From Spheres of Influence to Energy Wars: Russian Influence in Post-Communist Romania

Theodor Tudoroiu. Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics. Volume 24, Issue 3. 2008.


In December 1989, a group of second-rank communist officials headed by a former university colleague of Gorbachev’s took power in Bucharest. As they promoted a pro-Moscow foreign policy, the question of Russian influence soon became a sensitive matter for most Romanians. The country’s accession to NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007 apparently put an end to the possibility of becoming part of a Russian sphere of influence in south-eastern Europe. However, the bitter dispute between President Traian Băsescu and Prime Minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu that led to the 2007 breakdown of the Romanian ruling coalition is more than a personality conflict or a domestic struggle between opposing interest groups. At least in part, it is a direct consequence of Russia’s new, energy-based offensive in Europe. Nevertheless, while we are now witnessing a fundamentally new Russian approach, many of the facilitating elements were put in place during the period 1990-96. Consequently, this article analyses Moscow’s present involvement in Romania in the context of the two countries’ post-1989 bilateral relations.

From a methodological point of view, two cautionary remarks deserve mention in relation to available sources of information. First, official secrecy, party political bias and press speculation frequently result in unreliable data. Because this article is based mostly on press reports, caution was exercised in selecting unbiased information, to cross-check media sources, and to eliminate unsupported exaggerations and conspiracy theories: every mention of a ‘rumour’ is clearly identified as such. Second, the subject has always been sensitive for Romanians while being of marginal importance to Russian public opinion; for this reason, information is abundant in the Romanian media but scarce in Russia. Consequently, the article uses mostly Romanian and Western sources.

The main goal of this article is to provide a clear picture of Moscow’s present influence in Romania and to assess perspectives on the bilateral relationship. This is by no means a question of purely Romanian interest; rather, it is a case study of the Kremlin’s foreign policy directed towards Central and Eastern Europe. Consequently, it illuminates Russia’s general attitude towards that region. In this context, the term ‘influence’ has a special signification. Of course, it has nothing in common with the USSR’s total control over its ‘external empire’ in the 1950s. Nevertheless, it goes far beyond the ‘normal’ promotion of a country’s political and economic national interest. Moscow-Bucharest relations are highly asymmetrical, connecting a great regional power and its medium-sized neighbour. There is a huge imbalance in political influence, military strength, economic weight and regional status. In fact, the Kremlin’s post-1989 actions first aimed at Romania’s inclusion in a Soviet and then Russian sphere of influence. The fall of Iliescu’s regime in 1996 and the subsequent NATO and EU enlargements constrained Moscow’s ambitions. None the less, the Romanian episode of Russia’s present energy-based offensive suggests that it will actively use economic incentives to attract and support local political forces that promote a friendly foreign policy. The Kremlin’s ‘influence’, therefore, preserves its hegemonic flavour.

The following section depicts the pro-Soviet beginnings of post-communist Romania; this is followed by three sections that analyse the evolution of Russian influence during Iliescu’s regime (1990-96), the 1997-2000 ‘democratic intermezzo’, and Iliescu’s return to power in 2001-4. The following section portrays the present power struggle in Bucharest in relation to Russia’s new, energy-related offensive in Europe. The conclusion further analyses recent developments and summarizes the article’s main findings.

The Pro-Soviet Beginnings of Romanian Post-Communism

In December 1989, a series of bloody events led to the replacement of the Romanian Stalinist dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, by a group of second-rank communist officials headed by Ion Iliescu, a former minister and ex-university colleague of Gorbachev’s. Ceauşescu’s sultanistic rule was replaced by a ‘soft’ authoritarian regime that lasted until 1996. Iliescu was not a brutal, fully-fledged dictator: he imposed a limited authoritarianism that sought to uphold the appearance of formal democracy. But his regime did not refrain from using brutal force to suppress protest movements (in 1990-91 repeated violent marches on Bucharest by secret-police-led miners became known internationally under the name of ‘mineriades’). The mass media, and especially state television and radio, were under strict control; there was no truly independent legal system. No fewer than nine secret services—in fact, unreformed former departments of Ceauşescu’s infamous Securitate—were used to spy on, infiltrate and control opposition groups and political parties. Blackmail and intimidation of politicians and journalists were common. National minorities were persecuted. The ruling party—successively called the National Salvation Front, the Democratic National Salvation Front, the Party of Social Democracy in Romania and the Social Democratic Party—was in fact the unreformed Romanian Communist Party. It was modestly reformed only in 2000, followed by a more credible conversion to social democracy after Iliescu’s marginalization, following the 2004 electoral defeat. A good description of the 1990-96 regime was made by Emil Constantinescu, Romania’s president between 1996 and 2000, in an article published by Le Monde on 22 February 1997:

