By Marlene Kaufmann
The United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing on October 1, 2003, to review developments in Romania as it moves toward full NATO membership and accession to the European Union.
Romania has made significant strides in its first decade free from the yoke of Ceausescu's repressive regime. Yet much remains to be done in promoting respect for human rights and consolidating democratic institutions and the rule of law. The briefing reviewed a broad range of human rights issues in Romania, including the status of ethnic minorities, the growth of civil society, the fight against corruption and progress in democratic development. Such issues are likely to influence the political scene in the run up to Romania's national elections in late 2004 and early 2005.
Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) moderated the briefing which featured presentations by Dr. Renate Weber, Chair of the Open Society Foundation in Bucharest, Romania; Ms. Livia Plaks, Executive Director of the Project on Ethnic Relations; and Dr. Vladimir Tismaneanu, Director of the Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies at the University of Maryland.
In his opening remarks, Commissioner Cardin--who had visited Romania in 2000--described Romania's continuing progress toward full NATO membership and EU accession, as well as concerns raised by many observers regarding the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law in Romania. Mr. Cardin stressed that the United States and Romania maintain a strong bilateral relationship and noted Bucharest's "steadfast support for the Afghanistan and Iraq efforts in our war against terrorism."
Dr. Renate Weber, Chair of the Open Society Foundation in Bucharest, noted that in the past 13 years Romania "has gone through ups and downs." She began the discussion with a review of a number of issues ranging from threats to freedom of association and freedom of the media, to combating corruption which she cited as challenges to Romania's democratic development. "Although I cherish very much the democratic achievements of my country," said Weber, "I think it is the role of the NGOs particularly to stress also the shortcomings because they may affect the progress of the country in the long term."
As an example of restraint on freedom of association, Dr. Weber pointed to a recently enacted law on political parties which she labeled the toughest in Europe. The law, according to Weber, requires 25,000 people as founding members and also requires that the new party have branches in at least half of the country's 41 administrative districts. By comparison, Dr. Weber said, throughout Europe membership requirements for the establishment of new political parties range from 3 to 5,000 members.
Dr. Weber also saw potential for abuse in other provisions of the same law which allow non-governmental organizations to financially support political parties. In view of the fact that NGOs can, under certain conditions, receive public funds from central or local budgets, the possibility exists, according to Weber, that these funds could then be funneled into political party coffers.
While not disputing the fact that the Romanian people have access to a broad range of print and electronic media, Weber expressed concern about what she called the "Berlusconization" of the media in Romania. According to Weber, the majority of the media, particularly the electronic media, are controlled by businessmen and politicians loyal to the current ruling party--Prime Minister Adrian Nastase's Party of Social Democracy (PSD). As a result, she observed, "In half of the country, what the public receives is just one view, and that is the view promoting the government, the ruling party, cherishing everything that happened, but never actually criticizing some wrong decisions."
Another threat to freedom of the media, according to Weber, is harassment of journalists, including physical attacks on journalists and their assets and even death threats, particularly when they are investigating allegations of corruption. She noted that investigation of such crimes against journalists are not properly performed, the police never identify the perpetrator, and there have been no convictions of individuals accused of assaults against journalists. As a result, she said, "Among journalists, there is a feeling that whenever they are the victims, they do not enjoy the same protection as any person should enjoy."
Dr. Weber was also critical of the recently enacted anti-corruption law. She pointed out that after a six-month review of implementation of the law, the Open Society Foundation determined that enforcement of its provisions is sorely lacking. As an example, Weber explained that the public financial disclosure statements filed by the country's richest businessmen and politicians, who are reputed to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, state that "they don't own even a car or a flat." On the local level, according to Weber, only 8 out of 3,000 public officials have filed the required financial disclosure statements.
Livia Plaks, co-founder and Executive Director of the Project on Ethnic Relations, began her presentation with praise for Romania's political leadership. "A profound change has occurred over the past decade in Romania. From presidents to members of a variety of parties, political leaders within Romania have assumed a discourse that would have been unimaginable a mere decade ago--this, the result of a decade of increasingly deliberate, persistent, and open dialogue. People of divergent political persuasions have participated in order to create a national, albeit imperfect, consensus on issues of national importance, such as improving ethnic relations in Romania." She cautioned, however, that more remains to be done saying, "But, in order to strengthen democracy in the country and build upon its hard-won gains, Romania must follow through both on what it has accomplished, and that which it has pledged to accomplish in the future."
