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Romania: On the Edge of a Democratic Cliff?

January 23, 2015

Romanian Senate, June 2014, celebrating 150 years of activity. CREDIT: Shutterstock

This article is written in response to Teodor Stan's article, On the Verge of Democratic Consolidation: The Romanian Presidential Elections, posted on the Carnegie Council website, November 7, 2014.

One school of thought suggests an optimist is someone who simply has not heard the news yet. By that definition, Teodor Stan is an optimist about Romania.

During the recent presidential election campaign, he candidly and comprehensively recounted the respective highs and lows of Romania's democratic transition. (See On the Verge of Democratic Consolidation: The Romanian Presidential Elections) He also assessed the leading candidates for the nation's highest office, concluding that, "[I]rrespective of the final electoral tally, the country will continue to consolidate state institutions with EU and U.S. support. Indeed, it offers a remarkably resilient alternative liberal model for the Wider Black Sea region." Unfortunately, his forecasts about Romanian democracy already have been overwhelmed by events in Bucharest and elsewhere.

Stan's informative retrospective displays the impartiality and candor absent from so many contemporary accounts of democratization throughout Central and Eastern Europe. But, in striking contrast, his prospective analysis appears filtered through rose-tinted glasses.

Most notably, and most troublingly, he portrays today's Romania as a stable democracy with an independent judiciary. Stan writes that, "No matter which of the two [Prime Minister Victor Ponta and President Klaus Johannis] accede to the presidency, the country will remain stable and . . . it is unlikely to reverse commendable progress in the institutional consolidation of its independent justice system." In this manner, he views the present—and especially the future—Romanian glass as decidedly half-full: "Romania will remain a stable European democracy with a representative multiparty political system if either Ponta or Johannis become president."

A more accurate assessment would acknowledge an increasingly fragile democratic glass that is decidedly half-empty. On the ground in Romania, the opposite of Stan's forecast is happening. Democratic institutions are under threat and the forces of democracy are in retreat.

Democratic slippage is occurring at an accelerated rate for a variety of external and internal reasons; some are economic, others are political. One underappreciated catalyst is the increasingly symbiotic relationship between Romanian and Western political elites.

The Romanian political class is fully aware of the country's importance to Western security. Although a member of NATO since 2004, Romania is being encouraged by both domestic and foreign actors to move closer to Russia for political, economic, and strategic support. If Romania, geostrategically positioned on the Black Sea, heads down this path, it will have serious implications for American and EU foreign policymakers.

The strategic value of the Black Sea region is derived from its geographical, political and economic position. The region constitutes the southeastern frontier of NATO and the EU, and is the juncture at which Europe, Russia, Asia, and the Middle East meet. In geopolitical terms, the region is a zone of instability with direct repercussions for European security, yet is also a zone of opportunity for developing as a partner within the Euro-Atlantic community via NATO and the EU.

The region however, is at the crux of two spheres of influence, that is, those of the West and Russia. Russian perceptions of zero-sum diplomacy and balances-of-power constitute a major obstacle to cooperation. It is in this context that the Black Sea region is vital to the security of the Euro-Atlantic community as it can constitute, if necessary, a bulwark against a resurgent Russia. The region's also vital for projecting power into the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East to contain threats and challenges to security before they can mature as a direct threat to Euro-Atlantic security.

The Black Sea region's importance is further enhanced due to its position as a critical economic hub, in particular with regard to energy and transportation. It is therefore in Europe and America's interest to help Romania—a strategically important democracy—to achieve the sustainable political health and economic prosperity it seeks and to preserve a vital relationship.

The current set of Western leaders concluded that the security of any former Soviet bloc country is threatened by a corrupt political system, with Ukraine serving as the most recent and obvious illustration of the apparent validity of this geopolitical model. Therefore, the West today asserts that the ability of any formerly communist nation in Eastern Europe to literally and figuratively defend itself strongly correlates with the absence of political corruption.

Cognizant of this calculus, Romanian politicians have adopted a two-pronged tactical approach. First, to satisfy the pressure from Western leaders, they claim to engage in the ‘rooting out' of corruption. In practice, this simply, but tellingly, entails the removal of their respective political opponents, both inside and outside of their own partisan organizations. Such a superficial display of anti-corruption endeavor nonetheless impresses, even satisfies, naïve Western onlookers.

For this reason, the second tactical maneuver is to leverage and exploit their secure position with Western leaders. They do this by acting in an illiberal manner vis-à-vis domestic democratic institutions, procedures, and critics. This is accomplished in the knowledge, or at least under the working assumption, that no one in the West will seek to shine a light among the shadows or in the darker corners of Romanian politics.

