- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Former Romanian President Ion Iliescu, ousted four years ago, says his leftist Social Democracy Party will pursue closer ties with the West, fight corruption at home and welcome foreign investment if voters give his party a second chance in November.

The former communist, visiting Washington and New York this week for meetings with U.S. government officials, lawmakers and business leaders, also appealed in an interview for continued U.S. presence in the Balkans, saying last year's Kosovo bombing campaign had provided only a "short-term solution" to the region's security and development problems.

"If you simply wait for [Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic to go, you aren't addressing the very serious economic problems of countries throughout this zone," Mr. Iliescu, 70, said.

He said the West's continued isolation of Serbia and the blockading of the Danube River meant economic hardships for all of the countries in the region.

Mr. Iliescu's 1996 defeat to a reformist coalition headed by Emil Constantinescu was widely hailed in Western capitals as a belated final stake in the heart of Romanian communism. Mr. Iliescu ruled the country from 1990 to 1996 following the bloody coup that ousted dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

But the country's drive to revamp its economy and secure membership in Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO has stalled badly in recent years as the economy has foundered.

The government in Bucharest announced yesterday that consumer prices for August were up 45.4 percent compared to 12 months earlier. Official unemployment is 10.5 percent, and analysts project that a weak currency and a drought this summer will push prices up nearly 40 percent for 2000.

Corruption remains deeply entrenched, and even Mr. Iliescu's critics concede that the reformist government has made little progress in streamlining the country's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy or making Romania more attractive to foreign investors.

Public opinion polls had put Mr. Iliescu's Social Democracy Party well ahead of its rivals even before Mr. Constantinescu announced in July he would not be seeking a second term. Presidential and parliamentary elections are set for Nov. 26, with a second round of voting Dec. 10 if no candidate secures a majority.

Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu, a former central bank governor with no party affiliation, has emerged as Mr. Iliescu's main rival. Although the prime minister has little political experience, he could provide a threat to the former president if a runoff is required.

A recent poll put Mr. Isarescu ahead by 53 percent to 47 percent in a head-to-head battle.

"With the economy going south, that has clearly opened up an opportunity for the leftists," said David Funderburk, a former congressman and ambassador to Romania in the early 1980s.

"But I think the general feeling here in the United States is that Iliescu would not be the desirable candidate to improve U.S.-Romanian relations or the candidate most likely to bring Romania into NATO," Mr. Funderburk said. "To a lot of us, it looks like a step backward."

Mr. Iliescu and his supporters are clearly at pains to ease such fears.

The former president said yesterday he favored a "Romanian New Deal," attacking corruption, creating a professional civil service and passing laws to make foreign investment simple and predictable.

He said his government also would press hard for NATO membership, both to protect Romania from external threats and to ease historic tensions within the volatile Balkans peninsula.

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