- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 1999

On Nov. 13, in a remote Romanian city, an influential and diverse group of politicians, industry leaders, and members of Romania's press gathered for the inaugural meeting of the Romanian Commercial Foundation. They were singularly focused on the question of how to right the economic failures plaguing the country. Noticeably absent however, along with invited American officials, was the communist rhetoric of the past something, which might have been expected from a group formerly unapologetic for its left-of-center attitudes and patriotic zeal. Seeds of change are blowing in Romania's political winds.

Romania's position is vital yet precarious as the regional situation presents perils and opportunities a fact not lost upon Romanians fearful of Russia who, to a person, look westward for their salvation.

Events leading up to the Kosovo conflict, its resolution, if indeed NATO occupation is to be considered a resolution, and the pressures which spilled over to neighboring states have placed Bulgaria a country openly courted by President Clinton, and Romania a country feeling ignored, in enormous and equally important positions as future stalwarts for stability on the Balkan peninsula's eastern arc.

These facts have not been lost on Europe's leaders, who recognize the need for long-term regional solutions, and were instrumental in creating the Balkan Stability Pact. The concept of regional stabilization may take precedence over the Clinton administration's practice of localized crisis resolution, a piecemeal approach, again being demonstrated as Mr. Clinton visits Bulgaria and Kosovo while bypassing Romania. Without both Bulgaria and Romania as secure western partners on the Balkan Peninsula's eastern side, efforts to stabilize problems on the western side may prove fruitless.

American stabilization efforts in the south Balkans are daunting and multi-dimensional. Worth noting, for its boldness of character and potentially reckless nature, is the Corridor-8 transportation project. A Clinton directive in the mid-1990s created it. The United States believes it possible to improve the stability of the south Balkans through the implementation of a highway connecting Turkey to Italy by way of Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. The project aims to assist not only in economic development opportunities for the countries involved, but also aids Turkey, the West's most reliable regional security partner. The conflict in Kosovo reinforced this administration's thinking that this linkage should be enhanced. Now, oil and gas pipelines are being studied as possible additions to this project. The effort fails, however, to consider what would happen should such lines of communications be interrupted by turmoil in Macedonia or banditry in Albania. Unrealized trade expectations by any of the participating countries, relative to promises made by the others involved, could result in serious, unanticipated crises.

Two other highways are needed. One, which in conjunction with the Corridor-8 highway, would serve as a second route from Turkey through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and on to Austria. Coupled with the region's current geopolitical realities, this should lead policy-makers to the conclusion that the creation of such an alternative is absolutely necessary. If created, Romania and Bulgaria would have enhanced opportunities for integration into a secure eastern Balkan arc and eventual ascension into the European Union and Transatlantic structures. Interests in regional stability would be enhanced.

Another superhighway is also important. Commerce and the free flow of information in the Balkans are severely hampered by the lack of adequate communication. As e-commerce revolutionizes Western business practices, Romania, indeed, the region, is caught in the jaws of restricted communications. State monopolies in the telecom sectors are the rule, not the exception. Without the deregulation of the region's telecom industries the West will have a prolonged and expensive task ahead while striving to secure Balkan prosperity and peace.

Development of a high-speed telecom and Internet backbone, a vital prerequisite for e-commerce, is a project that can be completed in a short period. While the costs of such infrastructure are not inexpensive, they pale in comparison to the cost of superhighways for trucks and cars. Unlike road projects, which must be funded by Western and cash-strapped regional governments, information superhighways can be entirely financed and constructed by private sectors. Companies can build national infrastructure, which brings undeniable economic benefits at no cost to federal authorities.

America should press for the reform of Balkan telecom industries. Limited privatization is simply not adequate. Deregulation is essential. Additionally, sound currencies and banks, enforceable contracts, rights to repatriate profits, independent and impartial judiciaries, and beneficial tax systems must be created. Balkan countries need not necessarily be on the right or left of the social-political spectrum to attract needed investment, but they must rigorously deregulate and adopt these fundamentals. The benefits of creating Romania and Bulgaria's next generation of telecommunications and Internet infrastructure would bring benefits and opportunities well beyond the imagination.

Romania has become significant in the complicated chessboard of Balkan politics. This reality and issues of economic reform were skillfully presented and well-received by this highly influential group, many of whom may become significant figures in Romania's next government. Romania needs a reform government capable of turning promises and vision into reality. These two projects, one grand and one modest, would be a great help.

William A. Walters served as a consultant to an international aid agency in Albania between 1992 and 1996. He is now a freelance writer and analyst regarding Balkan issues.

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