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Romania is known for many things: world-class female gymnasts, Vlad the Impaler, and according to an international group that fights governmental corruption, being the most corrupt nation in the European Union.

Joining the European Union in January after a half century under communist domination and years of dictatorship, Romania is perceived to be the most corrupt of all 30 countries in the EU, according to a 2007 “Corruption Perceptions Index” released Sept. 26 by Transparency International.

The independent organization, based in Berlin, calls itself the “global coalition against corruption.”

Romanian citizens in recent years paid $360 million in bribes, or $1 million a day, for medical services they were entitled to receive for free, according to a study funded by the World Bank.

That apparent endemic corruption may be one reason why two unprepossessing wooden observation towers, recently placed on a firing range now used by American soldiers in an exercise of U.S. Army Europe’s Joint Task Force East, cost 13,000 euro — or more than $9,000 each.

Or maybe not. “Lumber is expensive,” said Troy Darr, JTF-E spokesman.

Still, the country’s financial culture is becoming increasingly important as the U.S. military begins to rotate troops into the country to train at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base.

Some $35 million has been approved to renovate the base, with $28 million more to come, following more than $30 million the Air Force has already spent to upgrade the runway, among other things.

“Preventing fraud is a key concern for the Army regardless of where we conduct contracting operations,” Bruce Anderson, a U.S. Army Europe spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. “We remain vigilant for any indications of fraud. To date, we are aware of no indications of contractor fraud within JTF-East.”

In a list of 180 countries, with Denmark listed as the least corrupt based on surveys and expert business opinion, Romania came in at 69th, worse than Colombia and Turkey.

Germany, where the U.S. is closing down its former Cold War bases, ranked near the top on the honesty scale at 16th, less corrupt than the U.S., which ranked 20th.

On the brighter side, Romania had improved its score since joining the EU, Transparency International said. The country also is deemed less corrupt than Kyrgyzstan, where the U.S. also rotates troops, which came in at 150, and Afghanistan, at 170.

And it is far less corrupt than Iraq — ranked 178 — where the U.S. has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars because of stolen funds, phony reconstruction projects, poor accounting, bloated expenses and the like, according to the Government Accountability Office, the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and the Defense Contract Audit Agency. Researchers estimated $18 billion has been wasted in Iraq, with some of that money going to insurgents.

Anderson said USAREUR put in place numerous accounting measures and practices to ensure the U.S. got a bang for its Romanian buck, or lei.

“In Romania, we competed all of our purchases on the local economy in a full and open manner. We have also appointed contracting officer representatives on all of these purchases to provide oversight and ensure that we receive the goods and services contracted for,” Anderson said.

Other steps include providing training to local contractors on how to do business with the United States; market surveys to gauge Romanian local business practices; and on-site checks of contractors’ performance.

“We also conduct internal and external reviews of our contracting offices to ensure they adhere to proper contracting procedures,” Anderson said.

U.S. soldiers are discouraged from using credit cards and restricted to a half-mile area just outside the base from 2 p.m. to midnight Saturday and 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. They can take bus trips organized by Morale, Welfare and Recreation to various tourist sites.

Col. Peri Anest, JTF-E commander, said the rules were agreed upon as a good balance between training — soldiers training at Grafenwöhr do not leave the base, for example — and a desire to promote cultural exchange. “It allows us to focus on training but we can still relax when we get a chance,” Anest said.

The cultural exchange got off to a rocky start, though. In June, a major and a master sergeant with the U.S. Southern European Task Force, in Romania for a week as part of an advance party, made headlines after an incident in a bar that in the Americans’ view started because of a scam.

“American soldiers implicated in scandal at Mamaia,” a resort area near the base, said a headline on HotNews.ro, a Romanian news Web site.

According to the Web site, two U.S. soldiers drinking whiskey “angrily” refused to pay a bar bill, apparently for 300 lei or about $126, because they found it excessive.

A fistfight with bouncers ensued, damage was done to a wall, apparently with a bottle, and police were called, the Web site said.

No charges were filed, said Maj. Ryan Dillon, a SETAF spokesman. “No punitive actions were taken … I know they have not been back to Romania.”

Dillon said the bill for the two had been “excessive” and the fight broke out after the Romanians locked the doors, barring the Americans’ exit.

Since then, measures have been taken to prevent similar “scams” from happening to other soldiers, Dillon said, including asking Romanian soldiers’ advice on the dodgier bars to avoid.

Dillon said he did not know what sort of bar the two soldiers patronized.

Romania still trying to prove its worth to U.S.

Romania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has lobbied intensively for U.S. funds in the past few years and worked hard to win favor in Washington, D.C., by being an exemplary ally in the U.S. war on terrorism.

In 2001, Romania spent $82,375 lobbying the U.S. In 2004, that number had climbed to $610,701, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group of investigative journalists.

When Turkey barred U.S. troops from crossing it to invade Iraq, and Austria refused to allow transit rights to troops to get to the war, Romania stepped in, making its air base available as a staging area for U.S. troops.

It also sent soldiers to Iraq and, as part of NATO, oversaw airport operations in Afghanistan, and continues deployments there now.

Paul Wolfowitz, then a deputy defense secretary, said on a visit there in 2003 that the U.S. was grateful for Romania’s cooperation and was ready to return the favor.

“On the question of how we arrange and deploy our forces in the future, the fact that Romanian facilities were so useful during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and the fact that we’ve gotten such great support from the Romanian government, are clearly factors in our thinking,” he said.

With a U.S. troop rotation just beginning at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base following the signing of a 10-year agreement in 2005, the country is seeing its efforts rewarded. From 2003 to 2008, at least $100 million from the U.S. Air Force and Army is being spent to upgrade the base.

“I think it’s in our interest (to join with the U.S.),” the country’s then-defense minister told National Public Radio in 2003. “I think the risk for our national security coming from the area of the Middle East or Central Asia or the Black Sea implies that we should take responsibilities in that region and participate in international relations … This is very important for a country that is defining its political role in the world, its strategic role, its military role.”

The air base also is a reputed former site of a secret, CIA-run prison.

In a June report, an investigator for the Council of Europe said Romania and Poland were important transit and interrogation areas for suspected terrorists captured in Iraq or Afghanistan and brought eventually to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The report, based on interviews with anonymous CIA officials, said the “black sites” ran operations from 2003 to 2005 with the CIA in charge but the authorization of the countries’ leaders.

Prisoners there, the report says, were subjected to the harshest agency techniques, including head slapping, exposure to cold and simulated drowning, called waterboarding. Both Romania and Poland have denied the prisons operated in their countries.

President Bush acknowledged the existence of the prisons in 2006 but did not say where they were located. Bush said then that the prisons were no longer operating.

Romania, in 2002, was among the first countries to agree not to extradite Americans to the International Criminal Court, which probes allegations of war crimes. The Bush administration has argued it is an illegitimate body that could be used against Americans for political purposes.

Romania has also received more than $100 million from the U.S. since 1998, primarily in grants to buy U.S. military equipment and services, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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