Since the overthrow of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989, Romania has made an earnest effort to join Western political and security structures. But despite the country's zealous affirmations of its European credentials, pictures of juvenile AIDS sufferers, environmental wastelands, oppressed minorities, and closet communists have been foremost in the minds of most Western policymakers and investors.
Over the last few months, however, the Bucharest government has embarked on a massive campaign to improve its image. President Ion Iliescu has dispatched special envoys to nearly all the NATO capitals, including Washington. Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu and Defense Minister Gheorghe Tinca have logged tens of thousands of miles on missions designed to underscore Romania's commitment to joining both the NATO alliance and the European Union (EU) in the first wave of new entrants.
In Paris and London, these efforts have begun to yield results. Some French officials have urged that Romania be included in the first group of countries to be admitted to NATO. Similarly, the United Kingdom, seeing enlargement of the EU as a way of diluting German influence in the organization, has welcomed the prospect of considering Romania's application for membership.
With its European allies rethinking their relationship with Romania, Washington should start paying attention. For far from being an ex-communist backwater, Romania is now one of the pivotal states in Europe's southeast.
In this century, Romania has often been the victim of its own exceptionalism. A partner of Nazi Germany that turned toward the Allies in the closing days of World War II, a member of the Warsaw Pact that condemned the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, and a most-favored-nation trading partner of the US which unilaterally renounced that position in 1988, Romania has defined itself as much in opposition to its friends and neighbors as in concert with them. Inconstancy has seemed a Romanian political virtue.
In the US, the fear is that a similar problem might underlie Romania's professed commitment to joining organizations such as NATO and the EU. Western governments have worried that, while paying lip service to democracy and a fully functioning market, Romania may be repeating an old pattern: using good public relations to obscure dubious public behavior. Questions of minority rights, the pace of privatization, and relations with neighbors Hungary, Ukraine, and Moldova have remained impediments to closer relations with the West.
This year, though, will be seen as the year when all that began to change. In July, President Clinton signed a bill restoring Romania's most-favored-nation status. September saw the signing of a historic bilateral treaty between Romania and Hungary, in which both states renounced all territorial claims to each other and pledged to resolve outstanding issues of national minorities. And on Nov. 3, Romanians will vote in national parliamentary and presidential elections, the third since the end of communism and the second under the current post-communist Constitution.
The elections will test Romania's commitment to democratic governance and speedy reform. Several major reform-oriented groups are battling the conservative Party of Social Democracy, which emerged from 1992 elections with a plurality in parliament and with its favorite son, Mr. Iliescu, in the presidential palace. Polls indicate that, for the first time since the 1989 revolution, democratic opposition parties will probably take control of parliament. While Iliescu may return for another four-year term as president, his wavering commitment to economic reform will be challenged by the opposition-dominated parliament.
The conduct of these elections will be a major indication of whether Romania has appropriated the values - not just the language - of Western democracy. Any hint of impropriety will squelch the progress of Romanian officials, including the young ambassador in Washington, Mircea Geoana, in raising their country's profile. Romanian leaders, faced with the prospect of being removed from office for the first time since 1989, need look only to Albania to see the stupidity of sacrificing relations with the West for political survival at home.
The enlargement of NATO and the EU are questions for those organizations alone to decide. But as they move toward addressing the tough questions of who should enter and when, they should recognize that Romania occupies a strategic position at the nexus of Central Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. Its process of economic reform and commitment to democracy have accelerated the country out of the malaise produced by Mr. Ceausescu's "multilaterally developed socialism."
Romania clearly has a long way to go before it matches the economic progress of the Czech Republic or Hungary. Bucharest, as any visitor knows, is no Prague. But American policy should be about deepening the relationship with large, strategically situated states that can enhance the security of Europe and contribute to trans-Atlantic defense. Romania can do both.
*Charles King holds the Ion Ratiu Chair of Romanian Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.