We are not talking about classical communism … but rather of a form that is both old since it awakens latent nationalism and new because of its goal, which is to preserve all that can be preserved, both in men and structures, of the old regime: as many as possible of the large enterprises, as many monopolies as possible, especially in the areas of energy and agriculture, as many of the political and economic leaders as possible, and as much as possible of an isolationist and anti-Western mythology, ready to halt all openings towards Europe and the rest of the world.

In this context, it is not surprising that Moscow was seen as a natural ally and protector. In 1998-91 the unconditional support of a neighbouring superpower was helpful in strengthening Iliescu’s control over the country. It also legitimized his ideological preference for neo-communism. In terms of international security it could provide protection against ethnic wars erupting in the area. And it was a relationship supported by the personal convictions of Romanian leaders. Soviet-educated Iliescu and most of his associates held the sincere belief that Romania’s (neo-communist) future could not be separated from that of Moscow. This might be denied by Iliescu himself but is substantiated by the 1996 episode of the Romanian-Russian Friendship Treaty (see below). At that moment, the attempt to improve relations with Moscow was unpopular and implied high electoral costs. Russia had ceased to be a superpower and its capacity for legitimizing or protecting the regime in Bucharest had completely disappeared. A rational-choice decision would have kept Iliescu away from any negotiation with the Kremlin. The only explanation of his highly counterproductive action is that he simply acted in accordance with his intimate convictions. Furthermore, in June 1995 a journalist from the Romanian newspaper Ziua interviewed a former KGB colonel in Ukraine, who claimed to have recruited Iliescu as a KGB agent. Ironically, the credibility of this allegation was increased by the fact that members of Romanian secret services were identified while spying on the author of the revealing article. While there are no hard facts to prove Iliescu’s link with the KGB, his obsession with a pro-Moscow foreign policy makes it quite plausible.

However, in 1991 few political analysts were prepared for the shock of the Romanian-Soviet Friendship Treaty. This was the first (and only) such treaty between the USSR and a former satellite state. It was based on the ‘Kvitsinsky Doctrine’, adopted by Moscow on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. A clause prohibited both parties from joining any military alliance that was perceived as hostile by the other side. Consequently, ‘critics of the treaty, inside and outside of Romania, viewed it as an infringement of the independence and national sovereignty of the country, which if implemented, could have resulted in its “Finlandization”’.

The new treaty made Romania’s accession to NATO impossible. In fact, Soviet control over the country was becoming stronger than during Ceauşescu’s reign. Other facts point in the same direction. Bucharest had been last in asking for the official dismantling of the Warsaw Pact, in early 1991. On 19 December 1991 the Romanian minister of defence, Lieutenant-General Nicolae Spiroiu, and his Soviet counterpart, Marshal Yevgeni Shaposhnikov, signed a military co-operation agreement in Moscow.

However, some days later Iliescu was faced with unforeseen changes. The Soviet Union’s collapse put him in an extremely vulnerable position, both internally and internationally. Fortunately, it soon became clear that the new Russia considered itself the USSR’s rightful heir in the Balkans. Still, Romanian neo-communists had a more difficult mission. They were unconditional supporters of the Kremlin, be it Soviet or Russian, but the country they ruled did not share this view. Relieved of the fears of a Soviet empire on its border, Romanian society started to express open hostility towards Moscow. In the words of Tom Gallagher, ‘for most Romanians Russia remains a “pole of repulsion”’. Three historical reasons can account for this attitude. The first subject of dispute concerns assets transported to Moscow during the First World War, before Bucharest was occupied by German forces; they include Romania’s gold reserve, the crown jewels and other valuable items, of which the Bolsheviks took possession in 1917. Both the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia have constantly refused their restitution (for the 2003 Romanian-Russian treaty’s provision on this subject, see below). The second is the brutal Stalinization of the country imposed by the Soviet regime. In the two decades following the Second World War, hundreds of thousand of Romanians were put in forced-labour camps and prisons. Some died as a result of the brutal treatment and detention conditions, while the survivors continued to be systematically persecuted even after their release. Romania’s sophisticated, highly Westernized political and intellectual elite was almost completely destroyed. The third is related to the Romanian province of Bessarabia, most of which is at present part of the Republic of Moldova. After the first Russian occupation of 1812, all or part of this territory changed hands in 1856, 1878, 1918, 1940, 1941 and 1944. In order to reduce the ratio of Romanians to Slavs, the Soviet authorities deported local populations, colonized the territory with Russian-speakers, and arbitrarily modified the border with Soviet Ukraine; they equally imposed a brutal process of Russification. After the fall of the USSR, there were clear moves to reunite the former Soviet Republic of Moldova with Romania. However, the secession of Transnistria and the ensuing war of 1992—ignited and instrumentalized by Moscow—halted the process. In Romania, this was perceived as a new Russian aggression and stimulated general hostility toward the Kremlin. In this context, Iliescu’s position was extremely delicate. He was deeply convinced that his country’s future was intertwined with Moscow, but he could not state this openly, for fear of losing all electoral support. Hence his ‘politics of ambiguity’.

