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Romania: President-Elect Calls For Closer Relations With Eastern Neighbors

President-elect Basescu (file photo) Romanian President-elect Traian Basescu has outlined his foreign policy goals following his upset victory in a runoff election on 12 December. Basescu strongly endorsed Romania's partnership with the United States and Britain. He also said he wants stronger ties with Moldova and increased regional cooperation, including with Ukraine, Russia, and the Caucasus. Basescu said his top priority remains Romania's membership in the European Union. But he has stirred controversy by suggesting that he might call for reopening EU entry negotiations on some issues.

Prague, 15 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In his first speech since defeating Prime Minister Adrian Nastase in a tense runoff vote, President-elect Basescu affirmed his commitment to Romania's partnership with the United States and Britain.

"The Washington-London-Bucharest axis will be a foreign policy priority for Romania's president," Basescu said.

Basescu also said EU candidate Romania's must consolidate its position as a pillar for stability in southeastern Europe:

"Romania is located in NATO and the European Union's buffer zone with the ex-Soviet states," Basescu said. "In this respect, Romania, by maintaining good relations with [states such as] Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, must be a stability factor at NATO's [eastern] border."

Western analysts say Basescu's statements suggest he is moving quickly to capitalize on the Euro-Atlantic organizations' renewed strategic interests in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Greater Middle East.
"Romania is located in NATO and the European Union's buffer zone with the ex-Soviet states. In this respect, Romania, by maintaining good relations with [states such as] Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, must be a stability factor at NATO's [eastern] border." -- President-elect Traian Basescu

Alexander Rahr is an expert on former Soviet states at the German Council on Foreign relations in Berlin.

"I think the statements are demonstrating that the new leaders in Romania will start thinking geopolitically, and they have seen a new chance to position their country, Romania, as a new stronghold in the new EU and NATO," Rahr said. "The EU as well as NATO are projecting more and more into the Caspian region through the Balkans, through Turkey, partly through Ukraine, into Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and from there into Central Asia."

Basescu said Romania would have what he called a "policy of partnership" for its eastern neighbor, Moldova. He said Moldovans would be treated as "good Romanians."

"I hope that very soon, the relations between Bucharest and Chisinau will become relations between two states who have the same people on their territory," Basescu said. "Romania has the obligation to treat Moldovans as good Romanians. Let us hope that our [future] relations with the government in Chisinau will support this will which I express as future president of Romania."

Moldova was part of Romania before World War II and some 65 percent of its population speaks Romanian.

Although independent, Moldova remains under Moscow's sphere of influence and its pro-Moscow breakaway region of Transdniester is being patrolled by Russian troops.

But recent indications show that the communist government in Chisinau is shifting its views toward the EU. Some analysts said a movement to reunite with would-be EU member Romania could now gain momentum.

However, analyst Rahr told RFE/RL that he believes reunification would be virtually impossible for many years to come.

"The country [Moldova] is deeply divided politically and ethnically. It remains to be seen what kind of path Moldova will choose towards Romania and the European Union," Rahr said. "The EU has given Romania a very strong signal that Romania will become, together with Bulgaria, the next member of the EU. But before making this promise, the EU made clear that the eastern borders of Romania should be fixed for a long time and nobody in the EU, and also from the direct neighbors [of Moldova] seems to be interested in new upheavals and changes of borders."

But Rahr said that Basescu's victory, coupled with a victory of Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in a repeat of the flawed late-November presidential vote on 26 December, could signal the beginning of a westward shift for Moldova, too.

"Moldova is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine [two countries of] which one is almost in the European Union and I think that Moldova could very easily get along the same path as Ukraine. Moldova is seeking -- even under the communists -- an entrance to the EU," Rahr said. "There is no direct neighborhood with Russia, like in Belarus. Moldova is, from my point of view, moving more along the Ukrainian path than along the Belarusian path."

Basescu also reaffirmed Romania's desire to join the EU on 1 January 2007.

But in an interview with the BBC, the outspoken Basescu later signaled that he was unhappy with some of the terms under which the current government has concluded EU membership negotiations.

His suggestion that he might call for a reopening of two chapters -- competition and energy -- roused critics who accused him of putting Romania's hard-earned membership promise at peril.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier and his Dutch counterpart Bernard Bot both warned that reopening negotiations would be counterproductive for Romania, whose readiness for membership has often been questioned.

Analyst Joan Hoey of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit also cautioned against such a move.

"I think it's a nonstarter, really, for Romania to start reopening chapters at this stage when they are being closed, there's a very short time scale now in terms of signing the accession treaty in April 2005 or the beginning of May 2005, and Romania's got an awful lot on its plate, just in terms of meeting accession conditions," Hoey said. "To seriously call for a reopening of chapters means really calling into question 2007 as a serious proposition [for Romania's EU membership]."

However, some analysts said the current government might have conceded too much to the EU in a bid to conclude accession talks before the general and presidential elections.

Political analyst Tom Gallagher of the University of Bradford in Britain said he believes Basescu was trying to warn Romanians about the hidden economic costs of EU membership and distance himself from the deal cut by the outgoing ex-communist government.

"I think Basescu is thinking in the long term. I mean, my evaluation of the negotiations is that [Romania's chief negotiator] Mr. [Vasile] Puscas did not negotiate effectively in some areas, and I think when the price tag is delivered to the Romanian people in two or three years' time I think there will be indignation about the losses in terms of jobs in the steel industry, the probable swamping of the agricultural market by goods from outside, and there may be some kind of nationalist backlash as Romanian jobs are lost," Gallagher said. "Now I think Mr. Basescu is being prudent, having looked at the terms and distancing himself from them."

Basescu will soon have a first chance to better explain his position. He is due to attend a landmark EU summit in Brussels together with outgoing President Ion Iliescu on 16-17 December.

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