Romanian defense officials are pledging to speed up military reforms and make 2002 the "Year of NATO," in the hope of securing an invitation to join the alliance at its Prague summit later this year. Romania's bid to join NATO enjoys huge support among the country's 22 million people. But despite some successes with military reforms, analysts say it is the political conditions in Romania that must improve before NATO extends an invitation to join.
Prague, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Romania's government is stepping up efforts to complete the reform of its armed forces and bring them in line with NATO requirements in the run-up to the alliance's Prague summit in November.
Bucharest hopes to secure an invitation in Prague to join the 19-member bloc after it was left out of NATO's first wave of enlargement in 1999, when fellow former Warsaw Pact states Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined. At some 85 percent, support for NATO membership among Romania's population apparently runs higher than in any of the other eight candidate countries -- Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Romania, a country of 22 million, is the largest Southeastern European state, strategically located between the states of the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union. But it is also one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an average monthly salary of $100. And it was slow to implement economic, political, and military reforms following the collapse of communism.
NATO membership over the last decade has been a top foreign policy and national security goal for Romania's leadership, regardless of political colors. But Bucharest's actions were not always in line with its political statements, which likely resulted in Romania losing ground in favor of other candidates.
The new Social Democratic government led by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase -- which took over last year (January 2001) -- launched an ambitious plan to reform the country's largely obsolete armed forces.
Romanian defense officials last week declared 2002 the "Year of NATO" and said they are speeding up the army's modernization process. Under the reform plan, Romania's defense budget for 2002 has been increased to more than $1 billion -- some 2.5 percent of the impoverished country's gross domestic product.
Deputy Defense Minister George Cristian Maior says more than 4,000 military officers were made redundant last year, bringing the total number of troops -- officers, non-commissioned officers, conscripts, and professional soldiers -- to just over 100,000.
Maior tells RFE/RL that personnel cuts will continue this year in an effort to achieve a streamlined military structure similar to those of many Western armies. "We will continue to operate consistent reductions in the number of officers in 2002 -- some 5,000 -- so that by 2003, we will complete a pyramidal structure of the army based on the Western model."
Besides reducing the number of troops, Romanian defense officials also intend to change the army's organization, which is still largely modeled on the former Soviet army and mainly based on conscripts.
Romanian army Chief of Staff General Mihail Popescu last week said that by the end of this year the number of conscripts will drastically decrease, with professional soldiers accounting for about 80 percent of the total force.
Popescu also said the army will increasingly consist of what he called "active forces" -- highly trained, highly mobile troops. The rest of Romania's armed forces will be composed of so-called "territorial forces" and "reserve forces."
Popescu said the Romanian defense budget will increasingly be channeled toward elite troops, with up to $14,000 spent annually for the training and equipment of each member of the active forces, while territorial and reserve forces will be allocated less than one-third of that amount per person.
Maior told RFE/RL that by the end of this year, more than half of Romania's army will consist of these elite troops. "Altogether, we could say that by 2003, the active operational forces will represent some 50 to 60 percent of Romania's armed forces." Maior also pointed out that the army's active forces will be ready to assist NATO in peacekeeping missions.
Bucharest says Romania's armed forces have repeatedly proven they can be a loyal and helpful ally to NATO and the international community, pointing to Romania's participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program and in peacekeeping missions in hot spots such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and -- more recently -- Afghanistan.
Western military analysts also believe Romania's military assistance has been of great value to NATO, especially during the 1999 Kosovo war.
Charles Heyman is editor of "Jane's World Armies," a periodical belonging to the authoritative Jane's Military Publishing Group. Heyman tells RFE/RL that Romania has come a long way in recent years in improving its relations with NATO.
"In the recent past, there is no doubt whatsoever that Romania has been terribly supportive of NATO, especially during the Kosovo crisis. And NATO was very, very grateful for all Romanian assistance, especially the use of overflights and the use of Romanian airfields. And Romania has been part of the Partnership for Peace program and basically doing everything that it possibly can to smooth the way for future NATO membership."
Heyman says Romania's strategic position in a potentially unstable region of Southeastern Europe is important and that, in the longer term, NATO will undoubtedly want Romania among its members.
Analysts also point out that Romania and Bulgaria are ideally located to help NATO protect Europe from heroin smuggling and human trafficking from Central Asia.
However, Heyman says it is Romania's political situation -- rather than its military capability -- that will most likely determine whether or not it will be invited to join NATO. Heyman tells RFE/RL that he doubts Romania currently meets the political criterion for NATO membership.
"The Romanian armed forces are not so much the problem with future Romanian membership of NATO, but it may be more a political problem, in that NATO really wants a Romania that fits very easily into the European political architecture. And I think that it may be a little bit of a way to go yet before Romania actually fits all the NATO criteria."
U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly warned Romania that it must step up political reforms, and especially eliminate rampant corruption, to stand a realistic chance of joining the alliance.
NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson yesterday also urged Romania to maintain the rhythm of reform and fulfill its obligations under NATO's Membership Action Plan (MAP).
NATO has devised separate MAPs with each of the nine candidate countries. An alliance delegation is due next month in Romania to assess the country's military, political and economic compatibility with NATO standards.
Analysts say the commission's assessments -- the last before the Prague summit -- could play a crucial role in determining whom NATO invites to join the alliance. Robertson this week declined to say whether NATO has already made such decisions and reiterated that NATO membership is not a "gift."
British military analyst Charles Heyman says he believes NATO has not yet decided whether to invite Romania. "I think that the jury is out on whether Romania is going to be invited to join NATO on a fast track in the very, very near future. I think in the longer term, Romania will almost certainly join NATO. But I'm still a little bit dubious whether this is going to happen very quickly."
Prime Minister Nastase said this week that the leaders of all nine NATO candidates will meet in Bucharest in late March (25-26 March) to prepare for the Prague summit. Signaling that Romania might be prepared to accept any outcome from the summit, Nastase also said that even though Bucharest regards its participation in the Prague summit as one of its most important national objectives, the summit will not be what he called "a capital crossroad."
Joining NATO and the European Union, Nastase said, is a process that Romania intends to pursue irreversibly.