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Making Friends With Nastase

Romania owes its surprisingly easy road toward NATO and EU membership more to events outside its borders than to its own merits, writes Tom Gallagher. by Tom Gallagher 19 December 2005
British scholar Tom Gallagher is a specialist in Balkan and Romanian history. His most recent book is Theft of a Nation: Romania Since Communism (Hurst, 2005. In the United States, the book is published by New York University Press under the title Modern Romania: The End of Communism, the Failure of Democratic Reform, and the Theft of a Nation.)

Gallagher teaches at Bradford University, where he holds the chair of ethnic conflict and peace. His other publications include Outcast Europe: The Balkans From the Ottomans to Milosevic, 1789-1989. The Balkans Since the Cold War: From Tyranny to Tragedy, and The Balkans in the New Millennium: In the Shadow of War and Peace.

This excerpt from Theft of a Nation is taken from the chapter entitled "Looters of the State by Appointment of Brussels: Return of the Social Democrats, 2001-2003."

Currently the only continuous scrutiny of government actions is provided by the European Union, and its effectiveness is increasingly in doubt. The EU’s annual report for 2001 on Romania’s progress towards accession expressed concern about the slow pace of administrative and judicial reform. The new American ambassador Michael Guest publicly warned in December 2001 that corruption could affect the chances of Romania joining NATO. This was an issue he returned to in the spring of 2003, drawing a rebuke from Iliescu: "No ambassador of any country is entitled to come here and teach us lessons on how to fight against corruption."

Much government ire also greeted the publication in May 2001 of the critical report by the European Parliament’s monitor on Romania, Emma Nicholson, on its progress towards meeting EU accession requirements. Nicholson singled out the poor treatment that some of the 60,000 children in state orphanages were still likely to receive. She expressed concern that child care officials were gaining financially from selling children on an international black market, and warned that if the state did not show greater concern, then the suspension of entry negotiations was a real possibility. The government reacted with indignation to these charges. Romania’s chief negotiator for entry, Vasile Puscas, even argued that Nicholson had drafted such a report out of the need to increase her profile in Britain where he claimed (erroneously) that she was a candidate in the June 2001 parliamentary election. Nevertheless, the government soon swung into action and took the steps demanded by Nicholson to end abuses in the Romanian child care system.

A debate exists among international observers about whether the "rough-house" tactics used by Emma Nicholson pay off in Romania. Some see top Romanian officials as proud and sensitive people who immediately become uncooperative if they are patronized and lectured, but others argue that in too many cases those officials have little to be proud of and only respond effectively when under unstinting public pressure. The EU’s hard-nosed insistence on strong Romanian guarantees before lifting (at the start of 2002) the requirement for visas for Romanian nationals intending to visit EU states, backs up this view. So may the ability of the Eminescu Trust and the Liga Pro-Europa, to prevent the government despoiling the historic Saxon town of Sighisoara by installing a Dracula theme park close to a district designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Without EU vigilance, it is difficult to see what would have prevented the ratification of a law passed by both parliamentary chambers on 7 March 2001 on the protection of state secrets, which human rights groups both inside Romania and abroad believed went far beyond what was necessary to protect human rights in a democratic society. The guarding of state secrets was described in the bill as the "civic duty" of all citizens and an expression of their "national fidelity." The SRI [Romanian Information Service] was entrusted with overseeing maintenance of the law, and jail sentences of up to ten years could be imposed for securing, publishing, disclosing or destroying classified information. The law was passed just a few days after President Iliescu admitted that corruption in the justice system was a serious problem. Much of the press complained that under such a vaguely written act the temptation to classify documents providing evidence of corruption as secret would be overwhelming. On 11 March 2001 [Prime Minister Adrian] Nastase said the law had been passed to comply with NATO requirements for the protection of military secrets as well as the EU’s Schengen Accord. But the EU delegation in Bucharest replied in a statement that it had not called for such a law but instead had argued for one strengthening public access to official information. On 11 April the bill was scrapped when the Constitutional Court declared it unconstitutional.

