- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

BUCHAREST, Romania Romania, a nation that is often pitied for its poverty and ridiculed for its backwardness in the West, has staged a diplomatic coup that is all but certain to bring it a NATO invitation in three weeks.
Of all ex-communist countries that are expected to make the alliance's second round of enlargement since the end of the Cold War, Romania was probably the longest shot.
Its economic reforms have been painfully slow, and corruption is said to be rampant in all spheres of society, including the highest echelons of power.
But an aggressive lobbying effort in key Western capitals, particularly in Washington, has done miracles for the nation of 20 million, where public support for NATO membership runs as high as 80 percent.
"Our population understands that NATO is the best guarantee for our security, but also a modernizing force for our society," President Ion Iliescu told The Washington Times.
Romanian officials say that their hard work to fulfill the requirements for NATO accession, rather than diplomacy alone, is the reason for their success. The country has, indeed, impressed the alliance in the past couple of years, especially with its military reform.
"The Prague summit will be an approval of our course and a signal that we have entered the community of developed nations," Mr. Iliescu said of the Nov. 21-22 meeting in the Czech capital.
U.S. officials who have visited Romania recently give the government of Prime Minister Adrian Nastase credit for implementing the so-called Membership Action Plan, a document with goals and standards for all applicant countries.
But while they acknowledge Romania's achievements in its development as a functioning democracy and market economy, U.S. officials make clear that an invitation in Prague would not mean acceptance of the country as a full-fledged member of the Western community.
"As far as we are concerned, Prague is just the beginning," one senior U.S. official said. "There is a lot of work to be done in the months and years after the summit."
In addition to corruption and low living standards for most of Romania's people, Western diplomats in Bucharest, the capital, cite as serious problems an unfriendly investment climate and the large number of former members of the Securitate secret police who remain in key government positions.
Some ordinary Westerners living in Bucharest are particularly concerned about ex-Securitate agents having access to NATO intelligence when Romania joins the alliance.
NATO officials, however, seem to be satisfied with the government's assurance that such delicate matters are being handled carefully and that the many former agents will gradually disappear from powerful posts as generations change.
"About 80 percent of the people in our foreign intelligence and 85 percent of the domestic intelligence service are completely new," one Romanian official said.
Although a number of Western companies are doing business in Romania relatively successfully, some complain of unfavorable investment conditions and widespread corruption. The local representative of the Microsoft Corp., for example, has protested that the government is using pirated software on many of its computers.
A statement by the international rating agency, Fitch, yesterday reflected the mixed nature of Romania's economic situation and business climate.
Fitch, which upgraded the country's long-term foreign and local currency ratings, said that "Romania's creditworthiness has improved markedly over the last two years" and "it is currently enjoying its strongest macroeconomic performance since transition began."
But the agency warned that "progress may also be hampered by a weak institutional and administrative framework, strong vested interests and corruption."
Having realized that their case for NATO membership was not that easy to make, Romanian officials have been complementing their work on reforms at home with an active diplomatic effort abroad.
Even though Romania had pleased NATO back in 1999, when it offered use of its airspace during the military campaign against Serbia amid a crackdown in Kosovo, the September 11 attacks last year proved critical for the country's importance for the United States.
Bucharest repeatedly made the argument that Romania's strategic location on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East would be an invaluable asset for NATO. Bulgaria, its southern neighbor, successfully made the same point in its campaign for NATO membership.
The two countries farther south, Greece and Turkey, already belong to the alliance.
"Greece and Turkey now feel isolated," Mr. Iliescu said. "Our region is still the most fragile in Europe, and Romania and Bulgaria were very helpful in the Yugoslav conflict. Stability in the Balkans is important for the Middle East."
Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu said the Romanian military can offer capabilities to NATO that some current alliance members do not have.
Earlier this year, Romania sent more than 400 troops to Afghanistan using its own air transport, and these soldiers "are passing tests there every day," Mr. Pascu said. "If we hadn't been ready for Afghanistan, that would have not been productive for our NATO bid."
The 300,000-member post-Cold War Romanian military has been reduced to 100,000, with conscription set to be gradually abolished in the next several years.
"Our advantage during the Cold War was our special position in the Warsaw Pact, which allowed us to plan on our own," Mr. Pascu said. "The disadvantage was our territorial mentality the defense of our territory was our only objective, and we had no experience in an international environment."
During a visit to the Second Infantry Battalion at an army base outside Bucharest, nearly two dozen soldiers said they had been trained according to NATO standards and are doing their best to prove that they are "as good as the U.S. military."
Romania has emerged as the most pro-American of all NATO applicants this year, and its vocal support for the United States has sometimes hurt its relations with the European Union, which it is also hoping to join.
It was the first country to sign a bilateral agreement with Washington exempting U.S. soldiers and officials on its territory from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court. That move brought a rebuke from the European Commission, which Bucharest had failed to consult.
When it comes to choosing sides between the United States and Europe, Romania appears to have decided in favor of the former, although publicly it insists both are of equal significance for its foreign policy.
Alex Serban, president of Casa NATO, a group promoting membership in the alliance, said it was "difficult to choose between two equally important allies, but it's no doubt more comfortable being between than outside."
Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said, "We need NATO in our neighborhood, because the EU is not really a player here."
Mr. Geoana, a former ambassador to Washington, is highly respected by many Western diplomats, who credit him with improving Romania's image abroad.
Fully aware of the weight the U.S. position on NATO enlargement would have in Prague, he put his charm offensive to work in Washington, courting the Bush administration and Capitol Hill, as well as lobbying and media groups.
His country's immediate interests aside, Mr. Iliescu cited a historical reason for Romania's pro-American sentiment at a time when anti-Americanism is spreading across Europe.
"After World War II, Western Europe was much more pro-American because it needed reconstruction," Mr. Iliescu said. "The same happened in Eastern Europe after the Cold War."

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