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Romania: Political Crisis Rocks The Government

What a difference a week makes. A few days ago in Helsinki, Romania became a full candidate for EU accession -- a long-desired goal that prompted politicians to predict happier times ahead. But yesterday's decision by President Emil Constantinescu to fire Prime Minister Radu Vasile has plunged the country into another political crisis. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten recaps events so far and looks at what might lie ahead.

Prague, 14 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Radu Vasile's dismissal by the president came after 10 of his coalition government's 17 ministers resigned last night.

President Constantinescu lost no time in declaring the resignations proof of Vasile's inability to govern. He named the country's labor minister, Alexandru Athanasiu, as interim premier.

At issue, however, is whether the Romanian Constitution actually gives the president the right to fire the prime minister. Vasile maintains he can only be ousted by a no-confidence vote in parliament. He says he has no intention of recognizing the president's order. The director of RFE/RL's Romanian Service, Nestor Ratesh, notes that the constitution's wording on the matter is imprecise:

"The fact is that the constitution is not very clear on this. It provides for the dismissal of a member of government in case of incapacity. Now, it depends how you interpret this word. It may be political incapacity, or physical incapacity. Some claim that it's only political incapacity. And the prime minister's incapacity comes from the fact that 10 of the 17 members of government resigned last night, so he doesn't have -- the argument goes -- a government to preside over."

For now, Romania has two prime ministers. The issue of Vasile's political fate could be resolved quickly by a parliamentary vote. But this is where matters become complicated. Analysts say Vasile has become caught up in political infighting between two wings of his ruling National Peasant Party Christian Democratic. One faction supports him, while the other, allied with the president, seeks his ouster.

But very few want the entire government to go. This means that a no-confidence motion in the government has little chance of being approved by parliament. Independent analyst Stelian Tanase -- editor of the monthly magazine "Sfera Politicii" -- told RFE/RL by telephone from Bucharest that the president knew he could not get rid of Vasile through the parliament and therefore precipitated a real crisis, with a unique Romanian twist:

"I think the president tried to avoid this [option] -- to go with the prime minister to parliament -- because he'd have no chance for him to be demised. It's quite an absurd situation, because it's impossible to ask the majority to oppose their own prime minister in parliament. It's the business of the opposition, not the majority. It's an absurd situation. Don't forget that Eugene Ionescu is a Romanian playwright."

Tanase blames Constantinescu for letting himself be drawn into the Peasant Party's intrigues. He emphasizes, as do other analysts, that this infighting lies at the core of the problem. At a time when Romania is on track to begin accession negotiations to the EU, Tanase says, this crisis could not have come at a worse time.

"First of all, it's a personal conflict between different groups of the Peasant Party, and one of the groups now works with the president against the prime minister. Secondly, of course, we have a constitutional crisis and it's possible to have an even deeper crisis in the next few weeks."

President Constantinescu, in his dismissal order, blamed Vasile and his government for failing to push through economic reforms quickly enough, since coming to power nearly two years ago. The same criticism was leveled at Vasile's predecessor, Victor Ciorbea.

The fact is that standards of living have plummeted for Romanians this year, with unemployment rising and wages stagnating. But many economists note that these are the results of long-delayed economic reforms finally taking hold. Vasile, they say, has done more than his predecessors to bring Romania closer to the European Union.

To be sure, much remains to be done, and the EU in its report on Romania this year emphasized that the country must make up for lost ground if it is to have a real chance of joining the club of Europe's prospering democracies.

But the latest political crisis is more likely to slow that effort rather than help it.