On March 28, three Romanian journalists fell into the clutches of one of Iraq’s deadliest Islamist groups. Following their capture by a criminal group, the Romanians—32-year-old Prima TV reporter and senator’s daughter Marie Jeanne Ion; cameraman Sorin Miscoci; and Ovidiu Ohanesian, a journalist with the daily Romania Libera, as well as their Iraqi translator, Mohamad Munaf—were transferred to the Ansar al-Sunna. Most notorious for beheading a Turkish driver and broadcasting the video on its website, the radical Islamist group is believed to have ties to al-Qaeda. The horror of the capture quite apart, it also promises to test Romania’s mettle and its commitment to the coalition in the War on Terror.
With some 800 troops in Iraq, newly-admitted NATO-member Romania is an obvious target for the terrorists. Terrorist groups wasted no time demanding that Bucharest withdraw those troops within four days. For the terrorists, it is a matter of seeking the weakest links in the coalition membership. A similar strategy had succeeded last year, when the Filipino government pulled out its small contingent in Iraq in exchange for the life of one of its kidnapped citizens. Indeed, the Filipino decision could, in a moral and practical sense, be blamed for the Romanians’ predicament: if it worked with Manila, why not try it with Bucharest?
Romania’s current trial is a case study of terrorist patterns and methods. The original kidnappers were evidently bandits. The conspiracy-infested Romanian media claims that the journalists’ captors were linked with a shady Romanian-Arab “businessman” who took advantage of the irresponsibility of the media institutions that sent them to Iraq without considering the local circumstances. Once the reported demands for $4 million ransom failed to be met, the captives were transferred, purportedly for a fee, to the Islamist terrorists, at which point it became a political matter.
Initially, at least, President Basescu and Prime Minister Tariceanu stood firm and rejected that demand. But they have been under pressure from scattered demonstrations asking for capitulation to the terrorists’ demands. The demonstrations were given impetus by videos, provided by al-Jazeera, which showed the hostages surrounded by the terrorists. One of the hostages was in tears; all were being threatened with Kalashnikov rifles.
Courageous though it has so far proven to be, the Romanian government has also made some missteps. Owing to their lack of experience dealing with radical Islamists, the government made the unfortunate decision of appealing to them in the language of Christian Orthodoxy.
But Romania’s new “Truth and Justice Alliance” government, which was elected on December 26, 2004, has so far done mostly the right things. It has said no more than necessary of the matter; it has not capitulated to the demonstrators; and it has not pulled out of Iraq. All of this is important, because insofar as Romania desires to be or become a “European” country and a U.S. ally, it has to be a steady partner in NATO, which it has been doing its best to demonstrate that it is: three Romanian soldiers have already lost their lives in Afghanistan, the latest last week.
The hostage crisis has produced varying reactions among political factions in Romania. The Humanist Party (PUR), a small member of the ruling coalition, demanded capitulation. Its leader spectacularly and gratuitously offered himself as a replacement for the hostages. The main opposition party, meanwhile, the corrupt, neo-communist Social Democrats (PSD), did likewise. The PSD’s leader, former foreign minister Mircea Geoana, was the strongest supporter of Romania’s seeking membership in NATO and participating in the Iraq operation when he was in office.
Things have changed. Now, as is the custom for opposition parties in Romania and the Balkans, the PSD opposes anything the government does—good or bad—with no regard for national interest. As for the PUR, it is a fly-by-night party propelled by its wealthy leader and his TV station; it has no ideology, principles, or credibility. This is the political culture that the European Union is going to accept when Romania will become a full member in 2007.
Unlike most former communist states in Eastern Europe, Romania has a long history of ties to the Arab world, a legacy of the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s policy of rapprochement with the Third World. Tens of thousands of Arab “students,” military trainees and other assorted dubious figures from the West Bank, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon passed through or spent some years in pre-1989 Romania. They learned the language and have maintained ties with some locals. As a testament to this, the Arab mafia still flourishes in what passes for Romania’s private sector.
In Iraq, the stakes for Bucharest could not be higher. This is the test of maturity and loyalty to the Western world that Romania has sought to show since its creation in 1859. In Romania, however, perhaps more than in other countries in the region, the gap between the level of geopolitical understanding of the population as a whole, even in large cities, and that of elites is much wider. Coming as it did on the eve of the Orthodox Easter (May 1), the kidnapping in Iraq aroused even more revulsion than it would have in any event, especially as one of the hostages is a young and politically well-connected woman. That, however, should not be a reason for the main opposition party, of which her father is a member, to abruptly change its position on the Romanian troop presence in Iraq. It is this opportunistic volatility of Romanian politics that ought to raise questions in both Washington (with respect to NATO) and Brussels (with respect to EU membership), about Romania’s reliability.
Romania, like most Central and East European countries, legitimately sees Russia, its historic enemy and imperial aggressor, as a continuing and potential threat; hence, the desire to join NATO. Romania’s geography gives it both some volatile neighbors—Serbia, Moldova, and Ukraine come to mind—and some valuable assets to offer as a U.S. ally, such as access to the Black Sea and proximity to the Middle East. That the kidnapping of three journalists, tragic as it is, could endanger such vital national interests, is disturbing, for the Bucharest government as well as for Washington.