Wednesday, November 19, 2014

FT: Romania’s presidential poll offers hope for more tolerant future

Tony Barber

The result of Romania’s presidential election may turn out to be the most positive political event in Europe this year.

It is encouraging for what it says about three things in central and eastern Europe: its troublesome ethnic politics, the never ending struggle against corruption and the unfolding contest between the Euro-Atlantic alliance and Russia.

The election winner was Klaus Iohannis, the centre-right mayor of the city of Sibiu, who defeated Victor Ponta, the centre-left prime minister. What makes Mr Iohannis’s victory special is that he comes from Romania’s ethnic German minority.

After waves of emigration in the communist and post-communist eras, ethnic Germans account these days for well under 1 per cent of Romania’s 20m people. But the acrid aroma of menacing nationalism has often permeated Romanian politics, as the country’s Hungarian and Jewish minorities can testify.

Romanians showed exceptional maturity on Sunday by electing an ethnic minority candidate as their head of state. For many voters, the political programmes and personal appeal of the two candidates evidently mattered more than their respective ethnic backgrounds. It seems that this was especially true for Romanian voters who live in western European cities. They voted heavily for Mr Iohannis.

Few European countries, east or west, can say the same. Has Bulgaria had an ethnic Turkish president? Has Italy had a prime minister from its ethnic German region of South Tyrol? Has Britain had a premier of Afro-Caribbean origin?

In a region whose history is riddled with ethnically inspired political tensions, Romania’s election result gives hope for a future of tolerance.

The fact that Mr Iohannis was elected on what was perhaps the most explicitly anti-corruption programme of any Romanian presidential or prime ministerial candidate of the 24-year post-communist era, indicates Romanian voters are no less sick than the nation’s western allies of pervasive corruption in Romanian politics, business circles and public administration.

In early October Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, warned in a hard-hitting speech: “In central Europe today . . . the twin cancers of democratic backsliding and corruption are threatening the dream so many have worked for since 1989” – the year the region’s peoples overthrew communism.
As a centre-right ethnic German politician, Klaus Iohannis has excellent relations with Angela Merkel, Germany’s Christian Democrat chancellor

Official corruption is a deep-seated problem in Romania. One former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, has been convicted twice on corruption charges (after his first prison sentence, he shot himself in a failed suicide bid). The recent election campaign took place against the backdrop of an alleged bribery scandal involving top-ranking politicians and the sale of software technology licences for Romanian schools.

Mr Iohannis cannot change everything overnight, but his ascent to the presidency is a sign that the political classes are less likely to escape unpunished for flagrant abuse of public office.

His election victory should also stiffen the resolve of Nato and the EU to stand firm against Russia’s efforts to expand its political, military and economic influence in the Balkans and Black Sea area.

In some respects, Romania is less susceptible than its neighbours to Russian pressure. It relies less on Russian energy. As a non-Slav nation that once lost territory to the Soviet Union, it is immune to pan-Slavism and has few illusions about how the Kremlin deploys power. Yet from time to time one hears that high-level Romanian politicians have privately aired the idea of doing a deal with President Vladimir Putin that would concede to Russia permanent dominance over south-eastern Ukraine.

Mr Iohannis is unlikely to toy with such notions. As a centre-right ethnic German politician, he has excellent relations with Angela Merkel, Germany’s Christian Democrat chancellor. He sees eye to eye with her on the danger posed not only by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, but by its support of the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria. Under Mr Iohannis, Romania can be expected to contribute to a more coherent, united EU stance towards Russia.

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