Friday, July 13, 2012

NYT: Premier of Romania Relents in Standoff

Published: July 12, 2012

BRUSSELS — A constitutional crisis in Romania seemed to be near resolution on Thursday, quieting fears for now of growing political instability on the eastern fringe of the European Union.

The confrontation in Romania brought a sharp rebuke from European officials, including the head of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, who spoke of his “deep concerns” about the infighting and its potential for undermining the nation’s judiciary. This follows a similar crisis in Hungary, reviving worries about whether the European Union can protect its core values if relatively new democracies threaten to stray.

The troubles in Romania began with the arrival of a center-left government in May under Prime Minister Victor Ponta, which immediately clashed with the conservative president, Traian Basescu, ostensibly over economic issues. Last week, after only two months, the Parliament voted to suspend the president pending a referendum on impeachment, which has been set for July 29.

That, in turn, led to squabbling over a law passed by the previous government in its final days requiring that at least 50 percent plus one of the entire electorate turn out for such a referendum to be valid. Mr. Ponta’s government had sought to remove that requirement by decree, but the move was invalidated Tuesday by the Constitutional Court.

The government initially indicated it would ignore the court’s ruling. But late Wednesday in Brussels, where Mr. Ponta said he had traveled to “give reassurances” to European officials, he said he would have his emergency decree revoked, in accordance with the court decision.

Meeting with a small group of journalists on Thursday, Mr. Ponta said he would also leave it to the court to decide on the day after the vote whether the threshold had been met. “I’m not the dictator,” he said, rejecting charges that his bloc was trying to consolidate power. “My government is going to respect” the court’s decision, he said, even if it means Mr. Basescu remains as president.

Mr. Ponta blamed the crisis on public demands for quick action to ease the painful austerity measures championed in recent years by Mr. Basescu after a brush with insolvency. Romania, which is not part of the euro zone, received a $30 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank in 2009, having been hit hard by the global financial crisis.

After meeting with Mr. Ponta on Thursday, Mr. Rompuy urged him to “engage in a constructive dialogue” with the European Commission and address the issues identified as “problematic.” Later, the commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, said he had received “assurances” from Mr. Ponta that he would address the issues of concern and “urgently” deliver the promises in writing.

Mr. Ponta said in the interview that he was “completely ready to back down” if the commission found that any of his government’s actions had violated European norms. But he also warned that continued political gridlock in Bucharest could end up strengthening extremist or anti-European parties, as has been seen in several European countries.

Stelian Tanase, a writer and longtime political analyst in Bucharest, blamed young and inexperienced politicians — Mr. Ponta is 39 — for provoking the crisis. “I think the government made a lot of mistakes in just two months,” he said. “It’s too much, too fast for a European country.”

But Mr. Tanase also described the recent developments as the latest chapter in a “war” between Romania’s two main political “clans.”

The left, he said, wants to avenge the prosecution of their former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, which they charge was politically motivated. Mr. Nastase attempted suicide last month after Romania’s Supreme Court ruled he must serve a two-year prison sentence for corruption.

“The problem is that these politicians hate each other,” Mr. Tanase said. “It’s about power, nothing else.”

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