Last week, the European Union announced that Romania is on track to join the partnership in 2007. And in November, NATO invited Bucharest to begin accession talks -- 13 years after a violent revolution ended communism in Romania.
December, 1989 . . . a popular uprising in the Romanian city of Timisoara quickly spreads throughout the country. More than 1000 people die in the crossfire between the secret police and the military. On Christmas day, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena lie dead, executed by a firing squad. It is the bloodiest end to communist tyranny anywhere in Eastern Europe.
Now, 13 years later, the country is enjoying a level of freedom that was virtually unknown for half a century. And Romania stands poised to join NATO and the European Union in just a few years.
Paul Michelson of Huntington College in Huntington, Indiana is one of America's leading historians of Romania. He says the country's inclusion in NATO and the EU will help foster economic and political reforms. "Obviously, some of the more reform-minded people in Romania see this as a way to leverage the more conservative government they have now into pushing reforms. So to some extent that's their hope that Romania will be forced to reform, to move the process of democratization and market reforms further along the lines of some kind of Western model."
But NATO has concerns about Romania's membership in the alliance. Former secret police operatives from the Ceausescu era still hold high level defense and intelligence positions in the country. Nonetheless, NATO officials say it's an issue that can be addressed.
Most observers agree that Romania will soon join NATO. The alliance and the United States were impressed by Romania's help in the war on terrorism when it dispatched a battalion of troops to Afghanistan. And being the largest country in Southeastern Europe, Romania could help NATO keep the peace in the troubled Balkans.
The vast majority of Romanians also favor membership in the European Union. But even under communist rule, Romania has had an independent foreign policy that has often been sympathetic toward the United States. It's a stance, analysts say, that could divide Bucharest and the E-U.
Political scientist Charles King, a specialist on Romania at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington, says, "These two forms of institutional enlargement, even though we speak about them often in the same breath, can be in some ways at odds, especially for a country like Romania that has long seen its so-called 'strategic partnership' with America as the center piece of its foreign and security policy. If the Europeans are able to develop their own view of international affairs and security issues, in particular, the question will be: To what extent will Romania be a kind of American 'Trojan horse' inside the European community?"
It's thought that EU and NATO membership will focus Romania's leaders on sorely needed economic reforms.
Daniel Nelson, another expert on Romania and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, describes the Romanian economy as, "A lot of unemployment. An absence, say, relative to neighboring Hungary, of foreign investment. Certainly on a per capita basis, inadequate foreign investment to really generate substantial growth. A failure to really privatize enough of the economy to allow entrepreneurs to make it take off. There are plenty of negatives. Of course, it's still a significantly agricultural economy, which isn't a negative, but they haven't taken advantage of their agricultural potential."
Romanians earn an average of less than $125.month. More than 40% of the country's 22 million people live below the national poverty line. And annual inflation is about 20%.
Although Romania has had some success in privatizing several of its automotive and textile plants, most of the country's outdated and unprofitable smokestack industries remain in government hands.
Some cities have made strides in attracting foreign investors. But Western businessmen often complain of corruption at virtually every level of Romanian society. "I think that this is an endemic problem that goes back to the 19th century, maybe the 18th century, and maybe a few centuries before that."
"This is where the European Union process puts a little more pressure on them," says Paul Michelson. "They've got to become more transparent to even have a shot at European Union inclusion. They don't seem to be showing a lot of significant improvement in this. Possibly, these reputational things take more time to show some movement. But I think that American businessmen there certainly have a lot to complain about in terms of the 'red tape' -- both official and unofficial -- that they have to plow through, and the expectations that people [in Romania] have of receiving considerations [i.e., bribes] for dealing with you are still pretty high. Unless they get their act together, people aren't going to come and invest."
"Indeed, they haven't because there's this fear of being shaken down for money," says Political scientist -- Daniel Nelson. "Does it go top-down? Well, there have been people at pretty high levels in Romania who have been arrested for taking bribes and skimming off money. Some of them are in the banking business; some of them are in import/export; and some are 'in control' of commerce. Some of this corruption involves skimming off public funds, but some of it also involves smuggling. It is endemic."
For most of the past 13 years, Romania has been led by former communist Ion Iliescu. In 1996, President Iliescu was voted out in favor of a center-right coalition. But inflation soared and the economy shrank. And two years ago, voters returned Mr. Iliescu to office in a landslide victory. His Social Democratic Party won the majority of seats in parliament.
But the election created anxiety both inside and outside the country. Mr. Iliescu's main opponent -- ultra-nationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor and his Greater Romania Party -- received a third of the popular vote.
Because reform in Romania under the Social Democrats has been slow in coming -- compared to change elsewhere in Eastern Europe -- historian Paul Michelson doesn't dismiss the possible resurgence of political extremism in Romania. "That would particularly depend on the appearance of some kind of crisis situation or turnaround of what in the last year or so are reasonably favorable economic numbers. Inflation has leveled off. It's still high. Their GDP figures, which had been plunging for the last few years, righted themselves last year and began to climb again -- maybe more modestly than elsewhere in the region -- but still it's positive. Now if these things were to go in the other direction, then you have fertile ground for extreme solutions or proposals of one kind or another. Of course, this was a problem in Romania both before the communist take over [immediately following World War II] and afterward [i.e., after 1989], and these sort of wild swings in voter support again show that political groupings [in Romania] don't have a solid basis or foundation."
Romania lacks a broad spectrum of viable political parties which, many analysts warn, is not encouraging for democracy in the short term. But analyst Daniel Nelson is hopeful that, with international support, Romania can develop healthy democratic institutions. "The Romania that I knew in the 1980s was a terribly suppressed nation. The Ceausescu years, particularly in the latter decade of his rule . . . he may not have killed a lot of people, but he made people want to die. That's how bad it was. It was almost impossible to expect a country that had no private industry, no political opposition to make the kind of progress it has made in the last 13 years. So I think recognizing 'relative' achievement, which is so tremendous, is a way America's approach to Romania should be framed."
More than a decade after the revolution, Romanians are still coming to grips with their past. As elsewhere in much of the former communist world, many of those who were in power remain in charge. And most observers say, it may take generations before Romanians can put into perspective their violent surge to freedom.