The two faces of Romania: how Bucharest became NATO’s „capital” despite the lack of internal reforms
This week, Bucharest became ground zero for global diplomacy. The capital is hosting a summit of NATO foreign ministers, a G7 meeting and the Munich Leaders’ Meeting. These are all major events and attest to Romania’s importance in security policies in the world’s hottest region. How do you explain this award, given the major shortcomings of the PSD-PNL coalition inherited by President Iohannis regarding internal reforms?
This is the paradox of a border country that has always benefited from great historical events and has ridden the wave of change, holding the right line. Two examples from recent history: overflight rights for NATO planes in the 1999 conflict in Serbia and the terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, when Romania joined the US-led coalition and secured a place in NATO in 2004, despite the precariousness of its army and lack of reforms.
The political and military elites in Bucharest understood that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a defining moment. The coalition leaders – Iohannis, Ciucă and Ciolacu – decided on an unequivocal position: condemn Russia, support sanctions, support Ukraine in all directions, welcome Ukrainian refugees, and support and lobby for the Republic of Moldova.
Romania followed the same line as Poland and the Baltic States, but with a diplomatic discretion that still surprises at home. To repeated questions about the possible supply of arms to Ukraine, Bucharest responds evasively. More direct answers came from President Zelenski, Prime Minister Shmihal and Foreign Minister Kuleba, who even thanked Romania for its „military support”. Why is Romania keeping a low profile on possible military support? To avoid a direct Russian response, to protect the routes through which Western military aid is delivered via Romania, and to support Moldova as much as possible.
Even without signaling as stridently as Poland or the Baltics, Romania has identified itself among the surrounding countries as a solution provider on the Ukrainian issue, unlike Hungary or Bulgaria, for example. Driven by Ukraine’s pressing need to export its goods, the government began a project that had been delayed for 32 years: cleaning up the port of Constanta and rehabilitating the old CFR lines to the eastern border.
On the diplomatic front too, Romania has invested a lot of energy in the Ukrainian issue: it is part of the international team investigating Russia’s war crimes, it has intervened on Ukraine’s behalf at the International Court of Justice in proceedings against the Russian Federation, and it has consistently called for tougher sanctions against the Kremlin through the voice of Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu.
All these gestures came from a clear strategic interest: Ukraine to win the war, Russia to pay for the invasion and be discouraged from starting another such conflict. But also out of Klaus Iohannis’ clear hope to grab a position in an international organization after he finishes his rather empty terms in Bucharest. Let’s not forget the head of state’s answer in July to the question of whether he would accept the post of NATO Secretary General: „If I were offered such a proposal, I would assess the situation very seriously and make a public statement”.
Cynically, Bucharest immediately realized that it could receive dividends for behaving correctly with regard to Ukraine, as it did in 2004, when despite mimicking internal reforms, it was welcomed into NATO because the North Atlantic alliance needed reinforcements on its south-eastern flank.
History is repeating itself. With a deeply anti-reformist coalition in power headed by President Klaus Iohannis, Bucharest has understood that NATO’s need for political and strategic stability is greater than ever. Iohannis, Ciucă, and Ciolacu correctly interpreted the signals coming from Paris and Berlin and, with the massive support of the Czech EU rotating presidency, launched the diplomatic assault for the two big goals: lifting the CVM and joining Schengen.
Romania quickly abandoned any attempt at real reform of justice and administration, even though these were clear conditions for lifting the CVM and entering Schengen. The justice laws promoted by Minister Predoiu and backed in their entirety by the coalition were demolished by the Venice Commission. However, it did not matter: the European Commission lifted the CVM, replacing it with the rule of law mechanism, which is common to all Member States and has an effective sanctioning tool: the suspension of European funds.
As far as Schengen accession is concerned, success is much more elusive. Even with the clear support of Germany and France, the Netherlands and Sweden – both with objections to their domestic policies – still need to be convinced.
And a week ago another stumbling block emerged: Austria. Vienna is overwhelmed by the huge number of migrants coming through the Balkan route and wants to reform Schengen, not expand the area it considers unworkable. Austria wants the EU to approve a new pact on migration and asylum, blocked so far by Hungary and Poland, and is threatening to veto a vote on welcoming Romania and Bulgaria into Schengen. It’s chess for Bucharest, and it’s hard to believe it can be resolved before the JHA Council on 8 December.
For a reform-hating political coalition, lifting the CVM and joining Schengen would be undeserved prizes. For Romania, they are beneficial. Schengen entry would lead to smoother traffic and clear financial gains for transport firms while lifting the CVM takes Romania out of a rather embarrassing category.
As for the diplomatic events hosted by Bucharest this week, they are a reward for Romania’s consistency and efforts on security issues. The high-stakes meetings held in the capital show Romania’s bright face. The dark, unreformed face of the country can be seen in the new justice laws, in the (tactically withdrawn) secret service projects and in the stasis of the politicized-to-the-brim administration.
And Sunday night’s case against Niculae Bădălău, the former PSD baron from Giurgiu, is the darkest feature of a Romania that still has a long way to go to reach the standards we all want: corruption of the lowest order, typical of the 1990s, abject theft of public money reflected in the catastrophic quality of public works and services throughout the country.
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