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Romania Plays Strategic Card
The once unthinkable prospect of Romania joining NATO is now close to becoming reality,
largely because of the West's pursuit of Islamic extremists following last year's September 11 attacks on America.
The United States and other NATO allies formerly sniffed at Romanian military capacity and the country's slow pace towards democratic and economic reforms.
But after September 11, they began having second thoughts because of the country's potentially strategic importance in the war on terrorism - its proximity to the Black Sea and the Caucasus could provide a military platform for any widening of the campaign against Islamic militancy.
Bucharest rushed to place land and port facilities at America's disposal, and offered flying rights for any possible attack against Iraq. The country also tripled its presence in international peacekeeping missions in the Balkans to free up allied troops for Afghanistan. And a Romanian military facility in the Black Sea city of Constanta is about to become a staging ground for the rotation of US troops in the former Yugoslavia and possibly other areas.
Suggestions that Romanian forces are ineffectual usually anger officials in Bucharest. They say their efforts to reform the clumsy, Soviet-era army into a strong, lean fighting machine, as well as their contributions to international peacekeeping missions, are underestimated. Bucharest is planning to offer specialised units to the alliance in the form of Alpine troops and is training officers to speak English.
Finally, in a move to impress the Bush administration, Romania was also the first country in the world to sign an agreement with the US pledging not to turn over American soldiers to the new International Criminal Court, ICC, which Washington opposes.
All this comes as a far cry from the days of former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu who preached hatred of foreigners - especially westerners. His execution and the end of the Cold War 12 years ago left Romania with an entirely new set of challenges.
In the North and the East there appeared new states - Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova - with historical links to Romania and eager to redefine their relations with neighboring countries. The outbreak of conflict in the Balkans also had a profound effect on Romania's position.
In the Nineties, Romania embarked on substantial internal reforms and sought to adapt to the changing international climate in hopes of joining NATO. Successive governments also had their eye on membership of the European Union, which they regarded as the ultimate goal for developing into a democratic market economy providing stability and prosperity.
But the EU reforms were regarded as too costly in the short term. NATO expansion was seen as a political process that would provide the country with a true measure of security.
Surprisingly enough, after decades of communist rule, surveys conducted during the Nineties showed overwhelming Romanian popular support for EU and NATO membership. During 1997, the year of the latter's first eastward enlargement, the then centre-right government mounted a publicity campaign designed to rally support for membership of the alliance.
The media coverage devoted to this issue was enormous. A highly popular independent television station ran a contest in which Romanians sent in pro-NATO postcards for entry in a f prize draw.
Surveys found that while only 59 per cent of Hungarians favoured alliance membership, the figure for Romania was more than 90 per cent. But despite its commitment and even support from some European countries, Bucharest was not invited to begin accession talks at the Madrid summit in July 1997. At that time, the economy was in a shambles with widespread unemployment, organised crime and corruption.
The country's military readiness was questionable at best - handicapped by a Warsaw Pact legacy of lumbering, inefficient forces in dire need of upgrading and restructure.
Two years after this, the Kosovo crisis and the NATO Allied Force Operation in Yugoslavia induced a powerful change of heart among the allies. Although Romania did not become directly involved in the military action, much was done to assist the alliance. Not only did Bucharest accept refugees from Kosovo, it also granted the latter unlimited use of its airspace.
Bucharest has also been working hard on costly reforms set out in the alliance's membership action plan to boost civilian control over the army. The government is now pushing for a radical reduction of the officer corps and an end to conscription by the end of the decade. Defence spending has been pushed up to 2.4 per cent of GDP per year - around one billion US dollars - for the next five years, well above NATO's unwritten minimum level of two per cent.
By this month, the number of soldiers will have fallen from 400,000 to around 140,000. It is supposed to shrink further - to 90,000 - by 2007.
But the worries about corruption, inefficiency and faltering economies that blocked Romania's acceptance in 1997 are not completely extinguished. The lack of a functioning, independent judicial system is another major hurdle. Concerns are also being raised over the presence of numerous agents of the communist-era secret police, the Securitate, in Romania's new security service. Questions are being asked whether the intelligence agencies can be trusted to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive NATO information.
Last but not least, despite the fact that the political situation is much more stable than in the early Nineties, Romania could face the danger of extreme nationalism.
The second largest party in the parliament is now the Greater Romania Party, PRM, whose leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor has often been compared with Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky or France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. Tudor is usually the choice of poor people who believe in paranoid conspiracy theories and who blame the country's problems on minorities or foreigners.
The collapse of communism prompted Romanians to pursue the western ideal of prosperity, freedom and all that had been suppressed under the former regime. The trouble now is that many will expect an immediate improvement in living standards when the country joins NATO.
Marian Chiriac is an independent Bucharest-based journalist
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