Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 32
3 May 1999

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I T A:
Romania and the Kosova Crisis

Catherine Lovatt

The Kosovan conflict has overshadowed the issue of NATO expansion. The new members and those aiming to achieve NATO entry have found themselves in a particularly precarious position, and Romania is no exception. Close religious links with Serbia and a desire to join NATO have meant that Romanian public opinion is divided. But in many ways, the conflict in Kosova has increased Romania's chances of joining NATO in the second round of NATO expansion.

The 1996 Romanian elections saw the removal of the former Communist, Iliescu, from the Romanian presidency. He was replaced by Emil Constantinescu who established a democratic coalition government. The main foreign policy aims of the new government were to gain NATO entry and achieve integration with the European Union. These aims underline the domestic policies of economic reform and creating good relations with their neighbours.

To some extent, Romanian goals have been achieved. For example, relations with Hungary have greatly improved. The signing of the Romanian-Hungarian Treaty in September 1996 helped remedy ethnic tensions between Hungarians and Romanians in the Transylvania region of Romania. Also, the inclusion of the main Hungarian party (The Democratic Alliance of Hungarian Romanians) in the coalition government has provided the Hungarian minority with the opportunity to influence policy. Ultimately, the status of both countries in the international arena has improved. Romana Libera recently reported that Bill Clinton regards Romania as a country that knows how to look after its ethnic minorities. This can only improve Romania's chances for joining NATO.

Economic reform has also been high on the Romanian agenda. However, the attitude that 'things have to get worse before they can get better' is damaging public opinion towards the present government. Prices have increased but wages have remained virtually the same. The cost of living is rising, but many Romanians have little means to survive. The 'period of austerity' is taking its toll.

In contrast, a recent agreement with the IMF for a stand-by loan greatly improves Romania's economic position. Christian Popa reporting for Reuters argues that the loan would service all Romanian debt and possibly return it to the international bond markets. (Reuters, 17 April 1999). Despite this positive development for Romania's prospective integration with the EU and NATO, the conflict in Kosova is having a detrimental effect on Romania's economy. This is exemplified in the shipping industry. Many Romanian ships with tonnes of freight are blocked on the Danube after NATO bombing in Yugoslavia brought down several bridges. Shippers are now left with mounting bills and are struggling to find alternative routes out of or around the region.

The conflict in Kosova has placed Romania in an awkward position. Foreign and domestic policies have been geared towards integrating with NATO and the European Union, but historical and religious ties with Serbia have created a type of loyalty to their Serb neighbours. Romania itself has a large Serb minority located around the Timisoara border region, and Serbia also provides a market for Romanian goods, and vice versa. Romanian desires to join NATO and the EU and their support of the NATO raids in Yugoslavia have strained relations with their Serb neighbours. Ironically, this negates the Romanian domestic policy of creating better relations with bordering countries, originally established to improve their status internationally.

Romanian support for the NATO action in Kosova is split. Some Romanians are concerned that the conflict will spill over their borders despite repeated government assurances that Romania will not become involved in any military action. Nonetheless, the recent Romanian agreement with NATO to allow use of Romanian air space in an emergency has raised further questions over Romanian involvement. In light of this agreement, the Party of Social Democracy (PDSR), led by the former President Iliescu, has called for the government to discuss and explain its position in greater detail.

Although Romanian proximity to Serbia has caused some public concern, it is unlikely that Romania will become involved in the conflict. On the one hand, Romania does not wish to destroy her close relations with Serbia, but on the other hand, she wishes to pursue her main foreign policy goal of achieving entry into NATO and the EU. Consequently, she finds herself in a pivotal position from which she could gain an enormous amount.

Strategically, they are extremely useful for NATO military efforts. NATO and Romania could use this position to their own advantage.

To some extent this has already happened. For example, throughout the year, Romanian debt has been hit by the back-sliding of economic reforms which has made any deal with the IMF difficult. The recent agreement with the IMF for a $450 miilion loan could be used as an incentive to maintain Romanian support for the NATO action. Also Bill Clinton has spoken of a possible meeting between Yugoslavia's neighbours to discuss a 'development programme' for South Eastern Europe after the conflict. An unspoken understanding has resulted where America will give Romania support if Romania supports NATO action.

Romania not only provides a strategic advantage for NATO but also for Serbia. Hypothetically, if the conflict escalates, Serbia could use her historic and religious links with Romania to gain a degree of support. Realistically, this is unlikely. Romania may feel a certain 'loyalty' to Serbia, but she would lose more if she turned her back on NATO. The potential economic and political advantages from supporting NATO far outweigh sentimental ties to Serbia. Romania is in an uncomfortable but strong position.

President Constantinescu in a televised address on Friday, 16 April assured that the conflict would not spill over Romanian borders and said that he would continue with the bid for NATO entry whilst helping to find a solution to the Kosova crisis. Negotiation of a solution is a process that the Foreign Minister, Andrei Plesu, firmly agrees with. The Mediafax news agency quoted him as saying that the bombing of a column of refugees 'was yet another reason for concern over the prolongation of the conflict'. He called for a quick return to the negotiating table, commenting that 'any proposed solution, be it German, Russian or American was welcome if it had a realistic chance of success'.

Recent polls have shown that 94% of the Romanian population support NATO and EU entry. The conflict in Kosova has resulted in little change to this figure. However, dissent has caught the public eye. 17 April saw about 200 demonstrators, including many ethnic Serbs, march on Bucharest to denounce NATO air strikes against neighbouring Yugoslavia. This opposition is minimal. Similar scenes have been witnessed all over Europe.

The majority support the NATO action as a means to preventing ethnic cleansing and the persecution of an ethnic group. However, the differences lie in the process of finding a solution. The overwhelming desire for Romanian entry into NATO has encouraged Romanians to support the NATO action and to gain the benefits from this support.

In many ways the conflict in Kosova has increased Romania's chances of joining NATO and the EU in the second round of NATO expansion. Romania has provided valuable support for the NATO offensive and provided refuge for many Albanians forced out of Kosova. This can only improve Romania's international status. Benefits are already being reaped from the situation. The IMF have guaranteed a loan, President Clinton has suggested a possible development programme in the aftermath of the conflict, and he has also quoted Romania as a prime example of ethnic tolerance. There is opposition to NATO, but it is small and is composed largely of Romanian Serbs. By maintaining spoken support for NATO but also by refusing to embark on any military action, Romania is in a prime position to benefit.

Catherine Lovatt, 3 May 1999


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