Ceausescu's Legacy

Article excerpt

ROMANIA, the largest country in a region of Europe that extends from the Aegean Sea and the mouth of the river Danube to the Carpathian Mountains, has been tarnished in many Western eyes by its proximity to the carnage in neighboring Yugoslavia - and as part, therefore, of that turbulent region, "the Balkans." Yet Romania remains aloof from the tumult across its western border. The most pressing threat to its security comes from within; specifically, from the coal fields of the Jiu Valley, 210 miles west of Bucharest. For ten years the coal fields have existed as a state within a state, where militant miners, earning some of the highest wages in the country, exercise de facto rule. The miners are, in fact, heirs to the hardline communist dictatorship of Nikolai Ceausescu, who from 1965 to 1989 presided over Romania's Marxist-Leninist regime.

In 1996 Emil Constantinescu, a liberal academic with impeccable anti-communist credentials, was elected president of Romania, a development hailed in Western capitals as a turning point in Balkan politics, one which complemented a growing Western willingness to consider integrating Romania into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That optimism proved short-lived. Soon after his election, Constantinescu issued a prescient warning about the strength of neocommunist forces in Romania:

We are not talking about classic communism . . . but rather of a form that is both old, since it awakens latent nationalism, and new because of its goal, which is to preserve all that can be preserved of the old regime, both in men and structures: as many as possible of the large enterprises, as many monopolies as possible, especially in the areas of energy and agriculture, as many of the political and economic leaders as possible, and as much as possible of an isolationist and anti-Western mythology, ready to halt all openings towards Europe and the rest of the world.

Earlier this year the Romanian government announced that pro-communist forces, which remain influential in the state security services, had attempted to exploit the miners' discontent to mount a coup d'etat. The architects of the coup sought above all else to sever recently established contacts with the West.

In 1999, with prospects of joining NATO . in the near future receding and a coalition of squabbling reformers discredited by multiple policy failures, the prospects for Romania seem uncertain. No large country other than Russia sees Romania as belonging to its zone of influence. Unlike Poland or Hungary, Romania lacks a vocal emigre community in the United States capable of persuading Washington of its homeland's right to figure significantly in American foreign policy.

And yet in an era in which conflicts between rival cultures are expected to replace ideological ones as sources of instability, Romania's strategic importance will soon become apparent. For the country is bisected by the faultline separating Christian Europe's Latin West and Orthodox East, a cultural boundary which in ex-Yugoslavia has already produced furious strife. The mainly Orthodox provinces of Moldavia and Walachia, which formed the original Romanian state between 1866 and 1918, are typically thought to belong to the Balkans, while on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains the province of Transylvania, part of Romania since 1918, is seen as Central European, mainly because of its experience of Habsburg rule and its large Western Christian minorities.

At the same time, the claimed Latin origins of the Romanians on both sides of the Carpathians mitigate these distinctions and provide an important unifying element. Indeed, Romania's self-image as a Latin country that believes itself to be an extension of the West helps to explain why it remains aloof from its Slavic neighbors. Russia is seen by Romanians as a long-term foe of their independence - and with some justification, for Russian troops are still stationed in the Transnistria region of Bessarabia, a province that had been part of Romania from 1918 until 1940. …