It is likely that only sustained international vigilance will prevent the revival of a monopolistic approach to government which in Romania has always been associated with widespread misuse of public funds. Between October 2001 and the spring of 2003 the government mapped out, launched and then re-launched its own anticorruption strategy amid domestic and international skepticism about the seriousness of its intentions. Only grudgingly did it agree in July 2003 to alter the parliamentary rules which currently allow suspected law-breakers to enjoy immunity from prosecution. Instead the government prefers to scapegoat senior officials in the former government whose affairs it has encouraged prosecutors to investigate. Alin Giurgiu, the former deputy head of the state privatization agency, was held in custody for three months without charge in the summer of 2001, his release only being secured after international concern over his health. Giurgiu’s treatment can be contrasted with that accorded to Sever Muresan, founder of Dacia Felix Bank, the first private bank to open in post-communist Romania, which crashed in 1995 with the savings of many small investors being wiped out in the process. In 2000 Muresan was imprisoned in Switzerland for three and a half years for financial misconduct, but on being extradited to Romania to face graver charges concerning the failure of his bank he was released by a sympathetic judge. The government expressed no alarm when he left Romania shortly afterwards.

A National Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (PNA), set up largely in response to EU pressure in the autumn of 2002, was the government’s answer to critics that it had no interest in rooting out corruption. The most prominent victim of the PNA was a judge from Tirgu Mures, Mrs. Andreea Ciuca, who was arrested in that month charged with accepting a bribe. Known previously as one of the minority of judges keen to maintain high standards on the judicial bench, she was subjected to lengthy interrogations and placed in a cell with common criminals, but released through the intervention of the head of the Supreme Court, Paul Florea, who ruled that she had no case to answer owing to the flimsiness of the evidence. However, Ciuca’s treatment was a warning to judges and magistrates prepared to act independently of the PSD and interfere in its clients’ affairs that they would face political reprisals. Florea himself was subject to the ire of Iliescu, who openly criticized the action of someone appointed by his predecessor; he had revealed himself to be a thorn in the side of the government when he warned in April 2003 of growing political pressure on the judiciary. The humiliation of a judge known for her correct conduct was also a warning to more humble Romanians that challenging a state which trampled on their rights could have deeply unwelcome consequences and was thus a fruitless course of action.

It is incidents like these which ought to generate acute concern in Brussels about Romania’s ability to slay the dragon of corruption. The mentality that well-placed individuals are entitled to divert public money and goods for their own private gratification is deeply ingrained. In its 2001 "Corruption Perceptions Index" the respected international body Transparency International placed Romania sixty-ninth of ninety-one countries. The only European country to earn a lower position was Russia, placed seventy-ninth; Bulgaria, with which Romania is often compared, was far ahead in forty-seventh place.

In 2003 Nastase appointed as national supremo to deal with corruption, Ionel Blanculescu. The pro-government media tried to build a mystique around him as various middle-ranking officials and businessmen were detained on corruption charges. Blanculescu himself declared: "There are elderly people who, when they see me on television, kiss the TV screen. Believe me!" His mission was described as one designed to "put most of the dirt under the mat so that the ruling group will look clean and fit to take part in the elections, but also to impress the foreigners." It was certainly not part of Blanculescu’s job description to expose the primitive accumulation of capital by the close-knit elite in charge of the country for most of the time since 1989.

At the EU’s Laeken summit in December 2000, ten out of twelve candidate countries were officially described as being on course to join the EU by around 2004. Romania (along with Bulgaria) was given the target date of 2007. By the end of July 2002 Romania had concluded negotiations for only thirteen of the thirty-one chapters of the acquis communautaire, had still to open three, and had made little progress on key issues. Bulgaria, by contrast had closed twenty-one out of the thirty chapters of the accession negotiations, and opened all the rest including those on agriculture, industry and economic and monetary union. In an earlier work [Democratie si Nationalisme in Romania, 1989-1998] the present author argued that Romania’s chronic incapacity in many vital areas of governance required concentrated help from outside which would inevitably reduce its sovereignty temporarily while strengthening the ability of the state to serve the needs of its citizens effectively in the longer term.