1990-96: The Politics of Ambiguity

The fall of the Soviet Union seriously shattered the Bucharest regime’s confidence in its own capacity to maintain and develop an anti-Western orientation. The new Russia could not provide strong political or economic support. An emerging Romanian civil society represented an increasingly serious obstacle. Furthermore, the end of the centralized economic system, opposition to economic reform—Iliescu insisted on having a strong state-controlled economic sector and constantly opposed large-scale privatization—and corruption generated a structural economic crisis. The country, already one of the poorest in Europe, became dependent on external financial aid. Fortunately, the West started to perceive Romania as an oasis of stability between the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, torn by civil war. To prevent further instability, both Americans and West Europeans were increasingly willing to support Iliescu’s regime, provided it showed some signs of good-will. Having no alternative, the Bucharest government responded by progressively declaring itself in favour of democratization, market-oriented reform, and pro-Western foreign policy. The apparent change was sufficient to bring European and American economic support, while in fact very little was done.

This ambiguity is exemplified by Bucharest’s attitude towards NATO. Iliescu had never manifested open hostility, even when he was negotiating an anti-NATO treaty with the Soviet Union. Romania willingly became a member of the North Atlantic Co-operation Council, but in July 1993 the head of the Romanian military, General Dumitru Cioflina, ‘stated that Romania was not going to enjoy closer relations with NATO than the ones it already had with Russia’. In January 1994, Bucharest was the first to sign NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) framework agreement, a move that was widely publicized by the state-controlled media in Romania. However, this apparently pro-American move was only a consequence of the fact that the PfP included no security guarantees. Iliescu had decided to use it as an alternative to NATO membership and not as a first step towards accession. In 1996, one year before the Madrid summit that would decide the limits of NATO’s first eastward enlargement, General Cioflina stated that, ‘if Russian Communists win the June presidential elections, a regional “extra-NATO” alliance could be discussed. [This military pact could reunite] countries of the former Warsaw Pact as well as former Soviet republics’. On one occasion, Ziua published a list of 20 contradictory official statements made between 1991 and 2000 by Iliescu and his close associates. In the list, each pro-Western declaration was followed by a diametrically opposed one. The article was appropriately entitled ‘The Duplicitous Foreign Policy of Iliescu’s Regime’.

Economics followed the same course. On the one hand, Romania was dependent on aid coming from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and Western states; on the other, the government did everything in its power to increase trade with Russia. During a visit to Moscow in July 1995, Prime Minister Nicolae Văcăroiu declared that he was ready to realign the Romanian economy with that of Russia because Western economic support had been so disappointing. The purely political reason for such a ‘reorientation’ is revealed by the fact that, unlike other Central and East European (CEE) countries, Romania followed Moscow in not abandoning the former Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) project in the steel-production city of Krivoi Rog (Kryvy Rih) (Ukraine), despite enormous costs and lack of profit. An important effort was made to encourage bilateral trade. Romania depends on Russia for energy, including 40 per cent of its natural gas supply. In order to ease this dependence, Ceauşescu had initiated the construction of a nuclear plant located in Cernavodă, assisted by Canada. In 1989, five reactors were under construction, with 85 per cent of the first actually completed. At full capacity, the plant would have allowed the replacement of Russian gas with cheap electrical power, thereby eliminating energy dependence on Moscow. However, one of Iliescu’s first measures was to stop work at Cernavodă. It was only some years later, and under the pressure of financial difficulties, that he finally decided to restart work on the first reactor. The goal was to reduce costly oil imports required by oil-based electrical plants, not to diminish gas consumption. The first Cernavodă nuclear reactor finally became operational in 1996. The last three are still uncompleted, perpetuating the need for massive gas imports from Russia.

