Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, on a two-day visit to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, today discussed NATO enlargement and bilateral cooperation with Czech officials. During his visit to Prague, the Romanian official visited RFE/RL, where he spoke about Romania's chances of securing an invitation to join NATO, the Hungarian status law and Romania's relations with its neighbors.
Prague, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In addition to meetings with top Czech officials, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana -- on a two-day visit to the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- held a news conference today at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters.
During the news conference, Geoana -- who earlier today met with Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan -- discussed a variety of topics, including Romania's efforts to join NATO later this year and Romania's relations with its neighbors.
At a summit scheduled for November in Prague, NATO is expected to proceed with its first enlargement wave since 1997, when it invited Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join the alliance. At that time, Romania -- together with Slovenia -- was nominated as a front-runner for a possible second wave of enlargement.
But since then, Romania seems to have lost ground in favor of other candidates. Analysts now see Slovenia, Slovakia, and the three Baltic countries -- Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia -- as the favorites to gain membership. The remaining three candidates are Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia.
Romania, which has also been left out of the European Union's anticipated 2004 expansion due to its failure to implement the required economic and institutional reforms, has now launched a diplomatic offensive to secure an invitation to join the 19-member military alliance.
Foreign Minister Geoana today said that Romania, together with neighboring Bulgaria, has great potential strategic value for the alliance and could help secure greater stability in Southeastern Europe.
However, analysts say Romania's bid has only a 50-50 chance of success, and only then provided the country speeds up military and political reform -- including decisive measures to fight rampant corruption -- and that NATO opts for admitting a large number of new members in a so-called "big-bang" expansion.
Geoana said today that military and political reform, as well as anticorruption measures, have picked up considerably in Romania. Discussing military reform, Geoana described Romania's achievements as "spectacular."
"I would say that on the defense side, things are looking much better than one or two years ago. We have increased our defense budget -- it's now 2.38 percent [of gross domestic product] -- and it will stay like this for some time to come. In terms of downsizing the military, Romania in 1990 had 320,000 people in service and now we are down to 120,000. So we downsized by three times and increased our defense budget by two times in dollar terms over the last 10 years. I would say that we have done one of the most spectacular things. We are far from being perfect, but I think we have scored some points."
Geoana went on to say that Romania's economy also picked up last year, with 5 percent GDP growth, while reform and privatization measures continued. But he admitted economic reform in Romania has caused significant social problems.
Geoana said measures adopted to fight corruption must be integrated into a broader category of what he called "the values dimension" required of NATO candidate countries before they can join the alliance -- that is, issues related to transparency, bureaucracy, independence of the judiciary, treatment of the Roma, and the situation of institutionalized children.
Geoana said that for the first time, NATO members have come up with a set of specific criteria that candidate countries should fulfill regarding this values dimension. He said Romania has what he called "a clear roadmap" to tackle such problems.
"Let me put it like this: We know exactly what we need to do and by when in order to make it for the Prague [NATO summit in November]. And my government -- and I think Romanian society [too] -- are fully determined to go by this and do it. It's not easy. It is sometimes politically complicated, sometimes it's painful because we have to cut even among our own lines in terms of party politics, but we have to do it. It's about the health of our society, it's about Romanians' dream to join the West."
Geoana said he strongly believes Romania will gain an invitation to join NATO this year if it focuses its political energy "in the right direction."
He also expressed belief that NATO is ready to make "a seven out of seven enlargement," referring to seven candidates which could secure NATO membership this year -- Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia. But Geoana added that it will depend on each country's individual efforts to gain membership.
"I think that the alliance is ready to have an enlargement both to the northeast, the center and the southeastern part of Europe, and it's up to every single country to qualify or disqualify individually from this race. That is what I call seven out of seven."
Geoana also said that Romania is hoping to resolve its border disputes with neighboring Ukraine by the time Romanian President Ion Iliescu visits that country in June. But for the disputes to be resolved, he said both sides must exhibit "flexibility, goodwill, and hard work."
Geoana travels tomorrow to Slovakia, where he is scheduled to meet top Slovak officials. He said he hoped both Slovakia and Hungary will be able to reach an agreement regarding the Hungarian status law -- which grants certain rights to ethnic Hungarians living abroad -- in the same manner Bucharest and Budapest solved their status law dispute late last year.