Recent opinion polls show that, four years after Romania missed out on NATO's first eastward enlargement, Romanians remain overwhelmingly in favor of joining the alliance. The government has stepped up efforts to meet NATO admission criteria, including a planned increase of its defense budget. But does Romania have a realistic chance to become a NATO member in the near future? RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc looks into the question.
Prague, 16 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Few issues enjoy more support among Romanians -- officials and ordinary people alike -- than their country's effort to gain membership in NATO.
A recent public opinion poll showed that as much as 85 percent of the population wants Romania in the alliance -- a level of support apparently greater than in any other Eastern candidate country. Romania's left-wing leadership, which came to power after elections late last year, has also affirmed its commitment to pursue NATO membership. To meet alliance standards, it is likely to propose an increase in this year's defense budget equivalent to some 4 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
Earlier this month, all parties in parliament issued a joint statement agreeing to make NATO membership Romania's top foreign policy and national security goal. Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana -- who is also the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- recently said that Romanian diplomacy's main goal is to win an invitation to open membership talks at the NATO summit in Prague next year.
But apart from saying the issue will be taken up at the Prague summit, the alliance has so far refrained from making any statement regarding the admission of one or more of the nine Eastern candidate countries. In addition to Romania, the candidates are Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Some analysts, however, have remarked on what they consider a recent shift in NATO interest toward candidate countries such as the Baltic states and Slovakia.
Edgar Buckley, assistant secretary-general of NATO, said in Bucharest last week (8 March) that Romania had made "great progress" in all areas. Buckley spoke after a NATO mission had assessed Romania's progress under what is called a Membership Action Plan, or MAP. NATO has devised separate MAPs for each of the nine candidate countries, and assessment reports on military compatibility with the alliance's standards are due next month.
The head of Romania's mission to NATO, Lazar Comanescu, tells RFE/RL that his country's recent efforts to speed up membership preparations have been welcomed by the alliance.
"NATO highly appreciates the Romanian government's determination to continue and substantiate efforts toward membership."
He said that by upgrading its military and meeting the criteria set in its MAP, Romania will receive a positive assessment of its performance.
"When it comes to a decision about enlargement, Romania -- by its concrete actions and by its fulfilling of the Membership Action Plan -- will prove it can meet the requirements and will win a positive evaluation."
With a population of 22 million, Romania is the largest country in Southeastern Europe, close both to the former Yugoslavia and to Russia. But it is also one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an average monthly salary of $100. Romania's largely obsolete army has undergone some major reductions in recent years and is now estimated at some 110,000 troops.
But most analysts agree that political, rather than military, considerations are the decisive factor in NATO's decision to take in new members. In that regard, the recent appointment of Ristea Priboi -- a former officer of Romania's communist secret police (Securitate) -- as the head of a parliamentary committee overseeing the country's foreign intelligence service may not have served too well Romania's chances for membership.
London-based Romanian affairs analyst Dennis Deletant told our correspondent that he thinks the United States is worried about Priboi's appointment.
"The major consideration [for NATO membership] is the political one, and here I think strictly the U.S. government has been concerned by the recent appointment of the head of the SRI (Romanian Intelligence Service) and by the discussion -- the scandal, I should say -- in the Romanian press over the appointment of Mr. Priboi as head of the oversight parliamentary committee of the SIE (Romanian Foreign Intelligence)."
But while in Bucharest last week, NATO Assistant Secretary-General Buckley said that Priboi's appointment "is not a concern for us [NATO]."
In 1997, Romania appeared to have achieved a small but important breakthrough in its effort to obtain NATO membership. During an alliance summit in Madrid that year, three former communist countries -- Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic -- were invited to begin negotiations that ended with them being admitted two years later. At the Madrid summit, Romania -- strongly supported by NATO member France -- and Slovenia were singled out as front-runners for future membership. And in 1999, during NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, Romania opened its airspace to alliance war planes.
French support for Romania's membership has been muted in recent years. Comanescu says this is because Romania's relation with the alliance has taken a more pragmatic turn, with the focus now on fulfilling its Membership Action Plan. Nevertheless, he says French backing is as strong as ever.
"French support existed, it is strong and will be strong in the future".
Unlike its much-voiced opposition to Baltic states entering NATO, Russia has not spoken out specifically against Romania's efforts to win membership. But British analyst Deletant thinks that Russia is closely monitoring Romania's progress, especially after pro-Russian communists last month came to power in neighboring Moldova -- a Romanian province between the two world wars.
"I would say Russia certainly is interested in whether Romania joins, because at the moment, Romania is almost a buffer zone between NATO and Russia. And let's not forget the recent events in Moldova, where communists have a clear majority and will form the next government."
Deletant also points out that Russia might not even need to oppose Romania's membership bid openly because, he says, the left's victory in last year's elections appear to have diminished the country's chances.