Testing the Parameters of Democracy: Romania in 2013 by Dennis Deletant

Recent developments in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary have posed major challenges to the European Union in its efforts to ensure respect for the democratic values which underpin it. In particular, events last year in Romania brought into question many Romanian politicians' commitment to the cultural values of the EU. In September 2012 European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned Victor Ponta, the Romanian Prime Minister, that Romania must “remove all doubts on its commitments to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and respect for constitutional rulings.” This paper will examine the degree to which the Romanian government has heeded this warning. 

Dennis Deletant is Visiting Ion Ratiu Professor of Romanian Studies at the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies in the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington DC, and Emeritus Professor of Romanian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College, London.

He is the author of several monographs and volumes of studies on the recent history of Romania, among them Ceauşescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965-89 (London; New York, 1996), Romania under Communist Rule (Bucharest, 1998), Communist Terror in Romania: Gheorghiu-Dej and the Police State, 1948-1965, (London; New York, 1999) and Ion Antonescu. Hitler’s Forgotten Ally (London: New York, 2006) and is currently researching a study of British clandestine operations in Romania during World War II.


Romania is on the margins of Europe. This simple geographical observation is heavy with significance. The territories inhabited by Romanians have, throughout their history, been subject to forces from the East. The Romanian essayist Ion Vianu posed the question “What can deliver our country from this trap of history?” His answer was, “First of all, respect for the great values of Europe, above all for the democratic institutions.”i

The impetus for reform in Romania since the collapse of communism has come from outside rather than from within. The International Monetary Fund, the Council of Europe, and the European Union have been the major catalysts of reform; the need to satisfy the requirements of these institutions in order to achieve integration into the so-called “Euro-Atlantic structures” spurred and guided the reform process in Romania. In joining NATO and the EU Romania moved from uncertainty about its position and future in Europe to certainty. NATO and EU membership offered political and economic stability, providing an anchor for the reforms upon which Romania had embarked since the overthrow of communist rule. Romania’s admission to NATO on 29 March 2004 following the decision taken at the Prague Summit in November 2002, and her admission to the EU on 1 January 2007 are the most notable successes in terms of politics and economics registered by the country. Yet recent events in Romania have raised questions about the commitment of many of Romania’s politicians to the cultural values by which the EU is driven. By ‘cultural’ I mean here the spirit of democracy with which the EU is infused.

 This is not to say that the country has not, in respect of NATO, played an active role in promoting the values and objectives of the alliance by participating in its operations and missions. To NATO Romania brought the largest country in Southeastern Europe in terms of area and population, a fairly stable democracy, and a respected military capacity and partner for the allied forces during the Gulf War (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991), particularly during its service as president of the UN Security Council. The country was active in peacekeeping operations in UNAVEM in Angola, IFOR/SFOR in Bosnia, in Albania, and sent 860 troops to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion (March 20 to May 1, 2003). In May 2011 it had 1800 combat troops and 60 gendarmes in Afghanistan to help train the local police. President Traian Băsescu declared in January 2013 that Romania would continue to provide support to Afghanistan at the same level, even after NATO combat troops withdrew in 2014.ii

As a further sign of its commitment to the NATO alliance, Romania signed an agreement with the United States in September 2011 to station a ballistic missile defence system at the Deveselu air base near Caracal, some 90 miles (150 km) to the southwest of the capital, Bucharest. The system will provide protection of NATO European territories and populations, and augment protection of the United States, against the increasing threats posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles from the Middle East.


Yet if principles of political, economic, and social cohesion are to be observed, an acceptance of shared values and synchronization of the EU is also essential, along with behavior in compliance with the chapters of the acquis commounitaire. Romania has achieved much in this regard but in some areas the reforms necessary for the implementation of the acquis, though adopted into law, are wanting in their application. The EU is not, however, a development agency. Europeanization is about integrating functioning systems.iii Romania is still a country of networks rather than structures.

The lack of efficient administrative capacity severely hinders Romania’s ability to use the EU funding it is given. Systemic corruption remains a major problem in the delivery of services and in the administration of justice. To a large degree, judges and magistrates are seen by the public as a law unto themselves. Opinion polls consistently show that the public regards the legal profession as institutionally corrupt. In the view of many Romanians the judiciary is politicized, leading to the flawed administration of the law.

Corruption presents a major obstacle to Romania’s full integration into the EU. Most politicians do not distinguish between the public and private purse. In its Corruption Perception Index for 2012, Transparency International ranked Romania 66th in the world, and the third highest listing among EU member states after Bulgaria, placed 75th and Greece at 94th.iv

The European Commission is monitoring Romania to ensure that it meets its EU membership obligations in important areas. When they joined the EU on 1 January 2007, Romania and Bulgaria still had progress to make in the fields of judicial reform and corruption. The EU decided to establish a special ‘Cooperation and Verification Mechanism’ to help both countries address these outstanding shortcomings.

