WASHINGTON -- Romanian President Klaus Iohannis received key support from President Donald Trump during a White House visit as he seeks reelection in November against the ruling government’s candidate.
Iohannis is “highly respected and done a great job,” Trump said shortly before the two leaders sat down on August 20 to discuss regional security, energy, law enforcement, and a visa-waiver program.
Turning to Iohannis, Trump said, “You’re going to do very well [in the election] because you’re very talented, you love the people.”
Trump reiterated his support for Romanians to be allowed to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without needing a visa, an important issue for citizens in the Eastern European nation.
Romania, a European Union member country, has yet to meet the standards to become part of the visa-waiver program.
More than 447,000 people declared Romanian ancestry in the 2010 U.S. population census, the last year one was conducted.
The trip -- Iohannis’ second to Washington in two years -- comes as he campaigns against Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, a member of the ruling Social Democrats. Iohannis, who is currently leading in the polls, will face off against other candidates in the first-round vote scheduled for November 10.
Also a NATO member, Romania has taken on greater importance for the alliance since Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The country borders Ukraine and is developing gas fields in its section of the Black Sea not far from Crimean waters.
Romania, along with Poland, will host Aegis Ashore, a key NATO missile-defense system that has angered Russia.
But Romania’s relations with its Western allies have been strained as of late by political scandals and policies that raised questions about parliament’s commitment to fighting corruption and reforming the economy, analysts said.
The Trump meeting could burnish Iohannis’ image among Romanian voters as a leader who has the respect of the United States, analysts said ahead of the trip.
Trump called Iohannis “a man that can solve the corruption problem in Romania.”
“Iohannis will use the trip to send the message home that he has close, and even personal, ties with the American government and that voting for him is voting for close ties with the White House,” Adriano Bosoni, a senior analyst for European affairs at Stratfor, told RFE/RL before the meeting.
Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats, was jailed in May for allowing two party members to receive a salary from a state agency they didn’t work for. He had previously been banned from becoming prime minister due to a 2016 conviction for vote-rigging.
Those scandals threaten the Social Democrats in the next parliamentary elections in 2020, potentially giving more power to Iohannis, who previously led the conservative National Liberal Party, said Radu Magdin, a political analyst.
“With the left in disarray, the president will very likely control the next parliamentary majority and the cabinet, which means that he cannot be ignored or bypassed by any player who has a stake in Romania,” Magdin told RFE/RL before the meeting.
That would be good news for ExxonMobil and other foreign energy companies developing gas fields in the Black Sea, a key topic of discussion between Iohannis and Trump.
The Social Democrats pushed through legislation last year imposing higher taxation and price caps on a portion of offshore gas production, forcing ExxonMobil to postpone its investment decision.
“The United States and Romania will consider how best to improve the energy investment climate in Romania in ways that benefits both countries,” the two leaders said in a joint statement following their meeting.
ExxonMobil and Romania’s OMV Petrom are jointly developing the Neptun Deep field, which could produce as much as 6 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas a year at its peak. The two partners have invested more than $1.5 billion in the field’s development, ExxonMobil said in a statement to RFE/RL.
The company -- based in Irving, Texas -- is seeking to exit the project, Romania media reported.
ExxonMobil declined to comment on the rumor, telling RFE/RL that it "continues to evaluate the technical and commercial viability of the project."
Romania -- Europe’s fifth-largest gas producer -- currently produces about 10 bcm of natural gas annually, almost enough to cover its needs.
Offshore production has the potential to double the nation’s natural gas output in the coming years, with nearly half of that possibly being exported to neighboring countries.
Though that number is marginal compared with Russia’s 200 bcm in yearly exports to Europe, Romania’s output is located in an energy deficient region that relies on Kremlin-controlled Gazprom, analysts said.
“For Europe, it is a drop in the sea. On the other hand, for southeastern Europe, even 10 bcm is important because it would mean not relying on one producer. Our region doesn’t have any alternative sources,” Gina Gusilov, an energy analyst, told RFE/RL.
Trump and Iohannis also hinted at a greater NATO military presence in Romania.
“Our militaries look to bolster our defense and deterrence posture on NATO’s eastern flank, including in the Black Sea, which is of strategic importance for transatlantic security,” they said in the joint statement.