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American support for democratization in Southeast Europe: The case of Romania

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With the dramatic collapse of communism in Southeast and Eastern Europe, the newly democratically elected governments had to face the harsh reality of being unable to properly run their countries based on a liberal democratic political system. Also, neither the governments nor their productive sector was able to cope with the rising private enterprise, which was based on supply and demand, fruitful competition, and quality of products. As a result, promoting the essence of democracy and free markets, fell into the hands of the U.S, which for years tried to find a way to make its presence in the region clear. The response of the U.S government after the fall of communism in 1989 and the dissolvement of the Soviet Union in 1991, was swift and methodical. With the signing of a series of legislative acts in the period of 1989-1995, known as the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act of 1989, and their implementation through the United States Agency for International Development, the U.S has managed to leave its footprint in the region and establish a network of democratic support to all the former Warsaw Pact country members, as well as the country members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance.

The SEED Act and America’s objectives in post-communist Eastern Europe

The Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act of 1989, was part of a series of legislative acts that passed by Congress in the period 1989-1995. The laws were passed under the presidency of both George H.W Bush and Bill Clinton. The legislation was passed as a response to the growing demand for international help in post-communist countries. It is regarded by many as the most successful policy act towards Central and Eastern European countries. While initially the focus of this policy was targeted towards Hungary and Poland, with the growing request from other nation-states in the region, the U.S encompassed more countries such as Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Albania e.t.c, and later on, after the end of the Yugoslavia wars, it managed to include more countries from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The primary goal of the SEED is to promote the establishment and enhancement of democratic institutions and help transit the economies of the respected countries that are part of this act, into a free market economy, that will allow any of those countries not only to overcome the centralized bureaucratic communist system but also to become more productive, reliable and trustworthy members of the greater Transatlantic community like their fellow Western democracies. At first, this legislation was focused on Poland and Hungary allowing the U.S to designate two private, nonprofit organizations such as the Polish-American Enterprise Fund and the Hungarian-American Enterprise Fund to promote the development of the Polish and Hungarian private sectors. With that being said, the initial thought of the American side was to not recreate a full-scale of the Marshall Plan, simply because the crushing budget deficits of those countries provoked little interest for the U.S. Instead through the SEED, the U.S government managed to establish different assistance programs, that over time, managed to assist more countries in Central and Eastern Europe and later on, in the Balkan region. These programs were focused on stabilization assistance, development assistance, technical assistance, and political conversion. Also, the aid that would come from the U.S would be directly focused on the agricultural sector, the private sector, educational and cultural programs, as well as scientific programs.

The core message that was expressed through the SEED was the fact that, although at the beginning, any sort of financial aid would be minimal, there would be a possibility of a change to this tactic, only if the fledgling democracies that were undergoing a massive transformation would agree to adopt the ways of Western Europe and the ways that the U.S was proposing for the. In other words, this meant that, if by any chance any of the countries that wished to benefit from the SEED Act, had to fulfill some pre-requirements. For the financial assistance to be implemented, the interested countries had to remove trade restrictions while fully liberalizing the investment and the capital of the country, including foreign investment, while allowing any interested U.S investors to export their profits from these countries. Also, there had to be an increased focus on the development of the capital financial markets that would allow privatization of any public assets. Throughout the years, the SEED Act, allowed the U.S to leave a footprint in the countries that got rid of communism and further help them through other independent agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is responsible for administering foreign aid and development assistance. If we provide an analysis as to why the U.S is so keen on the development of the post-communist countries, we can identify the two main reasons as to why the U.S was and still is so interested in the democratic and free-market development of the region. The first reason was the fact that if the U.S would financially assist these countries, then it will manage to increase its economic transactions with more countries while also boosting its trading and the uninterrupted free flow of capital profits back to it. The second reason has to do with the geopolitical aspect of the SEED act and the role of the USAID.

If we examine this from a realistic point of view, the U.S has managed not only to increase its economic capital but also establish close diplomatic and military ties with the respected countries in an effort to counter any foreign interest coming from Russia or China. Also, this means that, once the U.S has assured the economic development and establishment of democratic institutions in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, then their accession to the NATO and eventually their incorporation into the European Union, would allow the U.S to maintain close ties in the region and add to its already large military cooperation with third countries. Out of all the countries that the U.S has managed to assist, Romania is one of those interesting cases in Southeast Europe, and it has proven itself as a reliable strategic partner for the United States of America.

