Romania and Bulgaria are expected to benefit from democratic changes in neighboring Yugoslavia. But both countries are ending the year 2000 with less-than-perfect report cards from the European Commission on their EU membership bids. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz examines the developments this year in these two countries -- sometimes referred to as the "forgotten Balkans" because of the international focus on the former Yugoslavia.
Prague, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For citizens in both Bulgaria and Romania, some of the best news in 2000 came from outside the countries' borders. It was the ouster in October of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.
During most of the last decade, officials in Sofia and Bucharest have blamed Belgrade for many of their economic problems. Indeed, years of war in the former Yugoslav republics -- combined with international embargoes against Belgrade -- have severed the most direct trade routes linking western Europe with Romania and Bulgaria.
At the height of the United Nations' Yugoslav embargo in 1995, Bulgaria claimed it was losing about $2 billion in foreign trade a year because of the sanctions.
Not surprisingly, Milosevic's ouster in early October has been cheered in Sofia and Bucharest as a landmark event for the prospects of economic growth across the entire Balkan region.
But the news from both Bulgaria and Romania has been less encouraging on the important issue of European Union accession.
As the year neared a close, both were named by Brussels as the laggards among the 10 former East Bloc countries that are vying for EU membership.
A recent European Commission report praised Sofia for its efforts to push reforms forward in the last year. But Brussels hedged those positive remarks with advice on further reforms. Despite progress on adopting EU laws, for example, the Commission says the ability of Bulgarian authorities to implement those laws remains very poor.
The report says reforms are still needed within Bulgaria's judicial system. It also urges further efforts in the fight against corruption. It concludes that Bulgaria is still far from being able to compete within the EU as a functioning market economy.
Nevertheless, Bulgaria's relationship to the EU ended the year on a positive note when the group's EU justice and interior ministers decided in December to lift visa requirements for Bulgarian citizens. The decision was linked to Bulgaria's reform progress as well as to Brussels' desire to prevent Bulgarians from becoming disenchanted with the EU enlargement process. Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov said that for Bulgarians, the decision is as significant as the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
"Because for the majority of the Bulgarian people who have been deprived of many other rights --and most conspicuously of their right to travel abroad freely-- the collapse of communism, the lifting of the iron curtain and the implementation of the European has been linked to free and unhindered travel around the world."
Analysts say the domestic political events of 2000 and early 2001 will determine how quickly Bulgaria advances toward EU membership during the next year -- particularly parliamentary elections scheduled for April.
Polls show voters are increasingly concerned about corruption and rising unemployment. This has translated into a loss of support for the governing coalition of the United Democratic Forces (UDF) -- a group of pro-market reformists with an absolute majority in the current parliament who have, by far, done more than any other post-communist officials to integrate Bulgaria with western Europe.
Polls also suggest it will be a close race between the UDF and the former communists in the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). If that is the case, a relatively few parliamentary deputies from the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms could find themselves in a position to control the balance of power.
While Turkish party leader Ahmed Dogan has not proclaimed support for either the UDF or the BSP, Dogan has strongly criticized Prime Minister Ivan Kostov's UDF government over a recent bugging scandal. He accused Kostov of attempting to create a new political police force.
What is certain is that whoever heads the Bulgarian government next year will be in a far less stable position than Kostov's current cabinet. That will make it more difficult politically to push forward with restructuring that result in job losses.
Meanwhile, in Romania, hopes for rapid progress on EU membership are ending the year on a sour note. The European Commission report on Romania's membership bid was strongly negative. Gunter Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enlargement, recently singled out Romania as having inherited the weakest democratic institutions out of all EU candidates. He says Romania's negotiations will be difficult. He warned that Romania's next government must accelerate economic and legislative reforms if the country's EU candidacy is to be taken seriously.
The European Commission report on Romania explains further why the country is at the bottom of the list. It says Romania's progress this year on adopting EU laws was the worst of all candidates. It concludes that Romania is far from having a functioning market economy because of several factors -- including a poor commitment to reform, weak institutions, the lack of a functioning financial system, falling investment levels and little progress on privatization or corporate restructuring.
Romania's recent elections also have raised concerns in the west that the country's slow progress on reforms could become even slower.
The vote brought former Communists from the Party for Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) into both the presidency and the prime minister's post. The PDSR has a poor record on market reforms.
The new president, Ion Iliescu, was Romania's first elected president after the ouster of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. In his campaign, Iliescu described himself as a candidate who would advance Romania's EU membership bid. After winning the second round ballot in December against ultra-nationalist candidate Corneliu "Vadim" Tudor, Iliescu explained the immediate priorities for the PDSR leadership.
"The first problem is forming the government and preparing the country for 2001, the budget, the first package of legislative and executive measures and preparing for the negotiations with international financial organizations."
Incoming Prime Minister Adrian Nastase of the PDSR says his top priority will be to increase foreign investment.
But analysts in Romania and abroad have expressed skepticism that Iliescu or Nastase will do much to push reform forward. That skepticism is based on the PDSR's record from 1992 to 1996 when Iliescu was president and his allies controlled both the parliament and the government. Despite a firm grip on power, the PDSR failed to move forward on even the most basic principles of market reforms.
European Commission spokesman Jean Christophe Filori has warned that any more dithering by Romania on political and economic reforms will set back Romania's EU membership bid.