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Iliescu: Romania Firmly on Path Towards Democracy - 2002-02-08

Romanian President Ion Iliescu says his country stands ready to be a full and participating member of the European and Trans-Atlantic community of democratic nations. President Iliescu reiterated Romania's long-standing desire to join NATO later this year, during a speech Thursday at the Woodrow Wilson Center at the end of a three-day visit to Washington.

President Ion Iliescu says Romania has been firmly on the path towards democracy and free market reforms, since the popular overthrow of communist dictatorship in December of 1989.

President Iliescu says the nation has since created an established and functioning democracy, tested by three rounds of elections and two democratic transfers of power. He says Romanians also have openly embraced the goals of integration, concluding an Association Agreement with the European Union and joining the Council of Europe.

Romania also was the first country to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program. And in 2001, Romania served as the chairman-in-office of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Despite these successes, President Iliescu says the most difficult task for his nation has proved to be that of economic reform and the creation of a new, efficient market economy. "Along this path, we've made a lot of mistakes," he added. "We missed opportunities. But we've also learned important lessons. We are pleased to see that the economy has been steadily growing at a rate of 1.6 percent in 2000 and 5 percent in 2001, having good prospects this year as well."

President Iliescu notes Romania still has work to do on curbing corruption, work he calls his government's "greatest priority."

An International Monetary Fund mission is scheduled to return to Romania by early March for talks on a supplementary letter of intent under a nearly $400 million stand-by loan deal.

Details are sketchy, but Romanian media reports say the accord with the IMF could already be under threat because Fund officials allegedly disagree with Bucharest's plans to spend extra money on easing hardship from a difficult winter.

Romania has failed to complete a single one of five similar accords with the IMF in the years since communism collapsed. President Iliescu says he has spoken of the need for "flexibility" during his talks with bank officials in Washington this week. He says he saw some signs of understanding.

Mr. Iliescu says his government also has begun to focus heavily on completing a structural shift within the army, bringing it up to more professional standards by 2003.

He says Romania's desire to join NATO does not stem from a wish to merely enjoy the security umbrella of the alliance. The Romanian people, he says, also want to defend the shared values of the democratic community.

On this point, he singled out Romanian troops serving as part of an international coalition in Kabul, Afghanistan. President Iliescu says the liaison officer of the contingent has spoken to him of the troops' high morale and commitment to the cause.

"We are proud of them," said President Iliescu, "because they went there to defend the values for which young Romanians died in 1989 and because, together with all their foreign colleagues, they will contribute to the joint effort to rid the world of terrorism and to help Afghanistan build a peaceful, stable and democratic community."

President Iliescu went on to say he is confident that if Romania continues on the path of economic, political and social reform, it has a fighting chance to make history by being accepted as a new member in an expanded NATO.

Membership decisions are expected at the upcoming Prague Summit this November. Romania is one of nine candidate countries for membership that also include Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Slovakia and Slovenia.