The former communists were satisfied with this situation since it allowed them to justify maintaining friendly relations with the unpopular Kremlin. However, they were disappointed by the sharp fall of Romanian exports to Russia. This had a very clear cause: Russian companies systematically did not pay for goods that had already been imported. As Russia’s courts are famously inefficient and mafia-style practices widespread, it is not surprising that Romanian companies preferred to ignore such a dangerous market. In order to increase exports at any cost, Iliescu’s regime put in place a credit and insurance scheme based on the Romanian export credit agency, Eximbank. Simply put, exporters’ losses were to be compensated from the state budget. To avoid negative publicity, the alarming levels of past losses were kept secret, except for medium- and long-term credits prior to 1989. Paradoxically, this mechanism came to maturity after the fall of Iliescu, so it will be detailed in the following section. In any case, pro-Russian economic measures were costly. In order to maintain or even create mutual dependence, the former communists in Romania had to buy expensive gas instead of producing cheap atomic electrical power, and they spent large amounts of money to subsidize non-performing exports. At a time when the country depended on Western financial aid, this was a burden with immediate consequences for the general economic situation. The crisis deepened, making Iliescu’s regime less and less popular; and, as the 1996 elections showed, friendship with Russia came at a very high political cost.

Another element that contributed greatly to the weakening of Iliescu’s electoral position was his obsession with the achievement of a Romanian-Russian Friendship Treaty. Five years earlier, he had proved ready to sacrifice his country’s sovereignty if this could ensure good relations with Moscow. But in the meantime, Romanian society had become highly vocal on key points which the Kremlin wanted to uphold in the treaty. Recklessly, Iliescu decided to ignore Romanian public opinion and accept Russian terms; the new bilateral treaty was scheduled to be signed on 27 April 1996. One of the main points of dispute, the condemnation of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (which allowed the Soviet annexation of what is now the Republic of Moldova), was not placed in the main treaty, but in a separate annex. Furthermore, the question of the Romanian treasure confiscated by the Bolsheviks in 1918 was ignored. This raised a storm of protest from the parliamentary opposition and public opinion. Iliescu’s spokesman organized a press conference in order to reassure everyone that ‘the state of rumour, agitation and tension’ and the ‘frenetic alarm signals’ are unjustified. Still, at the last minute, the signing of the treaty was postponed.

Six months later, Iliescu paid the price of over-confidence. By 1996, Romanian society was no longer dominated by the political apathy that prevailed in 1990-92. A vibrant civil society that shared democratic values had developed, and mass mobilization led to the electoral victory of resolutely pro-democratic and pro-Western political forces. As the neo-communist regime came to an end, its successors openly repudiated Iliescu’s eastern commitments.

1997-2000: Manoeuvres in the Dark

The relationship between Iliescu’s regime and Moscow, and its limits, are well captured by Tom Gallagher, a leading Western expert on post-communist Romanian politics:

Anti-reformers … demonstrated their ascendancy by blocking economic reform between 1989 and 1996. But their advance has been contained by the fact that the main proponent of authoritarian politics in the region remains Russia. Russia appears keen to involve Romania in a series of economic agreements that would make the Romanian economy depend on its cheap energy supplies in return for political compliance. This would suit the powerful lobby of managers of the state-led Romanian energy sector who are hostile to genuine reform. But for most Romanians Russia remains a ‘pole of repulsion’ owing to long-term Russian bids to stifle Romanian independence. So it is difficult for Romanian interests hostile to the Western democratic project to take measures which are seen as analogous to ones being promoted by ‘red-brown’ forces in Russia itself. (Similarly, the surprising weakness of Russian-influenced organized crime in Romania can probably be ascribed to the fact that even for local criminal forces Russia remains an anti-model.)

Consequently, the victors in 1996 had no reason to preserve the neo-communist leaning towards Moscow. Official statements started to reflect a more critical attitude, their concerns reflected by Weiner:

Russia has engaged in a series of actions which have been interpreted by some as threatening to the national security and interests of Romania. These include the adoption of a Resolution by the Russian Duma in 1995 calling for the reconstitution of the Soviet Union, the designation by the Russian Parliament of Transnistria as an area of strategic interest, and the union of Belarus and Russia, which threatens the security of Ukraine, a state which shares a border with Romania.

