- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

Internal reforms and the global changes wrought by September 11 have enhanced Romania's once-longshot bid to join the NATO alliance by the end of the year, Romanian President Ion Iliescu said yesterday.

"We've made some important advances, and we feel there has been a positive appreciation of that both in NATO and with our American friends," Mr. Iliescu said yesterday in an interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

Romania, the most populous of the nine Eastern European nations bidding to join the alliance at a November summit in Prague, has become cautiously optimistic of its chances, following unexpectedly positive reviews of its recent military reforms, a rebounding economy and its high-profile contributions to peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Mr. Iliescu, who met with a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill yesterday while in town on an unofficial visit for the National Prayer Breakfast, said the political arguments for Romania's bid are even more compelling since the terrorist attacks of September 11.

From a strategic standpoint, he said, southeastern Europe is "the most important and most fragile space in Europe."

Adrian Nastase, Romania's prime minister, noted in a Feb. 1 speech at Columbia University that Romania and fellow Balkan candidate Bulgaria would bolster NATO's southern flank, interrupt organized crime and terrorist networks and provide a geographical and political bridge to the Islamic world.

"From a geostrategic perspective, including Romania and Bulgaria in NATO will consolidate the southern flank of the alliance and strengthen its ability to address current security needs," Mr. Nastase said.

Mr. Iliescu, a former communist who was the country's first president following the bloody collapse of the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, is enjoying his second taste of power.

Voted out in 1996, he reclaimed the presidency in 2000, vowing to support Romania's bid to join both NATO and the European Union. Despite his communist background, Mr. Iliescu says he now supports the market reforms being pushed by the leftist government of Mr. Nastase.

Popular support for NATO membership is higher in Romania than in any other country seeking membership, but the country's hesitant social and economic reforms are expected to work against it.

U.S. officials say that Romania must show progress in combatting widespread corruption, as well.

One worry: The country's largest single opposition party is the ultranationalist Greater Romania Party, whose harsh policies toward the country's Hungarian and Jewish minorities have caused concern throughout the region.

Romanian officials said yesterday they remained hopeful, but said they were not concerned about a backlash if Romania does not receive an invitation to join NATO.

Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana noted that military reforms have continued and popular support has remained high even though Romania had been left out during the previous NATO enlargement summit in Madrid in 1997.

"We are not trying to join NATO because it is fashionable but because it is fundamental to our country's interests," he said.

"We are a stubborn people," Mr. Geoana said. "When we set our minds to something, we do it."

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