Romania Moves Ahead; Progress Goes Far in NATO bid.(PAGE ONE)(EXPANDING NATO)

Article excerpt

Byline: Nicholas Kralev, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BUCHAREST, Romania - Romania, a nation that is often pitied for its poverty and ridiculed for its backwardness in the West, has staged a diplomatic coup that is all but certain to bring it a NATO invitation in three weeks.

Of all ex-communist countries that are expected to make the alliance's second round of enlargement since the end of the Cold War, Romania was probably the longest shot.

Its economic reforms have been painfully slow, and corruption is said to be rampant in all spheres of society, including the highest echelons of power.

But an aggressive lobbying effort in key Western capitals, particularly in Washington, has done miracles for the nation of 20 million, where public support for NATO membership runs as high as 80 percent.

"Our population understands that NATO is the best guarantee for our security, but also a modernizing force for our society," President Ion Iliescu told The Washington Times.

Romanian officials say that their hard work to fulfill the requirements for NATO accession, rather than diplomacy alone, is the reason for their success. The country has, indeed, impressed the alliance in the past couple of years, especially with its military reform.

"The Prague summit will be an approval of our course and a signal that we have entered the community of developed nations," Mr. Iliescu said of the Nov. 21-22 meeting in the Czech capital.

U.S. officials who have visited Romania recently give the government of Prime Minister Adrian Nastase credit for implementing the so-called Membership Action Plan, a document with goals and standards for all applicant countries.

But while they acknowledge Romania's achievements in its development as a functioning democracy and market economy, U.S. officials make clear that an invitation in Prague would not mean acceptance of the country as a full-fledged member of the Western community.

"As far as we are concerned, Prague is just the beginning," one senior U.S. official said. "There is a lot of work to be done in the months and years after the summit."

In addition to corruption and low living standards for most of Romania's people, Western diplomats in Bucharest, the capital, cite as serious problems an unfriendly investment climate and the large number of former members of the Securitate secret police who remain in key government positions.

Some ordinary Westerners living in Bucharest are particularly concerned about ex-Securitate agents having access to NATO intelligence when Romania joins the alliance.

NATO officials, however, seem to be satisfied with the government's assurance that such delicate matters are being handled carefully and that the many former agents will gradually disappear from powerful posts as generations change.

"About 80 percent of the people in our foreign intelligence and 85 percent of the domestic intelligence service are completely new," one Romanian official said.

Although a number of Western companies are doing business in Romania relatively successfully, some complain of unfavorable investment conditions and widespread corruption. The local representative of the Microsoft Corp., for example, has protested that the government is using pirated software on many of its computers.

A statement by the international rating agency, Fitch, yesterday reflected the mixed nature of Romania's economic situation and business climate.

Fitch, which upgraded the country's long-term foreign and local currency ratings, said that "Romania's creditworthiness has improved markedly over the last two years" and "it is currently enjoying its strongest macroeconomic performance since transition began."

But the agency warned that "progress may also be hampered by a weak institutional and administrative framework, strong vested interests and corruption. …