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1997 In Review: Bulgaria And Romania Reverse Roles

Prague, 16 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- As 1997 set in, Bulgaria and Romania seemed to be heading in different directions. Bulgaria was torn apart by political turmoil as the year began. The situation looked far better in Romania, where the November 1996 elections for the first time ushered in a pro-reform team. But as the year draws to a close, the situation in the two countries appears almost to have been reversed.

In Bulgaria, the government headed by Zhan Videnov had been forced to resign in late December 1996. There were demonstrations against the rule of the Socialist Party (BSP). As a result of mismanagement and corruption, the economy had plunged the country into the deepest crisis faced by any European former communist state. The BSP had already paid a political price for its mismanagement, having lost the presidency in November 1996. President-elect Petar Stoyanov, who took the oath of office January 19, was facing a BSP parliamentary majority that seemed determined not to yield power.

The street demonstrations in Sofia and elsewhere forced the BSP to agree to the appointment in early February of a catertaker government headed by Sofia Mayor Stefan Sofiyanski. Early elections followed in April. The elections swept the BSP out of power. Just as important, they produced a comfortable majority in the parliament for the pro-reform Union of Democratic Forces (ODS). The ODS had merged its different components in February, and ran in the elections as a unified political formation.

Experience has taught the ODS that divisions and inability to compromise can harbor disaster. It was precisely such lack of unity -- combined with psychological barriers against granting the country's Turkish minority Turkish-language education -- that had brought down the first ODS government (November 1991-October 1992).

Ironically, the dire state of the Bulgarian economy in early 1997 enabled the new government headed by Ivan Kostov to pursue an uncompromising path. Its first step was to set up in June a currency board, as urged by the IMF as part of the conditions for granting Sofia in March a $617-million-stand-by credit. The law on the currency board tied local money supply to foreign-currency reserves and outlawed covering budget deficits by printing money, thus preventing the National Bank from fueling inflation. In July, the board pegged the lev to the German mark. The hyper-inflation of early 1997 was stopped. The inflation rate now is forecast to be a manageable 16-17 percent in 1998.

The Kostov cabinet undertook several measures to promote privatization. But its first priority was fighting corruption and the reforming the administration of state agencies. Once more, it seems that here Kostov benefited from the experience of past failures of reformists.

In Romania, as 1997 dawned, the signs seemed to portend comparative stability.

Romania's new president, Emil Constantinescu, belonged to the same political spectrum as the coalition cabinet headed by premier Victor Ciorbea. This included three different political alliances: the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR), the Social Democratic Union and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR). The UDMR�s participation in the coalition seemed to mark a historic departure from the country's past of inter-ethnic animosities. Backed by strong domestic popularity and by international political and financial support, the country's new rulers seemed likely to succeed in putting the country on the road to genuine democratization and economic reform, both of which had been delayed for nearly seven years.

But the Romanian coalition headed by Ciorbea did not benefit from the Bulgarian asset of negative experience. Instead of concentrating on the unifying task of reform, each component of the ruling coalition attempted to impose its own views -- and its own people -- on the other coalition members. The fact that each of the three components was, in fact, not a party but an alliance of parties, complicated matters even more. Bargaining is even more difficult in a coalition of coalitions.

Some success had been registered by the Ciorbea cabinet in economic macrostabilization in the first months of its four-year mandate. But public bickering among the coalition partners soon set in and their attention turned to matters of secondary importance. As a result, restructuring of the country's economy and microstabilization lagged behind. With a parliament divided and unable to pass coherent legislation, foreign investment failed to materialize, despite limited early progress.

A reshuffle of the government materialized in early December. But without discipline in the heterogeneous coalition, there is doubt that the reshuffle will achieve its purpose. And only one week after the reshuffle, the continuation of the coalition became uncertain. The Senate approved amendments in the discriminatory 1995 Education Law different from those submitted by the government. CDR senators voted with the opposition, and the UDMR announced it was suspending its participation in the cabinet. It later went beck on the decision, but the future of the coalition still looks uncertain.

Romania has thus entered a period of political instability resembling in many aspects that which brought down the first government of Bulgarian reformists in 1992.

Lacking the Bulgarian experience, Romanians have found many of the reforms planned by the Ciorbea cabinet hindered by an unrestructured administrative apparat. Corruption also has been an impediment to reforms in Romania, as witnessed by President Constantinescu's setting up of a National Council for Struggle Against Corruption and Organized Crime in January. This action is, however, problematic, as it establishes structures that are extra-constitutional. In itself, it is a testimony to the magnitude of the problem.

The two Balkan neighbors are on common ground when it comes to foreign relations. Both entertained rather unrealistic hopes of being invited to join NATO in the first wave and to be among those invited to begin negotiations for joining the European Union. Romania is slightly ahead of Bulgaria in the quest for NATO membership, since at the July Madrid summit NATO leaders named Bucharest as likely to be invited next time around. President Bill Clinton visited Bucharest after the summit to emphasize that Romania should stay the course of reforms, as he put it.. But that doesn't mean that Sofia is necessarily ruled out as a future NATO member. The EU, however, is an even more distant prospect for both countries.

The quest for NATO and EU membership is also what prompted both countries to pursue with vigor a policy of resolving historical disputes with their neighbors.

For Bulgaria this has meant primarily improving relations with Turkey. Stoyanov visited Ankara in late July, securing Turkey's support for joining NATO and signing a military agreement there. Turkish Premier Mesut Yilmaz returned the visit in December, when the two countries signed an agreement settling a 50-year old border dispute. Yilmaz said relations were in the healthiest period in the two nations' history.

Romania in early June signed a basic treaty with Ukraine, agreeing to a document that made no mention of territories incorporated into the former Soviet Union in 1940 as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. Romania also sought to improve relations with neighboring Hungary far beyond the narrow interpretation of the basic treaty signed with Budapest by the former leadership in August 1996. Ciorbea and his Hungarian counterpart Gyula Horn exchanged visits in March and October, respectively, with Hungary strongly advocating early NATO membership for Romania. Hungarian President Arpad Goncz visited Romania in May and in July Budapest was allowed to reopen in Cluj, which has a considerable Hungarian minority, a consulate closed by Ceausescu in 1988. The changing winds blowing from Bucharest on the rights of national minorities, which prompted the UDMR to suspend its participation in the ruling coalition, might, however, set back the Hungarian-Romanian clock in a future not too distant.

In the domestic sphere though, it is Romania which now is struggling with political instability and Bulgaria which seems to be striding firmly toward stability and reform.