(The following interview appeared in the May issue of Elle magazine. It is an abbreviated version of a longer conversation and Mrs. Kovesi’s answers have been translated from Romanian.)
Arguably the most powerful woman in Romania today, Laura Codruta Kovesi is also one of the most unlikely of celebrities. Unassuming and soft-spoken, this former basketball player rose through the typically unglamorous world of regional and federal government prosecutors to become one of most recognized women in this country – she is also, it seems fair to say, the most feared. In fact, unlike with any other celebrity or woman in Romania, the last thing anyone would want to hear these days is: “Laura Codruta Kovesi just called. She wants to meet with you.”
The fear she instills is well-justified. As Chief Prosecutor of the Direcției Naționale Anticorupție, Mrs. Kovesi leads one of the most respected agencies in Romania with more than 500 people who are charged collectively with investigating and prosecuting the most powerful people in this country. And, in the two years that she has held the top job (after six years as head of the General Prosecutor’s Office attached to the High Court of Cassation and Justice), the DNA’s activity has soared as her agency indicts and convicts a growing number of this country’s business and political elite.
Yet, the daily headlines she causes, the frequent personal attacks against her, and the unique position she holds seem remarkably at odds with the woman who repeatedly apologizes for being delayed and then good-naturedly teases a visitor that they must accept water or coffee before the interview can begin. The second of two children whose father was a local prosecutor in Medias and whose mother was a professor of Romanian literature, she also warns that she is loathe to discuss anything personal as it is the one area of her life she does not want to see spread on the internet.
Still, despite the warning, she answers them all. And with an easy smile and gentle, often self-deprecating humor, this tall but demure woman who will turn 42 in May shows no outward signs of the enormous power or the historically pivotal role she currently has in reshaping this society.
– Do you ever think about the fact that you are the most feared woman in Romania?
“I don’t think that’s really true…. I know there are a lot of jokes out there about me. There is a website that makes jokes all the time and wrote about me that I don’t drink coffee in the morning, but corrupt tears. That I don’t color my hair with hair color, but with corrupt blood. That somebody offered me a “martisor” on March 1st and I didn’t want to accept it because he didn’t have a receipt and I arrested that person. I’m amused when I read these kinds of things, but I think everybody who knows me or interracts with me realizes I am a common person. I don’t have either three heads or five hands. I don’t have any super power. I don’t own a magic stick. I am a human like anyone else, a woman like any woman my age.”
– Is it difficult to keep balance between work and personal life?
“In the position I am today, yes. Certainly, there is no balance now. An advantage for me (if I can call it that, because at the same time it’s a personal disadvantage) is the fact that I don’t have kids or a husband. And so, I don’t have a lot of the current problems a mother and a wife has to deal with, and that gives me more time for my work. No, I couldn’t say my life is balanced, but I think at this moment my position is very important and I have to use all my energy for achieving my official goals. For me, at this moment, career is much more important than personal life. There are so many people who depend on me, the institution can progress or go down because of my decisions, and that’s my priority….Of course there are moments, like Sundays, for example, when you wish you had a family, kids, or to be somewhere else. But every time, I’m thinking that I now have a mission to accomplish and that’s all that matters.”
– Do you have a boyfriend?
“Do I have to answer this? No, at this moment I don’t. I don’t even think I’d have time for that.”
– Is it difficult to go out, to relax?
“Sometimes it’s an adventure to go out, but I like to live my life as normal and common as possible. What I do here is just a job. It’s not my life. My life is elsewhere… I go to the gym, I do sport almost every day, in a public gym where anybody has access. I go to cinema, to malls, to the open market. I walk on streets or in public parks. So I do what any other citizen of Bucharest does. But I have to admit I have some small privileges. If I go to the open market, for example, and the seller recognizes me, he will pick the apples for me and tell me: ‘Congratulations for what you are doing. I chose the most beautiful apples for you.’ When I go in the park, people stop and ask me: ‘Are you Mrs. Kovesi? You look alike.’ Some people want to make pictures with me, some ask me something, some just want to congratulate me. So I can’t say I go walk to relax, to be alone with my thoughts. But I have friends with whom I meet and do all the things anybody my age would do.”
– When you were a child, what were you dreaming to do in your life? No kid dreams to become a prosecutor.
“I wanted to do sport.”
– Did you often get in trouble?
“Like any kid, yes. I would run with other kids on my street, in our neighbor’s yard. Sometimes I would break a window with my ball.”
– Your father was a prosecutor. He still is?
“No. He worked for 40 years in a Court Office in Medias, and retired when I was appointed General Prosecutor.”
