In its bid to become a full member of the European Union in 2007, Romania must persuade Brussels that it is cracking down on corruption. Oana Lungescu assesses her native country's progress.
In the heart of Bucharest's University Square, there is a reminder of the country's tormented past and a pointer to its future.
The Ceausescu regime was toppled after a national uprising in 1989
Almost obscured by the frenzied traffic, three large stone crosses mark the point where dozens of anti-communist protesters were shot by Nicolae Ceausescu's security forces in December 1989.
Not far away stands a big electronic clock, confidently counting the days to 1 January, 2007, when Romania hopes to join the European Union.
The country has come a long way in the past 15 years but it needs to move much faster now if it is to avoid turning the clock back.
"We're not there yet; we're not ready to join Europe," Ion Raducu told me.
He is a peasant farmer with a furrowed face, whom I met last autumn when his village, nestled in the rolling hills that herald the approach of the Carpathian mountains, was one of many struck by severe floods.
At almost 70, Ion was busy hacking with a shovel at the thick mud blocking his front gate.
"Europeans are civilised, well-organised people," he said, spitting in his palms to get a better grip.
"Here it's full of thieves - in the law courts, in the police, everywhere. They must be cleaned out without pity, just like I'm cleaning this muck."
He told me he had battled through the courts for over a decade to regain a strip of land his family had owned before the communist takeover.
But he was convinced he would not get a fair hearing unless and until he paid a bribe.
According to a recent poll, 85% of Romanians feel the same.
The poll shocked the country's President, Traian Basescu, into making an unusual public appeal.
"Corruption has become our national sport," he admonished his fellow Romanians. "But let's decide that for the next year we won't pay any bribes to any state institution!"
Easier said than done.
Cigarettes and soap
After centuries of Ottoman domination compounded by communism, corruption is ingrained in the Romanian way of life.
I grew up knowing that only a packet of Kent cigarettes or a bar of Lux soap would get you a phone line installed in weeks rather than years or a decent cut of meat at the butcher's rather than just bones.
In these brand-conscious days, Kent or Lux will not get you very far. But money - big money - might.
The World Bank estimates that Romanians, whose average wage is less than £200 ($350 or 293 euros) a month, pay a staggering £500,000 a year in bribes to get proper health care in the cash-starved state system.
And a million euros - or £700,000 - has landed one of the country's most prominent politicians in trouble.
You could call it Auntie-gate.
Adrian Nastase, the jowly speaker of the lower house of parliament and the former prime minister, was summoned by anti-corruption prosecutors after claiming he had received a hefty bundle of cash and three apartments from his wife's aunt, who died last year aged 97.
Curiously, the aunt lived in a tiny flat in a communist-era tenement and received only a meagre pension.
According to Mr Nastase, she made her fortune by selling the family jewellery and shrewdly investing in the property market.
A former communist youth official and a lawyer by training, Mr Nastase is famed for his love of houses, hunting and surrealist paintings, a lifestyle at odds with his leadership of the opposition social-democratic party, which represents Romania's poor underclasses.
Both he and his wife are being investigated for shady property deals but evidence may be hard to find.
It has recently emerged that key documents on the transactions have vanished from the Office for Money Laundering Investigations.
Mr Nastase strenuously denies that his wealth was acquired in exchange for political favours.
But under pressure from his colleagues, he stepped down as party leader.
A former economy minister also resigned his position in the Social Democratic Party after failing to explain how he had bought eight of his 23 properties.
Both men say the cases against them are politically motivated.
Targeting the 'big fish'
But the anti-corruption officials are not just targeting the opposition. They are now investigating the property deals of one of Romania's wealthiest businessmen, who also happens to be a cabinet minister in the centre-right ruling coalition.
Justice Minister Monica Macovei is determined to fight corruption
Brussels has told Bucharest that its anti-corruption campaign should target the "big fish", not just the small fry.
It now looks like they are being reeled in. And the one holding the line is a former human rights lawyer with no party affiliation: the Justice Minister, Monica Macovei.
"She is the conscience of the government," one foreign diplomat told me.
In the last year, this pale woman who favours sober trouser suits has made sweeping legal changes, appointing a young prosecutor to head the anti-corruption office, removing the immunity of MPs and ministers, and requiring 100,000 civil servants, prosecutors and judges to make public statements of their financial assets.
"It is one of the most ambitious reforms in Europe," she told me late one evening, alone in the cavernous Justice Ministry but for a handful of close advisers.
She faces stiff opposition from many older magistrates but says she is heartened by the support of younger judges and prosecutors.
"I do expect results in the fight against corruption," she insisted. "It is part of Romania's contract with the European Union."
When I asked the farmer, Ion Raducu, about the justice minister, his eyes lit up.
"God give her strength," he said, sticking his shovel into the mud once more.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 4 February, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.