Nastase did not advance Romania’s hopes of entering NATO by trying to appoint a close aide, Ristea Priboi, as head of the parliamentary commission monitoring the foreign intelligence service, SIE. It soon emerged that Priboi had been a dedicated member of the Securitate, particularly its foreign intelligence wing, and that the regime turned to him whenever it encountered difficulties, even ones such as the 1987 Brasov workers' uprising. On 13 February 2001 Senator Radu Alexandru of the opposition PNL [National Liberal Party] described Priboi’s appointment as "a provocation and a lack of responsibility" in relation to Romania’s NATO aspirations. It was soon withdrawn, but it was clear that Priboi remained one of Nastase’s closest confidants.

Nastase himself took on some of the imperious airs associated with Priboi’s pre-1989 boss. While he was holidaying on the Romanian Black Sea coast in 2002 in the same mansion as Ceausescu, the police toured the local discos ordering the music to be turned down. His hunting pursuits were well-known, as was his art-collecting propensity. Nor did he shrink from putting foreign officials in their place, as when he upbraided the EU ambassador Jonathan Scheele for daring to warn him that EU money designed to modernize Bucharest’s infrastructure (and reduce the heating bills of its inhabitants) was in danger of being lost because of Nastase’s reluctance to see it falling into the hands of his arch-rival, [Bucharest] Mayor Basescu [Traian Basescu, now president after defeating Nastase in 2004]. The interior ministry became dominated by newly-appointed allies of Nastase, some of whom were linked to acts of repression before 1989. It is widely thought that these officials cracked down on the alleged author and distributor of a report known as Armagedon II, distributed electronically to foreign embassies and news agencies on 16 January 2002, which focused on the personal wealth of the prime minister and his family, and his connections with controversial businessmen. Most of the claims had already been published by the press or aired in parliamentary debates. Nevertheless, on 17 January 2002 the prosecutor-general’s office ordered the detention of the man alleged to have distributed the document and searched the office of Mugur Ciuvica, the former chief of staff of ex-President Constantinescu, whom the authorities initially claimed to be its author. The Penal Code allows the authorities to act in such a way if national security or Romania’s international standing are placed at risk; Romania’s leading human rights watchdog, Apador, accused the prime minister of confusing the defense of his own reputation with national security and warned that it was only the most serious example of a growing authoritarian trend in state behavior. This charge was also made by ex-President Constantinescu in a letter to his successor Ion Iliescu.

Nastase soon admitted that the authorities had over-reacted and that the government and public institutions were still learning how to cope with criticism. At least Romania offered unswerving support to NATO during the drive against the Al-Qaida terrorist network following the 11 September bombings in the United States. But there have been persistent claims that Arab-led smuggling, money-laundering and tax-dodging operations have gone on with the compliance of high-ranking figures in the Romanian justice and interior ministries. Communist-era intelligence operatives who are now flourishing businessmen with close links to the government maintained extensive links with radical Middle East regimes. Thus in order not to lessen its chances of acquiring NATO membership the government had to convince its NATO allies that Romania was not a potential weak link in the drive against terrorism, and Nastase has done this by appearing to be a zealous defender of American interests. On 1 August 2002 Romania became the first country in the world to sign a bilateral agreement with the United States giving American soldiers and diplomats immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), a global war crimes court under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. Romania was condemned for taking its own unilateral course by the European Commission which declared on 9 August: "We would have expected a future member state to have at least coordinated with us on such an important issue."

The unexpected rapprochement between NATO and Russia in 2001, after it became clear that they had a common enemy in Islamic terrorism, has advantages and disadvantages for Romania. It had neglected to improve its relations with a country widely viewed by public opinion and much of the political élite as a historic enemy, but relations improved thanks to the regular meetings between the two foreign ministers, Ivan Ivanov and Mircea Geoana, in 2001, the year Romania held the OSCE Chairmanship in Office. Romania was responsible for coordinating high-profile OSCE initiatives in the Caucasus where Russia had strong security interests, and Geoana carried these out without antagonizing Moscow. Negotiations on a bilateral treaty hurriedly got under way in October 2001 and were only concluded in July 2003 when Iliescu traveled to Moscow to put his signature to the document. He is aware that Russian cooperation is needed to improve strained relations with Moldova, on part of whose territory (the breakaway Trans-Dniester), Russian army forces continue to be stationed. But the most immediate effect of normalizing relations might be to enable Russian firms to gain a big stake in the Romanian energy sector, which is being privatized in response to IMF pressure. Since 1997 Romania has had a bilateral treaty with Ukraine, which occupies territory that belonged to it before 1940, but relations have languished. Romania considered appealing to the International Court of Justice at The Hague when the Ukraine decided to drill for oil in waters still disputed between the two countries. Relations are worse with Moldova: after the justice minister of Moldova complained to the same forum in The Hague about "Romanian expansionism," Nastase cancelled a visit he was due to make to Chisinau in October 2001.

