Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999

Catherine Lovatt C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
Romanian News Round-up

Catherine and David Lovatt

Romanian News Review for the week beginning 12 September 1999

Foreign ministers of Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Albania, Bosnia and Macedonia, all member states of the South East European Co-operation Process (SEECP), were due to meet in Bucharest on Wednesday. The meeting was postponed following the death of the Greek Deputy Foreign Minister, Yannos Kranidiotis, in an air accident as he flew to the meeting. The aircraft was about 20 minutes form Otopeni airport when it suddenly went into a 5000-metre dive. The flight crew reported a malfunction but were able to regain control of the aircraft and bring it into land. The sudden descent caused the death of six of the passengers, including Kranidiotis. An investigation into the cause of the incident is taking place. It has been suggested that undetected turbulence may have caused the plane to loose height as suddenly as it did. The Romanian President, Emil Constantinescu, has sent Romania’s condolences to the bereaved and to the Greek President.

The main items on the agenda for the meeting were UN Resolution 1244 on Kosovo and the state of affairs concerning the River Danube. The SEECP is the only organisation in Southeast Europe which gives all countries bordering Yugoslavia a chance to discuss issues which affect the region. Yugoslavia was a founder member of the organisation but was not invited to attend. Moldova, Hungary and Ukraine hold observer status

Despite the SEECP postponement, the week has been marked by successful meetings between the political leaders of Southeast Europe. The Romanian President, Emil Constantinescu, met with leaders of the other states in the Black Sea-Baltic Sea region. The meeting, held in Yalta, was organised by Ukraine to discuss a range of issues including the Stability Pact and EU enlargement. The states also agreed to take co-operative action on handling terrorism, smuggling, human rights and the environment. A communiqu at the end of the conference said that the signatories would endeavour "to co-operate in view of enhancing their potential to take part in the European structures." They also expressed their desire "to solve and prevent conflicts and to secure peace, security and stability."

Meanwhile in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the headquarters of the Balkan Peace Force (COMMPFSE) was established. Troops from Romania, Macedonia, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Italy will make up the force which will take part in a peacekeeping exercise in Kosovo during December.

Chief of the General Staff of Land Troops of Romania Mihail Popescu and his Hungarian counterpart, Ambrus Preininger, confirmed that the joint Romanian-Hungarian battalion should become operational very soon. The joint force, which has its first exercise in November, will deal with a variety of situations, such as natural disasters, which occur in the border regions of the two countries. The long-term vision is to create a regional battalion including troops from Ukraine and possibly Slovakia.

Greece hosted a meeting between ministers from Romania, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece and Macedonia to sign an agreement to create a co-operative market for electricity in the region. The Greek Minister of Development and Industry, Evanghelos Venizelos, said, "This initiative regards the European Union's policy on electricity and the liberalization of the market in this domain."

The Transport Ministers of Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine are to meet early next week to discuss possible sanctions against Yugoslavia. Last week Romania blocked the Danube in protest against Yugoslavia's decision to breach international law by imposing restrictions on shipping. These restrictions prevent Romanian vessels from using the Franz Josef canal. This route is used by other vessels trying to avoid the Danube blockage at Novi Sad. Effectively, the action of Yugoslavia denies Romania access to trade. Ninety per cent of Romania's Danube trade is with Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia all of which are beyond Novi Sad. Romania subsequently banned Yugoslavian vessels from using the channel linking the Black Sea to the Danube. The Romanian Transport Minister, Traian Basecu, said, "although the EU asked us to and we are observing the embargo as we are an EU associate country, maintaining the embargo on Yugoslavia has the effect of an embargo on the Romanian fleet. This state of facts causes substantial losses to us; that is both direct losses suffered by the river fleet and indirect losses that derive from the increase in the price of Romanian products. The latter aspect is of such a nature to run us out of the market."

Bulgarian private enterprise has offered to help clear the Danube. Yugoslavia is preventing such action by insisting that the bridges destroyed by the NATO bombing campaign are rebuilt by the "aggressors" before they allow the Danube to be cleared.

