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By now, you may have heard that Romania is close to getting its first female prime minister, a woman named Sevil Shhaideh. Not only is she the first woman to potentially hold the post, but she’s also a Muslim member of the minority Turkmen-Tatar community in Romania (more on them here).
She’s likely to be confirmed, but we’ll have to wait for the Christmas holidays to conclude to find out for sure. But how in the world did Romania, an incredibly misogynistic and largely anti-Muslim country, get to the point of having a female Muslim PM?
Eh, you know the answer. A combination of greed, corruption, and the shadowy hand of a foreign government.
The Three Faces of Sevil
Birth and Beginning a Career
The Romanian press has been engaged in a frenzy during the past two days following Sevil’s name being proposed for prime minister, but as usual, most of the coverage has been quite superficial. Therefore, it took me a lot of digging to put together what you’re about to read.
Sevil was born on April 12, 1964, in Constanta, and is a Romanian citizen both by birth and by identity. Yes, she’s an ethnic Turk/Tatar, but her native language is Romanian, and the only other languages she speaks are English (“advanced”) and French (“medium”), not Arabic, Turkish, or any of the Tatar tongues.
Sevil was born Sevil Geambac (alternatively Giambak and some other spellings). Her mother, Muezel Geambac, is described as being an “organizer” of shows at the Constanta city puppet theater while her father, Sadedin Geambac, worked for the State Theater in Constanta.
In 1983, Sevil enrolled in the Bucharest Academy of Economic Science (ASE) in the faculty of Economic Planning and Cybernetics. You might wonder what “Cybernetics” meant in 1983, long before the internet existed, but according to the school, it refers to using statistics as part of economic planning. The courses Sevil were taking also coincided with learning how to program computers, something that came in very handy for her later career.
You might remember from my article on Mugur Isarescu that the Securitate or Communist-era secret police regularly used the ASE to recruit informants, spies, and other undercover power brokers. Of course, it might be that Sevil was just an ordinary student, but her choice of university is quite interesting considering how her career developed.
After graduating from ASE in 1987, Sevil got her first government job – as a computer programer and systems analyst for “The Trust for the Mechanization of Agriculture” in Constanta. This was back when the Communists still believed that mechanizing and converting all agricultural endeavors into “more productive” big units was still a thing.
Sevil rode out the 1989 Revolution and subsequent election of Iliescu, staying in her job until January 1991 when she made a lateral move to the “Work and Social Protection Directorate” in Constanta as their new IT director. This was necessary because the Romanian government disbanded all the trusts to mechanize agriculture.
In 1993, Sevil made her greatest career move, becoming the IT director for the Constanta county government. She stayed on in this position for 14 years, eventually working directly under Nicusor Constantinescu, an influential powerbroker in the PSD party. In 1995, Sevil got her first chance to travel to America, spending a full month in Washington, D.C., being taught a special class organized and financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on “public budgets and the participation of citizens in making decisions”. USAID liked her so much that Sevil attended another similar month-long class in Washington in 2001.
Coming Up Through the Ranks
At some point, Sevil met a Romanian man whose family name is Sumanariu. All the Romanian press has ever been able to say is that he was a medical doctor. There is currently a doctor working in Bucharest named Cristian Sumanariu, but I don’t know if this is the same guy or not. Whoever he was, Sevil married him, becoming Sevil Sumanariu for a few years. Later, after an unspecified amount of time, they divorced, but Sevil continued to keep the last name Sumanariu.
As the 2000s progressed, the PSD began their stranglehold on power in both the city and county of Constanta. Often called the “Mazare Gang” after Radu Mazare, this refers to a collection of politicians who held all the reigns of power in the city and county. Radu Mazare was the mayor of Constanta from 2000-2015 while Nicusor Constatinescu was the chairman of the Constanta county council from 2004 to 2015 (and from 2000-2004 was a member of the same council). Constatinescu is now in jail following a conviction for abuse of power while Mazare was stripped of his post in 2015 and is currently under a form of house arrest because he’s being investigated for corruption.
Meanwhile, Sevil was busy furthering her career. After 14 years working as the IT director for the Constanta County council, she became the head of the “General Directorate of Projects” for Constanta County from 2007-2012. In 2015, just before Mazare and Constantinescu took their falls, Sevil became the “secretary of state” (effectively “under secretary” in English) for MDRAP. MDRAP is the national ministry of “Regional Development and Administration”, and it meant that Sevil was working in Bucharest for the first time. MDRAP has had a number of different names over the years, originally being the Ministry of Tourism.
