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Romania/Russia: Political Treaty Sealed After Decade Of Uneasy Relations

  • Eugen Tomiuc

The foreign ministers of Romania and Russia yesterday sealed a long-delayed bilateral treaty which they hailed as a first step toward a more pragmatic relationship between the two countries. Since the fall of communism, bilateral relations have been clouded by disputes over a deal between the Nazis and the Soviets which led to the Soviet annexation of part of Romania in 1940. Controversy also remains over the return of Romania's state gold reserves, artworks, and jewels sent to Moscow during World War I. The document has sidestepped such thorny issues between the two countries, but analysts say Romania was willing to conclude the treaty in order to smooth its path toward full NATO membership next year.

Prague, 6 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Romania and Russia finalized yesterday a bilateral treaty after more than a decade of difficult negotiations.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, on a two-day visit to Bucharest, initialed the treaty together with his Romanian counterpart Mircea Geoana.

The document is due to be signed in July in Moscow by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Romanian President Ion Iliescu.

Both Geoana and Ivanov hailed the initialing of the treaty as the beginning of a new phase in bilateral relations after what Geoana called "a complicated decade."

After the fall of communism, Russia signed friendship treaties with most countries in the former Soviet bloc. But negotiations between Moscow and Bucharest hit a stumbling block in the form of unsolved historical disputes.

The treaty does not address the most divisive of these disputes. The Soviet Union's annexation of Romanian territory following a Nazi-Soviet pact is not mentioned. Nor are the Romanian gold reserves, artwork, and jewelry sent to Moscow for safekeeping during World War I and never returned.

But Geoana yesterday argued that for Romania, establishing a good political relationship with Russia takes precedence over such unresolved questions.

"The better our political relationship with the Russian Federation, the more both sides will be able to achieve faster, including with the issue of the [Romanian] treasure."

Romania in June 1940 lost two of its eastern provinces -- Bessarabia and Bucovina -- to the Soviet Union following a secret deal between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

After World War II, most of Bessarabia became Soviet Moldova, while Bucovina was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine. Moldova in 1991 declared independence from the Soviet Union, while Bucovina remains part of Ukraine.

Post-communist Romania has not reclaimed the two provinces. But Bucharest has insisted that Moscow issue a condemnation of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

Romanian and Russian officials now say that condemning the pact will be part of a separate non-binding political statement, which will also condemn Romania's alliance with Nazi Germany during most of the war.

The two sides also agreed to form a joint committee to search for the Romanian treasures and archives in Russia.

Although the treaty bypasses those two key issues, analysts say the document still represents a diplomatic victory for Bucharest.

Russian affairs analyst Vladimir Socor, of the Jerusalem-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS), tells RFE/RL the actual signing of the treaty is less important than the change in the geopolitical context since Romania became a NATO invitee last November.

"The sealing of the treaty is a diplomatic success for Bucharest and will be welcomed without doubt by its Western allies," he says. "Romania is now dealing with Russia from a position which Bucharest never before enjoyed in its history: that of a member country of an expanded Western world, a totally different situation compared to the past, when Romania had found itself either in the unstable zone between a divided Europe and an expansionist Russia or within a region dominated by Moscow."

Relations between Bucharest and Moscow have been chilly since before the fall of communism. Initially this was because of the independent stance of Romania's communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu within the Soviet bloc. After the fall of communism, relations further deteriorated, with many Romanians blaming Moscow for imposing communism on the country and for territorial losses after the war.

Adding to the tension was the hasty signing of a bilateral treaty between Romania and the Soviet Union in 1991, which Romanians saw at the time as an extension of the Soviet-era relationship. The treaty was nullified by the evaporation of the Soviet Union the same year.

After several years of difficult negotiations, a first attempt to conclude a new treaty failed in 1996, when Bucharest insisted on changing the text of the document.

After coming to a virtual standstill between 1996-2000, painstaking negotiations began to inch the treaty process along step by step. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov visited Romania in March, signaling that the conclusion of the treaty was imminent.

Western analysts say Romania's NATO invitation was one of the prime factors giving the talks a jump-start.

Michael Taylor, a Russian and Eastern European affairs analyst with British think tank Oxford Analytica, tells RFE/RL that signing the treaty with Russia was probably a condition for Romania's being accepted in the alliance.

"[There] is concern in NATO that Romania, joining the alliance, might bring with it the difficulties in the Romanian-Russian relationship. So what this does is mend fences, because NATO doesn't want to accept new members who bring with them an issue with Russia. NATO wants good relations with Russia, so I think what's driving the signing of the treaty is NATO high command telling Romania, 'You've got to sort out your relationship with Russia, you've got to be fine with Russia, so there isn't a difficulty for the alliance.'"

Furthermore, U.S. President George W. Bush, during his visit to Bucharest last November, offered Romanians an additional incentive, telling them their country should become "a bridge to a new Russia."

Analyst Socor says good relations with Moscow -- as well as likely membership in the European Union in the future -- will also help Romania become a bridge between the Euro-Atlantic community and Eastern Europe.

"Romania's option is very clear. The country is now at the eastern boundary of the Euro-Atlantic world, a boundary which could continue to shift eastwards in the next years. Romania could play an important role in this process, the role of a springboard for countries such as Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, which also want to get closer to the Euro-Atlantic world."

But if Romania's incentive is clear, what's in it for Russia? Most experts say Moscow stands to gain economically from good relations with Bucharest.

Economic exchanges in recent years have amounted to a meager $1 billion annually -- mostly energy imports to Romania, which is heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil.

Russian energy companies have lately shown great interest in buying oil and gas companies in Romania, triggering fears of a massive penetration of Russian capital into Romania's energy infrastructure.

During his Bucharest visit, Russian Prime Minister Kasyanov reportedly asked for assurances that Russian companies will be able to make bids in the privatization of key Romanian energy companies.

Romanians have also expressed fears that Mafia-owned firms might penetrate the energy market. But Foreign Minister Ivanov yesterday dismissed such speculation, saying they were rumors spread by those who oppose good economic relations with legitimate Russian companies.

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