- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

BUCHAREST, Romania. — The United States is fighting to win the peace by reconstructing Iraq in the hope of building a democracy from the rubble. Romania has done just that, building on the rubble of the Ceausescu regime. In anticipation of our President Ion Iliescu’s meeting with President Bush today, I would like to take the opportunity to encourage the United States to rely on our country as a valuable resource for the reconstruction effort, and the global war on terrorism we all face.

At a time when your country needs friends, Romanian peacekeepers are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our American allies on the ground in Iraq. But we have even more to offer.

After living under communism for almost five decades, we know firsthand what it is like to vanquish tyranny and start over. U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has called Romania a model for Iraq. After he and I held talks in the spring, the secretary declared Romania “an inspiring example.” His visit, in part, was to see for himself how we were making the transition from totalitarianism to full-fledged democracy.

We are not there yet. But we are making remarkable strides toward a free market economy in a country roughly the size of Oregon, where 29 percent of our 22 million people live in poverty. Romania endured decades of Soviet occupation after World War II and a brutal 24-year dictatorship under Nicolae Ceausescu, who was overthrown in 1989.

The path to democracy is not always easy or fast. This past weekend, millions of Romanians, in a show of confidence in the road we are taking, voted to revamp our 1991 Constitution. Among other things, the changes guarantee the right to private property and encourage foreigners to invest in Romania.

We have implemented other economic and social reforms, shored up our fledgling industrial base, and, with a four-year reform program, we are cleaning up the corruption that was rampant under the old regime. Just last week, I fired three of the government’s top ministers suspected of corruption.

All state-run ventures are being restructured and privatized. Poverty is on the decline, down from 35 percent in 2000. I have publicly denounced ultranationalism that leads to discrimination against our minorities. We are cracking down on reprehensible human traffickers who prey on the poor, especially children.

Nevertheless, the prospects are bright as the fundamental building blocks of democracy, education and economic growth are there. Ninety-eight percent of our population is literate, and our annual growth rate has been sustained at close to 5 percent despite a three-year recession.

Our exports include footwear, textiles and machinery. Foreign direct investment in Romania rose more than one-third in the past six months. Moreover, election reform is paying off as we noted earlier this month when the United States Helsinki Commission praised our “free and fair” elections.

Today we are a constitutional democracy, with a multiparty parliament. New national elections will be held a year from now. We are also solidifying more than just economic ties with the West as we hope to join NATO next year.

Our lessons — when to move quickly, when to take it slow — can help the Iraqis. We understand the Iraqi people’s sense of frustration, fear and confusion in the face of redefining themselves as a nation.

The United States has called us “a great partner in the war on terrorism.” We take this compliment seriously and are committed to the effort. We were one of the first countries to send troops to Afghanistan and offer military muscle to oust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In sheer numbers, we are not the largest peacekeeping force in Iraq — we sent in an Army battalion and hundreds of our soldiers are poised to act as stabilization forces — but our presence is heartfelt. There is a Romanian saying: “Big happiness comes from small gestures.”

No one had to ask Romania to be part of the war on terrorism. We joined with the United States because it was the right thing to do even in the face of opposition from some of our key European neighbors. Although some countries chastised us in the heat of the moment, we did not hesitate or falter.

We are a country at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe, and we have served as an important staging area for the U.S. military during the Iraq war. We hope to continue as a key component of the West’s defense. Our seriousness in this regard is reflected in our offer of a permanent military base on the strategically vital Black Sea.

Our two nations have forged strong ties. President Bush told us last year: “You’ve got a great friend in the United States of America.” The United States is home to tens of thousands of Romanians. Almost 400,000 Romanian-Americans live from California to Ohio to New York.

We are reminded that friendships do not depend on shared language, culture or geographic borders. Romanians will pay special attention to the White House meeting between your president and ours. I speak for all Romanians when I say to all Americans: “You’ve got a great friend in Romania.”

Adrian Nastase is prime minister of Romania and an international lawyer.

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