In 2013, following the rise of (then PSD leader) Victor Ponta to the post of prime minister in 2012, Liviu Dragnea, then PSD’s number two, modified the MDRAP’s role to include full control over roads and utilities. MDRAP was later involved in a number of scandals, including shady contracts for road building and other forms of corruption that led to a number of people being convicted.
Dragnea was the head of MDRAP from 2012 to 2015, losing the position after he was convicted for orchestrating electoral fraud during the 2012 referendum to try and remove Basescu. Despite all this, Dragnea managed to stay in power in the PSD, eventually moving up to the top spot following the 2015 Collectiv fire that saw Ponta fall on his sword and abruptly resign as prime minister.
From November 2015 to December 2016, Romania had an “technocrat” government, put in power to supposedly clean up the rampant corruption and fraud of the PSD years. Nonetheless, on December 11, 2016, the PSD won a plurality of votes from the poorly-attended elections, leaving them in the driver’s seat for choosing the new prime minister. Only 39.5% of the electorate voted, and the PSD won 45% of the votes, meaning a whopping 17% of Romanians put the PSD back in power again.
It took a few days, but the PSD eventually decided to form a coalition with the ALDE, largely formed of former USL politicians (itself an alliance of PSD, PNL, and PC parties). The problem is that Dragnea’s conviction for influence peddling in the 2012 referendum precluded President Klaus Iohannis from nominating him as prime minister. So who in the world could the PSD/ALDE ruling coalition nominate as prime minister? The surprise answer this week was Sevil Shhaideh.
Originally, Dragnea couldn’t help himself, saying that Sevil will be the prime minister but he will retain all political responsibility (i.e. power). He later amended this to saying that he didn’t mean to make fun of her and that she can remain PM “until she gets tired of the job.”
A Second Marriage
On June 4, 2011, Sevil married a Syrian man named Akram Shhaideh in a lavish event in Constanta. Because Muslim marriage ceremonies don’t involve the traditional Romanian “godparents”, there were only “witnesses” in attendance, amongst whom included Nicusor Constantinescu and Liviu Dragnea. In 2016, Dragnea mentioned that he’d known Sevil since at least 2001.
What makes their presence at Sevil’s wedding so unusual is that another important wedding occurred on the same day in Constanta, that of Andreea Scorei and Alexandru George. Andreea was an important official in Radu’s mayoral office and her husband was the son of a high-ranking PNL politician, Gheorghe Iorov, and their marriage was officiated by the archbishop of Constanta. So Dragnea and Constatinescu skipped the Scorei-George wedding in order to attend Sevil’s ceremony.
Akram, Sevil’s current husband, spells his family name as Shhaideh, but because it’s being transliterated from Arabic, there are some variants in how it is spelled. However you want to spell it, the double H’s are used to simulate how the name is pronounced with the aspirated H’s that are famous in Semitic languages (it kind of sounds like “spitting” or “throat clearing” to non-speakers).
Sevil became Sevil Shhaideh, her current name. Akram’s native language is Arabic, but he has stated that he speaks Romanian on a “good” level, and English “very good” (indeed, good enough to translate several books from English into Arabic), so it’s unclear in what language he communicates with his wife.
As far as I can tell, Sevil has never been to Syria, so it’s highly likely that they met in Romania. And it turns out that Akram Shhaideh is a very interesting individual.
The Strange Behavior of Living Creatures
In 2009, two years before they got married, Sevil and Akram registered a company called Rosyr International, each holding exactly 50% of the company’s shares. Officially, the company deals with supplying “foodstuffs, drinks, and tobacco” to shops, but the company has never had a good year. For example, in 2012, the company had a net profit of just 27,920 lei (about 6000 euros). In 2013, the company had a profit of 3,131 lei (692 euros) and in 2014, the company posted a net loss of 435 lei (96 euros). Unfortunately, the financial records for some years are missing, and it’s impossible to tell whether Rosyr International is being used to launder money. What is known for sure is that the company has never had any employees, ever.
Akram Shhaideh was born on March 30, 1962, in Lattakia, Syria. He spent most of his adult life in Syria, working directly for the Bashar al-Ashad government’s Ministry of Agriculture. In 2010, Akram came to Romania where he studied at the ASE school, the same university where his future wife graduated.
Akram made a full-time commitment to Romania in 2011 when he got hired as an agricultural consultant for the Constanta County government. Which department? Strangely enough, for the road building department that is ultimately under MDRAP’s jurisdiction. A year later, Akram became an agronomy professor at the Ovidius University in Constanta from 2012-2013. A year later, from 2013-2014, he was a counselor reporting directly to the secretary of state (under secretary) of the the national Ministry of Agriculture, officially known as the “Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development”. Akram was reporting directly to Achim Irimescu, another ASE graduate, who later became the Agriculture Minister in the Ciolos government.
