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Analysis: Romanian President Makes Ungraceful Exit

Exit stage left (file photo) With just two strokes of his pen, outgoing Romanian President Ion Iliescu managed at the end of last week to do more damage to his legacy than any of his political adversaries could have hoped to do.

Throughout his last term as head of state (2000-04), Iliescu had taken great pains to secure himself a place in history that would make future generations forget his authoritarian beginnings as Romania's head of state (1989-96). Some he convinced, other remained skeptical about the "second Iliescu," as that latter period was described by Romania-born U.S. political scientist Vladimir Tismaneanu.

By granting a presidential pardon on 16 December to Miron Cozma -- the jailed leader of Jiu Valley coal miners who stormed Bucharest in 1990 and 1991 and sought to march on the capital in 1999 in an apparent coup attempt -- Iliescu knew he would be summoning the ghosts of the past, but he apparently never imagined how strong the public's reaction would be. Cozma has served seven years of an 18-year sentence for having brought about the overthrow in September 1991 of the government headed by Petre Roman. Iliescu is on record as thanking miners who rampaged Bucharest in June 1990 for "responding to our appeal" and carrying out their "civic duties " -- these being the same miners who physically attacked not only political opponents of Iliescu who had been conducting a longstanding demonstration, but also people on the street who just happened to look intellectual. Iliescu was also accused of complicity in Prime Minister Roman's overthrow, as the two had become exponents of different paths for the ruling Front of National Salvation.

Cozma's pardon immediately triggered protests, notably by nongovernmental human rights organizations. The brewing controversy could not have come at a worse time. On 17 December, Iliescu, his successor Traian Basescu, and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase were to attend a European Union summit in Brussels at which 2007 was officially to be named as the likely date for Romania's accession to the EU. Romania had barely managed to gain the EU's approval as it was, having overcome the many misgivings expressed by union members -- including regarding the judiciary's independence. This is what made EU Ambassador to Romania Jonathan Scheele question upon hearing of Cozma's pardon whether the justice process was not being distorted. The pardon also triggered criticism by U.S. diplomats in Bucharest.
Iliescu is on record as thanking miners who rampaged Bucharest in June 1990...these being the same miners who physically attacked not only political opponents of Iliescu...but also people on the street who just happened to look intellectual.

Faced with difficult political negotiations ahead and still hoping to forge a new ruling coalition after the 28 November elections, Prime Minister Nastase tried to distance himself from any role in the pardon. With the incumbent president and prime minister already in Brussels, Nastase had his spokeswoman Despina Neagoe issue a statement claiming that he disagreed with the pardon. However, in fact Nastase had countersigned it, as stipulated by law. He later admitted to this, but claimed he had signed "many papers" and was not fully aware of what he was attaching his signature to -- hardly a boost to Nastase's efforts to hang on to his job. President-elect Basescu refused to fly to Brussels on the same official plane as Iliescu and Nastase and boarded a commercial flight instead, to emphasize his opposition to the politically-motivated pardon.

Iliescu eventually decided to take full responsibility for pardoning Cozma, and withdrew it the next day. Yet this only intensified doubts about Romania's suitability as a potential member of the democratic EU club. Scheele commented that the revocation of the pardon was "just as surprising as its issuance," and a statement issued by the EU diplomatic representation in Bucharest expressed the European Commission's wish to "draw attention to the importance of respecting fundamental European values, such as democracy and a state based on the rule of law."

There was solid ground for such doubts that was strengthened further by the chain of events that took place after the pardon was revoked. Cozma, who had already been freed from jail owing to the pardon, was detained in Timisoara after it was revoked. However, this in itself was against the law, as police were not entitled to place him under arrest without a specific warrant issued by a judge -- and no such warrant could be issued as the pardon had yet to be made official by being published in the country's official gazette, the "Monitorul official." This was to happen only in the late afternoon of 17 December. To justify Cozma's detention, police claimed that he was suspected of being involved in a recent extortion scandal (although the scandal broke out when Cozma was in prison), and that they were allowed to detain him for 48 hours for questioning. Cozma was finally flown to Bucharest from Timisoara in the early evening, but that still didn't answer the question of what to do about the more than 40 other people who were freed along with Cozma owing to the pardon. All of them had to be reincarcerated, and one has yet to be detained. One of those pardoned was involved in the quashing of the Timisoara anticommunist uprising, and this only added to the public's wrath against Iliescu.

Controversial Decision

Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) made the unprecedented move of criticizing Iliescu's decision to pardon Cozma -- a move that is all the more surprising considering Iliescu is expected to return soon to the position of PSD chairman. The party expressed its criticisms after receiving an ultimatum from one of its envisaged coalition partners -- the Humanist Party (PUR), which demanded that Iliescu clarify what led to Cozma's pardon and its subsequent revocation and also that the PSD clearly express its stance on the issue. What is more, outgoing Finance Minister Mihai Tanasescu (who was beaten by rampaging miners in 1990) threatened to resign from the party if Iliescu were to return to head it, while the powerful head of the party's Bucharest branch, Dan Ioan Popescu, also leveled some criticisms at Iliescu.

The "Cozma affair" was exploited by the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) to turn its back on the PSD and Nastase, with whom it had cooperated in 2000-04 and supported in the recent presidential runoff. Faced with President-elect Basescu's threat to either designate a premier from among his own Justice and Truth alliance or to bring about early elections, the UDMR promptly engaged in coalition talks with the alliance. Chairman Bela Marko, who was criticized from within his party for his hasty pro-PSD stance following the 28 November parliamentary elections, said that the pardoning of Cozma had "created a situation in which the UDMR in the same boat" with the PSD. Iliescu's later decision to renege on his pardon did not help, Marko added, "because the damage is done." The PUR may take the same course, according to hints from its chairman, Dan Voiculescu.

In just one day, Iliescu had turned from an asset for the PSD into a burden for the party, his long-time former associate Silviu Brucan commented on 17 December. Others were even less kind -- and opportunistic. Cristian Tudor Popescu, editor in chief of the daily "Adevarul," serves as a good example. Popescu was clearly behind the PSD in the last elections, although trying to hide his position behind a mask of objectivity. However Popescu, who is also president of the Romanian Press Club, quickly turned on Iliescu, describing him as an "old Bolshevik" whose "act of clemency" toward Cozma was but an "act of dementia" that boded ill for Romania's image abroad.

This was certainly not the way Iliescu had hoped to make his political exit -- one that had already been stained by his decision on 13 December to award Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a well-known anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, Romania's highest state order. In protest, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel returned the Romania's Star that he himself had received earlier from Iliescu, setting an example that would soon be followed by others, including journalists from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who were singled out for honors by the Romanian state following that country's transformation to democracy that began in 1989, and Randolph Braham, a prominent scholar of the Holocaust in Hungary.

In his last speech as president, delivered on 20 December, Iliescu said that he is "but flesh and blood, and of course I sometimes make mistakes -- as unfortunately happened in the last days of my term." In Brussels, Iliescu characterized both his pardoning of Cosma and the award to Tudor as "road accidents." However, Iliescu surely realizes that road accidents can also be fatal, and is probably betting that his undeniable political skills can steer him away from political demise once more.

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