Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I Ţ A:
The Red Line

Catherine Lovatt

Espionage, secrecy and those classic spy movies all became widely romanticised during the Cold War. The collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990 and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall removed some elements of mysticism that had encompassed the different perceptions of East and West. Intelligence services began to redefine their roles. However, although the Cold War had officially ended, remnants of the Iron Curtain remained, leaving behind scepticism and uncertainty on both sides.

In Romania, recent scandal has brought to light the extent of this scepticism. Allegations over the proposed installation of a secret 'Red Line' telephone link connecting the presidents of Romania and Russia have infiltrated Romanian politics and media. The agreement discussed by the Iliescu administration and the Kremlin between 1993 and 1995 was to be ratified in 1996.

However, Iliescu's replacement by Constantinescu in the 1996 elections rendered the agreement impossible. Western institutions investigating cases of espionage had uncovered Romanian negotiations with Moscow before 1996, recognising that Romania, along with Russia, China, North Korea and Cuba, was supporting espionage against America.

Ironically, at this time, Romania had begun to promote the possibility of joining NATO and the European Union (EU). The message the Romanian government was sending to the population was one of progression and positivity, but behind the scenes many of the old Communist mechanisms were still at work, spearheaded by Iliescu himself.

Amid the confusion of change in the early 1990s, the direction in which the East European nations would move was unknown to themselves and their Western counterparts. Security was essential, and alliances were sought. Communism had collapsed, but attitudes did not change so dramatically. Years of propaganda had established a degree of mistrust towards the West amongst many Romanians. This, coupled with the fear and unpredictability of the unknown, could have pushed Romania towards the more well-known option - Russia.

However, although mistrust and uncertainty were apparent, many Romanians, particularly the younger generations, idolised the Western world - it epitomised everything that they had been forbidden or excluded from. With this general attitude visibly revealing itself, Iliescu could not afford to risk similar events to those in 1989.

The present Romanian scandal was released by the Russian newspaper, Zavtra, and has resulted in political uproar. Involving the two main candidates for victory in the presidential elections later this year, Ion Iliescu and Teodor Melescanu, the scandal could be politically devastating. President Emil Constantinescu and the ruling coalition parties have already used the story to diminish the credibility of their opponents in the imminent general elections. Constantinescu was quoted to have said: "This is the beginning of a moment of truth, which the people of this country have awaited for at least ten years" (nine o'clock, 16 March 2000)

The facts surrounding the episode remain vague, and memories appear to be selective. Those with knowledge of the events have altered their renditions, as the Romanian media have gradually unfolded the story. Teodor Melescanu, then foreign minister, originally denied knowledge of talks to establish a "Hot Line" with the Kremlin.

The following day, he admitted that "there was a discussion about the proposal we received from the Russian Federation as to updating and upgrading the multilateral telecommunication system that the CMEA countries used to have" (nine o'clock, 20 March 2000).

The reaction of the opposition has been one of surprise. They were unprepared for such a disclosure and are battling to retain their credibility. This is highlighted by Melescanu's sudden change of story. Meanwhile, the present ruling coalition has reacted calmly, with what seem to be carefully prepared statements. If not originally meant as a political tool in the run-up to the general elections, the allegations of a "Hot Line" with Moscow have developed into such a tool.

This view has been seized by the Romanian newspaper Azi (Today), which argues in a four page article published on Friday 17 March that the release of the "Hot Line" story coincided with the publication of two opinion polls that placed the opposition party Party for Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) and Ion Iliescu as the preferred candidates for election victory. The polls also revealed a drop in support for Constantinescu and his coalition government.

The allegations raised by the Russian weekly Zavtra have caused a political stir in Romania. A secret telephone link between the Russian and Romanian Presidents harks back to the era of Communism and the Cold War.

Issues of espionage have been resurrected and have left leading political figures, such as Iliescu and Melescanu, searching for a way around the obstacles that they put in place. As front runners in the Presidential elections scheduled for November 2000, Iliescu and Melescanu could see their credibility diminish dramatically. This has already proved a useful political tool for the present Romanian President, Emil Constantinescu.

Catherine Lovatt, 31 March 2000

Archive of Catherine Lovatt's articles on Romania and Moldova



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