Romania Eyes Key Role in Black Sea

Critics fear Romania's plans to act as America's main ally in the Black Sea region may complicate its plans to join the EU.

Romania Eyes Key Role in Black Sea

Critics fear Romania's plans to act as America's main ally in the Black Sea region may complicate its plans to join the EU.

Romania's new president says his country's proximity to the Black Sea and the Caucasus may provide the West with a crucial military platform in its future operations against Islamic militants and organised crime.

But not everyone is happy with the eastward accent of the new foreign policy. Some complain that it may complicate plans to join the European Union in 2007 while others say Bucharest is just playing with words.

Traian Basescu, 53, a former sea captain, said the new strategic emphasis on the Black Sea was unavoidable if Romania was to play a key role in forthcoming struggles over security, oil, migration and, of course, the war on terrorism.

In tandem with this, Bucharest is promoting the idea of a security axis linking Washington, London, Bucharest, the Middle East and Moscow.

"We face many common security threats as the Black Sea region becomes a bridge for terrorism as well as drugs and human trafficking to the EU," Basescu said recently.

"These all pose threats to NATO and EU member states as well as to countries in the region."

While Basescu's strategy enjoys broad backing in Romania, not all dissent has been silenced.

Moreover, the government has encountered criticism from abroad for its staunch backing of the US during the war in Iraq, especially from France and Germany.

The former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, said Basescu's use of the word "axis" in reference to planned ties between Washington, London and Bucharest was "unfortunate".

"It reminds many people in Europe of the Second World War," Nastase complained. The ex-premier said the drive to re-orientate the country's foreign policy around such an axis was creating needless anxiety.

Some political analysts are sceptical about Romania's new strategic plans in the east, fearing they will undermine the effort to join the EU.

"Before gazing to the east, Basescu should remember that joining the EU is the country's main immediate objective," said Bogdan Chireac, editor of the daily newspaper Adevarul.

"Romania should not be put in the position of choosing between NATO and the European Union," he added. "The country's interests lie in strengthening links with all the western democracies."

However, the staunchly pro-American agenda of the new president is meeting little serious criticism in Romania. There are no substantive policy differences over this.

Support for the US-led coalition against global terrorism stretches across the political spectrum and unlike other countries in Eastern or Central Europe, Romania is not caught between growing domestic discontent over the war in Iraq and a desire to maintain close relations with Washington.

After joining NATO last year, Romania promptly showed its support for the US-led mission in Iraq by sending troops. It now has about 730 soldiers in the country and 500 more in Afghanistan.

In contrast to many European countries, which have started to withdraw soldiers, Bucharest is bolstering its presence in these trouble spots, recently posting another 100 members of the infantry to Iraq.

There is not much argument, either, about Romania's decision (alongside Bulgaria) to place its military and port facilities at America's disposal.

Bucharest was delighted when the US signalled that it was keen to take up the offer. "The US Army is ready to rent some military sites in Eastern Europe, probably by the end of the year," General James Jones, commander of US and NATO forces in Europe, said in mid-January on a visit to Romania.

Jones, who was inspecting military sites to host American troops as part of a Pentagon plan to create new, flexible bases in Eastern Europe, thanked Romania for supporting the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as for offering to host American army units. "This would consolidate NATO's flank on the Black Sea," Jones said.

"As a NATO member, Romania …has already proved to be a reliable partner in different world hotspots," Britain's ambassador to Bucharest, Quinton Quayle, told IWPR.

"The alliance relies on the specific military or geo-strategic capabilities of its members," he added, "and in this context, Romania's position on the Black Sea is a trump."

This is the message Basescu is now trying to promote. "As NATO is given a bigger political role in global security issues, Romania should become a key player on the alliance's eastern border," the president said at recent NATO summit in Brussels.

However, Vladimir Socor, a senior analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, says Romania's new focus on Black Sea region might end up inadvertently dovetailing with Russia's goals in the region, rather than NATO's.

"Basescu's new proposals for Black Sea…security, by creating an operational group to combat illicit arms, drugs, and human trafficking and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, would, in fact, exclude NATO as such from these missions," Socor wrote recently in Eurasia Daily Monitor, "and would keep the alliance's naval forces out of the Black Sea."

According to Socor, the proposed operational group of countries cooperating in the Black Sea area - three NATO member countries (Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria) and Russia - was in line with Soviet and post-1991 Russian ideas to "sub-regionalise" security issues in Europe.

"They typically offer to create groups of NATO and non-NATO countries in key strategic areas, always including Russia as the single strongest actor, and always excluding NATO as such from the proposed arrangements," he said.

Victor Roncea is foreign editor of the daily newspaper Ziua

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