by Sawsan Hussein
An interview with Emil Constantinescu, Former President of Romania
Constantinescu was president of Romania from 1996 to 2000. He studied law at the University of Bucharest and started his professional career as a judge at the court in Pitesti. After receiving his PhD in geology, he worked as a professor in the University of Bucharest and was later elected its president. Stones, he says, are not influenced by politics.
He became involved in the political arena after the 1989 revolution and struggled to consolidate democracy in the country, fighting against symbols of the former regime. He founded the Civic Alliance, the largest organisation of Romanian civic society. In 1992, he was elected president of the Romanian Democratic Convention and headed the democratic opposition front between 1993 and 1996. He put forward a clear political agenda to find solutions to Romania's social, economic, administrative and political problems based on satisfying the needs of citizens.
Constantinescu won the 1996 presidential elections against Ion Iliescu. Immediately, Constantinescu established a national council to fight corruption and organised crime. Internally, he concentrated his efforts on developing the lower levels of Romanian society. On the international level, he worked on Romania becoming a member of the EU and Nato, in addition to strengthening ties with the international community and signing political and economic agreements with neighbouring countries and others.
He did not nominate himself for a second term and withdrew from political life after failing to fulfil his promise to the people to bring an end to corruption in the country. However, he returned in 2002 as head of the Ac?iunea popular? (People's Action) party.
He has published a number of books and studies on geology that have been widely translated, as well as others on political, economic, social, cultural, local and international issues.
You were invited last year to take part in the inauguration of the Peace Studies Institute at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. How do you see the future of international relations in light of proposed ideas on the clash of civilisations?
When I received the invitation to participate in the inauguration of the Peace Studies Institute at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, I recalled the story of the young Spanish shepherd Santiago, who on a journey from Europe to the pyramids of Egypt met a variety of characters and learnt many important lessons. At the end of the road, he understands that more important than any treasure is to know the 'Soul of the World.' The story of Santiago was told by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho in a book read by millions of people, proving once again that dialogue between civilisations is not only possible, but also fascinating. The arrogance and prejudice towards other people and concepts that prevent communication must be cast aside. We should carefully and respectfully approach the mysterious and profound nature of the different human civilisations that make up the multicultural world through which we were predestined to ephemerally pass. It is our duty to identify and capitalise on the layer upon layer of this inheritance, formed over centuries and millennia, to rediscover traditions of peaceful coexistence, freedom, conscience, tolerance and pluralism. These are the values that will allow us to build new bridges between cultures and civilisations.
If we desire a peaceful world, we should build such a world, fight for it, pray together for it and fear nothing. If globalisation cannot be avoided, then we should at least seek to mould it to serve worthy goals. Cultural pluralism requires respect for different identities and traditions, respect for human rights and respect for individual freedoms.
The rapid rhythm of globalisation has not only economic and social consequences, but an important cultural impact. Can cultural diversity be maintained in a world cultural order in which some national cultures are at risk of marginalisation?
If we talk about the new world cultural system, we have to first differentiate between the world system and the international system. The international system is sovereign countries interacting with one another within international organisations, such as the UN and Unesco. The world system is an arena in which various actors have appeared - such as multinational companies, the banking system, trans-continental media and distance learning institutions - to find solutions to problems that transcend national borders.
I believe that the contradiction spoken of between globalisation, on the one hand, and the specific identities of people, languages and religion, on the other, is false. The real contradiction is that between the culture of consumerism and what we could call the culture of enrichment, which has constant principles that transcend time and space and form part of human culture in its wider sense.
Globalisation is not the real enemy of cultures. On the contrary, it could be a supportive factor on condition that there is a clear vision with interests and capabilities identified. There will always be a market for consumer culture, and new technology will help widen this market and develop it. The real problem, in my opinion, is related to the necessity of developing the culture of enrichment and protecting the interests of consecutive generations by maintaining its constant cultural principles within new contexts.
What are the opportunities for the younger generations in a globalised world?
We should not look at globalisation from a negative perspective - ie technological imperialism, the rise of consumer culture and the dominance of the English language at the cost of cultural and national identity. We have to think of globalisation in its positive sense, which is equal opportunities, especially for the young.
How does globalisation affect education?
Globalisation opens an unlimited market for education. A world with no borders needs the restructuring of educational institutions so that graduates are able to deal on both the international and local levels, in the cultural, technological, religious and other dimensions.
