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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 35-43

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Better Late Than Never

Elizabeth Pond

In their recent presidential election, Romanian voters had to choose between disaster and catastrophe, they thought, between an ultranationalist fanatic and an old communist. Voters held their noses and gave the latter two-thirds of their ballots.

Even a reluctant two-thirds is still a mandate, however, and old communist Ion Iliescu might well turn out to be more than just the lesser of two evils. He failed to institute fundamental reforms during his first presidency in 1990-1996 after he helped depose strongman Nicolae Ceausescu in communism's only bloody finale, but it seems that Iliescu learned something in his last four years in opposition. He has behind him the only coherent party in the country, and over time, nonmarket, nondemocratic courses of action in the region have been discredited, most dramatically in the ousting of Yugoslav autocrat Slobodan Milosevic. Iliescu's hand-picked prime minister, Adrian Nastase, announced a series of government programs to provide more social entitlements, of course, but also to speed up privatization and make it more transparent; to create jobs; to combat corruption; to thin out the bureaucracy; to attract foreign investment; to cut taxes to lure the 40 percent of the economy that is black or gray into legitimacy; and otherwise to adapt, however late, to a global market economy.

These promises and the mandate-by-default are not Iliescu's only advantages, which include something more than mere general relief that the runoff last December sidelined the xenophobic and anti-Semitic Romanian equivalent of Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky, C. Vadim Tudor. Iliescu's other pluses are summed up in the rock-bottom popular expectations from a head of state who was once a youth minister under Ceausescu, from an economy [End Page 35] that keeps 40 percent of the population at subsistence level, and from a people with soaring unemployment and a honed nonwork ethic.

This area, after all, is the Balkans. From here, the only way is up. In their own fashion, democratic elections and the Euro-Atlantic system are working.

Negatively, elections have twice afforded citizens the pleasurable revenge of voting the bums out. In 1996, they ejected Iliescu from the presidency he had held in postcommunist continuity after the loss of more than a thousand lives in "the revolution" of 1989. Last December, they ejected his successor, the well-meaning but ineffectual professor Emil Constantinescu, who did not dare run again. Moreover, they gave no parliamentary seats to Constantinescu's National Peasant-Christian Democratic allies from the squabbling Democratic Convention government coalition.

More positively, the holy grail of eventual membership in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are functioning, if in circuitous ways, to provide both incentives and discipline. Iliescu's postcommunist network, the Romanian Party of Social Democracy (PDSR), itself sought NATO membership for the country in the mid-1990s--in part for the cachet, in part to get financial and organizational help to modernize Romania's armed forces. It sought EU membership as well--who in impoverished Central and Eastern Europe would not want to join prosperous Western Europe?--but was not willing in its first incarnation to pay the painful price of instituting essential market reforms.

After the 1996 election, the pro-Western, pro-market Democratic Convention that has now been thrown out began liberal reforms. This effort was accomplished usually by decrees that bypassed the fractious parliament--and it succeeded in producing an initial macroeconomic stabilization that finally yielded growth of 1.5 percent last year, cut inflation to about 41 percent, and quadrupled the country's hard-currency reserves to $3.7 billion, against a current-account deficit of $2 billion and rising payments on a $26 billion external debt. The coalition failed to reverse the slide in living standards or curb corruption, however, and voters dealt with it accordingly. What skyrocketed Tudor's Greater Romania Party from 4.5 percent of votes in 1996 to more than 20 percent in 2000 (and gave Tudor himself 28 percent...


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