Ms. Plaks focused her remarks on Romania's complex relationship with its sizeable Hungarian minority as well as challenges faced by the Romani minority. The relationship between Romania's ethnic majority and ethnic Hungarian population has seen a complex post-communist history, according to Plaks. "A long time has passed it seems since the inter-ethnic violence of March 1990 until the present day participation of the ethnic Hungarian political leaders in the country's political scene," she said.
According to Plaks, a politically sophisticated and unique set of ethnic agreements has been developed which confers particular benefits on the Hungarian minority while improving Romania's image abroad. This is due in large part, she contends, to a decision taken by the Hungarian minority's leadership that participation, rather than confrontation, should be their preferred approach. "For this reason, the Hungarian minority sent its leaders after the revolution of 1989 to represent them in Parliament, and starting in 1996, within the governing coalition," she said. Ms. Plaks pointed out, however, that following the elections of 2000, which brought former President Ion Iliescu and his Party of Social Democracy (PSD) back into power, the Hungarian minority, represented by the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), once again joined the opposition.
Following a rapprochement between the two parties in 2001, three consecutive Protocols of Understanding between the ruling party and the UDMR have led to significant gains for the Hungarian minority in Romania including the right to have bi-lingual signs in communities with a large Hungarian populace, and use of their mother tongue in administrative matters and in the judicial system. Ms. Plaks noted that the Hungarians have secured the return of a number of schools to the community and a small percentage of church properties. However, she stressed that more needs to be done in this matter.
Despite these gains, Plaks explained that a number of contentious issues continue to confront the Hungarian minority in its relations with the ruling party. Hungarians contend that the description of Romania as a national state in the constitution should be changed to recognize the existence of minorities, and are pressing the government for promised changes in the education system at the well-known Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj which would further the education in Hungarian of the students of that ethnicity. More recently, the status of the Liberty Statue in the city of Arad has become the topic of heated debates.
Turning to the Romani minority, Ms. Plaks gave generally high marks to the government's Strategy for the Improvement of the Situation of the Roma in Romania, and to limited implementation efforts undertaken thus far. She noted, however, that serious challenges remain in the fields of health care, education and social security, and predicted that the lack of government funding for the strategy will ensure its failure.
"The rising number of hopeless Romani persons should worry Romania's mainstream society," Plaks said. "Indeed, ever-increasing violent outbursts threaten the entire society in Romania and there is a fear among experts and observers alike that the tragic attacks of the early 1990s could recur." In order to avoid this potentially explosive situation, Plaks called for a professional evaluation of the Roma Strategy's implementation, improved education, and better cooperation among Romani leaders. The media must also be part of the solution, she said, noting that the media's continuing portrayal of Roma as either criminals or as misfits that soil Romania's reputation abroad has led to increasing violence against the Romani minority.
In conclusion, Ms. Plaks emphasized that the country-to-country situation regarding inter-ethnic relations varies considerably throughout Central and Southeastern Europe, and she expressed a positive view for the future of ethnic relations in Romania. "In spite of the challenges that Romania faces with its two largest minorities, few countries have come as far on this front as Romania. With the prospect of NATO and EU membership and the newly strengthened relationship with the United States, Romania must realize that there can be no backsliding with respect to reforms on all fronts. Indeed, Romania has a unique opportunity to serve as a positive example of ethnic understanding and progress in the region."
Dr. Vladimir Tismaneanu, Director of the Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies at the University of Maryland, provided an historical and political review of Romania's transition to democracy. "I'm here to share with you a little bit of my own perceptions of the current state of Romanian democracy," he said. "I think we have democracy Italian style, democracy Greek style, and we have democracy Romanian style."
Tismaneanu agreed with the assessment of the weaknesses and achievements of Romania's transition provided by Weber and Plaks. However, he said that these issues should be reviewed from an historical perspective. For example, regarding the media he said, "A lot is heard about issues related to difficulties experienced by journalists. They are, of course, real, but one needs to take an historically informed approach. If you look into the history of Romania, if you look at the 1930s, there is an authoritarian legacy, (these issues) are not only legacies of communism, but they go way back to a certain tradition of intolerance that existed and pre-dated communism."
Post-communism in Romania needs to be examined thoroughly, according to Dr. Tismaneanu. "In terms of political culture, Romania needs three elements in order to achieve more than what we call electoral democracy or electocracy," he said. "I call them the three Ts, which means trust, tolerance and truth. These are the three elements that make a viable democracy work."