A World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) team have been investigating the impact of the Kosovo conflict on Danube pollution. Their analyses of the effects of Nato air strikes against the Yugoslavian petrochemical industry at Pancevo and Novi Sad indicates that "toxic pollutants which spilled into the bombed facilities' immediate environment now pose a threat as they spread to neighbouring regions." (Agence France Presse - 16 September 1999) The WWF report went on to say that at least 11 million people are now threatened by the contamination which continues to spread. It further criticised Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary and Romania, all members of the Convention on Protection of the Danube, for not effectively controlling the quality of the river's water. In contrast to this report the United Nations Environment Programme do not believe that there is a major problem in the area but have indicated that the petrochemical sites should be cleaned up as soon as possible.

At the end of last week the Government adopted a bill which led to the headline, "The Patriarch defeated the Government," which appeared in Monitorul Online on Thursday 16 September. The bill was concerned with religious rights and freedoms. It took a lead from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and gave equal status to all religious denominations working in Romania. Although the bill requires religions to be formally recognised by the state before they are allowed to operate in the country, the role of the Romanian Orthodox Church (BOR) created controversy. The bill did not initially give the BOR a special place in society by failing to name it as the national Church. Patriarch Teoctist, in an open letter to Prime Minister Radu Vasile, strongly criticised the action of the government. He was joined by politicians from across the political spectrum. The President of the Romanian Social Democracy Party (PDSR), Ion Iliescu said, "The Romanian Orthodox Church must have the status of national church because 90 per cent of the country’s population is Orthodox." Union of Right Wing Forces (UFD) president, Varujan Vosganian, said, "UFD sees BOR as the spiritual leader of Romania."

The government was initially determined not to grant national status to the BOR as they believed it would be discriminatory to other religions. Ion Diaconescu of the Christian Democratic Peasant Party (PNTCD) criticised the Patriarch over his stand and against his protest action. When the bill was presented to parliament on Monday, however, Article 24, which lists the religious denominations in Romania, named the BOR as the national church. It is believed that Vasile made the decision to change the bill, but by making this decision has he given the religious leaders more power to interfere in government?

The government finds itself in a pincer movement from outside the country and from an unexpected direction within. David Aaron of the US Commerce Department has expressed concern that money for the reconstruction of the Balkans may not be used for the purposes for which it was intended. He said, "I will encourage my counterparts from Europe and the Balkans to adopt the principles that guarantee the transparency of the public markets, the open competition and the punishment of corruption." (Monitorul 11 September 1999)

A special parliamentary commission has been put in place to investigate the role of the State Ownership Fund (FPS) when Sorin Diitrui was in charge. The commission, which was proposed by the PDSR, is to examine the legality of all privatisations which took place in 1997 and report back to parliament within 90 days.

The government, meanwhile, have passed a law on ministerial responsibility. Sanctions are now in place to deal with ministers who mislead parliament or who use their position for their own ends.Unfortunately, these steps were tempered in parliament by an alliance between senators of the PDSR and the PNTCD (The PNTCD is the senior partner in the government coalition and the party of the Prime Minister.) They joined forces to vote against a proposal of Prime Minister Vasile to set up a body to fight corruption.

This seems to illustrate the extent of the split between Prime Minister Vasile and his party. Vasile’s interview with the BBC on 12 September took his party by surprise. He called on all coalition partners not to join a coalition with the PDSR after the parliamentary elections which take place next year. Last month he said that PNTCD should consider such a coalition. He also let it be know that he may leave the PNTCD if the opposition to him from within the party continues. Subsequently, PNTCD leader Ian Daconescu suggested that this threat, "demonstrates that [Vasile's] allegiance to the party's political ideas is circumstantial and interest-serving." (RFE -13 September 1999) The coalition partners have been much more circumspect as far as isolating the PDSR goes. Only the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania (UDMR) offer any form of support. To muddy the waters further PNTCD vice-president, Sorin Lepsa, believes that PNTCD will only receive five per cent of the vote at the general election and could make an alliance with the Nastase wing of the PDSR. His comments have been widely rejected by politicians from all parties, but time will tell.

Two of Romania's political parties have been the subject of cases heard at the Bucharest Appeals Court. On Wednesday, the court refused to allow the registration of the National Christian Democratic Alliance (ANCD) on several grounds, one of which was that the partys emblem resembled that of the PNTCD. The appeal was brought by the PNTCD and the Prosecutor General's Office. ANCD is led by Victor Ciorbea, the former Prime Minister, and broke away from the PNTCD in April. Ciorbea said the decision was, "illegal, unconstitutional, and undemocratic." (RFE 15 September 1999)

The Justice Ministry was one of a number of bodies who took action in the Bucharest Appeals Court to outlaw the Greater Romania Party (PRM). The PRM is said to have contravened the constitution by inciting discriminatory acts against minorities in an article published in its weekly journal Romana Mare. The Court ruled that taking a decision in this case was beyond its competence and referred the matter to the Constitutional Court.

