Thursday, March 29, 2007


Romania's government

About turn
Mar 29th 2007 | BUCHAREST
From The Economist print edition

The Romanian government splinters. The new one will be even less sturdy

MAKING Romania a credible candidate to join the European Union was a remarkable achievement. But keeping it a credible member may prove even harder. That is the depressing lesson from the death throes this week of the three-year-old coalition that brought Romania, with its 22m people, into the EU in January.

Weeks of acrid public infighting since then have paralysed the government, which unites the Liberals, led by the prime minister, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, the Democrats (the party of the president, Traian Basescu) and a group representing the Hungarian minority which has been a fixture of every government for a decade. In February Mr Basescu and Mr Tariceanu argued furiously on a live television programme, during which the president accused the prime minister of lying.

Romania has been without a foreign minister for over a month. Mr Tariceanu's candidate, a member of the European Parliament, was vetoed by Mr Basescu on grounds of “insufficient diplomatic experience”. Mr Tariceanu has appealed to the constitutional court and is now acting as foreign minister himself. He seems to have been egged on in his tactics by two hard-bitten (and foreign) political consultants, Arthur Finkelstein and Tal Silberstein.

The breaking point came this week when the Liberals said they would stay in the coalition only if the government pulled troops out of Iraq, and dumped three ministers, including the non-party justice minister, Monica Macovei. When the Democrats refused to agree, Mr Tariceanu pronounced the government “dead” and started work on forming a new minority administration with the Hungarians. He is hoping for tacit backing from the ex-communist Social Democrats.

The outcome is unlikely to be a government burning with reforming zeal. It was only by sidelining the sleazy Social Democrats that Romania managed to get its EU membership application back on track. The likely successor for Ms Macovei in the new government is a senator from the Hungarian party, Gyorgy Frunda. He will have a job persuading outsiders and the political bosses at home that he brings the same moral fervour and determination to the task as his predecessor.

Ms Macovei's efforts to reform the legal system, reduce political interference and end corruption were vital in persuading Brussels that Romania was serious about modernising its state bureaucracy. But her intolerance of local political habits, although admired by the public, won her few friends in the elite. She had already lost a no-confidence vote in the Senate. Her reforms are incomplete, though many are too far advanced to stop.

The government crisis has come just before Romania reports to the EU on its progress. The European Commission will publish its own assessment in June. It is unlikely to trigger the safeguard clauses that allow Brussels to cut aid and stop co-operation with Bulgaria and Romania if either starts backsliding. But it will make uncomfortable reading. A report by Romania's magistrates' council highlights the continuing problem of incoherent and onerous legislation, understaffing in the judicial system and the small number of big corruption cases resolved. It notes that Romania has the worst record, after Russia, at the European Court of Human Rights. Cases lost typically involve infringement of property rights or maladministration.

The Democrats, Romania's most popular political party, hope that Mr Tariceanu's efforts to form and sustain a minority government will end in failure. They (and Mr Basescu) want an early general election, which might even be held at the same time as the (postponed) European election this summer.

Ordinary Romanians treat the whole political circus, fought out with scandalous allegations and screeching headlines in the highly partisan media, with disdain. The economy is growing at a cracking 7.7%; unemployment and inflation are falling; EU membership is highly popular even before much cash flows in.

In that sense, indeed, Romania's story is a familiar one. All across ex-communist eastern Europe, economies are growing fast, even as the politicians supposedly running them squabble and dither. That may be fine for now. But how these still-fragile countries would fare in an era of currency wobbles or tight money may be another story.

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