Universality and locality are not geographical concepts so much as they are a way of thinking and dealing with problems. We should not consider technology a solely western product. This is the result of the concentration of scientific development in the West. In reality, globalisation pushes technology to take local factors into consideration. For us to build a new concept of global solidarity, we have to be able to explain the values of globalisation and look at it from its human rather than technological perspective.
You proposed a vision for a new Europe with a new security system. What, in your view, are the challenges facing Europe today, and what measures should be taken to confront them?
Security today is a complex notion. It is related more to the ordinary citizen than the state, includes protection from both traditional and contemporary threats, and dealing with traditional armed confrontation and new conflicts involving unconventional parties.
It is my view - and that of many of my colleagues in central and eastern Europe - that the burden of ensuring security must be shared by local communities, states, political groupings such as the EU, security alliances such as Nato, and international organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the UN.
It is imperative that we develop new concepts of security and new means to achieve it; a new security system cannot be reduced to military means.
The globalisation of crime is a reality that preceded the globalisation of defence, intelligence and all the means to fight trans-border criminality. We must revise all our inherited notions, and devise new ways of enforcing security without endangering the democracy and freedom of citizens.
To what extent have these ideas been adopted in the new developments within the EU?
The EU is a political union of sovereign states that has to balance between the national interests of its members and the political and regional considerations of the union. This is no easy task when it must, at the same time, deal with the other major political players on the international stage - the US, the Arab world with all its complexities, Russia, China, Japan, etc. I am confident, however, that in time the EU will succeed in dealing with the new challenges. The Lisbon Agenda, which sets new goals for the development of the EU in a global world, is a good start.
Will Romania be able to meet the requirements of integration into the EU by 2007?
Let's be clear, Romania meets the membership requirements no less than other newcomers in the EU. Integration, which began in the late 1990s, is a lengthy, ongoing process - just as was the case for Spain, Portugal or Greece. In my view - and I am happy to see that this view is currently shared by many European officials and citizens - the expansion in 2007 will hasten the full integration of Romania in a united Europe.
Do you consider that the West sufficiently assisted Romania in its process of political and economic transformation?
The West as a whole was supportive, in suggesting reforms, in helping us to rebuild democracy and civil society, and in clarifying the ways and goals of our development. But paradoxically, the Occident had no confidence in the democratic leaders, nor in the peoples' capacity to support them in the transition towards a market economy. For years after the collapse of the communist regimes in southeast Europe, the Occident was interested in stability. And for this they were ready to support almost anyone from the former communist regimes able to guarantee it.
At times it was clear that the West did not understand the complexity of the obstacles we were facing. It was hard for the stable western democracies to understand that in 1989 in Romania the state itself collapsed, not only the ruling Communist Party. It was equally difficult to comprehend how communist rule had perverted the roots of the system of justice, education, health care, etc. From afar, it seemed only natural that once the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu had fallen that society as a whole would be instantly healed. It is hard to believe, seen from Washington or Paris, that the old nomenclature and political police only mimicked respect for democratic rules to better bend them to their own interest.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, eastern Europe has been plagued by ethnic problems. While in office, you implemented a successful policy to deal with Romania's complex ethnic situation. Could you describe this experience? And have your successors continued to deal effectively with this situation?
The last years of the communist regimes were characterised by a new form of nationalism, which is currently - and very aptly - called national-communism. Ceausescu was a champion of this specific blend, but he was not alone. Enver Hoxha in Albania and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia were other prime examples. In 1989 and after, the secret services of the former USSR were also eager to use nationalism as an instrument to maintain their control over the newly independent states. It was, in fact, a perverted form of national pride that served mostly as an obstacle to democracy, international goodwill and cooperation.
In Romania, the specific form of this belated syndrome of communism was directed against the Hungarian minority, which was not only the most significant minority, but also one with strong ties to western democratic societies. A local conflict in March 1990 lasted less than three days, proving that neither of the two countries was disposed to precede Yugoslavia in a civil war. But the tensions at the political level continued, fuelled by the then ruling party, the PDSR/PSD, which sought to keep alive the notion that the country's border territories were under real threat from neighbouring Hungary.