Unless Romania’s links with its eastern neighbors can be transformed, it remains difficult to argue that admitting it to NATO can be viewed as enhancing the security of the alliance. But from the early spring of 2002 it began to appear that these impediments were no longer a check to Romania’s NATO hopes, at least as far as its most powerful member was concerned. The events of September 11 greatly increased Romania’s strategic importance to the United States, which suddenly found itself needing countries in the Black Sea region ready to provide bases, overfly rights and even local troops for terrorist threats further to the east. Romania (along with Bulgaria) proved willing to fulfill such roles when the existing NATO members in Southeastern Europe, Greece and Turkey were reticent or unwilling. Even before 11 September President George W. Bush had been re-evaluating America’s strategic objectives. Growing American interest in the vast oil and gas supplies of the Caspian Sea and on securing pipelines for delivery of these energy sources was raising the profile of Southeastern Europe in the White House. But Romania has few consistent advocates among its European partners, and leaving aside the preoccupation with oil of a U.S. President from the USA’s main oil state it is unclear to what degree the country is vital for NATO security; indeed it could easily be argued that it might be more troublesome inside NATO rather than outside it.

Greece is the only fully Balkan state so far to be admitted to either the EU or NATO, but until a more cooperative spirit emerged in Athens in the late 1990s not a few leading EU officials said off the record that allowing Greece to join the EU in 1981 had been a foolish oversight; its economy was far from ready and it had been a troublesome member, especially as EU responsibilities in Southeastern Europe steadily increased. Greece was received into the EU in 1981 not least because the modern state was seen in some West European policy circles as the heir to a great civilization that had contributed to the making of Europe. Such a claim does not rest on strong foundations, and it is certainly not one that could be made of Romania. The heroic images from Timisoara and Bucharest in December 1989 briefly made Romania appear a European champion of freedom. But with the June 1990 mineriada [miners' march on Bucharest] "Romania became a strange country" in Western eyes and it has never since shaken off that slightly schizophrenic image.

But the EU has been increasingly encouraging towards Romania despite public admonishments about the slowness of the reform process. A powerful consortium of EU states now want Romania inside the EU by 2007, even if the entry terms have to be made more flexible. Romania will increasingly be assessed not according to its capacity to fulfill entry terms or compete effectively with other EU members, but by a different set of criteria. It is no coincidence that Romania’s most vocal backers – Britain, Italy and Spain – are also the EU states who have given strongest support to President Bush’s military aims in the Middle East. These Atlanticist states, dependent on Middle East oil supplies for their economic viability, have been impressed by Romania’s readiness, as a country that finds itself in an increasingly strategic part of the world, to act as a bridgehead for U.S.-led operations there. Secondly, Romania’s prospects for entry have brightened because of political disputes within the EU about its future direction. Britain, Italy and Spain wish the nation-state to retain its primacy even as common EU arrangements become the norm in important areas of decision-making. They know that pressures for fully federal arrangements in the EU will grow as an economic union becomes a reality. To postpone federalism, it is in their interests to allow in weak states with major problems like Poland – and Romania. It will take years, probably decades, before the EU can overcome the severe indigestion that will ensue as it absorbs new members with acute difficulties. Only then will it be possible to return to the federalist goals of the EU’s founding fathers.
Excerpted with the kind permission of C. Hurst & Co., London. Footnotes have been omitted. TOL editorial notes appear in square brackets.

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