With a friendly Iliescu in power, the Kremlin could be sure that such moves would never generate any tension. But the new pro-Western government in Bucharest took them very seriously, and one of the immediate consequences was its request for NATO membership.

In fact, it is precisely at this moment that Russia initiated an active policy toward Romania. Until then, it could afford a passive attitude as Romanian neo-communists were making all necessary efforts to ensure a harmonious relationship. With their loss of power, Moscow saw its influence in the country threatened. Resolute action was needed. The first and most visible step was related to the economy. Russian investors started to target Romanian companies in what were clearly politically-motivated moves. One of the best-publicized cases concerns the purchase of the Petrotel refinery, one of the largest consortiums in Romania: ‘During early and mid-1998, when Russian firm Lukoil bought controlling interest in the Romanian company oil Petrotel, amidst sharp Russian statements against NATO enlargement, the Russian ambassador in Bucharest was often the focus of attention and some innuendo’. In all, more than 200 Russian companies became involved in the Romanian economy during the 1990s, and their investments reached more than $400 million. Frequently, their goals and practices were judged suspect:

In his 1999-2000 and 2001 reports to parliament, the director of Romanian Security Intelligence, Alexandru-Radu Timofte, claimed that ‘foreign interest groups’ posed a danger to the country’s economy, including threats ‘under the guise of strategic investments’. … Timofte mentioned the collapsed National Investment Fund, which was manipulated from abroad; there is little doubt that he was referring to Russian business groups. … He implied that foreign agents could also be involved in the process to gain favors from government officials.

Besides investments, increasing bilateral trade became a Russian obsession. In fact, what the Kremlin was now advocating was Iliescu’s old plan of creating mutual economic dependence.

When Ion Diaconescu, the chairman of the National Peasant-Christian Democratic Party [PNTCD] visited Moscow in September 1997, Russian Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov complained about Romania’s neglect of the Russian market and stressed the need for the two countries to improve their trade relations.

Diaconescu, who had spent part of his life in Stalinist prisons, was a strong advocate of Romania’s accession to NATO. He had no reason to encourage trade relations with a non-democratic and increasingly anti-Western Russia. But Primakov’s demand was better received by certain Romanian structures created under Iliescu’s regime.

The most vocal was the National Association of Exporters and Importers of Romania (NAEIR) and more specifically its chairman, Mihai Ionescu. Pointing to unbalanced bilateral trade with Russia, he did not mention the possible completion of the Cernavodă nuclear plant in order to eliminate Russian gas imports. Instead, he started a crusade to ‘reconquer lost markets in the East’ by increasing Romanian exports to former Soviet Union republics and especially Russia. As shown above, Russian markets were plagued by dubious business ethics, mafia-type methods and an inefficient legal system, which discouraged Romanian exporters. NAEIR asked for the development of the existing credit insurance mechanism, which transferred exporters’ losses to the national budget. But Eximbank of Romania, the state export credit agency, did not have the appropriate financial resources. A new scheme was created: Eximbank would only insure export credits generously offered by Bancorex, the state-owned and most important Romanian bank. I remember personally witnessing a 1999 conversation during which a high-ranking official related to the above-mentioned banks was trying to convince the head of a Romanian state company to start exporting to Russia. The potential exporter was puzzled, as similar previous experiences had produced disastrous results. He was reminded that, within the new framework, his company would first receive a Bancorex credit covering all production costs. Then he need not worry about Russian payments for exported goods: Eximbank would compensate Bancorex for any possible loss. It is very difficult to understand how this Iliescu-style scheme could have developed. Its goal was to increase dependence upon Russia at a time when the Romanian government shared genuine pro-Western convictions. Furthermore, it was clearly costly, as it would implicitly transfer money from Romania’s budget to dubious Russian companies.

There are two possible explanations. On the one hand, communist-era state companies would receive large credits allowing them to avoid bankruptcy despite their uncompetitive products; this could have positive electoral effects in view of the 2000 elections. On the other hand, under Iliescu’s regime, all Romanian state structures were headed by members of the former communist elite. Many of them survived the 1996 election, defecting to the new ruling parties. But their true allegiance can be questioned given certain pro-Russian moves. In any case, the new scheme was inefficient and short-lived. At the time of its creation, the effects of the 1998 Russian financial crisis were still felt and were hampering bilateral trade. Furthermore, ‘between 1990 and 1996 Bancorex had lent huge sums on a discretionary basis to failing state companies and clients of the Iliescu regime, which then pumped enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money back into it’. When, in July 1999, it was disclosed that Bancorex had issued $1.2 billion in non-performing loans, it was decided to close it down. The export-credit scheme had to be dramatically scaled down to fit Eximbank’s modest financial capabilities.