As a leader and presidential candidate of the united opposition, I had promoted since 1992 close political cooperation with the Hungarian party in Romania, the UDMR. In 1996, when we won the elections at all levels, it was only natural to call the UDMR to government, as part of the ruling coalition. This was the main factor in normalising the relationship, not only with the Hungarian minority inside Romania, but also with Hungary itself. Of course, it meant also the revision of extant laws and the adoption of new ones, to meet the right aspirations of our fellow citizens of Hungarian origin, as well as the promotion of rights for all minorities, even the smaller ones. All these are represented in the parliament, which means they can promote their specific interests by political, democratic means. That is why the most important leaders of the international community praised Romania as an example, a model for all the countries in the region in solving peacefully the tensions between the majority and ethno-linguistic and cultural minorities. This new trend in Romanian politics was so strong that even Ion Iliescu's party, when coming back to power in 2000, could not reverse it. It was also a major factor easing the admission of Romania to Nato and its progress toward acceptance in the EU.
Are there problems with anti-Semitism in Romania, as some reports suggest?
I do not think there is a real problem at the level of Romanian society. Romania has some anti-Semites, and at least one political party, the PRM, that adopted as its political creed the chauvinistic, xenophobic stereotypes of national-communism, including some anti-Semitic myths and slogans. Actually, there are very few Jews left in Romania nowadays, and they are in general also very old. The communist regime exported their vast majority abroad, so there is no competition in any respect to fuel anti-Semitism at a general level. The real problem lies in the past, in the fact that Romanians rejected for a long time the very notion of the responsibility of the Romanian state, even of Romanian society as such, in the racial persecutions of history, mostly during the second world war. The historicity of the Holocaust in Romania was denied for a long time, even at the highest level, in the same way in which the historicity of communist persecutions and crimes was, and still is. Only in recent years, an international commission of historians, under the leadership of Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel, proved and made public the ghastly facts of the Holocaust. Another commission, recently appointed, is currently working on a report on communist crimes. A healthy society cannot live by lying to itself. It must face its own errors, even crimes, in order not to repeat them.
The decision to launch war on Iraq had a divisive impact within Europe. How do you view this decision, and what has been the impact on Romania?
For me, as well as for my fellow Romanian citizens, the legitimacy of the decision to eliminate Saddam Hussein's dictatorship cannot be contested. Romanians learned the hard way what a tyrannical regime can do to its own citizens, and to the world. What is less easy to understand are the difficulties in building a functioning state and a free society afterwards. Of course, we understand, again from our own, sad experience that it is not an easy task. But the coalition led by the US seems at times to lack a realistic, overall view of the situation, as well as the means to consolidate the rule of law in Iraq.
In your capacity as president of Bucharest University and as a professor of geology you have visited Egypt. What impression has remained with you?
In the capacity of president of Bucharest University I launched, with the extraordinary support of the ambassadors of Arab countries in Bucharest, a department of Arab culture and civilisation at Bucharest University, which has trained many valuable experts and researchers. I inaugurated this centre in 1993, together with the president of the Arab League, who invited me on this occasion to visit the headquarters of the organisation in Cairo. I also received invitations, in my capacity as professor, to deliver conferences at Cairo University and the University of Alexandria. I knew that Egypt was the cradle of one of the most brilliant, monumental and impressive ancient civilisations, but seeing its treasures with my own eyes was a unique experience. As a geologist, I was most impressed by the desert, with its infinite horizon, suggesting the infinity of time during which the hard stones of the continent became a sea of sand. I was also impressed by the dynamics of your universities and research institutions, and I tried with all my heart to strengthen the ties between Egyptian and Romanian academia.
You have an interesting career path, starting as a judge and then becoming a professor of geology. Why did you make the change, and did this new discipline have any impact on your political views?
I could not accept the blatant injustice of the former judicial system in communist times, let alone become part of this system, so I abandoned my career as a judge after only one year and turned to geology instead. The stones are not so easily moved by politics. Both these disciplines contributed to my political views: the study of law endowed me with a strong frame of mind and unconditional respect for rules and for the rights of all people, and the study of geology, with a capacity to imagine long-term progress, and with a notion of time that is less subdued to the immediate.
Given that you had such high goals for the transformation of Romania, why did you not stand for a second term in November 2000?
The main goals of my first term as president of Romania were attained at very high costs in popularity and popular support. Both the internal reform - which was painful because it had to start by closing many enterprises that generated huge losses, as well as banks, large state-owned farms, coal mines, etc - and my firm stand for Nato intervention in the former Yugoslav conflicts - a guarantee of Romania's democratic, pro-western foreign policy, and the decisive fact in Romania's acceptance as a valid candidate for Nato and the EU - were resented by a vast majority. Someone had to pay the political price for this, and nobody seemed willing to do so.