– And your mother?
“She was a Romanian Literature teacher in a school from the same town. Now she is retired also.”
– What have you learned from your parents?
“A lot. My father taught me a lot of things in my profession, because he was a prosecutor for so many years, so of course many of our conversations were related with our profession. My mother taught me to be calmer, patient. They taught me all the things you learn in the first seven years. It’s difficult to talk about my parents, after all, everything you are as an adult is, in fact, the result of what your parents did with you when you were a child.”
– What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to make a career in justice?
“First of all to study really well in school, because there is where you build the basis of all your theoretical knowledge. This would be my first advice. Then, to try to do as many internships as they can, when they are still in school, so that, by the time they graduate, they would know which of the justice professions suits them the best. I saw many situations when, once the school finished, some chose to become a prosecutor and after two-to-three years, they realized they didn’t like it and became a judge only to later change it again… Or others would become lawyers only to ask themselves later how would it be to be a judge. At 22, you can graduate the Law School. I did it at 22 and I immediately became a prosecutor. It’s a young age to know exactly what you want and have enough life experience to choose the right career, the career you like.”
– You think it’s more difficult for women than for men in this country professionally?
“I think it depends on the domain. When I became a prosecutor, in 1995, I was very young and one of the first things I heard back then was that prosecution is not for women. Life proved to me that wasn’t true. I don’t have any idea if in our days it matters if you are a woman or a man – not in the DNA or in the Justice Department for sure. I don’t think this kind of discrimination exists, or that it’s more difficult for a woman prosecutor than for a man prosecutor. Maybe in other areas it’s more difficult for women, I don’t know… I’m thinking of the Army, or places where physical effort is involved. But in prosecution, and generally in justice, what a woman does, a man can do the same, and what a man does, a woman can do, no matter if it’s a prosecutor, judge or notary.”
– How do you see what’s happening in Romanian society today?
“It depends on the perspective we look from. If we talk about justice, about the progress in the anticorruption fight and its impact on society, I think we are on the right path and I think we are able to change mentalities. In fact, the reform of justice meant a lot of changes, and in my opinion the biggest problem wasn’t the legislation or the way institutions were organized, but the mentality. People in Romania were used ‘to give something’ to doctors or to clerks. Well, step by step, things are changing, people are starting to object when they are asked for a bribe. I’m not saying corruption was eradicated in Romania, but I don’t think that we are a very corrupt country just because year by year we have more and more files, more and more persons accused of corruption, and more and more persons convicted. That doesn’t mean the country is more and more corrupt. It means it’s a country where the efficiency of the anticorruption fight is growing and it is starting to show.”
– If we look back at the way this country grew, could we say that the foundation of Romanian economy is based on corruption?
“That’s a tough question. With the passage from the communist system to democracy, during those times of transition, a lot of relations were born among corrupt politicians, business people, magistrates and officials, who created all sorts of networks meant to steal public money. We cannot deny that. But the most important thing now is that we have this structure – the DNA – and other public institutions that now investigate these kinds of cases. The fact that today we investigate a [government] minister or a parliamentarian the same way we investigate any other person without such an important position proves, I think, that our society is on the right path…. So I think we built some institutions that are starting to work. I think certain mentalities have changed. I think certain mechanisms are now working well in justice. Our society is progressing and we have modern legislation that offers us the tools to fight against corruption – and this is very important. Unfortunately, there still are officials and people in important positions who don’t understand that, and that’s why we see [government] ministers being investigated. Some of them were brought to trial; some were convicted. There are also members of parliament and business people who have not always act correctly, but you cannot accuse the whole society or an entire professional category because of a few persons who do these kinds of things. After all, the responsibility is personal.”
– Are you ever afraid for the country?
“For the country, yes. Sometimes I’m afraid of the direction we could head, because in our activity, we step into pretty delicate zones, and sometimes the attacks against the institution or even against prosecutors has increased from certain zones. Especially from politicians, and sometimes from politicians with important positions. Many times I’m thinking that they could modify, for example, the law of the DNA’s activity, or the justice system, so that we go back to the status before 2005 when magistrates were not independent. Then, of course, things could twist. In other words, my fear is that the progress we’ve made in justice is not irreversible and there is a risk to go back a few years in time.”
– Are you afraid for yourself?
“No. I have no reason to be afraid. I want to tell you something interesting: it has never happened to me yet to walk on the street and have somebody treat me badly. This makes me confident and that’s why I say we are on the right path. To the contrary, lately, every time I go somewhere, there is somebody to tell me: ‘I see on TV what you are doing. Keep it like this!’ I receive encouraging messages all the time, congratulations for all that my colleagues and the DNA are doing. The more vocal are the persons we investigate, the more protected they are by some groups of interests who are trying to give credit to the idea that we arrest too many people and we frighten people. The more we are attacked, the more I know we are on the right path. It means we disturb them.”
