Marian Oprișan, the Don from Vrancea
While we have previously touched upon the concept of the so-called ‘local baron’ — the all-powerful local politician who controls his municipality or county with the iron fist of a medieval lord — there are few if any in the country to whom the title fits better than with Marian Oprișan, the county council president of Vrancea county. While most local barons have inevitable “expiration dates”, usually when their party loses power or when they get indicted and end up serving time, Oprișan is like The Highlander of local politics: invincible and driven by the sole desire of staying in power.
Some would say Oprișan was born a political animal but the truth is, the perpetual president of the Vrancea Social Democrats was not a politician by trade. Before the 1989 uprising, Oprișan worked as a model and computer operator at the local garment factory while moonlighting as an informant for the Securitate under the codename Renato, according to CNSAS (National Council for the Studying of the Securitate Archives) records. After the fall of communism, Oprișan became an ardent supporter of Ion Iliescu and his National Salvation Front and, as the party changed and grew, Oprișan followed along, becoming one of the most powerful politicians in the county. In 1992, Oprișan was elected as the president of the Vrancea wing of then-PDSR, now-PSD, the Social Democratic Party of Romania, a position he still holds today. In 1995 he also became the county council president for Vrancea, a position he only lost once since then, in the 1996–2000 interregnum when he was only county vice-president playing second fiddle to one-time President Nicolae Giurgea.
Oprișan’s rule over Vrancea has been absolute ever since he sidelined Giurgea, then-PSD senator and his de-facto superior. Giurgea was allegedly framed in 1996 when the media reported that, while passing through customs for a work visit to the US, the senator was caught with a million dollars in his suitcase, a report later debunked. This early example of “fake news” ruined Giurgea’s credibility and smoothed the way for Oprișan.
Oprișan created a powerful patronage network from the get go, appointing those close to him in key positions throughout the county. Once he ran out of local appointments, friends of friends were promoted to eligible positions on the PSD’s closed list for Parliament. Relatives like George Băeșu found himself leading national agencies, in charge of disbursing and administering public funds. Ghiocel Matache, a man heavily promoted by Oprișan, even obtained a cabinet position — largely thanks to his wife, Daniela Matache, who, as president of the Vrancea Court, presided over dozens of cases orchestrated against Oprișan. Needless to say that our local Don won every single one.
Despite his all-powerful status, Oprișan has not been, as the saying goes, a “thief who gets things done”. The Vrancea baron’s fief is one of the poorest in Romania and is part of one of the ten poorest NUTS2 administrative units in Europe. Since 1989, Vrancea has lost 80% of its jobs as Romania’s heavy industry has been dismantled and sold for scrap. In its stead, a hostile economic climate full of patronage and political meddling, managed to attract precious few investors. Indeed, in the past decade, some 20,000 jobs disappeared, along with 17 industrial sites. Those writing about Oprișan’s abuses often found all the copies of their publications disappear from the newsstands or even had their camera equipment smashed by the baron himself.
Despite his ironclad control over the local courts and the general omerta reigning on his fiefdom, Oprișan is no stranger to corruption investigations. A major investigation by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) was launched into Oprișan’s dealings in a corruption case where the Vrancea baron was accused of abuse of office and embezzling some $2.5 million. The case was passed from court to court for an entire decade with various bodies declining competency before it finally ended up at the Cluj Appellate Court where in 2015, to everybody’s great surprise, Oprișan was acquitted on all counts of corruption alongside every other accused in the case.
The Teflon don of Vrancea returned to his fief victorious. This year, as part of the commemorations of the Great War centennial, Oprișan received some €4 million to showcase Vrancea’s contribution to the First World War. During one such event in Mărășești, Oprișan had the audacity to approach Romania’s President, Klaus Iohannis in order to discuss “a 20 year development plan” for the future of Vrancea and Romania.
It seems that twenty-five years into his political career, the Vrancea Don seems to have his sights set even higher than his barony.