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The Romanian summer of discontent

In Romania, a ruling by the Constitutional Court may finally bring an end to the preposterous political soap opera that has held the country's institutional life hostage for a decade. But Romania's corrupt past still stands in the way of aspirations for a brighter future.

George Frederick Jewsbury
21 August 2012

Since last May, the Romanian people have been witness to a power struggle for the control of their country on a scale unprecedented since the end of the 1930s. On one side of this struggle is the previously-suspended-but-now-reinstated president, Traian Basescu — a former ship captain and head of the merchant marine under Nicolae Ceausescu. President Basescu has well earned the title of 'Berlusconi of the Balkans' for his crude and vulgar behaviour.  After 2008, Romania was badly affected by the global economic crisis.  In 2010, Basescu negotiated the introduction of heavy austerity policies in exchange for much needed loans from international financial authorities. The brutality with which he imposed these policies on his people made him even more unpopular. Ironically enough, Basescu’s policies were fairly successful and saved Romania from joining the ranks of the PIGS, who consequentially didn't become the PRIGS. Today, Romania is the only country in southeast Europe that is not heading towards recession.

Opposing Basescu, and taking advantage of his unpopularity, are his Liberal and Socialist rivals who allied in late 2009 to form the USL, a hybrid alliance. Basescu's foes currently have an overwhelming majority in parliament. The alliance is led by Victor Ponta, the country's Prime Minister since last May, a man who is, to say the least, economical with the truth about his allegedly plagiarised doctoral dissertation, among other issues, and his Liberal colleague Crin Antonescu, Romania's President ad interim since July. The latter has shown signs of instability, for example when, giving a speech in Timisoara on July 15, he invoked the spirit of John F. Kennedy by announcing to an astonished audience that he was 'a Berliner.' He has also declared that the only reason for him to quit  his office would be if Basescu killed him. Both men freely engage in hyperbolical discourse.

If this was some late nineteenth century operetta by Franz Lehar, we could be expecting a third act in which all is resolved and the curtain falls on a happy, bucolic Romania. But what has happened so far in the first two acts doesn’t inspire much hope for a happy ending in Romania.

Act 1

This occurred on Christmas day 1989, as Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed after a 'quasi-legal' trial overseen by their fellow comrades/apparatchiki, led by Ion Iliescu, who then became (and remains) the Godfather of the Communist/Social Democratic Party. With his partners, he masterminded the 'non-revolution' of 1989 and denied a true revolution to those who took to the streets for democracy, by orchestrating a bloody conflict that led to the death of over a thousand people. Iliescu made sure that the masses could watch the videotape of the execution of the Ceausescus. Shortly thereafter, Iliescu contacted M. Gorbachev to vow his continued loyalty to the Communist movement. When demonstrations continued in the spring of 1990 in Bucharest, originating mostly from university students, he and his colleagues brought thousands of coal miners from the Jiu Valley to beat up the protestors with their sledgehammers. He encouraged another minereade in 1999, but this time, a further episode of brutality was prevented.

The Communist/Social Democratic Party's next generation was embodied in Adrian Nastase, a young academic/apparatchiki who changed loyalties as effortlessly as Iliescu did in 1989. He dominated the political scene until his defeat by Traian Basescu in 2004. He also was the political mentor for a number of younger people, including his plagiarist student, now Prime Minister Victor Ponta. But Nastase was more interested in materialist pursuits than Iliescu, who by all reports lived modestly. Nastase engaged in a number of corrupt activities, including accumulating an impressive art collection, the funds for which, he claimed, came from an old aunt who had carefully put money aside during her life. He also engaged in shady transactions with other apparatchiki partners of Iliescu, acquiring considerable wealth in the process. He ultimately got caught by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) and was sentenced to two years in prison earlier this year. He tried to commit suicide following this ruling, but the seasoned hunter barely wounded himself in the neck – a Hemingway he was not.

In addition to Nastase going to prison, the release of a list bearing the names of more than a thousand Romanians suspected of corruption - including more than thirty MPs - from the DNA sparked a 'blitzkrieg' in the third generation of the Communist/SDP family. Prime Minister Victor Ponta was furious to see his former teacher put in jail, and increased his efforts, through loyalty to his political family and an alliance with the Liberals, to force Basescu out of office. The summer of 2012 would prove to be heated in Romania.

Ponta fired the speakers of both houses, the ombudsman, the head of archives, and gave control of the Monitorul Oficial (Romania's public journal) to the Senate - which he controls - replacing his Minister of Education twice. On July 6, the parliament overwhelmingly voted to impeach the President. Crin Antonescu became President ad interim. He could remain in that position until the next presidential election, if the Romanian electorate would vote to remove Basescu from office through a referendum. The vote took place on Sunday July 29, but the required number of voters (fifty percent of the electorate plus one vote) wasn't reached with a 46 percent only turnover, despite allegations of the USL resorting to ballot stuffing in certain parts of the country. 

Act 2

The USL coalition then wanted the Constitutional Court to re-cast the vote due to rejiggered census figures. They argued that the previous census numbers were incorrect, that they had overestimated the number of Romanians living in the country, and that with the new numbers the required turnover rate had actually been met. In doing so the USL blithely ignored the fact that they had accepted those same census figures when they swept the board of local and regional elections in June. Apparently, what was acceptable in June was not acceptable in July.

