- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

Romanian President Ion Iliescu insists he does not need outside critics to inform him of the problem pervasive corruption presents to his country.
But those outside critics have been hammering the issue all the same.
NATO, the European Union and U.S. Ambassador to Bucharest Michael Guest have all sounded the theme in pointed comments in recent months. Mr. Guest has raised the subject repeatedly, warning in December that Romania's top foreign-policy priority membership in NATO could be jeopardized if the corruption issue is not dealt with.
Speaking to a group of Romanian judges last month in the city of Iasi, the American ambassador said that "corruption in this country not only affects the administration of government and the development of this country's market economy; If left unchecked, it can, in the end, endanger the stability of Romanian politics and society."
"Whether Romania has the political will [to curb corruption] is, frankly, an open question at this point," he added.
Mr. Iliescu, interviewed during a visit to Washington this month, argued that "corruption is not a new question for us, and it is not solely a Romanian question."
He said much of the problem stemmed from the country's rocky transition from the autarchic police state of former communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu to today's struggling market economy. The collapse of the old regime often left the new government's fledgling legal and regulatory institutions overwhelmed.
"In this conjunction, new problems always appear," said Mr. Iliescu, himself a former communist. "We have to deal with a large underground economy, with major social problems, with poverty."
In a Dec. 31 address to his nation, Mr. Iliescu said 2002 would be the "year of offensive against corruption."
A few days later, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase sent a letter to the president and the heads of all the major political parties asking for a united front against corruption, an appeal that met with a mixed response.
Most major party leaders said they support the "war on corruption," but some, such as National Liberal Party leader Valeriu Stoica, said the government's program failed to address the roots of corruption and the governing party's own failings.
Mr. Guest, while reserving judgment on the results of the campaign, welcomed the government's drive to fashion a broad-based strategy against corruption.
But he said the government must take more steps, including passing a legislative package giving police and prosecutors more power to attack official corruption while protecting those who step forward to complain about corrupt practices.
The political calendar has lent a new urgency to the fight.
Romania is one of nine official candidates hoping to be invited to join NATO at the end of the year at a summit in Prague. Once considered a long shot, Bucharest believes its chances have improved as it has bolstered the image and performance of its once-bloated military establishment.
But the corruption issue, and the larger questions it raises about the rule of law and democratic values, may prove the critical variable in Romania's bid. The issue is even more central to Romania's candidacy for the European Union.
"Nobody is expecting us to solve this problem in six months," said Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, who accompanied Mr. Iliescu on his Washington visit this month.
"The critical path for us is to show immediate, tangible steps are being taken, to show we are serious about tackling this problem," Mr. Geoana said.

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