‘In Romania, there’s no commitment to democracy’
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Following in the footsteps of wayward EU member Hungary, one of Europe’s poorest countries, Romania, is the next post-Soviet state to be accused by Brussels of testing its democratic boundaries.
Just under two years ago, newly-elected Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, began fiddling with the country’s media laws and constitution, provoking an outcry from the European Commission, who deemed the Orban’s reforms a risk to the country’s young democracy. Following in its footsteps today is Romania, one of the European Union’s newest members and also one of its poorest.
The European Commission has accused Romania’s centre-left prime minister, Victor Ponta (pictured top left), of breaching democratic principles by suspending right-wing president Traian Basescu, in what Basescu has called a “coup against the rule of law”. A highly critical report published by the commission Wednesday highlighted concerns about Ponta’s leftist government’s attempts to oust President Basescu.
FRANCE 24 spoke to Catherine Durandin, a French historian specialised in Romania and the Balkans. She is a research professor at Inalco, France’s National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations.
FRANCE 24: Could the government’s suspension of President Basescu be described as a coup d’état in disguise?
Catherine Durandin: It doesn’t seem like a coup d’état because Basescu’s suspension is to be ratified by a referendum on July 29. The [Romanian] Constitutional Court – along with a great deal of pressure from the European Union – has managed to impose the 50 percent rule [meaning that more than 50 percent of the country has to vote in the referendum in order for it to be legitimate].
Nonetheless, the power grab was done in a way that is no way democratic. The coalition government, which is made up of liberals and socialists, is trampling on any institution that might hinder it from grabbing full power. For example, the director of the national archives was fired. In Romania it’s the equivalent of [Soviet practices such as] memory control or protecting your communist ‘comrades’. The president of the senate and the president of the chamber of deputies were also dismissed. Members of the Constitutional Court found themselves under pressure from the government. With many of them reaching the end of their terms, they risk being replaced by government puppets.
The European Union seems to be having difficulties upholding democracy in Eastern Europe. Why?
CD: On July 12, the European Commission handed Victor Ponta and his government a list of ‘recommendations’ that must be heeded to in order for them to regain their standing [with the EU]. But Europe’s means are limited. The EU itself lacks unity.
Do you think that there is an east-west divide in terms of political custom?
CD: Absolutely. The rift lies between former Communist Bloc countries and those in western Europe. After the fall of the USSR I thought that democratisation was possible. But we don’t share the same political culture and in Romania, the system facilitates power-hoarding. While the fear [of the former system] has gone, power is still utilised as an instrument. There’s no notion of a democratic commitment or the integration of the rule of law. If a law is disliked, it’s changed. The law is also a type of instrument.
And that’s not to mention corruption. The jailing of ex-Premier Adrian Natase [sentenced to two years in prison for corruption last month], was actually a triggering factor [for the government's power grab]. By daring to target a former prime minister and future presidential hopeful, the Supreme Court really scared the socialist barons, who could most certainly find themselves in a similar situation.
Romanian leaders seem to have trouble conciliating European rules and national obligations. In the 1990s, the democratisation of Romania was encouraged by enthusiasm for the EU. Is that no longer the case?
CD: In the 1990s, Romania fought to join the EU, which was a symbol of legitimacy, freedom, prosperity and so on. But that all changed in 2010 when the financial crisis hit. The austerity imposed by Brussels and the IMF was seen as restrictive and penalising. President Basescu, who was very popular in 2005-2006, mainly for having skillfully dealt with the West and the US, became very unpopular during the crisis. In 2009-2010, he came across as brutal and arrogant in imposing austerity measures and the IMF’s wishes. Salaries went down by 25% and pensions tumbled. People didn’t understand; they found the measures hard to understand after a period of such euphoria.
Today, the EU is considered as too overbearing. The borders remain closed because Romania is not part of the Schengen zone. Consequently, anti-European talk has started to take hold, even among left-wingers. Even [interim president] Crin Antonescu spoke in a nationalist way last Friday when he said: ‘We are a sovereign people. We don’t take orders from outside.’ Nationalistic rhetoric is a classic instrument used to reassure people in times of crisis.”