Vacation Is Over

15. 3. 2017

This is perhaps the most common phrase one hears these days when Romanian analysts and decision-makers talk geopolitics.

Romania did indeed take a long vacation after its 2007 EU accession. A process, which literally absorbed the whole creative and executive energy of the country at political, administrative, and social level, the EU/NATO integration was a monumental endeavor and THE national project for at least a generation. Like God on the seventh day, the Romanian people and its leaders rested on the long Sunday following the creation of new, Euro-Atlantic Romania. They were finally back where they belonged, they had regained their place with the West: a goal in itself, a question of identity and fundamental security, the guarantee—so they thought—that Romania had finally broken with its long history of foreign domination and regional insecurity.

Between 2007 and 2014 there was hardly any attempt at a new grand strategy. Traumatized by years of communist oppression and deprivation, Romanian Selbstbildung had a negative referential: to escape this disenfranchised status. During Communism, Romanians were dreaming either that the Americans would come to their rescue; or that they would be able to flee to the West. Now the Americans (NATO) had come and they were able to travel and move freely to the West (which they subsequently did in abundance!). Little did anyone consider what kind of a European or international actor Bucharest should be. Hence, the country often positioned itself with the mainstream/dominant opinion within the EU and along its strategic partner, the United States, within NATO. It continued to see its immediate vicinity as a priority (first and foremost its sister Republic of Moldova), but mostly because it believed the entire region would eventually follow the same European path (which was also in Romania’s best interest) and wanted to lend it a hand. It strengthened its partnership with the US because that’s where it had always received the strongest support from. It continued to dislike Russia and consider it an inherent threat, but its bilateral history with Moscow was in no way as tragic and vivid as that of Poland or the Baltics, so Bucharest didn’t actively prepare for confrontation.

In brief, Romania mostly looked inward after EU accession and up until recently, struggling through the crisis and making democratic consolidation its national agenda. Renewed Russian assertiveness and aggression in the region caught it very much off-guard, as it did everyone else. Romanians may not have been particularly surprised, but they were certainly not more prepared than everybody else. The main national concern can be summed up in this pervasive “Vacation’s over!” phrase. It actually means that Russian gunshots have burst the rosy bubble of illusions of safety, security, and “end of history.” Romania found itself once again plunged into a grey area of uncertainty, instability, competing great power interests, and use of force. It found itself at the frontline, with an eastern neighborhood (which now seems condemned to buffer area status) prone to conflict and territorial wars—Romania’s worst nightmare. Simultaneously, the cohesion of EU is hard-tested by the response to Russia, refugee crisis, eurozone troubles, and other divisive issues that split East and West and generate a “two-speed Europe,” as Jean-Claude Juncker has called it, where CEE non-eurozone members feel robbed of their seat at the table and of much of the political benefit of EU membership.

Strangely enough though, this new security environment also provided Bucharest with the clarity and unity of purpose which it was lacking, as well as the main lines of action! Just like before 2007, the threat is once again clear and it is the same: regional instability, getting caught in the middle of confrontation between Russia and the West for influence over this region. The goal is also plain to see: try to stay out of harm’s way while fighting tooth and nail for preservation of the EU and NATO as the only structured way to ensure collective security and national progress in the long run. In more detail, this means: firstly, strengthen the one partnership which can provide the most reliable security umbrella—that with the United States; secondly, stick as close as possible to the EU core (which may require developing a more substantive relationship with Germany and learning to play the EU game better—both in Brussels and in the EU Council—while continuing to increase convergence and integration, economic, in terms of rule of law, and democratic standards); thirdly, learn to talk to neighbors and cooperate better with regional players—especially with Poland and Turkey; fourthly, learn to better support EU neighbors like Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova through concrete projects on the ground, transfer of expertise, and economic investment, rather than just in Brussels; fifthly, go back to the Balkans, the one EU periphery where Russia will not directly intervene if the EU makes advance.

Gone is now the stress of finding strategies and ways of developing the relationship with the US beyond military cooperation, to closer economic ties, visa-free travel to the United States etc. Now it is all about diligent implementation of the vision agreed with the US and NATO for defense of the south-eastern flank: modernization of the army, cooperation with neighbors, military planning, budgetary allocation of 2% of GDP to the defense sector, operation of the bases at Deveselu and Kogalniceanu, hosting of the NATO Force Integration Units and other allied capabilities as decided at the Wales Summit. Not easy, but something Bucharest is much better at, by virtue of having gone through a similar process on the road to NATO accession, than it is at devising strategies and mastering the complicated art of navigating a multiplicity of interests and issues.

