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Romania/Bulgaria: Balkan Neighbors Press Ahead With NATO Bid, Vow To Tackle Corruption

Balkan neighbors Romania and Bulgaria have launched a diplomatic offensive to secure an invitation to join NATO at the alliance's summit in Prague later this year. Both countries have been left out of an anticipated European Union expansion in 2004 and are trailing behind other NATO candidates as well. Analysts say despite their potential strategic importance for the alliance, Romania and Bulgaria must speed up military and legislative reform and seriously tackle widespread corruption to stand a realistic chance of being considered for NATO admission.

Prague, 7 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Despite only modest gains in military and anticorruption reforms, Romania and Bulgaria are redoubling efforts to press their case for gaining entry into NATO at the alliance's Prague summit later this year.

In November, NATO is expected to proceed with its first enlargement wave since admitting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999. At that time, Romania -- together with Slovenia -- was nominated as a front-runner for a possible second wave of enlargement.

Nine candidate countries -- Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- are now vying for membership. Analysts see Slovenia, Slovakia, and the three Baltic countries as the favorites to enter.

Romania and Bulgaria are also among the 12 candidates pursuing entry to the European Union in 2004. But late last year both countries were pointedly excluded from the list of expected entrants, with EU officials citing failure to achieve the economic and institutional reforms required for Union membership.

With hopes of imminent EU membership fading, both Balkan countries are now setting their sights on entry into NATO. Leaders from the two countries contend their admission would enhance stability in the region and provide the military alliance with a strategically important base in Southeastern Europe.

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, speaking over the weekend at the World Economic Forum in New York, presented arguments for admitting Romania and Bulgaria into the alliance.

He said in addition to their strategic value, both countries have proved themselves reliable partners for NATO, in both peacekeeping operations and in the current antiterrorist campaign, where Romania has contributed 30 troops to the international security force in Kabul and Bulgaria has pledged an additional 40 soldiers.

"Romania and Bulgaria are the most populous of the new [Southeast] European democracies. We are partners who have been tested in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and the war against terrorism. From a geo-strategic perspective, including Romania and Bulgaria in NATO will consolidate the southern flank of the alliance and strengthen its ability to address current security needs."

Bulgaria's new president, Georgi Parvanov, in Brussels this week (5 February) for meetings with NATO and EU officials, said in turn his country would like a "clear signal" that it will be invited to join the alliance in November.

Romania and Bulgaria are the two largest NATO candidates in the region, with Romania -- at 22 million people -- by far the most populous country in the area. (Bulgaria's population is almost 9 million.) Analysts agree both countries have great potential value for the alliance and could help secure greater stability in Southeast Europe.

Daniel Keohane, a defense analyst at the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank, told RFE/RL that Romania and Bulgaria could act as a link between NATO's Central and Southeast European members.

"Well, certainly strategically, both Romania and Bulgaria are extremely important for Southeastern Europe, where they'd be providing land links to other NATO members like Turkey or Hungary, or assisting with Balkan operations. Of course, both Romania and Bulgaria offered very significant support during the Kosovo conflict to NATO, and this has not gone unnoticed in NATO member states. So from a strategic point of view, they are extremely important and that would certainly be in their favor."

NATO members Greece and Turkey have repeatedly spoken out in support of admitting Romania and Bulgaria, while analysts note the two countries are ideally located to help NATO protect Europe from drug smuggling and human trafficking from Central Asia.

Analyst Keohane says Romania and Bulgaria have a long way to go in order to complete radical reforms of their armed forces. But he points out that, while still trailing behind other candidate states, both Bucharest and Sofia have made clear progress in this direction.

Romanian defense officials last month announced they were stepping up efforts to complete military reforms. Romania's defense budget for 2002 has for the first time edged over $1 billion, some 2.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product. In an effort to streamline the country's conscript army, the number of troops has been downsized to just over 100,000, with more than 4,000 officers discharged last year alone.