Events since the May 2012 collapse of the government of President Traian Băsescu’s Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), led by Mihai-Răzvan Ungureanu, have severely damaged the country’s credibility as a sound credit risk and stable destination for investors. At the end of April 2012, the left-right coalition, the Social-Liberal Union (USL- Uniunea Social Liberală), comprising the Party of Social Democracy (PSD, the ‘reformed’ former ruling Communist party, headed by prime minister Victor Ponta, and the right-of-center Liberals (PNL) led by Crin Antonescu, managed to oust Ungureanu by tabling a successful vote of no confidence in his government.

The impetus for the no-confidence motion brought by the USL seems to have been a decision by the Supreme Court upholding the corruption conviction and two-year prison sentence of former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase. Năstase shot and wounded himself on 20 June, apparently in a suicide attempt, hours after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Năstase was released on 18 March after serving nine months of his sentence. Some political commentators have suggested a link between Dan Voiculescu, the most powerful media baron in Romania whose wealth is estimated at €650m ($850m)—at the time a member of the Romanian Senate—and the campaign to impeach President Traian Băsescu, a number of whose nominees were judges on the Supreme Court, over fears that Voiculescu, too, might find himself behind bars if found guilty of corruption. Prime Minister Ponta accused Băsescu of overstepping his powers through illegal phone-tapping, use of the security services against political enemies, and pressuring prosecutors in criminal cases.

The president's popularity had fallen due to his support for austerity measures and perceptions that his appointments were guided bycronyism. Băsescu responded by calling the referendum a putsch attempt by Ponta and his supporters, who had previously been criticized for dismissing the speakers in both chambers of the Romanian parliament and the country's ombudsman. He asked the public to boycott the poll.

Băsescu was suspended by the Parliament on 6 July, with a referendum on his impeachment being held on 29 July 2012. On the day before the vote in parliament, the government changed the referendum law to enable an impeachment referendum to be valid if a majority of voters voted in favor. Previously the law required at least 50 percent of eligible voters to vote in favor.Following criticism of his tactics from the EU, which accused him of ‘undermining the rule of law’, Ponta accepted the ruling by the Constitutional Court to require a turnout of 50 percent plus one to render the result of the referendum valid. 88.7 percent of those voting declared themselves in favor of the President’s impeachment, while only 11.3 percent were against. However, the turnout, at 46 percent, was below the 50 percent plus one necessary for the vote to be valid. Nevertheless, the political turmoil did not end there.

The Constitutional Court added to the uncertainty by declaring that it would not pronounce on the validity of the referendum until 6 September. Western diplomats were so concerned that the country was teetering toward lawlessness that in August Washington sent the U.S. Assistant Secretary for European affairs, Philip H. Gordon, to Bucharest, where he met with both men and warned that Romania must uphold the rule of law. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany—whose voice in the EU carries the most weight with senior Romanian politicians—and the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, also voiced serious concern.v

On 12 July, Barroso met Ponta in Brussels in a chilly atmosphere. Talks, which had been scheduled for September in Brussels on Romania’s bid to join the European Union’s coveted visa-free zone, were postponed. Persuaded by public pressure, the Constitutional Court brought forward its ruling on the referendum to 21 August when it stated that the referendum, by a judges' vote of 6 to 3, was “invalid” in the sense that it had failed to meet the constitutional requirement for impeachment. Traian Băsescu was then formally reinstated as President.

To add to this constitutional farce, Victor Ponta responded to revelations that he plagiarised a good third of his doctoral thesis by disbanding the commission responsible for the validation of university qualifications, while affirming that the use of quotation marks was not obligatory in 2003, the year when he submitted his thesis.


Parliamentary elections were held on 9 December 2012. Only the scale of the electoral victory for Victor Ponta's Social Liberal Union (USL) on December 9 was unexpected. With about 60 percent of the votes, USL crushed the Right Romania Alliance (ARD), which obtained only 17 percent and is widely reviled for its tough austerity measures in office. Ponta's return to office is clearly viewed with caution in Brussels and Washington.The USL led by Victor Ponta won an absolute majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Despite the severe weather in parts of the country, the turnout was at 41.7 percent, higher than the last elections held in 2008 which saw a presence of 39.20 percent, but 15 percentage points less than in the local elections in June 2012. The USL won an absolute majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, with 60.07 percent and 58.61 percent of the votes respectively and in MP mandates, with 122 seats in the Senate and 273 in the Chamber of Deputies. Far behind, the Right Romania Alliance (ARD) came in second place with only 16.72 percent and 16.52 percent of the votes and 24 seats in the Senate, and 56 in the Chamber, losing about half of what they won in 2008. The ARD officially dissolved after the election.The People’s Party – Dan Diaconescu (PP-DD) won 21 seats in the Senate and 47 in the Chamber and the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania, 9 and 18 respectively, and were the only other political groups that won seats in both chambers. Several parties for ethnic minorities received a total of 18 individual seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

It has to be recognized that the USL's policies resonate with a significant part of the electorate, much of which relies overwhelmingly on the state for its economic needs. Pensioners outnumber those in full-time employment. Many self-reliant Romanians have emigrated and many of those suspicious of the USL's communist origins, its authoritarian tendencies and reputation for corruption may have abstained this time. The well-financed and experienced USL machine, aided by massive media backing from Dan Voiculescu, focused popular resentment on Băsescu as the architect of previous austerity measures. It promised increased benefits for those dependent on the state with overtly nationalist messages. Pointed statements were made by Ponta about Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel for her criticism of violations of the spirit of the constitution in the drive to oust Băsescuandof US Ambassador Mark Gitenstein’s thinly-veiled admonitions of the conduct of the USL during the constitutional crisis. Ponta said openly in November that there might have been second thoughts about the wisdom of EU accession if it had been clear, before the 2007 entry date, just how little Romania would benefit from membership and how great the interference would be.

