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Romania's Democratic Light By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 17, 2004

On December 12, Romania had its second round of presidential elections. To the surprise of many, this author included, opposition candidate Traian Basescu, the mayor of Bucharest, won with 51 percent of the vote, about the same percentage as George W. Bush’s victory in November. Is that important? Should we care what happens in a fairly unknown Balkan country, the most Westernized part of which, Transylvania, most Americans probably still think is a mythical place inhabited by Dracula and his ghostly cohorts? The answer is a definite yes, and that is why the recent election result is good news indeed.

With some 22 million inhabitants, the country is by far the largest Balkan state, second only to Poland among all former Soviet-bloc European satellites. A new member of NATO this year and a likely member of the European Union by 2007, Romania provides basing rights to U.S. forces for the Iraq operations. Some 700 Romanian troops are in Iraq, and a few additional ones are in Afghanistan. With borders on Ukraine, the pseudo-state of Moldova (which has a Romanian majority), and access to the Black Sea, the country has a newly discovered strategic importance, of which its elites are taking full advantage.

The country is perhaps best known as the former fiefdom of Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist tyrant assassinated in December 1989, and it has had a serious image problem in the U.S. and Europe ever since. In the dark times of post–World War II communism, Romania was one of the few Soviet protectorates in which dissidence barely existed. Ceausescu’s claims of being anti-Russian neutralized the anti-totalitarian cause, and Romanian nationalism became a pawn in the Marxist dictator’s hands. The Ceausescu regime was the last to fall, in 1989, and then only to a coup involving former associates (though it was initially sparked by a locally popular revolt).

Outgoing President Ion Iliescu (president in 1990–96 and 2000–04), who was defeated on December 12, represented former associates of Ceausescu and his regime. His defeat is important for the entire region. Indeed, the official presidential candidate, outgoing Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, is a member of the communist youth elite of the late Ceausescu era and led one of the most corrupt regimes in Europe, based on the nouveau riche elites of former nomenklatura.

In November’s parliamentary elections, Nastase’s ruling Social Democrats (PSD) made an alliance with an upstart personalistic party, the Humanists, in order to arrange a smooth transition from the PSD regime to a “new” and reformed PSD regime. The coalition won the largest number of seats but not a majority against Basescu’s own Social Democrat/Liberal (i.e., allegedly pro–free market) alliance. Widespread allegations of fraud — including Ukraine-style “tourist votes” cast by Nastase supporters who were bused from voting place to voting place — were made by both Basescu and independent NGOs. Many observers expected the same thing to happen again in the second round, especially since during the first presidential round Nastase received 41 percent of the vote and Basescu only 34 percent — both well under the 50 percent threshold but with a clear advantage shown for the official candidate.

Unlike Ukraine, where the recent presidential election is widely considered to have been fraudulent, Romania wants and has a good chance to join the EU, which will be impossible if its elections are openly fixed. So, electoral arrangements were changed to minimize fraud, and the election results were surprising. 

Ever since the first post-communist elections in 1990, for which I was an official international observer, some persistent patterns have been obvious. First, there is an inverse relationship between level of education and voting behavior. The least educated have persistently voted for the neocommunists or even the pseudo-totalitarian nationalists of the “Greater Romania” party, including Ceausescu’s official intellectual “clown” (a Romanian media description), Corneliu Vadim Tudor. The more developed, Westernized and economically advantaged regions — Transylvania, southwestern Banat and the northernmost part of the otherwise hopelessly neocommunist or “socialist” Moldova region — voted DA and Basescu in this election.

Similarly, the urban — and not just Bucharest voters — voted for Basescu twice, as did the inhabitants of all major cities (Brasov, Timisoara, Cluj, Sibiu, etc.). They also voted later, which explains Nastase’s early and rapidly declining lead in the exit polls. The latest votes of them all came from Romanian citizens abroad, and they went 70 percent to Basescu. These voting trends have several interesting implications.

First, the large cohort of communist-era beneficiaries or supporters is dying and declining. The majority of the educated population in Eastern Europe — at least east of the old USSR borders — is lost to socialism, neocommunism posing as social democracy, and indeed, any anti-capitalist ideology.

Second, since foreign policy was a consensus matter in the elections and Basescu is pro-American, evidently it is hard to sell anti-Americanism east of the old Iron Curtain. Basescu has made it clear that Romania’s foreign policy during his five-year mandate should be what he called the “Washington-London-Bucharest axis,” including keeping the military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Third, the new generation of better-educated voters that came of age since 1989 is simply not prepared to vote for the old corruption-as-usual system. This group is bound to grow in numbers, while the rural-based romantics of communism, the nanny state, or socialism à la Europe, is dying off.

Some or all of these phenomena have occurred in elections throughout Eastern Europe, and for similar reasons. Romania is just the latest — and by far the largest — example of these events. This is an encouraging trend. The problem is that the meaningful spreading of democracy is not part of a global phenomenon but is, rather, a strictly East European one. Indeed, from the Baltics to Bulgaria (and perhaps to Croatia as well), passing through Romania, the two major political and cultural objectives are the same. The first is to join “Europe,” which means the EU and its rules, many of which are bound to be difficult for Romania and other similar countries. Second is fear of an increasingly threatening and reviving Russia, a historic threat to the existence of most of those countries. Call it democracy under pressure and security under potential threat, but Washington and Brussels both have to understand that their new allies have invaluable perceptions of the future.

Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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