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Romania on the line

By Janusz Bugajski and Ilona Teleki / December 22, 2000



WASHINGTON

Ion Iliescu's presidential victory in Romania this month poses challenges for both the impoverished country and the region.

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Mr. Iliescu and his Social Democrats will either propel Romania on the path to European integration or steer it toward new instability.

Iliescu, an ex-communist who served as president twice before, between 1990 and 1996, positioned himself as the country's "savior," claiming to have staved off "extremism, xenophobia, and totalitarian tendencies" and spared the country from international isolation. The question is whether the new administration will base its rule on finding scapegoats or whether it will be serious in pursuing essential economic reforms.

Iliescu's record during his previous rule, in the aftermath of Nicolae Ceausescu's fall, has left observers anxious. He failed to initiate market reforms, presided over the spread of corruption through the ex-communist apparatus, employed workers to attack student demonstrators, and was not averse to manipulating anti-Hungarian sentiments. Still, despite this record, Iliescu was perceived as the better candidate in this election. His opponent, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, is a self-declared xenophobe and notorious for his radical, anti-Semitic, anti-Hungarian, and anti-Roma views. Both Mr. Tudor's rise and Iliescu's return result from domestic factors that must give cause for serious concern throughout the Balkans.

Romania, the largest country in southeast Europe, with 22 million people, has experienced more suffering than prosperity since the fall of communism. The average monthly wage is about $128, unemployment officially stands at 11.5 percent, and inflation has exceeded 45.8 percent. Serious obstacles to European integration remain: its legal and institutional framework remains weak, corruption is booming, and economic development has been obstructed.

The outgoing democratic government was largely discredited because it could not ensure economic growth or free the state from post-communist special-interest groups. Unfortunately, a majority of the confused and frustrated public has now opted for a socialist solution that could propel the country toward even greater poverty, instability, and international isolation.

Iliescu and his administration now confront a stark choice that all Western governments, international financial institutions, and investors will be closely monitoring. He can either reinvigorate the reform program and use his large mandate to pull Romania kicking and screaming into the modern world, or he can play it safe, maintain bureaucratic privileges, and employ the nationalist card when the going gets tough.

If Iliescu is as committed to reform and international integration as he claims, he can now make a historic deal with centrist and pro-market parties to push through legal reform, competitive privatization, and an anticorruption campaign. Such initiatives could truly make him the "savior" of the country and rescue Romania from deadening isolation.

Romania's situation will be closely watched throughout the Balkans; it could have a ripple effect in a region that already faces an accumulation of problems. It is in this inauspicious context that Romania stands as a litmus test on whether regional democracy and stability are durable.

Janusz Bugajski is director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ilona Teleki is his research assistant.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society