Prime Minister Ponta faces an array of international bodies and states on both sides of the Atlantic which have a coordinated approach to democracy issues in Romania. Under such pressure, he signed a “peace agreement” with Băsescu in January 2013. Prominent voices in USL, including Crin Antonescu, its likely presidential candidate in 2014, have indicated that a fundamental reorientation of foreign relations cannot be ruled out if Romania continues to be frustrated by its Western alliance partners. Ponta will find it hard to satisfy both ascendant USL hardliners and international partners who have lost patience. His alignment with Băsescu has been interpreted as a sign of estrangement from Antonescu, with the latter turning eastwards and the Ponta-Băsescu team remaining committed to the west. However, Ponta still has Voiculescu, who funded in large part the USL election campaign, to deal with.

A further progress report under the CVM was approved by the European Commission on 30 January 2013 in order to see whether the eleven recommendations made in July 2012 had been followed. It found that the constitution and the Constitutional Court's role and decisions had been respected, but that commitments regarding the independence of the judiciary and regarding parliamentarians who had violated codes of ethical conduct had not been adequately implemented.

In late November 2012, the EU delivered stinging criticism of Romania's inability to access EU funds.vi Romania has accessed little more than 12 percent of the 19.6 billion euros in EU Structural and Cohesion funds it was eligible to receive in the 2007-13 budget.

Teams from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission (EC) visited Bucharest during 15-29 January 2013 to conduct discussions on the 7th and final review by the IMF and the last review by the EC of Romania’s economic program.vii The Ponta government agreed with the IMF that approval of the final review of the precautionary stand-by agreement would be extended by three months until the end of June. If the IMF board does not approve the program in June, because of failure by the government to meet the requirements, the arrangement will lapse. The government intends to negotiate a new agreement when the current one expires, but if relations with the IMF were to break down over the existing arrangement, negotiating a new one would prove difficult.’viii

Romania and Bulgaria have failed, as yet, to gain entry to the Schengen area. Some EU members are clearly opposed to the latest enlargement of the 25-member zone, which allows people to travel freely without border controls throughout most of the EU. Once they join, Romania and Bulgaria would become Schengen frontier states, responsible for controlling part of the zone's interface with the rest of the world. For most Romanians, accession to the Schengen area has been seen as just as important as EU integration, hence the extremely strident reaction in Romania in January 2011 to the delay in granting membership. Western EU member states' main concerns include:

  • the safety of the EU's external frontiers;

  • corruption in both countries, including at the borders;

  • the judicial system.

The justice and internal ministers from all EU countries met on 7 March 2013 in Brussels to discuss, among other things, Bulgaria and Romania's possible accession to the Schengen zone. Resistance from several Western and Northern European countries previously delayed a vote on the matter, and in light of Bulgaria’s political paralysis and upcoming elections in Germany, the European Union has delayed the decision once again.

It is only by respecting the rule of law that Romania will be accepted as an equal partner in the EU. In this regard the words of Edmund Burke on the equality of restraint come to mind:

The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions. I am sure that liberty, so incorporated, and in a manner identified with justice, must be infinitely dear to everyone who is capable of conceiving what it is.ix

This ‘equality of restraint’ which we may also equate with the limitation of the exercise of power, is a premise of good government. Without it, the USL government’s relations with the EU will prove acrimonious.x


i Ion Vianu, interviewed by Lidia Vianu in Censorship in Romania, Budapest: Central European University Press, 1997, p.81. ii http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/romania-to-support-afghanistan-beyond-natos-2014.
 iii I thank Alina Mungiu for this phrasing.
 iv Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2012.
 v Romania has to ‘remove all doubts on its commitment to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the respect for constitutional rulings,’ Mr. Barroso warned Mr. Ponta in September in Brussels.
 vi Oxford Analytica.Romania.’Delayed structural reform drags on economy’, 26 November, 2012.
 vii Statement by the IMF and the EC on the Review of Romania's Economic Program’. Press Release No. 13/25
January 29, 2013 (www.imf.org/external/country/rou/index.htm). viiiRomania Country Report, February 2013, Economist Intelligence Unit, p.3.
ix‘Letter to Charles-Jean-François Depont November 1789’ in Edmund Burke, Further Reflections on the French Revolution[1790], consulted at http://oll.libertyfund.org. I am grateful to Horia-Roman Patapievici for reminding me of Burke’s letter.
xJustice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935), is considered to be one of the first advocates of the philosophy of ‘judicial restraint’ in the sense of the limit of the exercise of power.