Romania's orange alert

Traian Basescu's victory signals closer ties between Eastern Europe and the West, and further isolation for Russia.

Published December 15, 2004 2:34PM (EST)

Eastern Europe hailed a new "Prince of Orange" Tuesday after Traian Basescu came from behind in the runoff election to be president of Romania. Like Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko, the mayor of Bucharest and self-styled scourge of corrupt apparatchiks chose orange for his campaign colors. Unlike Yushchenko, his victory is undisputed by his rival, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. And no one tried to poison him. When East European jitters about a resurgent Russia are on the rise, this former ship's captain became the fresh, unmarked face of a future anchored more firmly in the West.

Many Romanians see Basescu's success as the long-awaited climax to a slow-burn revolution that began in Christmas 1989 when the detested pro-Soviet regime of Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled by a coup. Ceausescu was put up against a wall and shot. But Communist-era habits died harder. The old elite relabeled themselves Social Democrats (PSD) and became the government party for most of the past 15 years.

But as in Ukraine, which in theory gained its independence in 1991, a corrupt culture of party barons and millionaire oligarchs continued to dominate many aspects of Romanian life. "The former Communists still controlled all the levers of power -- the TV and media, industry and the economy, the security forces and the secret police," one analyst said Tuesday. "The regional czars under Ceausescu just switched sides."

But according to Jonathan Eyal, an expert on Eastern Europe at the Royal United Services Institute, time had long been running out for the ancien regime headed by outgoing president and former Communist Ion Iliescu. While Basescu galvanized his urban supporters, conservative rural backers of the government were less committed. "There was a whiff of mothballs about the government. Romanians were saying, 'Can we please put it in the bin?'" Eyal said.

Despite successfully negotiating Romania's entry into NATO and the E.U., which it is expected to join in 2007, the PSD was too closely associated with the bad old days and gained little domestic credit for its efforts. Another major factor was the fury at the official corruption in a country where the black market accounts for an estimated 40 percent of all economic activity.

Basescu promised to crack down on graft, denouncing his rivals as villains and gangsters. "This is a dirty system that destroys political opponents ... but I tell them now: 'Boys, you cannot destroy me!'" he said at the beginning of the campaign.

Successful efforts to prevent the multiple voting fraud detected by OSCE monitors during the first round a fortnight ago contributed to Basescu's breakthrough. "They fiddled the first round," an expert on Eastern Europe said. "People were determined not to let them do it again." What might be termed the "Ukraine effect" seems to have played a significant part in mobilizing Romania's emerging urban middle and professional classes. "The cackhanded way [Russian President Vladimir] Putin tried to encourage the Ukraine result was influential," Eyal said.

But meddling by Moscow in Romania would have been counterproductive. "I have yet to meet the one Romanian who considers Russia a friend or ally. Hatred of Russia is in Romanian blood," he said. For that reason, among others, Romania has been quick to build on its NATO membership. It is offering cut-price military base facilities to the United States in Constanta, on the Black Sea. Last October U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went looking for bargains. Such developments may only deepen Russia's post-Ukraine sense of geopolitical encirclement, or even isolation.

In terms of E.U. membership, Romania -- like neighboring Bulgaria -- is a laggard compared with Poland and other former Soviet satellites. Even the three Baltic republics got in ahead of Bucharest, which still faces tough negotiations on mandatory structural and judicial reforms. While admitting that there will be problems, Basescu vows "to march in full force toward E.U. integration."

All the same, Romania's evolving realignment, in the context of Ukraine and Putin's more assertive policies in Russia's "near abroad," could now encourage others in Europe's hinterlands to follow in their turn. Croatia's hope of E.U. membership has been bedeviled by its failure to extradite alleged war criminals from the 1990s Balkan wars. Serbia, where anti-Western sentiment still runs strong in the wake of NATO's 1999 Kosovo campaign, is even further behind. But both seem destined to join the E.U. eventually.

Moldova, on Romania's northeastern flank, remains fixed in Moscow's sphere -- Russian troops are still based in the separatist Transdniestria region -- but some analysts think an internal movement to reunite with Romania, defeated in a 1994 plebiscite, will now be revived. If Ukraine shifts decisively westward, so too may Moldova.

At present Eastern Europe's most hopeless case is Belarus, a virtual dictatorship bought and paid for by Moscow. As one E.U. foreign minister noted caustically: "Only Belorussians can decide their future. The problem is, nobody asks them." If the future is orange, as Basescu's victory suggests, Belarus may be the last to know.

By Simon Tisdall

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