It’s worth mentioning here that the Agriculture Minister from 2012-2015 was Daniel Constantin. He’s now a member of ALDE (in the ruling coalition with PSD) but was then a member of the PC party headed by Dan Voiculescu. At the time, Voiculescu had an ongoing case with the Agriculture Ministry, effectively making Constantin’s appointment a clear conflict of interest. So from 2013-2014, Akram was working directly with the highest ranks of the PSD-PC-USL leadership, most of whom (including Voiculescu) were later convicted on fraud and corruption charges.
Akram, meanwhile, kept his strong ties to the Assad government in Syria, as well-documented here (in Romanian), regularly posting pro-Assad statements on his Facebook account as well as other fun stuff like praising the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah.
As a professor with multiple doctoral degrees, he’s also continued to publish academic works, his latest entitled The Strange Behavior of Living Creatures, written in Arabic and published in Damascus, Syria, in 2011. I imagine it’s quite a fascinating read!
Together, Akram and Sevil own one apartment in Constanta and three in Syria, including two in Damascus and one in Akram’s native Latakia. According to Sevil’s latest public declaration of holdings, she has 590,000 lei (130,000 euros) in the bank and owes 60,000 lei on a bank loan.
Somehow, Akram obtained Romanian citizenship in 2015. I say “somehow” because Romanian law is pretty strict about how to become a citizen. Normally, you have to reside in Romania legally for eight years OR reside in Romania and be married to a Romanian citizen for five years. Clearly, the earliest that Akram was living in Romania was 2009 (so just 6 years in 2015) and he got married in 2011 (so 4 years in 2015), neither of which is long enough to qualify for citizenship.
But there is one legal loophole to speeding up the process – investing a million (or more) euros in a Romanian business. If you do that, the waiting times are halved, meaning four years legal residence (and 2009-2015 qualifies) or 2.5 years married (and 2011-2015 also qualifies). Considering the mysterious financial failures of Rosyr International, the company might have been a way for Akram to speed up the path to citizenship. But that doesn’t make much sense, especially since he’s retained his Syrian citizenship and is not a refugee or estranged from his home country. Perhaps he just thought that getting Romanian citizenship was an easy path to obtaining an EU passport?
That actually makes sense, especially considering Romania’s weird and long history with Syria. In the 1980s, Romania and Syria were very close, the fallout of all the Cold War activity that saw the United States backing Israel while the Soviet Union (and Romania) backed the Arab states.
Perhaps the most famous recent case involving Romania and Syria involves Omar Hayssam. Described variously as a “businessman” or “financier”, he was a rich Syrian with close ties to the Assad government who also obtained Romanian citizenship. In 2005, Hayssam was behind the bizarre incident wherein several Romanian reporters were kidnapped in Iraq. Hayssam was arrested in 2005 following the incident, but then made a “miraculous escape” in 2007. Then in 2013, he was mysteriously arrested in an unspecified country (that’s never been identified to this day) and flown back to Romania. He’s now in jail, but, just like many other convicted people in Romania, manages to keep his Facebook account quite active.
There are no known ties between Hayssam and Akram Shhaideh, other than the fact that both men are close with the same political leadership in both Romania and Syria. Shhaideh personally has a few ties with shady Syrian figures and businesses, including when he lent some money to a Syrian man named Chhide Bachir who had a company operating in Romania named Camfor SRL. One of the partners of Camfor, an Egyptian man, was later convicted in Romania for tax evasion.
Where This Leaves Us Today
Dragnea has already said that Sevil is the coalition’s one and only proposition for prime minister, and has preemptively asked the SRI (sort of like the FBI) to give Sevil the “all clear” in an effort to quash any opposition movement to say her foreign-born husband is a security risk to the country. President Iohannis hasn’t indicated whether or not he’ll accept Sevil’s nomination, and everything is tabled for December 29, partly because parliament is currently out of town for the Christmas holiday.
Nonetheless, the superficial act of nominating a minority ethnic woman who is also a member of a minority religion for prime minister, in conjunction with a minority religion president (President Klaus Iohannis is Lutheran), has been a PR blessing for Romania. Already, all the major news media have been commenting about how wonderful it is to see Sevil nominated.
Reading the tea leaves of all the political talk shows that I watch, I’d wager that Sevil will indeed make it through. If so, she’ll join just one female prime minister of Turkey and one of Kosovo as the third female Muslim prime minister of a European country (if you count Turkey and Kosovo as European/a country).
But for now, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens!