Romania Deserves Encouragement
Alfred H. Moses
International Herald Tribune, January 11, 2001
Romania has had great difficulty recovering from the scourge of communism. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are already NATO members, but Romania lags behind. The European Commission puts Romania last among 12 candidate countries in progress toward European Union membership.
In a runoff election for president last month, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a neofascist, took 30 percent of the vote. Ion Iliescu and his Social Democratic Party, now unfairly branded in the West as former Communists, returned to power.
Both men had been defeated four years before when a center-right coalition led by the National Christian Peasant Party was swept into office. The electorate proved to be unforgiving when that government promised much but produced little.
Dismal economic performance, lack of a common coalition agenda and weak political leadership caused the people to turn back the political clock. In Romania as elsewhere, economic reality, not promises, drives politics.
The economic situation is difficult but not hopeless. The economy is expected to grow this year by 4 to 5 percent. A devalued currency and low wages are spurring exports.
But huge problems remain. The banking system is fragile. Of the 62 large state-owned enterprises marked by the World Bank for restructuring, privatization or liquidation, only one is profitable; these dinosaurs soak up credit and other resources needed by the nascent free enterprise economy.
On the bright side, the new government, headed by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, is not a throwback to the Social Democratic government in power from 1992 to 1996, headed by Nicolae Vacariou. He had worked in central planning under the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and to no one's surprise turned out to be an uninspiring, prime minister.
Mr. Nastase is cut from different cloth. Comparatively young, in his 40s, he did not come of political age until after the fall of Mr. Ceausescu. He cannot be targeted as a former Communist. The same is truefor his government, composed mostly of young nonpolitical party members who have proven competence. Heading the list is Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana. The new justice minister, also in her 40s, is the first woman to head that ministry.
With the exception of Albania, no country in Europe was more devastated politically and economically by communism. There was no Romanian counterpart to the Czech Vaclav Havel or Poland's Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, to inspire and give hope to Romanians.
As it turns out, the one person in Romania who denounced Mr. Ceausescu publicly and survived was Ion Iliescu.
The rancor of the past that consumed so much of Romania's political energy has largely dissipated. One no longer hears talk about ''who stole the revolution'' or accusations of guilt for past association with Mr. Ceausescu.
In the runoff election, Mr. Iliescu was backed by such former political adversaries as Romania's Hungarian Party and the Civic Alliance, which encouraged student riots against the Iliescu regime in 1990.
Mr. Iliescu and Mr. Nastase know that Romania has no choice but to join the West. This means economic reform, in all its parts. Neither leader has any illusions. As they told me in face-to-face meetings recently in Bucharest, the situation is very difficult but the direction is clear. Romania must be part of NATO and the European Union.
If the new government makes the right decisions, Mr. Iliescu in his current term will be seen as a transition president under whom the country moved away from its ill-fated past and began to make its mark as a stable, democratic country with a sustainable free market economy.
Romania, the second largest country in Central Europe, is too important strategically for the West to ignore. It is in the West's interest not to write off Romania when there is still a basis for hope.
The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Romania, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
Copyright 2001, International Herald Tribune