In addition, said Tismaneanu, observers of Romania's democratic development should also look at two types of politics, which he called constitutional politics and normal politics. "In constitutional politics in a consolidated democracy," according to Dr. Tismaneanu, "people agree upon the fundamental issues. Then they can disagree as much as they want on issues related to this law or that law, or how a particular event is interpreted and so on. That's normal policy. But the constitutional politics is about fundamental agreement. And I think that Romania has to reach a time of constitutional consensus or political consensus."
Dr. Tismaneanu believes that Romania is moving in the right direction in this regard. "It has real political parties, it has a market economy--still imperfect, still marred by corruption--and it has a civil society, admittedly not always very dynamic," he said. Tismaneanu maintained that credit for these achievements in Romania must be given to both the current ruling party--the Party of Social Democracy (PSD), represented by President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, and also to former President Emil Constantinescu, who served from 1996 to 2000.
Dr. Tismaneanu also pointed to the elections of 1996 as a real turning point in Romania's democratic development. That is the year that former president Emil Constantinescu and the Democratic Convention defeated Iliescu and his party. Many observers believed that, if defeated, President Iliescu would not accept the electoral results and try to maintain power by force. This did not happen, and the country experienced what Tismaneanu refers to as a sway of power. "Basically Romania moved from the first stage of its transition into the stage of consolidation of democracy. I think it is fair to say at that moment the country came closer to entering NATO and the European Union," he said.
Despite the obvious progress, Dr. Tismaneanu warned about what he called the danger of Mexicanization of Romanian politics--"with a big party that's controlling everything--a combination of big business, big party and control of the unions and the electronic media, as Dr. Weber mentioned," he said.
Looking toward the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Romania, which will be held in late 2004 and early 2005, Tismaneanu said that he saw the alliance of the Democratic Party and the National Liberal Party as a very important political force emerging in Romania. He also said the problem of extremism is important and noted the role of the Greater Romania Party. Critical issues which will impact those elections, according to Tismaneanu, are the lagging economy, the desperate need for economic reform, and, most importantly, corruption.
In conclusion, Dr. Tismaneanu said that Romania's political class must deal with two major challenges: to treat critically both its communist and its fascist past. "Romania will not become a true democracy, a fundamentally consolidated democracy, if it does not simultaneously de-fascistize and de-communize. These are two processes that are important in that country, and it's not easy," he said. "Romania needs to experience the type of historical processes of the past that it took France or Italy or Germany or Japan so many years. New generations have to grow up with values and information that will allow them to treat the past in a less personalized way and sometimes in a less hysterical way."
Commissioner Cardin thanked the panelists for their comprehensive review of the historical and political aspects of Romania's democratic development and asked them to elaborate further on the issues of corruption, the effectiveness of the judiciary, and anti-Semitism in Romania. Regarding corruption, Mr. Cardin noted that he chairs the Economic Committee of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and in that capacity he is working with his colleagues to try to elevate the work of the OSCE in combating corruption, improving transparency in government and promoting the rule of law.
The panelists were essentially in agreement that much needs to be done to improve the independence and effective functioning of the judiciary in Romania. Dr. Renate Weber stated that the judiciary has been a major concern for the country for the past thirteen years and it has been the target of constant criticism by the European Commission. "We are confronted at home with a gap indeed between what the law says about independence of the judiciary and the judges' daily realities," she said.
Regarding religious tolerance and anti-Semitism, Dr. Weber said that while some progress has been made regarding tolerance for minority religions in Romania, much remains to be done. She cited the strong influence of the Orthodox Church over the government as a hindrance to further progress. Although Weber said she agreed with Dr. Tismaneanu that "deep in his heart, President Iliescu is not an anti-Semitic person," she felt that the president's recent remarks that the Holocaust was no different for Jews than Poles or Communists were cause for concern.
Commissioner Cardin agreed that the statements were inexcusable and served to encourage anti-Semitism in Romania. "If it is a careless statement, then it just encourages anti-Semitism. If it was deliberate, then it is even more troublesome," he said.
Dr. Tismaneanu agreed with this assessment as well. He noted that there are anti-Semitic forces in the extremist and nationalist elements of Romanian politics, but also pointed out that a multitude of recent public opinion polls did not indicate that anti-Semitism is a major issue in contemporary Romania. In addition, Tismaneanu maintained that there is no deliberate policy of the government, the ruling party or the President of Romania to encourage xenophobia or anti-Semitism.
In closing, Commissioner Cardin reiterated that Romania is a close ally and friend of the United States and that it has made tremendous improvements since the fall of the communist regime. "There are still areas of concern as they move toward accession to NATO and the European Union, and it is important that progress continues to be made," he said.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Jennifer Douglas contributed to this article.