The Muddy Waters of Romanian Politics

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The Romanian elections held on December 11th produced a landslide victory for the center-left Social Democratic Party (PSD) who managed to secure almost 50% of the seats in the new parliament.  Together with its junior partner, ALDE, the social democrats managed to assure the necessary majority in order to impose a prime minister of their own liking.

The main center-right party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) came in a distant second with 20% of the vote, while the third position was occupied by USR (Save Romania Union),  a newly founded party with roots in NGO’s which managed to gather 9% of the vote. The new parliament also includes other smaller parties such as UDMR – the party of the Hungarian minority, and PMP – the party of the former president, Traian Băsescu.

The Social Democrats successfully managed a low-key campaign and overcame previous barriers, winning not only in their traditional fiefdoms of rural and disfranchised communities, but also across society, including the urban and college graduate vote.

The results mean a severe defeat for the country’s former Prime Minister Dacian Cioloș, a Brussels-backed bureaucrat, and for President Klaus Iohannis, who endorsed the center-right parties. The involvement of Klaus Iohannis in the parliamentary campaign was only a signal for the re-activation of the president as “a partisan player” in the Romanian party politics, a policy developed to perfection by the former president Băsescu.

According to the constitution, Romania is a semi-presidential republic, with significant powers attributed to the office of the president, mainly in the spheres of national security. The president has effective control over intelligence agencies and over the judicial branch through appointment of prosecutors and judges. Over time, the dichotomy of power between the president and the government has proved to be a sure recipe for political turmoil whenever the office holders come from different political backgrounds.

Sure enough, after just a few weeks, the country is being rocked by mass street protests against the government’s announced intention to reform the judicial system. While the government affirms its intention of providing humane conditions in the country’s overcrowded prison system, the public suspects that the proposed mass pardon is actually targeting corrupt politicians. The mass protests have been publicly endorsed by the president.

Meanwhile, revelations coming from Sebastian Ghiță, a young Romanian oligarch and former member of the Parliament Intelligence Committee in charge of the civilian supervision of the country’s intelligence services, unveiled a system of collusion between intelligence agencies and anti-corruption prosecutors, acting as a political police, in order to control or discredit at will the Romanian political scene. Adding insult to injury, Ghiță, a creation of the intelligence community himself, disappeared after attending a farewell dinner with the very members of this parliamentary committee.

The ability to reform or control the intelligence agencies and anti-corruption prosecutors’ office is the field where a political fight to death is taking place.

As of February 2017, the political scene is divided in two:

The first camp includes the president, the current heads of the intelligence establishment, and the prosecutors team. This camp has proved capable of organizing pressure groups and mass demonstrations throughout the country by using an anti-corruption rhetoric. From a geopolitical point of view, the camp can be regarded as the political heir to the system created by former president Traian Băsescu, and as such, receives the backing of neocon-type American and EU circles.

The second camp includes the parliament, the government and probably a certain part of the intelligence community itself. Although pro-Atlanticist in its geopolitical allegiance, the social-democrats have always been treated as a second choice by the Western decision makers.  Unable to prove themselves more subservient to the neoconservative international establishment than their rivals, the social-democrats have recently attempted to reposition themselves closer to the Trump Administration.

As the two conflicting parties are heading for confrontation in order to preserve their very survival (and not only in political terms), let us take a short look at the recent history leading to today’s situation:

Short look into history:

1989-2004 (The Iliescu Era)

Presidents: Ion Iliescu 1990-1996 & 2000-2004, Emil Constantinescu 1996-2000
Main political parties:
“Centre-Left”:
FSN – de facto heir of the former Communist Party, subsequently split into PSD and PD
PSD – leaders Ion Iliescu, Adrian Nastase;
PD – Petre Roman
“Centre Right”:
PNT-CD – Corneliu Coposu, Emil Constantinescu (de facto disappeared after 2000)
PNL – Radu Câmpeanu, Mircea Ionescu-Quintus etc.
National minorities – UDMR (Hungarian)
“Nationalist”:
PRM, leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor
UDMR – the party of the Hungarian Minority

Following the collapse of the Ceaușescu regime in December 1989, Romania’s post-communist political scene was dominated by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the heir of the Romanian communist political and managerial elites. The whole recent political history of the country can be seen as a fight between the social-democrats and various coalitions of forces fighting to oppose them. Initially, these opposition forces were gathered around “historical parties” who had a tradition of anti-communist standing. After 2004, the opposition to the social-democratic party machine  was led by president Traian Băsescu.

