How Romania actually manages to stay a liberal democracy? What has motivated Romanian society to make a breakthrough in its fight against corruption? What is the Romanian outlook into the future of the NATO and the EU, and what its neighbors might expect? We discuss the above and much more with Dr. Lucian Dîrdală, the Romanian international affairs commentator and lecturer with the Center for European Studies, University Alexander Ioan Cuza in Iaşi.
While there is a feeling that ‘illiberal democracy’ spreads over the neighboring Visegrad area, how different is Romanian political situation and why?
While the issue of liberal vs. illiberal democracy can be theoretically called into question, it seems that the recent events in East-Central Europe somehow vindicate Fareed Zakaria’s insight. With the exception of the Czech Republic, all the members of the Visegrad Group have been extensively approached from this perspective.
While Romania has not experienced any recent democratic backsliding, I think the crisis in the summer of year 2012 can be properly understood as a move toward illiberal democracy. The pressure exerted on the Constitutional Court and the political calls to modify the rules during the game in the case of the referendum for dismissing President Traian Basescu – the turnout issue – were heralding a drive toward illiberal democracy.
Fortunately, the Western (including EU) involvement was effective. The election of an ethnic German as head of state, in the autumn of 2014, was widely acclaimed abroad, but one must not forget the doubts raised by the government’s attempt to discourage the vote of Romanians living abroad: a major political crisis was fortunately averted.
I believe that the EU conditionality is still working. Accession to the Schengen area and the removal of the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification (devised for the judicial system) are big prizes that encourage the politicians to behave themselves. Finally, I think that the dominant political forces, the Social-Democrats and the Liberals, are catch-all parties that aggregate wide social coalitions, leaving less space for extremist, xenophobic messages outside their framework.
Does Romania’s political system seem troubled after so many corruption scandals in recent past? What could be predicted about the legislative election in November?
I believe that among Romanians there is a genuine feeling that something is done in this respect, and their confidence in the anti-corruption prosecutors is illustrative. On the other hand, everybody knows that the main political parties are corrupt. While the forthcoming local elections might show that, especially in the larger, more cosmopolitan cities, some people are attracted by new, unconventional, perhaps locally-oriented forces; it seems that the established parties will carry on, after the legislative elections in November. They will probably attempt to persuade the public that they are leaving behind some – though probably not all – of the seriously tainted politicians. However, one must not overstate the salience of anti-corruption policies as an electoral issue.
The elections will probably be dominated by issues of bread-and-butter, as well as by the post-crisis imperatives of infrastructure investment and development. Finally, the technocratic touch added by the current government, former EU Commissioner Dacian Cioloş , might mitigate the traditionally tense election period and might encourage the parties to move beyond mutual attacks and recriminations, and actually advance policy proposals.
What is the Bucharest attitude towards the ‘migration crisis’? Does Romania kind of ‘feel safe’ about it given that its southern neighbor Bulgaria has apparently ‘shut the door’?
The migration crisis might disturb the election period, and certain smaller political parties might try to assert themselves, perhaps by means of xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-migrant messages. Politicians from the established parties would probably follow suit, though it is hard to believe that their leaders will dare to defy Brussels and its official line. I do not think that Romanians feel an imminent threat as far as the migration itinerary is concerned – though of course this might change if something unexpected occurs. The government has already started to accept small numbers of migrants as a result of the mandatory quota deal, and it seems that, despite their mutual adversity, the Social-Democrats and the Liberals have decided to play it safe, avoiding any excessive politicization of the issue.
Are there any political groups in Romania for any reason sympathizing with Vladimir Putin?
No. Expressing sympathy for Mr. Putin or his policies is a recipe for electoral disaster, in Romania.
Looks like there has been profound progress achieved in anti-corruption policies — what were its preconditions and can it be turned over?