Just as he had done in the previous three months, Ponta continued his dissembling. An article published in Nature on August 15 detailed that the commission the University of Bucharest set up to investigate the plagiarism claims found out that Ponta was indeed guilty of copy-and-paste wrongdoings. In response, Ponta appointed a board (composed primarily of his supporters) who argued exactly the opposite. Then, for a while, Ponta claimed to have a Master’s degree from a university in Sicily – a diploma that began to attract suspicion before he hastily removed it from his résumé. His contrasting statements and behaviour abroad and in Romania seemed to indicate a pathological tendency to lie. Whenever he was the subject of foreign criticism, Ponta answered either by saying that he had fumbled in his communication or that the western world couldn't understand him. But the Romanian Constitution, written in 1991 with the help of French legal expert Robert Badinter, is clear and straightforward, and helped to provide for an orderly outcome for these recent events. 

Simultaneously, Antonescu and Ponta were making increasingly menacing threats against Basescu during their press conferences, culminating in the second week of August when they warned him that he should remember what happened to a Romanian leader [Ceausescu] who refused to leave power in 1989. USL supporters such as Mircea Dogaru threatened that, if the Court refused to yield to the USL's position and Basescu ended up staying, there would be a serious risk of civil violence.

As August 21 was approaching, Ponta and Antonescu, along with the much weakened Basescu, were putting great pressure on the members of the Constitutional Court to rule in their favour. One of the justices even received death threats. Ponta reshuffled his cabinet to make himself the Minister of Justice ('something I have always dreamed of,' he said). Some mayors and prefects were forced to do census recounts in order to bring the actual number of citizens down, and thus to have the referendum meet its threshold. Pressure came from all sides. The Godfather Iliescu emerged from his retirement in an open letter to the Constitutional Court urging it to rule the 'correct way'. The former Liberal president Emil Constantinescu (1996-2000) had said the same thing on the day of the July 29 referendum to influence the voters.

It goes without saying that changing the census after an election has been completed and such unprecedented pressures on a Constitutional Court go directly against the democratic standards and requirements that come from Romania’s membership of the European Union. The Court announced its decision on the validity of the July 29 referendum on August 21. Despite the threats and the pressure, the Constitutional Court ruled by a 6-3 margin that the referendum called for by the USL government was invalid because the government did not achieve the share of electorate needed to comply with constitutional requirements. And so Basescu is once again president after a six week suspension.

But Ponta and Antonescu had a simple programme – getting rid of President Basescu. Since May, they have been doing everything they could to accomplish this: the former Socialist presidential candidate in the 2009 election, Mircea Geoana, described their frenetic and unethical activities as a 'blitzkrieg' in a New York Times op-ed piece on August 2. The Constitutional Court’s decision only implies that they have not yet achieved their goal — but they most certainly won't relent in their efforts to get rid of Basescu.

Act 3

But in fact, it may be in the USL’s interests (as a coalition) that Basescu remains president. His existence has been the only thing binding them since their union in 2009. All coalitions based on a common enemy disappear when that enemy ceases to be a threat.  In the light of the Court’s decision, all of this seems so unnecessary. Basescu has no political future. Under the constitution—battered but still surviving, there will be a legislative election in November 2012, followed by a presidential election in November/December 2014. Until then, Ponta and his allies can consolidate their power - 85% of those who voted in July wanted Basescu to be removed—and develop a programme that could secure them an easy victory in 2014. 

However, Ponta and his clan are not Socialists in the Social Democratic sense of the word. European Socialists have all engaged in the democratic and constitutional practices required by the EU. They respect the concept of a loyal opposition and the idea that a free people's vote bestows a certain legitimacy on political power and political transition. Ponta and his allies are not in that tradition. Instead, they operate according to the only aspect of the Soviet experience that remains in Romania - they are neo-Leninists. They follow the Leninist concepts of gaining and keeping power. For them, politics is nothing more than a question of 'Kto-kovo'; Who-whom; Subject-object. If the European Socialist Parties want to work with a group that is, in fact, controlled by neo-Leninists, it is their business.  But they must make up their minds before the next European congress, that will take place in Bucharest on September 28-29.

The future, determined by a desperate power struggle, does not look bright for Romania. This poses a series of difficult challenges for the EU, the IMF, and NATO. For the EU: does the Union have the power to enforce its democratic standards on a member state that plainly does not live up to EU values? For the IMF: Romania’s economy is limping along, but aren't political instability and potential violence a threat to the repayment of the loans made by that body? For NATO: the alliance of democratic powers has one of its 'Centres of Excellence,' in Oradea – does potential political instability mar Romania's status as a reliable ally, especially when dealing with vital strategic interests such as intelligence gathering and the country's anti-ballistic missile launch sites? 

The US are also involved because of an F-16 contract in the works, the military bases they have in Romania, and other investments. In response to these concerns, Assistant Secretary of State Philip H. Gordon went to Bucharest on August 13 to emphasize Romania’s role in strengthening the democratic values and principles that united the transatlantic community. Even before Gordon’s meeting with Crin Antonescu, the President ad interim declared, 'with regret', on the television station Antena 3 that the American Embassy and the American ambassador Mark H. Gitenstein were 'obviously involved with the Basescu camp' and that they were 'launching an assault against the Romanian legal institutions.' At the same time, the Godfather, Illiescu, wrote that Gordon’s visit was 'inadmissible.'

Nobody is forcing Romania to remain in the EU, NATO, or in an alliance with the United States.  They may well feel more comfortable working once again with Ukraine or, ironically, Russia. But before that happens, will their Socialist allies such as France speak up, and instruct them on how to behave as a member of the European Union? Or will Ponta and his friends ignore them, like they have ignored other European leaders' protests at their pursuit of dominance in Romania?

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