On the other hand, as acting president, I was not available at the same time to perform my duty as head of state and to campaign all over the country, as I was in 1992 and 1996. This situation implied a campaign depending mostly on media - which means depending on money and on people with money to invest in me as a president. After four years of fierce fighting against corruption, I was not eager to become a pillar of the complicity between business and politics.
I tried, instead, to offer an alternative: a new candidate, who was not burdened by the necessary, but painful decisions I had to take in previous years - a successful prime minister, Mugur Isarescu, who had the chance to harvest the fruit of the economic and political reforms. Had he enjoyed the support of all the four parties of the governing coalition of 1996-2000, he would have had the opportunity to ensure the political continuity that the country so much needed then. Instead, each of these parties decided otherwise, split and pursued its own agenda, with the result that the opposition won the elections.
Have you ever regretted this decision?
Never for myself. I regretted that my project, which had important chances of success, was not agreed by my partners. I must say that the result was not a simple alternation in government, which is a normal event in a democracy. In a way, the policies of the new administration (which actually was the old one, for the elections were won by Iliescu and his party, the losers of 1996) confirmed my reforms. They continued restructuring the economy so as to cope with free market rules, they consolidated the alliance with the representatives of the Hungarian minority, and they went along with the projects to join Nato and the UE. They even conceded to guarantee by the new constitution the right to private property, which was a bone of contention in their previous mandates. But at the same time, they tried very hard to bend all the rules to their own interest, to control the media, and they developed state corruption in an unprecedented manner. Pretending to be socialists, they represented in fact only a tiny minority of a very rich, very corrupt oligarchy - the main fact that distorted and perverted the democratic system between 2001 and 2004. So, I had many reasons to regret - not that I was no more a president, but that the winning party was not at one with the aspirations and the interests of the Romanian people.
What do you consider were the main obstacles to your ambitious plan to eliminate corruption in Romania?
I was well aware of the fact that corruption cannot be eliminated, as you say. It can only be fought by the rule of law. My goal was to eliminate state corruption, high-level corruption, institutionalised corruption. First of all, during my term, I prevented the further subordination of the state and its institutions to private interests. After 2000, our opponents, again in power, tried very hard to find at least one high official with dirty hands; but none, I repeat, none was found. Moreover, the judiciary succeeded in indicting, judging and condemning many of those responsible for the huge illegal affairs witnessed between 1990 and 1996. At least seven big trials related to large-scale smuggling - including the illegal traffic in oil and weapons with Bosnia-Herzegovina during the UN embargo of 1993-95, which involved high-level officials and state institutions - were either held or fully prepared to go to court during my term. The following administration, in the first days of its new term, hastened to stop these trials, to pardon and set free those convicted.
As president, you introduced an economic reform programme based on privatisation of state companies and encouragement of small and medium-sized enterprises. Has this initiative continued as you would have wanted?
Between 1990 and 1996, these reforms were stalled, postponed and prevented, both for electoral interest and to win time to plunder state property. The ruling party and its big clients and associates pumped into private ownership all that was available after the fall of the communist system.
It is why, paradoxically, the leaders and clients of this party, the PDSR/PSD, were the first beneficiaries of privatisation. They were in complete control of the economy after the fall of Ceausescu, and acquired - illegally - the means to buy legally the most valuable assets. To give you an example, one minister from the 1992-96 government bought more than 12,000 hectares of arable land when the state-owned farms were privatised. And I could give you dozens of such examples. So, when they come back to power, they were interested in continuing the privatisation and in protecting its outcome. It became the basis for the concentration of economic and political power that resulted in a new oligarchy, the main element in the evolution of Romanian society after 2000. The gap between their electoral discourse and their political behaviour explains their current loss of popularity. Poor people cannot trust visibly corrupt rich magnates.
What are your plans for the future? Do they include running for office again?
My main interests now lie in the preparation of a young Romanian elite for integration in the new world of cooperation, competition and unity that will open with Romania's admission to the EU. I recently launched some projects in this area, one in developing cultural diversity in higher education, via the Francophone Organisation, another one - the European Generation XXI Forum - in support of the new generation of eminent Romanian students, businesspeople, administrators, artists, etc, facilitating their communication with one another and with Romanian society in order to support their professional success, and strengthen their solidarity and their awareness of belonging to the European elite of tomorrow.