As I write this answer, a well-known MP is protected from detention and arrest by his colleagues, while the mayor of a large city is handcuffed and faces arrest. These are instances of an endless sequence that cannot leave the public unaffected. While concerns for human rights and due procedure are voiced, there is no doubt that any party trying to block the process would face a powerful electoral back-clash. However, the gains are not irreversible: the effectiveness of anti-corruption policies could still be compromised by insidious legislative moves that would look like reforms, but actually hinder the efforts of anti-corruption prosecutors, integrity inspectors or even judges. Western conditionality is still important.
I think that the prerequisites of truly successful anti-corruption policies are not entirely met, in Romania. There is an encouraging public debate over the legal means to make those convicted of corruption repay the damages: extensive confiscation, as a legal instrument, operates only for assets acquired after 2012. The recuperation of the losses to public (and private) property would probably strengthen the deterrent effect of anti-corruption policies, which has been rather unimpressive so far.
What’s your view of the EU and NATO future — do they live up to modern challenges?
As a Romanian, I am extremely happy that my country is allied with and protected by an overwhelming coalition of non-aggressive powers. I am also happy that this group of powers supports Romania’s democratic order, at the domestic level. As a Realist commentator on international relations, however, I have serious and persistent doubts about the effectiveness of NATO, as an organization. The leadership provided by the United States after the 2004 big-bang expansion has been less than impressive. Free-riding by reluctant allies, in both Western and Central Europe, is rather widespread. The public opinion in the West does not seem to be committed to the defense of the new member-states, in case of aggression. Things might gradually change, and NATO might rediscover its initial vocation, if the relations with Russia go sour. But such an alliance cannot behave as if the world were bipolar. For the US, the main challenge comes from the Far East, and preventing the emergence of a counter-balancing coalition between China and Russia seems the most important goal.
As far as the EU is concerned, I feel a debate about Romania’s place in the European Union will gradually develop. There is an overarching consensus that membership is beneficial – unlike the Visegrad Group countries, Romania is definitely pro-EU and Euroscepticism is marginal. There is a tacit support for keeping our national currency, for the time being, although Romania meets the nominal convergence criteria and, in theory, could take the road towards the euro. Structural funds will remain a topic of debate, especially since Romania is a laggard in terms of absorption, and this will protect the pro-EU societal consensus.
My personal views for the future depend on the outcomes of the current overlapping challenges the Union confronts: the eurozone crisis, the Eastern Partnership / Russia issue, the migrants, the risk of Brexit and its possible sequels. I do not believe the EU can go forward without the support of its citizens. The political elites must talk to them, instead of pushing forward ambitious agendas. I am not committed to a particular political framework, but I would prefer a modest, limited EU, coexisting with the nation-state, as well as with NATO as an effective security alliance.
Finally, there seems to be a visible change in Romanian-Ukrainian relations. How come old ethnic nationalists quit paying attention to each other and what is the Romanian outlook upon Republic of Moldova political evolution?
I think Romania and Ukraine have developed closer inter-state relations, leaving behind the more contentious aspects of their relationship. Of course, the security issues and especially Russian policies greatly contributed to this rapprochement. However, the society-to-society relations are still in their infancy, and various prejudices linger, on both sides of the border. Trade is almost insignificant, and cultural ties are constrained by the financial difficulties that affect both countries. There is a lot of work to be done, but work comes together with opportunities.
I do not know very much about Ukrainian nationalism and I hope anti-Romanian drives are kept under control. In a free country, however, people have the right to express their feelings. The same holds, of course, for the Romanian side. I think the issues of the past tend to become less salient, especially as younger people gain a voice in the public debate. But I feel the need to stress, once again, the Romanian experience with our Hungarian neighbor: society-to-society contacts helped keep things under control even when politicians did stupid things.
As far as the Republic of Moldova is concerned, I think unification is not on the agenda, in Romania. Nice and warm words may be said, but we operate under constraints. Besides, my experience after twenty-five years of political analysis tells me that the Romanian public is mainly interested in the integration in the Western community, and would avoid any move that might bring us on a conflict line with Russia.
Russian-language version is at a click distance here at Fraza.ua