BUCHAREST: “Paris,” Protestant King Henri of Navarre quipped before ascending the throne of Catholic France, “is worth a mass.” Is EU membership worth the life of Romania’s democratic parties, perhaps its infant democracy? That question will be on the lips of many of Romania’s reformers and democrats when going to the polls next week for general and presidential elections.
Baroness Emma Nicholson, the European Parliament’s special envoy to Romania, has warned that unless Romania’s next government speeds the pace of reform - particularly privatization of big state companies - hopes of joining the EU will collapse. But our ruling center/right government is massively unpopular precisely because it tried to meet EU demands. This unpopularity opened the way for a return to the presidency of Ion Iliescu, the Ceausescu-era apparatchik who ruled Romania during the first, wasted years of our postcommunist transition.
Iliescu’s first term were years that the locusts ate: reform lagged behind most Central European countries, corruption flourished, rabid nationalists barked, the government called in loyalist thugs from the mines to beat up people who protested. Four years ago, on a high tide of hope, a center/right coalition and a new “democratic” president - Emil Constantinescu - took power, surprisingly defeating Iliescu and his party.
Constantinescu’s government promised to close the gap between Romania and other postcommunist countries bidding to join the EU. It promised to clean up corruption and our banks. Believing Jacques Chirac would deliver on his pledges of support, it promised NATO membership. It promised that, by 2000, people would be better off. None of this happened and Romanians feel betrayed. They are now prepared to heed Iliescu’s siren song that the future can be found only by going back to the past. Are they right? Was Constantinescu’s presidency a total failure?