However, other more ambitious projects were prepared in the Kremlin. In November 1998, soon after the Russian financial crisis, Moscow’s ambassador in Bucharest stated that Primakov wanted to improve economic relations with Romania ‘to reach the pre-crisis level and even a higher one’. It seemed a simple enough diplomatic statement, but one year later, in November 1999, the Romanian prime minister, Radu Vasile, member of the Christian Democrat Peasant National Party, made an important visit to Moscow. The Romanian ambassador in Russia stated that the goal of the visit was the ‘unblocking of bilateral trade relations’. He mentioned gas and oil, Romanian involvement in the Russian construction sector, and other ‘projects of trade co-operation’. Prime Ministers Vasile and Putin would find solutions—including government guarantees—countering ‘the difficulty of our companies to find Russian partners willing to pay for goods imported from Romania or to guarantee the payments’. However, the same day, sources of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs stated that boosting trade relations would not be agreed by Moscow as long as Romania intended to join NATO. The warning did not worry Radu Vasile. On 25 November 1999 he went to Moscow stating that he would increase the exports of a large number of goods, facilitate the participation of Romanian companies in the exploitation of Russian oil and gas deposits, and create a joint venture meant to support Romanian exports to Russia and to attract Russian investments in Romania. He even wanted to expand co-operation between local administrations in the two countries. The visit proved to be surprisingly cordial. The two prime ministers had a very confidential one-hour tête-à-tête during which even translators were sent away. In statements made in Moscow and Bucharest, Vasile asserted that ‘we have to understand Russia’. Boosting trade relations was seen as imperative and Romania had to sign the Friendship Treaty as soon as possible, ‘leaving to the historians’ the questions of the 1918 treasure and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Finally, in a Kremlin statement he claimed that ‘Romania’s European road passes through Moscow’. This was too much for his Christian Democrat colleagues. The party’s chairman, Ion Diaconescu, immediately remarked that ‘we have a more direct road to Europe, through Paris, for example’. He equally stated that there could be no ‘political commitment to return to the past situation’. The titles of Romanian newspaper articles even spoke of ‘dangerous treason’. Three weeks after his memorable visit Vasile was sacked.

Undoubtedly, this was the most ambitious Russian attempt to recover Iliescu-era influence after the fall of the neo-communist regime. Rapid failure did not diminish its remarkable audacity. Since 1989, Romanian Christian Democrats had been the most resolute opponents of Iliescu’s pro-Russian attitude, a fact of which Vasile could not have been unaware. If he took the daring step of an openly pro-Kremlin stance, there seems to be only one explanation: he was not alone. He probably believed that members of his party—and perhaps a larger sector of the ruling coalition—would join his new orientation. This hypothesis might be supported by the fact that, during the Moscow visit, a Romanian economic journalist, Eugen Ovidiu Chirovici, published an article entitled ‘The Russian Trump Card’. It explains the advantages of a ‘real economic partnership’ with Russia, claiming that, ‘if we receive a preferential treatment in economic relations with Russia, we will have an important trump card in future relations with the European Union and with Central European states, a trump card which could be used in function of our interests’. An interesting detail was added. At that time, Putin was only the last in a series of Yeltsin-appointed ephemeral prime ministers, yet Chirovici here predicted that Putin would in fact be the future president. He equally notes that obtaining the sympathy of the Russian president-to-be ‘can bring favourable wind into the sail of Radu Vasile’s [political] career’. The article had only limited impact. However, its author is not unknown. In November 2000-January 2001 his name was frequently quoted in the context of the difficult merger of two leading Romanian Freemason lodges. The merger ceremony was attended by Freemasons from eight countries, including Russia. This is not to suggest a Masonic plot or other such absurdities, but simply to show that Chirovici was well connected with Russian circles and probably had inside information on Yeltsin’s intention to nominate Putin as his successor. Apparently, Vasile had the same information and decided to exploit the opportunity. This decision, however, shows that the prime minister genuinely believed that influential members of his party had been converted to Chirovici’s point of view by Russian sympathizers. A second and complementary hypothesis can be formulated. In April 2006, Romania’s 1996-2000 president, Emil Constantinescu, claimed that he had evidence proving that Radu Vasile had been an informer of Ceauşescu’s Securitate. This is, for the time being, an unconfirmed allegation, but if it were true, Vasile could have been extremely vulnerable to blackmail by those aware of his past. Also, Iliescu was famous for using the services of Virgil Magureanu, head of the Romanian intelligence service, to systematically manipulate Securitate files that were or had been in its possession. The possibility that Radu Vasile’s move had in fact been the combined result of Romanian neo-communist blackmail and Russian promises cannot be discounted. In any case, the prime minister was not the only target of Russian manoeuvres. Information is of course scarce, but the Romanian press alleged that in 1999 the then anonymous Cosmin Guşă developed close relations with so-called ‘Russian agents’. He later became involved in Russian investments in Romania, while publicly stating that ‘Russia is my second homeland’. When, after the 2000 elections, Iliescu’s party returned to power, Guşă became secretary general of the governing party.