On Tuesday, an attempt was made in the Chamber of Deputies to prevent the establishment of a Hungarian language university. The PDSR and PRM attempted to amend the law with a proposal that the university should have at least one faculty with Romanian language tuition. The amendment, which would have effectively blocked the university, was defeated. In Oradea, Bishop Lazlo Toekes opened the Partium Christian University for Hungarian-speaking students. The university will accommodate 700 students and will have religious and secular faculties. The university is funded by the Hungarian government and private donations.

Economics and the control exercised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Word Bank and the European Union were again main news items during the week. The World Bank approved proposals which would allow the government to assist farmers to buy agricultural machinery manufactured in Romania and to finance farming operations. The World Bank have decided that these proposals did not contradict the rules for the Agricultural Structural Adjustment Loan (ASAL).

Meanwhile, an IMF team have been reviewing Romania's economic performance. The governor of the Central Bank (BNR), Mugar Isarescu, announced that Romania has met most of the economic and monetary targets. One problem which remains is an increase in the budget deficit. However, a potential reduction in the balance of trade deficit may well be taken into account to offset this. Prime Minister Vasile believes that the second phase of the IMF standby loan will almost certainly be made available to Romania.

A financial assistance package from the European Commission worth 5 million euro (USD 5 million) is in jeopardy. Romania is the only state seeking closer links with the EU that has not created an organisation to translate EU legislation into the home language. Without the creation of a European Institute to carry out this work, the European Commission will cancel the financial package. If this takes place it is doubtful whether Romania will be considered as a serious contender for admission to the EU.

This happens at a time when Romano Prodi, European Commission president-designate, is giving encouragement to countries like Romania who are hoping to be accepted as full members of the EU. Prodi said, "We need to give serious consideration [at December's Helsinki summit] to setting a firm date for accession of those countries which are best prepared, even if this means granting lengthy transition periods to deal with their social and economic problems." (Reuters - 14 September 1999) He also suggested that those countries whose prospects of joining were more distant should be given positive and secure links with the EU by what he called "virtual membership" in some aspects of the EU operation. He gave as examples security, economic and monetary co-operation.

Romania is to receive aid from the EU (USD 39 million), France (USD 640,000) and the US (USD 14 million) to support Romanian children's homes and hospitals. Prime Minister Vasile said, "We are aware of the importance of the problem of our institutionalised children." It is estimated that it will cost Romania about USD 180 million to provide for the children in homes and hospitals between June 1999 and April 2000. Romania is to make up the balance and expects to get the agreement of the IMF to add this money to their budget.

Politicians, footballers, actors and other personalities were all in Bucharest this week for the opening of Romania's first shopping mall. The USD 40 million investment put into the project by Bayindir Fiba Holdings SA has resulted in a transformation of the site on Calea Vitan to provide a millennium shopping experience. "Bucharesti Mall" is on four levels and combines shopping and leisure activities. Apart from an Internet cafe, there is a hypermarket, about 70 shops, cinemas, restaurants and banks. The centrepiece of the mall is a huge fountain which shoots a cascade of water 25 metres into the air during a display which takes place every six minutes. The Mall is to open twelve hours a day for seven days a week.

The British TV news programme Channel 4 News reported on Friday evening that a Romanian company, Romteknika, is currently selling anti-personnel land mines at a UK arms fair. This is a cause of enormous embarrassment to Britain as the company was officially invited by the Government. Since Britain is a signatory of the Ottowa Treaty banning the manufacture, sale or promotion for use of anti-personnel land mines, Channel 4 News speculated that the it would be possible to make prosecutions of UK officials in the case. The revelations are all the more damaging to the Blair Government, which is trying to employ a foreign policy "with an ethical dimension," since it is still reeling from a scandal about selling Hawk jets to Indonesia. There are also fears that Romania's reputation could be seriously damaged at a time when it trying to promote itself as a responsible and active member of the international community.

Catherine Lovatt and David Lovatt, 27 August 1999


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