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Romania: A New Partner in Southeastern Europe

Romania is emerging as a strategic partner of the United States (US) in Southeastern Europe. Bordering the Black Sea, between the Ukraine and Bulgaria, the country is slightly smaller than Oregon with over 22 million people.

It was difficult for me to believe the difference between my visit in 1992 and the one several months ago.

The long rule of President Nicolae Ceausescu ended with his execution in 1989.  But, Communists remained in power until 1996 when they were swept from control by younger, newer leaders, committed to finding a new way for the Romanian people.

Hundreds of buildings, started by the Ceausescu regime, remained uncompleted.  Thousands of stray dogs roamed the streets of Bucharest when I was there in 1992.  What a difference a decade can make.

President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Nastase both took office in 2000.  Iliescu received almost 67 percent of the popular vote and will serve until 2004. The Prime Minister is appointed by the President.

While I was visiting in Bucharest in early July, the government announced that a contingent of Romanian military would join the United States and her allies in fighting the terrorists in Afghanistan. The Romanian forces landed in Kandahar in July 2002. It would have been impossible to predict this kind of cooperation ten years ago. 

A few years ago, there was considerable discussion in international circles about the minority problem in Romania.  This referred to the Hungarians who constitute slightly over seven percent of the population.

The “problem” has been basically resolved. Well organized in their own political party (The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania), the major question of education, equality in government employment, and presence in the local establishment, has been worked out. 

I was especially interested in the issue of religious freedom. Romanian Orthodox make up 86 percent of the population with Roman Catholics and Uniate Catholics constituting six percent. While there are some property rights controversies to be resolved, Catholic leaders told me that the structures of government are basically fair and just.

This is most likely why Pope John Paul II visited Romania in 1999. Romania was the first predominantly Orthodox country visited by the Pope.

Young leaders, competent in their professions and committed to Romania, are playing a major role in European affairs and engaging the United States in a serious, positive relationship. They are, in my opinion, a major reason for this new direction in Romania. 

Romania’s Foreign Minister, Mircca Dan Geoana, former Ambassador to the United States, is a good example of this leadership. In his early 40s, he is a decisive player for Romania in world affairs. His guidance of Romania’s foreign policy makes the country a strong candidate for admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at the November meeting. A number of countries will support Romania at that meeting including the United States.

Restructuring the geopolitical system that was long under Communist control is not easy.  Much remains to be done in this area; privatization has had some bumps, especially in the steel industry. The transition from a socialist system of government ownership to private ownership involves a multitude of changes in habits that become traditions. There are also the dangers of investors whose priorities are short-term profits and obtaining control of leading industries. But the growing role of the Romanian Chamber of Industry and Commerce is improving the prospects for a smoother transition.

The rate of Romanian students going abroad exceeds the rate of foreign students attending universities in Romania. This is a form of brain drain, which Romania cannot afford.

Here is where private American industries ought to step in and establish programs that would facilitate the presence of American students in Romania. US companies, banks and institutions should develop an internship program whereby Romanian university graduates could intern at US companies, banks and institutions and gain experience in developing solid US-Romanian people-to-people relationships. 

There is a win-win atmosphere in Romania as far as the future is concerned. New, youthful leadership is making this possible.

The atmosphere is fundamentally pro-American. This is fortunate for the United States, as Romania is becoming a strategic ally in Southeastern Europe. America should encourage more of its private sector, investors, commerce, universities, and cultural institutions to solidify this relationship with the Romanian people.

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