Army commanders also say that by the end of the year, some 80 percent of the army will consist of professional soldiers, with a focus on highly trained and mobile units capable of assisting NATO in peacekeeping operations.

Bulgaria has also launched an ambitious military reform program aiming to reduce the number of troops from an estimated 100,000 in 1998 to some 45,000 by 2004.

But besides its military role, NATO is also a political alliance, and leaders on both sides of the Atlantic stress that progress toward stable democratic systems remains a key condition for candidate countries. Western officials have also singled out rampant corruption as an obstacle to the two countries' NATO entry bid.

With average monthly incomes of $100 and $125 respectively, Romania and Bulgaria are among the poorest countries in Europe, and corruption is widespread. Romania in particular is under pressure to prove it can effectively stifle the problem of pervasive corruption.

The U.S. ambassador to Bucharest, Michael Guest, last month issued an unusually frank warning that corruption is not only the main obstacle to Romania's NATO bid, but could also destabilize the country. Prime Minister Nastase, speaking in New York, admitted corruption has become a threat to democracy and said fighting it is his top priority.

"Corruption is a drain on our economy, a damper on foreign investment, and a blight on the reputation of our country. It is a threat to our institutions and to the freedoms we worked so hard to acquire. Fighting corruption is the number-one priority."

Nastase says his government last month established a national anticorruption office to ensure "coordinated action" against the use of bribes and kickbacks.

Analyst Steven Everts from the London-based Centre for European Reform says Bucharest's apparent determination to tackle corruption is a good sign -- albeit a belated one. But Everts told RFE/RL that Romania should take the U.S. ambassador's warning seriously.

"I think previous Romanian governments have sort of paid lip service to the need to combat corruption but did not follow it up with direct action. And I think what the American ambassador was driving at was, you've got to be serious. It's not just a question of giving warm speeches, however welcome that is -- it is also a question of living up to it and then implementing it and tackling it right across the board when it comes to local administrations, police forces, tax and customs officials, etc, etc."

In Bulgaria -- which has long had a poor reputation for widespread crime, including drug trafficking -- the six-month-old government of Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski has also stepped up anticorruption and anticrime rhetoric.

Saxecoburggotski, speaking yesterday to a group of foreign investors, said his government "is taking the problem seriously" and has adopted a "strategic plan" to fight corruption. Also yesterday, Economy Minister Nikolai Vassilev said the government is "winning" the battle against corruption, which he said is decreasing in Bulgaria.

Anticorruption watchdog Transparency International last year upgraded Bulgaria's rank on an anticorruption league table, moving it up from 66th place in 1998 to 47th place in 2001.

Analyst Everts says that while both Romania and Bulgaria were left out of the EU's next wave of enlargement because of their lack of progress toward economic and institutional reform, the two countries may still be admitted into NATO to counterbalance what he calls "the negative effects" of leaving them outside the EU.

Everts told RFE/RL that Romania and Bulgaria's NATO bid has a fair chance of success, based on what he sees as a growing trend toward admitting a large number of new members -- a so-called "big-bang" enlargement:

"I would rate the chances [of Romania and Bulgaria being invited to join NATO] at around 40 to 50 percent, maybe. It does depend on what sort of tradeoff, what sort of consensus will be formed among current NATO members about how aggressive and how big a bang we want with this NATO enlargement. I feel that more and more governments inside NATO at the moment are coming around or leaning toward a fairly large number [of new members]."

NATO has so far been reluctant to give any clear indications about what countries are better positioned to join the alliance.

Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, during talks in Brussels yesterday with Parvanov, praised Bulgaria for joining the fight against terrorism in pledging troops to the Kabul security force, but gave no hints whether such praise would translate into a NATO invitation. Robertson said "no decisions" regarding NATO membership will be made before the Prague summit in November.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking this week (5 February) before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, likewise said he is not prepared to say how many nations will be invited to join the alliance. But he said he is "absolutely sure" that a number of countries will be offered NATO membership in Prague, adding that he thinks it is going to be a "pretty good size addition."