Besides the ‘conversion’ of Romanian politicians and businessmen, Russia apparently made use of less subtle methods. It was during the Kosovo crisis that Romanian-Russian relations became openly antagonistic. While Moscow expressed its support for Milošević, the Romanian government declared itself on NATO’s side and even forbade the flight of Russian planes over its territory, preventing them from reaching Yugoslavia. In fact,

the strongest pro-NATO statements from Romanian officials came in the wake of the April 16 vote in the Russian Duma endorsing the call for a union between Russia, Belarus and Serbia. Official anxiety and that of much of the public opinion derived from the belief that Romanian security—and possibly independence—might be threatened if a historic adversary like Russia were to establish itself as a regional power in the Balkans.

Romanian press reports suggest that, at that time, Russia went so far as to organize certain small scale undercover actions directed at destabilizing Romania. A good opportunity was provided by a new mineriada (the march on Bucharest of miners who, on Iliescu’s orders, had previously crushed the anti-communist movement of 1990 and brought down the Petre Roman government in 1991): ‘When the fifth mineriada occurred in January 1999, public speculation by a variety of politicians and journalists about Russian involvement—allegedly to create a crisis in Romania and thereby divert Western attention from Serbia—gained currency’.

Vasile Alexe, a regular columnist in România Liberă, speculated that unnamed foreign interests wishing to destabilize the entire Balkans were behind the revolt. The view was supported by Ion Diaconescu, the elderly leader of the PNTCD, who demanded in its aftermath that ‘all those acting in the interests of foreign powers should be eliminated from the ministry of the interior’. The SRI [the Romanian Intelligence Service] reports from districts affected by the unrest backed up views persistently expressed in the print media of suspicious activities on the part of Russian embassy officials at the height of the unrest.

It was reported that Russian embassy vehicles were seen at Costeşti and Râmnicu Vâlcea, recording on videotape the movements of Romanian security forces and probably relaying all information to the marching miners. It is not surprising that the Romanian public’s image of Russia grew even darker: ‘Moscow’s behind-the-scenes role is suspect in Bucharest. Senior Russian officials are probed at almost every occasion about such matters, with a subtext of suspicion not far from the surface’. Fortunately for the Kremlin, economic crisis and government corruption eroded the electoral support of Romanian democratic political forces. Following the November-December 2000 elections, Iliescu’s partly reformed party returned to power.

2001-4: Back in Power, With a Difference

For the Kremlin, the change was a triumph. The Moscow-friendly Cosmin Guşă was appointed general secretary of the governing party; Ioan Mircea Paşcu, who had stated during the Kosovo campaign that the NATO intervention was illegitimate, was now defence minister; Eugen Ovidiu Chirovici would soon become the prime minister’s adviser on economic matters.

Since the re-election victory of President Iliescu in November 2000, Moscow has made various overtures toward Bucharest. In particular, the Russians were eager to develop closer economic ties in the energy and transport sectors. Some analysts speculated that Iliescu maintained secret ties with the Russian political establishment and there were rumors of the supposed existence of a telephone hotline to the Russian president, which Iliescu strenuously denied. The Kremlin believed that a social democratic president and government in Bucharest would be more accommodating than a center-right administration on the Moldovan question and this would play to Moscow’s advantage.

Iliescu was finally able to accomplish his old obsession, the conclusion of the Friendship Treaty. Negotiations started in Moscow in October 2001, between the Romanian foreign minister, Mircea Geoană, and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov:

The Romanians displayed a new pragmatism in their position by not insisting that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact be renounced or that the ‘Romanian treasure’ be addressed. … On 8 November 2001, President Iliescu stated that the issue of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was no longer relevant, and the issue of the treasure could be dealt with in an annex to the treaty.

