Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Romania hopes for regional prominence after NATO

By Justyna Pawlak

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Once a laggard among former Soviet allies in joining the European Union and NATO, Romania hopes the military alliance's summit in Bucharest this week will earn the Black Sea state a bigger role in southeastern Europe.

Romanian President Traian Basescu has pushed hard for the 26-member alliance to turn its attention to security issues around the Black Sea and in the Balkans, supporting membership aspirations of countries in the region.

So far, Romania's efforts to become a mouthpiece for the region have produced lackluster results. It has become isolated in its staunch backing for Serbia and it has failed to persuade neighboring Moldova to stay on a straight pro-western track.

But diplomats say NATO's decision to hold this year's summit, the alliance's biggest ever, in Bucharest is a sign that Romania has succeeded in drawing the focus of its policies towards security issues in its neighborhood.

"The fact that the summit is being held in Romania, a relatively new member of the Alliance, reflects two things. One that Romania is seen as a serious player, within its capabilities," said one diplomat in Bucharest.

"It is also a recognition this region poses security challenges. This is the message the (Romanian) president and others have been spelling out clearly."

From April 2 to 4, Bucharest will open doors to NATO heads of state, including U.S. President George W. Bush, for a summit of the military alliance.

Thousands of other guests include U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Romania joined NATO in 2004 and became an EU member last year. It is a staunch supporter of NATO's missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war-torn Western Balkans.

Aside from Slovenia, the most successful former Yugoslav republic, Romania and its smaller southern neighbor Bulgaria are the only former Soviet allies in the Balkans and the Black Sea region to join both NATO and the EU.

REGIONAL ISSUES

On the summit agenda are potential membership invitations to Croatia and Albania -- and Macedonia if it is able to resolve a long-running row over its name with NATO ally Greece.

NATO allies will also discuss whether to give a roadmap to eventual entry to Georgia and Ukraine, but the outlook for the two Black Sea states is more uncertain.

All are supported by Romania.

"We want to see democratic processes in this region, whether we mean the Balkans or the Black Sea, work to consolidate partnerships with structures which include Romania, in this case NATO," Basescu told foreign journalists last week.

"This means a guarantee of security and economic development that does not come under question because of regional instability."

Romania also hopes for further discussion on whether the alliance should take more action to avert potential threats to energy supplies.

With its mix of coal and natural gas as well as hydro, and nuclear power, Bucharest aims to become a major energy exporter to southeastern Europe over the next decades.

"We (see) NATO being involved in ... providing (energy) security. This means supervising energy infrastructure, being available for intervention in case of disasters, responding to terrorist attacks," Basescu told Reuters in an interview.

(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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