The case of Romania

The bilateral ties between Romania and the U.S were always more or less on warm status, but both countries built a strong bilateral relationship after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. The U.S was focused on the legal and fair transition of power in Romania. In 1990, right after the end of the revolution, Secretary of State James Baker expressed the concern of the U.S towards the unfair discriminatory treatment of opposition parties in the May elections in Romania and made it clear that the U.S would not support an undemocratic Romanian government. The Romanians quickly realized that if they wanted any support from the U.S they would have to incorporate more Western democratic values in their country. As a result, in 1992, Romania conducted fair parliamentary and presidential elections. Encouraged by the fair democratic results, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger visited Romania in 1992. It was a symbolic visit because it allowed the Romanians to demonstrate their commitment to fully implement Western democratic values in their country. The same year, both countries signed a bilateral investment treaty (BIT), and one year later, in 1993, Romania returned to the status of Most Favored Nation (MFN). These agreements allowed Romania to completely transition its economy, allowing for American investment in energy, manufacturing, telecommunications services, consumer products sectors, and information technology.

With that being said, it was clear that Romania was managing step by step to take substantive steps toward institutionalizing political democracy and economic pluralism, the sole requirement of the SEED act. Besides that, the USAID had a critical role in Romania. In a span of 17 years, until Romania’s “graduation” from the program in 2008, the socio-economic profile of the country has changed for the better. The USAID has managed to fund and establish various NGOs that focus on the rapid decrease of children in orphanages and improving the condition in the remaining institutions for these kids. Also, the civic organizations in Romania, have managed to establish sustainable partnerships with the public and private sector and improve transparency and fairness in both sectors. Last but not least, the private businesses in Romania have managed to become an established feature of Romania’s civil society by gaining sustainable funds from the USAID that are directly invested in the tourism, agriculture, food processing, and the industrial sector that allow Romania to flourish as a stable economic power in Southeast Europe.

Apart from the socio-economic factors, the U.S has contributed to the enhancement of the military treaties between itself and Romania. On March 29, 2004, Romania joined NATO and established itself as a reliable ally of the U.S in Southeast Europe. A year after that, in 2005, Romania and the United States signed the Defense Cooperation Agreement, the framework for any future military engagements of both countries. With Romania joining NATO, the U.S managed to gain a foothold in Southeast Europe, close to Russia, and demonstrated its capabilities in creating and sustaining reliable military alliances, helping Romania avoid any influence from the East, while protecting its national interests in the region. With Romania joining NATO, the road towards a future integration in the EU was clearer. With the help of the U.S, Romania managed to meet the requirements for an EU integration. Some of those requirements were focused on reforms that would help Romania become more Western, such as the acknowledgment of respect for human rights, the commitment to personal freedom of expression, having a functioning free-market economy e.t.c. Romania joined the European Union on January 1st, 2007 and according to the European Commission, the country is set to join the Eurozone sometime in 2024. Some may argue that Romania has to be thankful to the U.S for the tremendous progress that has been made, and this will not be far from the truth, since until today both countries enjoy strong military and economic ties.

Democratization or Americanization of Romania?

However, there are always some voices from within Romania that see this whole progress with skepticism. Some argue that although Romania is a democracy, it does not have a democratic society. There are reports of high levels of corruption and nepotism in the public sector. According to Transparency International, Romania is the fourth most corrupt country in the EU, after Hungary, Greece, and Bulgaria. Besides that, the standard of living in the country has not changed significantly since the end of communism, and there is a strong demographic collapse that is connected with the so-called “brain drain” of the country, with high levels of labor export towards Western Europe. There is some criticism towards the U.S, that points to the fact that the changes in Romania have benefited the American side more than the Romanian one, and there is a feeling that Romania is still stuck in the past.

Although any sort of criticism should be reviewed thoroughly, one can argue that the U.S is not to be solely blamed. After all, the aid that was sent to Romania and the efforts of the U.S to westernize the country were always focused on the national and economic interests of the United States. It is safe to say that the U.S was applying a realistic aspect in its policy towards Romania, realizing the strategic geopolitical position of the country and the important economic outcomes that would come if Romania became a close ally of the United States. The alliance between the two countries and their ties are relatively strong even today, and although there are corruption problems in the country, Romania seems to have benefited more than any other post-communist country regarding aid from the United States. In a way, the policy of the U.S towards Romania was a success as both countries remain close allies, and Romania is enjoying a better socio-economic and political situation within its borders.

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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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