The Social Democrats won all the elections between 1990 and 2004 with a brief intermission in 1996 when the historical parties organized around elderly leaders with a past as political prisoners managed to win the presidency and formed weak center-right coalition governments.

Lacking in funds, political expertise, facing severe economic problems,   and constantly undermined by the country’s intelligence community, the center-right coalition collapsed in 2000. The social-democrats returned to power after a political showdown between their leader Ion Iliescu and Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a Romanian styled national-communist closely linked to the former Ceaușescu regime.

However short-lived, the weak center-right governments of 1996-2000 changed the political landscape of the country in two important aspects: internally by initiating the privatization of the country’s industry and externally by promoting NATO and EU membership as national objectives. This foreign policy was continued by the incoming PSD leadership of 2000-2004 (President Ion Iliescu, Prime-Minister Adrian Năstase) who tried to accommodate to the new international realities while, at the same time, negotiating personal benefits for the inner circles of power.

The change in external policy meant abandoning Romania’s decades long independence (labeled as living in an uncertain grey area) for certain clear objectives:

Integration into the European Union (portrayed as a guarantor of economic prosperity)
joining NATO (portrayed as guarantor of the country’s security in the face of perils such as internal conflicts of the Yugoslav type and potential aggression from external forces).

On the economic side, starting in the late 1990’s, a privatization wave swept the country, producing its firsts oligarchs, many with links to the country’s communist-era elites, the only ones with significant cash reserves, and easy access to credit provided by state-owned banks.

The privatization process was presented to the public as both a necessity – a requirement of international creditors such as the IMF and the World Bank – and desirable, since privatization was supposed to bring improved efficiency.

Privatization was followed by the closure of important industrial facilities such as coal mines, the chemical industry, mechanical industry etc., leading to massive lay-offs and rampant unemployment. Unable to manage their new acquisitions, the new owners either sold the industrial companies to multinational players or scrapped whole factories and used the land for real estate developments. Some of the early days oligarchs, especially those politically active and opposed to him personally, were charged  for corruption by the Băsescu regime in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s.

Although not obvious for the public in the beginning, the real beneficiaries of the privatization schemes were mainly multinational companies, who managed to buy Romania’s most valuable & strategic assets at liquidation prices. This was the case of state monopolies such as: oil and gas, energy distribution, communication, local utility companies and major industries such as steel, aluminum, car production etc.

Also, starting with the early 2000’s, multinational manufacturing companies started green-field investments, initially in the automotive industry. The phenomenon started from the Western Regions of Banat and Transylvania and is now prevalent mostly in the larger cities.

The Player President 2005 – 2015

President: Traian Băsescu: Dec. 2004-Dec. 2014
Main political parties:
“Centre Left”:
PSD – leaders Ion Iliescu (retired 2004), Adrian Nastase (imprisoned 2012), Mircea Geoană, Victor Ponta, Liviu Dragnea
“Centre Right”:
PDL – de facto Traian Băsescu (Elena Udrea, Emil Boc, Vasile Blaga
PNL – Valeriu Stoica (retired), Theodor Stolojan, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, Crin Antonescu (retired 2014)
National minorities – UDMR (Hungarian)
Nationalist/ Populist:  – No relevant Romanian nationalist or populist movement

After their return to power in 2000, the social-democrats’ domination of Romanian political life seemed assured for eternity. They had the most experienced political leaders, a hierarchical party organization throughout the country’s territory, vast financial means, and increasing press domination by channeling state money to various media outlets. The succession from president Ion Iliescu to prime minister and political heir Adrian Năstase seemed certain.

Surprisingly, former Minister of Transportation and mayor of Bucharest, Traian Băsescu, managed to secure the presidency in run-off elections by the slightest of margins.  As always, the strategy employed in order to compete with the socialists was uniting all the other political forces (parties and NGO’s) in a large coalition. The unifying discourse was the fight against “corruption” and against the “party-state” system.

Traian Băsescu was seen by Romanian voters (and possibly institutions) as the only political personality capable of fighting against the socialist party-machine. This assumption proved to be right. The March 2005 kidnapping of Romanian journalists in Iraq (an event that was latter proved as staged, at least in its initial phase) provided the opportunity for the first steps towards the implementation of a personal regime, the “Player-President” in Băsescu’s own words. The heads of the intelligence services were changed out for freshly promoted officers loyal to their benefactor – the new president of merely four months in office.

While lacking a political party capable of competing with the socialists, Băsescu’s authoritarian strategy relied on controlling the state through a combination of judicial and intelligence factors. New anti-corruption prosecutors appointed by the president started legal proceedings against Băsescu’s enemies, including political rivals and media moguls. For the first time in Romania’s recent history, major political figures and oligarchs were sentenced to prison, a fact that assured both steady popularity for the president and enduring hate from political adversaries.