Therefore, the foreign policy and security establishment was quick to reorganize the country’s international position around the security threat from Russia (the new national security strategy published in 2015 emphasizes territorial defense and adds hybrid war, with elements such as cyber-attacks and propaganda, as a component of that threat) and the geopolitical threat of EU fragmentation. It moved to implement the new priorities outlined above. The two strategic partnerships with Poland and Turkey have been given heightened importance—especially Poland, despite the growing worries about the policies of the government in Warsaw. Having snubbed the region for a long time and been absent from permanent formats like the V4 and occasional alliances of opportunity, Romania has started making vigorous efforts to cooperate more with Central-Eastern Europe (CEE).

At the recent meeting of regional heads of state in Bucharest, in preparation for the Warsaw Summit, the hosts have successfully taken on the role of bridging more vocal and radical demands from some CEE countries and Western availability to give in to such demands, in light of the superior interest of keeping NATO united, while at the same time advancing the regional agenda. Romania has realized it needs to engage more with Germany, despite occasional dissatisfaction with Berlin not taking a more hardline stance toward Russia or disagreements on the refugee crisis. While a few years ago, the view in Bucharest was that closer ties with Germany would run counter to strategic arrangements with the US and UK, recent evolutions have shown the two rather as complementary to each other. When it comes to the EU neighborhood, Romanian diplomacy is becoming increasingly aware that it needs to adjust its support for the Eastern Partnership countries in the wake of the changed security environment, to continue helping the almost-failing Republic of Moldova with more concrete instruments (economic, as well as in the field of anti-corruption policies and rule of law), to help strengthen the Ukrainian government, and encourage Georgia to follow through with reforms. It has also received strong signals from its EU partners to become more involved in the Western Balkans, where it can both make a significant positive impact and help avert further crisis, in a context where tensions are running dangerously high these days.

While recognizing all these imperatives, the leadership in Bucharest does not necessarily have ready solutions for all. For the first time after 1989, the administration lacks experienced foreign policy specialists in high ranking positions. The president, a former mayor of Sibiu—not one of Romania’s largest cities—is a complete outsider to the field and lacks expert advisers. High profile political figures who oversaw Romania’s entry to the Euro-Atlantic club are now out of major league politics. The new generation of political and opinion leaders very much lacks an understanding of international affairs, as well as awareness of the link between the country’s recent modernization process and its relation to Europe and NATO. This naturally opens the door to populism, nationalism, and Euroscepticism. This trend sweeping all over Europe hasn’t taken hold here yet, but the attempts to squeeze political benefits from the recent spats within the EU have multiplied, led by the charismatic former President Traian Basescu seeking to make a comeback in the upcoming national elections by riding on the wave of public discontent. The new technocrat government, with lots of people leaving their Brussels jobs to serve in Bucharest, seems more knowledgeable of EU affairs, but its mandate only extends until the elections in autumn. In the absence of firm leadership, the controversial intelligence establishment and the so-called “dinosaurs”—people who have been part of the system for decades and form a well-woven network of shared interests— seem to have occupied every space available.

This does not bode well at a time when there is more need than ever for creativity and new ideas. If there was ever a time for Romania to retake a more active role in its region and in the EU, as a proponent of ideas and a policy broker, this is it. At the same time though, those who are tasked with putting forth those ideas are busy preparing for elections and trying to figure out how to negotiate with the street, as Romanians have found new appetite for voicing their discontent, after a nightclub fire left over 60 dead and tens wounded, following authorities’ neglect for security norms, apparently due to corruption. Protests that toppled the Ponta government also called for reform of the political class in integrum. Main parties were therefore quick to agree on an interim government of technocrats, as it buys them time to regroup, rather than reform. Currently, the Social-Democrats appear as frontrunners, with a decent record of economic growth while in office (though plagued by internal divisions and a history of corruption and nepotism), with a newly elected president, who is seen as a “local baron” and was convicted for rigging a referendum. The contending Liberals, while benefitting enormously from the support and traction of President Iohannis, lack leaders and expertise. Their image is tarnished by association with the Liberal-Democrats, who dragged the country out of the economic crisis by imposing the harshest austerity in Europe, when the whole time they were patrons of a network of high-level corruption apparently involving the former President Basescu too.

Against this background, any evolution is possible ahead of elections. The extent to which foreign policy ambitions materialize—beyond a predictable continuity along traditional lines—will largely depend on post-election arrangements. Until then, the domestic agenda takes precedence over everything except the most pressing security matters. Vacation may be over, but as Romanians like to joke about themselves, the day’s work starts with a welcome break.

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