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Romania: Government Moves To Ban Extremist Groups, Protect Jewish Heritage

Romania's government has approved emergency measures to ban racist groups and actions and to protect the country's Jewish heritage. At the same time, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase for the first time openly acknowledged Romania's participation in the Holocaust. Analysts say the government's actions -- which come as Romania is redoubling its efforts to meet NATO admission criteria -- are meant to prove the country is committed to embracing Western values and rejecting racism and anti-Semitism.

Prague, 22 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Romania's government on 21 March adopted two emergency measures to prohibit racist, fascist, and xenophobic organizations, ban monuments honoring people guilty of crimes against humanity, and protect Jewish heritage and cemeteries.

The two emergency ordinances provide for punishments of up to 20 years in jail for violators. Parliament is due to discuss turning the measures into regular laws.

The decisions were first announced on 18 March by Prime Minister Nastase in a message sent to participants in the country's first-ever post-graduate course on the Holocaust, being held at the National Defense College in Bucharest.

In his message, Nastase also publicly acknowledged for the first time that the country did take part in the Holocaust. He said Romania must take responsibility for its past.

Over the past decade, Romania has drawn outside criticism for failing to openly admit to its participation in the Holocaust and for attempts by several politicians and high military officials to rehabilitate Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania's military dictator and Hitler's close ally during World War II.

Furthermore, the popularity enjoyed by the ultranationalist Greater Romania Party, or PRM, whose leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor is notorious for his anti-Semitic, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric, has alarmed Western politicians.

PRM came second in general elections in 2000, with some 20 percent of the vote, while Tudor lost the presidential runoff to Ion Iliescu. Romania is stepping up efforts to fulfill NATO admissions criteria in the runup to the alliance's summit in November in Prague, when nine candidate countries are hoping to be invited to join the 19-nation bloc.

Analysts believe the measures adopted by Bucharest this week are meant to show the country's commitment to Western values and to rejecting racism and anti-Semitism.

Government spokesman Claudiu Lucaci admits that Romania is looking to send the right signals abroad. At the same time, Lucaci tells RFE/RL that Bucharest is bringing its legislation in line with NATO requirements: "It is also very true that Romania wants to give all the necessary signals to show that it is irreversibly oriented toward integration in the Euro-Atlantic structures. This law is one of the many gestures the Romanian government is making -- not necessarily to prove something to somebody, but to establish the legal framework and the necessary institutional structures to be compatible with NATO requirements at any moment."

One of the measures bans fascist, racist, and xenophobic symbols and organizations -- including political parties -- as well as promoting the image of persons found guilty of "crimes against peace and humanity" by a Romanian, foreign, or international court.

It also forbids erecting or maintaining monuments to such persons in public places other than museums and makes public denial of the Holocaust a punishable offense.

Lucaci tells RFE/RL the measure provides for harsh prison punishments: "For example, [the law prohibits] crimes such as establishing fascist, racist or xenophobic organizations, which can be punished with five to 15 years in prison, or promoting the cult of persons who are guilty of crimes against peace and humanity, or promoting [forbidden] ideologies, which can bring punishments from six months to five years in prison."

Commentators say the provision about images and monuments of individuals found guilty of crimes against humanity is a direct reference to Marshal Antonescu.

Antonescu ruled Romania between 1941 and 1944. He sent the Romanian army to fight alongside Hitler's troops against the Soviet Union, under the pretext of liberating Romania's eastern province of Bessarabia.

Antonescu was arrested in 1944 by King Michael, who broke Romania's alliance with Nazi Germany. Antonescu was subsequently found guilty of war crimes by a military court in Soviet-occupied Romania and executed.

Western historians say that Antonescu was responsible for the deaths of a quarter of a million Jews from Romania proper and from territories under Romanian occupation in what was then the Soviet Union.

Radu Ioanid, archive director at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., tells RFE/RL that extensive research shows that the overwhelming majority of those killed were Jews from Bessarabia and Transdniester -- which at that time referred to the territory between the rivers Dniester and Bug.

"We must make a clear distinction between the number of victims in the [old] Kingdom [the southern part of Romania] and in southern Transylvania on the one hand -- which does not exceed 17,000-20,000 -- and Bessarabia, Bukovina and the Transdniester on the other hand, where we have a total of 230,000. The overall number of the Jews who were assassinated or died under Romanian jurisdiction is about 250,000," Ioanid says.

However, Ioanid, who is currently teaching a course on the Holocaust at Bucharest's National Defense College, says many Romanian Jews survived the Holocaust, in part because of Antonescu's decision in the fall of 1942 to cancel a plan to deport the Jews from central and southern Romania.

Ioanid also says that a careful distinction must be made between Jews killed in Romania itself or on territories under Romanian occupation, and the 150,000 Jews exterminated in northern Transylvania, which at the time was under Hungarian occupation.

Ioanid this week was quoted in the Romanian media as citing unnamed officials from the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies as saying they will reject any attempt by Romania to enter NATO with, as he put it, "Antonescu on the banners."

Nonetheless, some top Romanian military officials and politicians -- especially PRM leader Tudor and his associates -- regard Antonescu as a national hero who fought to reclaim Romanian territories occupied by the Soviet Union. Several statues have been erected in his memory.

Romanian Jewish community leaders say that Antonescu has six statues in the country, including one in Bucharest. Jewish organizations abroad have protested the existence of such monuments, and the newly adopted measure now enables Romanian authorities to destroy them.

A second emergency measure provides for the protection of Jewish heritage and Jewish graveyards in Romania, imposing prison sentences of up to 20 years for those guilty of destroying or damaging such objectives.

Analysts say that NATO and U.S. officials may have pressed the Romanian government to take action before being considered for alliance membership later this year.

London-based Romanian affairs analyst Dennis Deletant tells RFE/RL that acknowledging the sins of its past is an important aspect of Romania's NATO bid -- although not the most important one.

"On the political side, I think probably there are people in the United States who feel that, given Romania is a candidate for NATO membership, this is a good time to press for the government to question -- or invite Romanians themselves to question -- their own past. It is, I would say, a significant factor in Romania's chances for entry into NATO, but it's not the only one and I wouldn't consider it the overriding one," Deletant says.

Deletant considers that the measures adopted by Bucharest will help Romania improve its image and allay Western fears that Romania may not be prepared to assume what he calls "total responsibility for its past."

However, even as he was presenting the measures to local government officials, Romanian Prime Minister Nastase warned on 22 March against what he called attempts to blame the entire Romanian nation for atrocities committed by the country's wartime government.