By employing the judicial-intelligence weapon and communicating directly to voters, Băsescu was able to effectively purge the political system of any major rivals who ended-up either in prison, retired from political life, or rendered themselves as irrelevant. The president was even able to withstand two parliamentary decisions to depose him of power in 2007 and 2014.

The evident corruption of his own entourage, and the constant abuse of power combined with the effects of the world financial crisis which forced severe wage cuts in public administration, eroded Băsescu’s standing. His popularity ranking declined to lower than 20% in his later years. However, he managed to stay in power until the end of his second term, in December 2014, relying on power institutions, prosecutor teams, and foreign support.

Băsescu’s foreign strategy was to align himself as closely as possible to the Washington circles of power, especially the neoconservative ones. Aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric, addressed both to internal and external audiences was followed by the welcoming of American anti-missile installations, which were employed by Băsescu in order to consolidate his status as the most loyal vassal.

The present:

President: Klaus Iohannis (since Dec. 2014)
Main political parties:
Centre Left:
PSD – Liviu Dragnea
ALDE – Călin Popescu Tăriceanu
Centre Right:
PNL, USR – Klaus Iohannis, Dacian Cioloș
National minorities – UDMR (Hungarian)
Nationalist/ Populist:  – No relevant Romanian nationalist or populist movement

The consequences of Băsescu’s machinations were mixed: he managed to survive repeated attempts by the parliament to unseat him, purged the Romanian political elite but, with the exception of the president’s office, the Romanian decision centers became increasingly obscure. The new president, Klaus Iohannis, inherited a system in which the secret services and prosecutors reigned supreme, feared by politicians due to their capacity of destroying anyone considered undesirable.

The final year of Băsescu’s presidency, 2014, saw the Romanian political scene in turmoil. Contemplating a future without the guidance of the president, the occult power structure started turning against Băsescu’s former clique, including his family, while at the same time maintaining constant pressure on any potential political leader.

Using the same anti-socialist, anti-corruption slogans, a coalition of parties helped by heavy NGO activism was capable of delivering a presidential victory to an unlikely candidate: Klaus Iohannis, a German minority leader.

The following year, street manifestations a-la Maidan, brought down the socialist government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, following a mismanaged nightclub fire with 64 victims. However, as presented at the beginning of the article, recent parliamentary elections brought a sweeping victory for the resilient socialists.

Conclusion

The current strategy of the left seems to be concentrated on dismantling the intelligence-prosecutor mix that was able to annihilate the Romanian political establishment over the last 10 years.

At the same time, the social-democrats are faced with two main obstacles that are blocking their consolidation of power. The first obstacle, of an internal nature, is their inability to distance themselves from perennial corruption charges, especially in the eyes of the younger urban electorate. The second obstacle, an external one, is the impossibility of selling themselves cheaper abroad than their rightist rivals. In economic terms, this could be seen as a cost issue: the external decision makers, although constantly courted by socialist leaders, have always decided in favor of alternatives. Elites who owe their positions only to external factors have been considered cheaper and more reliable than a party with a solid inner structure and tens of thousands of members with expectations to be met.

The system built in the last 10 years by President Băsescu is shaking, as infighting inside both the intelligence and judicial branches produces devastating revelations. At the same time, the “fight against corruption” slogan proves itself still capable of rallying large crowds that can be directed against political rivals.

Although President Klaus Iohannis is currently trying to reinvent himself as a power-player fighting corrupt politicians, the reality is that, following Băsescu’s purges and his own decay, there are no major political personalities left. With foreign patrons weakened as a result of the recent American elections and the changing EU environment, Romanian political life is likely to witness a spiral of instability at least for the coming months.

Meanwhile, the major problems of the country such as the looming demographical nightmare or the dependency on foreign corporations are totally absent from the public discourse. Romania has lost at least a quarter of its population due to massive emigration and low birth rates. An institutional  crisis of the European Union or a major policy shift by multinational corporations deciding to move their productions elsewhere in the world could plunge Romania into a crisis never seen since the end of World War II.

Romanian society as a whole has been reluctant to embrace modernity. Although this has often been portrayed by Western propaganda agents as a sign of backwardness, it could serve as proof of the resilience of the Romanian people. The Christian faith, the Orthodox Church, the traditional family, and a strong community life which includes strong bonds between extended families, neighbors and friends, are still the pillars of society which  is struggling to understand and come to terms with the realities of liberalism.  It is on these pillars that a new reality can and should be built.

 

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