One area of public life where the absence of corruption is essential to democratic governance is the rule of law. In this vein, Stan lauds the Romanian political class's cross-partisan, prospective commitment to an independent judiciary. However, respective incidents of politically-influenced ‘justice' and prosecution strongly suggest that it will require a sea-change in outlook for Romanian leaders to inoculate the country's courts and policing from the virus of political intervention.

The current case of the persecuted publisher, Dan Adamescu, is a most tangible demonstration that the current political leadership's commitment to the rule of law and an independent judiciary is illusory. In a new policy paper, The State of Democracy After 25 Years: Lessons from Central and Eastern Europe, the Henry Jackson Society's Ola Cichowlas and Andrew Foxall review the prosecution of Adamescu and find that:

Dan Adamescu, the owner of the critical and independent newspaper Romania Libera, is under house arrest, on what appear to be politically motivated corruption charges. Maintaining that Adamescu supports Basescu (the outgoing president and Ponta's chief political opponent), Ponta allegedly fabricated a corruption scandal in which he accused Adamescu of embezzling money, in order to finance Basescu's campaign, from Astra Asigurari, Romania's largest insurance company that Adamescu owns. Although all of these allegations turned out to be false, Ponta used them as a justification to expropriate Adamescu and place Astra Asigurari under direct government control.

The strength of democratic institutions and the political culture underpinning them reflect, in part, the manner in which practitioners of politics approach the challenges and withstand the pressures that are inherent in a competitive, pluralistic, and participatory environment. Do they learn from their mistakes, tolerate dissent, and welcome constructive criticism? Or, do they blame others for their failures, crackdown upon critics, and seek to stifle alternate viewpoints?

Along these lines, Stan's essay predicted that a more ideologically centrist, less partisan, and more Western-oriented Social Democratic Party (PSD) would emerge if Prime Minister Victor Ponta suffered a defeat in the presidential election's November 16 run-off: "Presuming Ponta's weakness inside the PSD should he lose, the party might shift back to the center, making it a potential stability factor." In fact, argued Stan: "There is an interesting, distinct possibility that PSD as a party would revert to a more moderate centrist leadership and become a coalition builder with or without Ponta's election as president. Many high-ranking PSD party members have worked hard over the last few decades to obtain Western recognition and integrate the country in trans-Atlantic security structures."

Clearly, most Western observers would welcome such a transition for Ponta's PSD; however, the most recent evidence indicates such a future for the PSD is far closer to a mirage than a probability.

For example, once Ponta's defeat at the hands of Klaus Johannis was confirmed, the prime minister's inner circle commenced a predictable round of assigning blame to enemies, real and imagined. Most disturbingly, Ponta's longstanding deputy, Liviu Dragnea, the PSD's deeply influential secretary general, blamed the prime minister's defeat on American influence.

A number of senior PSD members responded to Ponta's defeat with their own critique of the prime minister's campaign, leadership, and governing style. For example, Dan Sova said immediately after the presidential election that Ponta and Dragnea must take a step back following their campaign failure. Echoing both the tone and nature of deposed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's style of party management, Ponta responded by removing his internal critics. Hence, Sova, for instance, was expelled from the party.

All of which tangibly illustrates that Romania's larger problem is a deeply entrenched attitude, one consolidated and heightened during a half-century of communist rule. It is the appeal of, and public responsiveness to, the traditional strong-man figure. Ponta is the contemporary embodiment of this preeminent characteristic of Romanian political culture. His evolution from a pro-Western, pro-market, self-styled Blairite social democrat to an apparently enthusiastic wielder of undemocratic instruments is as striking as it is regrettable.

Of course, Ponta is not the first despoiler of his nation's democratic promise. Rather, he is but the latest example of this Romanian tradition. The irony is that Romanians continue to accept those in power acquiring more and more power for themselves and their allies for the self-defeating reason that they expect it to happen. Hence, there is no public surprise, let alone any shock value, each and every time it happens.

While it is depressing to observe Romanian democracy under such downward pressure, the country retains the inherent potential to arrest her slide, reverse direction, and regain the momentum that earlier encouraged her Western neighbors and allies to welcome the country into both NATO and the European Union.

The necessary first-step in righting the ship of state is a thorough cleansing of the country's democratic stable. Only Romanians, themselves, can perform this laborious and at times unpleasant task. The outstanding question is whether the Romanian people choose to pick up the requisite political shovels and hoses while the option is still available to them?

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