișinău. Liuba Cărpineanu acquired Romanian citizenship in 2007 and after maternity leave she was unable to find work. She left for Spain and then Italy. “If I were to return to Moldova I think I would die of hunger. It’s a good thing there is this “loophole” with the Romanian passport, because the first time we left illegally and we had to pay €4,000 to the people who took us.” Alexandru Covaș also works in Italy, at a garage. “It is very easy with the Romanian passport. I actually wanted to be checked by the border police. The Romanian passport is a blessing, but I cannot stand Romanians. They are selfish and would sell you three times just so they could get off the hook.” Vaceslav Mandiș had come to Moldova to see his mother during his holiday. He also lives and works in Italy. “I work as a driver and my wife is a hairdresser. The Romanian passport was a lifesaver for us. This way we can work legally and we can send money to my mother in Moldova. I am actually a history teacher, but I have no choice. I personally do not feel like a profiteer for taking advantage of the easy access offered by the Romanian passport while in fact being Moldovan. No one asked my grandpa when his Romanian nationality was taken away from him in ’45 so I merely claimed my own rights” Veceslav said.

Disputed figures

It is disputed how many people have actually been granted Romanian citizenship. There are enormous differences in the figures provided to us. The NCA told us it had approved around 15,000 applications in the period 2007-11, of which 1,000 applications were rejected. This contradicts official figures quoted by the Soros Foundation’s study, which say, quoting the NCA, the Ministry of External Affairs and other institutions, that 116,000 applications had been processed in the same period of time. The NCA did not comment on the discrepancy, only saying that the correct figures were the ones contained by the response given to our query.

The representatives of the Soros Foundation are standing by the figures, claiming that when the study was released NCA officials had no objections. On the other hand, NCA spokesperson Gabriela Neagu said that the institution did not agree with the figures presented in the said report and that the documents submitted by citizenship applicants are very carefully scrutinized, even verified with the aid of a scanner. As if to contradict her, a citizenship broker that we spoke to in Chișinău offered an alternative guarantee. “Give me a Russian from Siberia,” he boasted, “and I will make him a Romanian citizen.”

(Vitalie Șelaru and Lina Vdovîi have contributed to this article.)

The investigation was published with the support of the European Fund for Investigative Journalism

Edited by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network