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Romania: Iliescu Defeats Nationalist Tudor In Runoff For President

After yesterday's presidential run-off in Romania, ex-communist Ion Iliescu seems headed for a landslide victory over ultranationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor. But Iliescu's commitment to economic and democratic reform remains questionable, and Romania's continued advance toward European integration appears unclear.

Prague, 11 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Four years after being voted out of power, Ion Iliescu is back, handing ultranationalist Corneliu Vadim Tudor a crushing defeat in yesterday's presidential run-off. With almost 90 percent of the votes counted, Iliescu had the support of about 67 percent of voters, while Tudor had about 33 percent.

Iliescu, a former high-ranking communist educated in the Soviet Union, became Romania's first democratically elected president in 1990 following a bloody revolt which ousted communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989. He was re-elected in 1992 for a four-year term, but lost in 1996 to Emil Constantinescu, the candidate of a center-right coalition of parties and alliances.

In July, Constantinescu announced that he would not stand for re-election, citing his failure to corral corruption, organized crime, and what he called "former secret police agents." Without any credible right-wing opponent, Iliescu easily won the first round two weeks ago, with some 36 percent, followed by ultranationalist Tudor, with a surprisingly strong 28 percent.

Tudor, one of Ceausescu's former court poets, is well-known for his virulent anti-Hungarian, anti-Jewish, and anti-Roma attacks issued mostly in his "Greater Romania" weekly. It was his fierce anti-corruption rhetoric, though, that paved his way to the second round in a country where the average monthly pay is less than $100 and corruption and cronyism are widespread.

Tudor has never hidden his admiration for Ceausescu's nationalist type of communism and for the late dictator's stance of following a relatively independent foreign policy from the Soviet Union. An outright supporter of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, Tudor launched a noisy anti-NATO campaign during last year's allied bombing of Yugoslavia.

Faced with the prospect of an ultranationalist winning the presidency, leading politicians, civil rights groups and media organizations set aside their antipathy toward Iliescu and urged voters to choose what many referred to as "the lesser evil."

In the event of a Tudor victory, Iliescu and his Social Democracy Party -- which won a majority in parliament -- had pledged not to work with Tudor's Greater Romania Party and to go into opposition.

Late last night, Iliescu said in a victory speech that his success showed that "Romanians have categorically rejected extremism at a crucial moment for the nation."

But Tudor refused to concede defeat. He spoke of what he called "the greatest political fraud in Romanian history," and said he will contest the election result before an international court in The Hague. Later, he declined to give interviews, saying the press had waged a "murderous war" against him.

Iliescu promised last night to continue reforms and accelerate Romania's integration into the European Union and NATO. But his campaign centered mostly on promises to slow down what many people regarded as a painful reform, and Iliescu even hinted at reversing some privatization deals and at taking a tougher stance in negotiations with the international financial organizations.

He tells RFE/RL that he wants international organizations to treat Romania like a partner.

"It's not a question of suggesting or imposing conditions. We are partners, members of both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, where we pay membership fees. This relation does not imply subordination."

During the election campaign he spoke of a "dignified" integration into the European Union and NATO, which did little to improve his image abroad, but may have struck a chord with Romanians who think the West is not treating them fairly.

Iliescu says both Romania and the international organizations have to gain from enlargement.

"On the one hand, it's in the interest of these [NATO and EU] structures to enlarge, and on the other hand it's also in our interest to become part of these structures -- of NATO in order to have our security guaranteed to an extent equal to that of other countries in the region, and of the EU, which means mostly economic performance."

Iliescu may be more of a democrat than Tudor, but his perception abroad is far from that of a pro-Western reformist.

Iliescu is best-known for his involvement in some of the darkest episodes of Romania's post-communist history. In June 1990, hordes of miners marched into Bucharest, violently crushing a pro-reform student movement, with then-President Iliescu publicly thanking the miners for their actions. And in 1991, another miners' incursion toppled then-Prime Minister Petre Roman, without Iliescu intervening to curb it.

And earlier this year, an inquiry was launched into documents indicating that high officials from Iliescu's party may have been involved in illegal oil and arms shipments to Serbia in spite of a UN embargo during Iliescu's former time as president.

Iliescu and his party have returned to power thanks to the discontent of many Romanians with the performances of the outgoing center-right coalition. Economic reforms -- and especially the sell-off of loss-making state companies -- have been too slow. Only one-third of the economy has been privatized and annual inflation was as high as 45 percent in October. Unemployment runs at more than 10 percent and some 40 percent of Romania's 22 million people live under the poverty line.

But Iliescu and his leftist party will have to face the same huge economic and social problems as their predecessors, and the popularity they enjoy now may soon wear off.

Furthermore, failure to deliver on promises may find Iliescu losing ground to the very ultranationalist he has just defeated.