Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Will Romania Be Left Out?

Bucharest is determined to ingratiate itself with the West and integrate itself in European institutions. But Romanians are sceptical about talk of a Stability Pact for south-eastern Europe.
By Marian Chiriac

As the dust settles after last month's Sarajevo summit aimed at building stability in the Balkans, Romanians wonder where it leaves them. Most are unclear as to the precise political content of the proposed Stability Pact, the international community's long-term vision for the region and the amount of money available to revitalise the economy.

On his return from Sarajevo, Romanian President Emil Constantinescu put on a brave face: "The development of south-eastern Europe has become the principal matter of international attention," he said. "It is the first time when the great powers have not simply imposed solutions in the region."

Constantinescu also took comfort from the reaffirmation of the principles of the inviolability of international borders and guarantees for the territorial integrity and unity of the existing states.

Talk of federalism or autonomy does not go down well in Romania which, like other Balkan states, contains its own minorities. The Kosovo conflict and what Romanians perceive as Budapest's offensive for autonomy for ethnic Hungarians in the Serbian province of Vojvodina are viewed by nationalists as steps towards redrawing international borders.

Romania's 1.7 million ethnic Hungarians, most of whom live in Transylvania in the west of the country, have campaigned for enhanced personal and cultural autonomy for the past 10 years, to some effect. Their minority status has improved since 1996 when a centre-right coalition won parliamentary elections and the new government set its sites on European integration and NATO membership.

This overwhelming desire on the part of the government to ingratiate itself with the West also explains its unwavering support for the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Most Romanians were hostile to the intervention, sympathising with the Serbs, and the country itself lost substantial trade as a result of the war.

Bucharest is more interested in integration in European institutions and joining NATO than in regional co-operation, one of the principal themes of the Sarajevo summit. Indeed, Romania does not wish to be viewed abroad as being in the same category as other Balkan countries in terms of political, economic and social development.

Nevertheless, the government is clearly disappointed that it appears increasingly that, for all the rhetoric, the West intends to pay more attention to the Western Balkans, and not Romania and Bulgaria.

As a recent study by the Romanian Foreign Ministry concluded, "Romania stands to lose if south-eastern European countries are considered as a homogeneous block in terms of European integration."

The document argues that Romania should seek admission into European institutions on its own merits and proposes more intensive participation by countries with existing associate agreements with the European Union in various European initiatives.

Another Romanian proposal concerns the establishment, within the "G8" framework of a working group specialised in south-eastern European reconstruction matters.

The study considers it unlikely that Romania will receive any compensation for economic losses it incurred by observing the embargo on Yugoslavia, despite international promises. Instead, it proposes support for Romanian companies bidding for contracts for reconstruction projects in the former Yugoslavia.

At the Sarajevo summit, Constantinescu presented a document detailing some 40 potential infrastructure projects, including the reconstruction of buildings, bridges, roads and railways destroyed in the NATO bombing, and the upgrading of power and water networks in Kosovo and, in the longer term, in Yugoslavia proper.

The government is also aware that it will not benefit from Western support unless Romania can present itself as a factor of regional stability. By this it understands good relations with its neighbours, participation in cross-border projects, respect for minority and human rights, and measures against corruption and organised crime.

According to the Foreign Ministry study, the only way to bring the countries of south-eastern Europe forward economically is to grant them access to foreign markets, and in particular that of the European Union. However, the combined exports of all countries in the region which already have association agreements with the European Union represent less than 1 per cent of total EU imports.

Another proposal is to grant generous terms of entry to EU markets for agricultural products. Moreover, the study felt that "governments should not have the power to protect inefficient national industries against external competition" in order to heal the economy and fight against corruption.

Economic integration is, nevertheless, considered "a very difficult problem", since the Balkan countries are not able, in the medium term, to face the pressures of foreign competition. "Only a moderate protectionism, selective and assisted by international bodies, can create an economic structure capable of autonomous growth," the study concluded.

However, not all Romanians are optimistic about current trends. Both nationalists and left-wingers are critical of policies pandering to the West for what they term "consumerism". Moderates lament the lack of a clear vision about how to reconstruct the region, how to develop and integrate it in Europe. Unless tangible benefits materialise from this Stability Pact, ordinary people will inevitably remain sceptical.

Marian Chiriac is news editor of the MediaFax News Agency in Bucharest and editor of Foreign Policy, a quarterly published by the Romanian Academic Society.