Headed into the last stretch of a heated election campaign, opposition parties in Romania have launched an attack - spiced with anti-Semitic undertones - on the United States ambassador here, charging him with bias in favor of President Ion Iliescu.
Leading opposition daily newspapers Romania Libera and Ziua sparked the furor with commentaries Sept. 14 in which they assailed US Ambassador Alfred Moses for allegedly cozying up to Mr. Iliescu's ruling Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) in advance of Nov. 3 elections.
Both newspapers cited as proof the role of Ambassador Moses in the withdrawal from Romania of the International Republican Institute earlier this year. The Washington-based IRI, wholly funded by the American government, had been advising and providing logistical support to opposition groups on how to loosen the PDSR's grip on politics in Romania. The opposition and IRI view the PDSR, whose leadership popped onto the scene during Romania's dramatic 1989 revolution, as just a slightly tamer version of the repressive Communist regime it replaced.
Moses has commended the PDSR-led government for economic and political reforms and lobbied on behalf of Romania for foreign investment and for its admission into Western institutions such as NATO.
Moses ordered the IRI to either act in a more nonpartisan manner or cover its $417,000 annual budget through private donations. The IRI effort in Romania had been fully funded by USAID, the US Agency for International Development.
The IRI responded that the ruling PDSR was not aided because it did not need IRI's services and that the IRI could not continue its effort in Romania without USAID funds.
The IRI's funding was stopped in November 1995, and the IRI pulled up stakes in Romania last March.
Some critics speculate that Iliescu and Moses, who was president of the American Jewish Committee from 1991 to 1994, struck a back-room deal: Moses would get the IRI out of Romania in exchange for preferential treatment for Romania's Jews when communal and individual property confiscated during the Communist era was returned.
"It is difficult to believe," said the commentary in Ziua, "that [the ambassador's support] is not being used in efforts to get back Jewish houses nationalized during the totalitarian regime." A letter to the editor in Romania Libera added ominously that favoring Jews could "provoke unwanted interethnic tensions."
Moses "is praising Iliescu because he wants to give back houses to the Jews," Romanian Supreme Court Justice Corneliu Turianu told the Monitor. "But if the houses are given back to only this category of people, there'll be a conflict between Jews and Romanians.... The Jews would appear to be a privileged group."
A statement released by the US Embassy in Bucharest two days after the commentary in Ziua called it "preposterous." Moses, at the time out of town for the Jewish holidays, later categorically denied such a back-room deal in an interview with the Monitor. He says he is merely carrying out American policy, which calls for the return of or monetary compensation for all property wrongly seized throughout the Soviet bloc prior to 1989.
Compared with neighbors like Hungary, Romania lags far behind on the issue of compensation to Jews. A draft law concerning the return of Jewish property such as hospitals, schools, and synagogues has languished for nine months.
Restitution of property "is in furtherance of US policy, fully articulated by the administration and the Congress, not on behalf of any particular community in Romania," Moses says.
With Romania's elections little more than three weeks away, it appears Iliescu will retain the presidency. A coalition of opposition parties, led by the center-right Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR), is expected to capture parliament. CDR presidential candidate Emil Constantinescu says his party feels "isolated from the West" because the West has "lost interest in Romania's democratic forces."
But some say the accusations leveled at Moses are just sour grapes. "It's an unconscious excuse, one of many, for the possibility of losing the elections," says Michael Shafir, an expert on Romania at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague. "It's the search for scapegoats."
Romania's Jewish community has often been a convenient target. It has shriveled from a pre-World War II high of 800,000 to just 14,000 today. An estimated 160,000 are said to have perished during the Holocaust, and roughly 400,000 Romanian Jews have emigrated to Israel over several decades.
During the 1980s, Moses, a respected Washington lawyer, was among those who negotiated with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to allow Jews and others to emigrate. In return for payments from Israel's government, Ceausescu allowed thousands of Jews to go to Israel. It's difficult to ascertain how much property they left behind; most records were destroyed.
When President Clinton nominated Moses to be ambassador to Romania in August 1994, seven Romanian senators petitioned the US Congress to block the appointment on the grounds that Moses's work with Ceausescu showed a tacit approval of communism. Some observers, however, saw the protest as thinly veiled anti-Semitism.
In 1995, Moses persuaded Iliescu and the PDSR to sever ties with its ultranationalist and neocommunist coalition partners, which were tarnishing Romania's image abroad.
Then came the IRI affair. While some contend Moses occasionally interferes and oversteps the boundaries of diplomatic protocol, he says he has remained neutral. Several top opposition figures, including Victor Ciorbea, the mayor of Bucharest, have come to his defense.
"I refuse to become involved in the [Romanian] electoral campaign," Moses says. "If Romania wants to be a part of the West, its cause would be best served by a centrist, coalition government. Whether it be center-left or center-right, it's up to the Romanian people."