Bucharest Steps Up NATO Bid

Romanian politicians unite over campaign to join the Western military alliance

Bucharest Steps Up NATO Bid

Romanian politicians unite over campaign to join the Western military alliance

Recent upheavals in the Balkans have prompted the Romanian authorities to press for NATO membership.

"In accordance with the country's security needs, NATO membership is our main short-term objective, " said a coalition government statement last Wednesday.

"With concerted efforts and the resolute solidarity of political forces, we can create favourable conditions for Romania to be invited to join NATO at the Alliance's summit next year."

Following its incorporation of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland four years ago, the Western military alliance is expected to consider a second wave of new members at its Prague summit in 2002.

All the ruling coalition parties, including the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania Party, PRM, have come out unreservedly in favour of membership. The government also announced it would be seeking support from the media, non-governmental organizations, as well as trade unions.

The government has recently stepped up attempts to fulfil what it says are requirements for joining NATO.

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said last week that the Defense Ministry's $850 million budget would be increased by around 35 percent. Another measure, however, has triggered a storm of controversy. President Iliescu said last week he would review a recently passed secrecy law which had outraged democracy activists.

A team of NATO officials last week completed a four-day evaluation of Romania's Alliance credentials. It concluded that Bucharest had made real progress in the judicial, constitutional, political, economic, and security fields, but there were still areas that needed improvement.

This is not the first time the Romanian government has pushed for Alliance membership. The former centre-right administration of President Emil Constantinescu launched a high profile accession campaign four years ago.

Then Romania's bid was blocked largely because of its poor economic record, despite strong backing from several countries including France with whom Romania has strong historical ties.

Yet analysts believe that this time Bucharest's prospects are a lot better as a result of events in the Balkans.

"NATO perception of Romania should have changed following the (1999) war in Yugoslavia and new threats to the Balkan region," said Cornel Codita, a military analyst and professor of international studies at the University of Bucharest.

He says the US, which objected to Bucharest NATO membership bid in 1997, has shifted its view of Romania as an Alliance partner after the latter's support during the Kosovo conflict,

"During the bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999, Romania acted like a member of the Alliance: allowed NATO bombers to use its airspace and fulfilled other obligations such as maintaining the oil embargo on Belgrade."

Back then, there was widespread domestic opposition to the government's pro-NATO stance - many here siding with Serbia and the defiant nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic.

But attitudes have radically changed. A recent poll showed public support for Alliance membership stands at around 80 per cent. After a decade of unsuccessful economic reforms, people seem to believe that their standard of living will improve by joining NATO.

The swing in popular opinion has also been bolstered by the recent victory of the Party of Moldovan Communists, PCM, in the Moldovan elections in late February.

The PCM leader, Vladimir Voronin, reputedly anti-Romanian and former KGB head in Moldova, is expected to become the country's new president. The re-emergence of the communists in Moldova may well prompt the US to back Romania's NATO bid, says Constantin Balaceanu-Stolnici, a political analyst with the Bucharest newspaper Ziua.

"If Russia is back again on our eastern border, NATO might see this as a powerful argument for including Romania, and thus counteracting Moscow's influence," he said.

"Romania has no interest in becoming a buffer zone in South-eastern Europe. We have our own security interests. And that is why we want to become a member of NATO."

Marian Chiriac is a regular IWPR contributor

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