– What is the most difficult thing in your job?
“Only one? To keep calm and be rational. There are so many things happening at the same time, so many situations inside the institution and a lot of pressure from outside. One day, I could have a lot of events to manage in a very short time. And then I have to be calm and decide very quickly, but with no flame. You cannot take a decision, in my position, in a temper, emotionally. You have to keep your temper and always stay with the law. These are the most important things in my job.”
– Can you say you’ve reached your goals, or not yet?
“I will see if I’ve reached my goals when my mandate will end. For now, there are still things to do. Everyday I’m thinking about what can be done for things to be better, more efficient, and to solve the new problems that occur. In this job, everyday comes with something new – new challenges, new problems. So no matter how many decisions you make, you can’t say ‘that’s it, from now on nothing new could happen, I know exactly what I have to do.’”
– There are lots of attacks against you. Do you take them personally?
“When somebody talks about you, you always take it personally, don’t you? But I already reached a certain immunity, and some attacks even amuse me. I usually look who’s talking, because it’s very important who the author is of an attack. But I’m used to attacks. There are already eight years since I am in such an important position (and before that I was general prosecutor for six years). It’s not the first time and certainly not the last time when somebody attacks me. But sometimes the attack is about my personal life and that’s a bit more difficult. Why? Because I can’t react. Here, we have a certain status – regulated by law, by communication rules, by a deontological code – and we can’t respond to any attack. Beside that, if I would respond to anybody who talks about me, I would spend 23 hours of 24 on TV. (And maybe I would make some people happy because I wouldn’t go to my office and do my job.) So I can’t do that, but sometimes the attacks are crossing a certain line.”
– Are you a religious person? I see a few icons in your office.
“I believe in God, but I am not very religious. I’m not the kind of person who goes to the church all the time, but I believe, I pray and I take the best from religion – some principles, some rigors, things that have to do with correctness and earnestness, and with that I think I relate.”
– Can you name one thing that you’ve done here that makes you proud?
“It always has to be just one thing? Why not two or three? It’s hard to choose. And I don’t like to praise myself. However, I will give you an answer. Since I came to the DNA, I got to put together a managerial team with whom I have a great work relation, and I think that’s something to be proud of. Some of these people I didn’t know before I came to the DNA.”
– Which are the most important abilities of a manager?
“Communication. Any problem can be solved with communication.”
– Is there anything you wish you did better?
“Yes. All the time. I wish I do everything better.”
– You’ll be 42 soon…
“Yes, on May 15. You know, on my 40th anniversary, on May 15, I was appointed to this position at the DNA, exactly on my birthday.”
– You won’t be here forever. Will you feel relieved when you’ll leave this position?
“Yes, I will feel relieved from some obligations. Because, whether I want it or not, in my position I feel responsible for what all the 500 people I manage do – and when I’ll leave this position I’ll be responsible just for what I do.”
– You know already what you’ll do after that?
“Next year this time I will have an answer to this. Of course, I have to think. Next year, my mandate will end, but meanwhile I still think of all I have to do this year. I can tell you for sure what I won’t do: I will not run for the presidency.”
– You won’t go in politics?
– It’s dangerous to say “no” so definitely.
“When I know for sure there’s something I won’t do, I say it flatly.”
– What do you hope for this country in the future?
“I hope for more peace, less conflicts and more people trying to build things together by good communication. I think that’s the most important thing. And I can give you an example. There was a time when all the justice institutions were fighting. Now, I can say there is good communications among the institutions in the system, and they help each other and have started to build together. And this is evident. I think this small model can be extended in other domains nationally. There has to be better, constructive communication. Now everybody is criticizing, everybody is upset with somebody, everybody points at what’s wrong. I wish to see people pointing to what’s good. I’d like to see more positive news. Every time I switch-on the TV, I only see negative news. In conversations I have with journalists I ask them why it has to always be like that, only negative news, critics… They tell me that’s the only thing that makes ratings. I don’t think so. Maybe I’m wrong, I’m not a TV professional, but I know I wish I could see more positive news, more nice and beautiful things in the media.”
– A last question: do you feel sorry for the people you convict?
“I know I am correct in my activity, so I have no reason to be sorry.”
– It’s that simple?
“Yes, it’s that simple. I always act correctly in what I do, and for this reason I never have emotion at all. We are not judging emotionally here.”