Despite the opposition of certain Romanian political forces, the treaty of friendship and co-operation was finally signed in July 2003, during a visit by Iliescu to Moscow. The issue of the repatriation of Romanian ‘gold and cultural items’ kept by the Soviet Union after the First World War was addressed only in a declaration. The two parties agreed to set up a joint commission of experts to resolve the issue. The same declaration condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact but also Romania’s participation in the Second World War, directed at recovering the territory occupied by Stalin on the basis of that pact.

Predictably, economic co-operation received a new boost. The Romanian prime minister, Adrian Năstase, visited Moscow in February 2002 and met the Russian prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, ‘in an effort to improve trade relations between the two countries’. Iliescu, assisted by Foreign Minister Mircea Geoană (his protégé at that time) was present at the opening of the first Russian bank in Bucharest. In March 2003, Eximbank of Romania opened a credit line of $10 million to the Russian Vneshtorgbank in order to encourage exports to Russia. It was in Moscow that Eximbank opened, in June 2004, its only foreign branch, intended to ‘intensify traditional bilateral trade relations with this market’ (however, this venture was short-lived as the Moscow branch soon had to be closed down). Other projects also were envisaged. During his 2003 visit to Moscow,

Iliescu met with representatives of Gazprom and other Russian gas companies regarding the possibility of establishing a joint consortium to transport gas from Russia to Romania. They also discussed the possibility of building a pipeline from Russia to the Romanian port of Constanta. … A steel complex, based in the town of Targoviste, was purchased in August of 2002 by the Conares Trading company, controlled by Russian business. This complex is now called ‘little Russia’. Russia’s prime minister stated in Bucharest that ‘the Russian government will continue to support our companies in the process of privatization in Romania’. They were expected to participate in the privatization of several large enterprises, including Distrigaz, Carom, and Petrotub.

Russia even expressed an interest in supplying technology for the construction of a new unit at the Cernavodă nuclear plant.

At first view, this seemed like nothing more than a renewal of the 1990-96 foreign policy orientation. In reality, things were quite different. Iliescu and his ministers did everything to prove their friendship and sympathy towards Russia. At the same time—and to the Kremlin’s horror—they made genuine efforts to secure Romania’s accession to NATO. There are two complementary explanations for this. On the one hand, Romanian neo-communists had learned the lesson of 1996. They understood they could not impose an authoritarian, pro-Russian regime upon the newly-developed Romanian civil society. Western democratic values had profoundly modified the population’s way of thinking. Accession to NATO and to the European Union was considered the natural trajectory of ‘European’ Romania. Iliescu and his associates realized that, in order to stay in power, they had to follow this direction. Avoiding the openly authoritarian practices of 1990-96, they tried to improve their public image by vocally redefining themselves as European social democrats. On the other hand, the 2000 neo-communists-social democrats had lost their pre-1996 unity. The party was no longer under Iliescu’s absolute control. A new anti-Iliescu wing, led by Prime Minister Adrian Năstase, was now very influential. It reunited about half of the Bucharest party leaders and it was supported by the local ‘barons’, the party’s regional strongmen. It would be wrong to believe they shared genuine democratic or pro-Western convictions. But—unlike Iliescu—most, if not all, were extremely corrupt (Tom Gallagher even entitled a chapter ‘Looters of the State by Appointment of Brussels: Return of the Social Democrats, 2001-2003’; Năstase himself went on trial in February 2006 on multiple corruption charges and was subsequently forced to resign as party leader). Their main goal seemed to be to become rich, and neo-communism could not be of much help. Accepting bribes linked to large procurement contracts with Western companies was. To give only one of many examples, in June 2006, the British police and Serious Fraud Office disclosed that the Romanian purchase in 2003 of two old British frigates was accompanied by a bribe of approximately £7 million paid by BAE, Britain’s biggest arms company, to an undisclosed Romanian official. So far, the official has not been identified, and whether or to whom the money has been redistributed is unclear. This case highlights the incentives that convert former KGB agents into passionate pro-Westerners.

When the September 2001 terrorists attacks, in the words of Nelson, ‘created an unexpected opening for stronger ties with Washington’, ‘a concerted and obvious effort was mounted by the government of President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Năstase to position Bucharest as close as possible to George W. Bush’s global war on terrorism’. Even the signing of the Friendship Treaty with Russia was falsely presented by Iliescu as a necessary step to prove that there would be no tension with neighbouring states, and hence no regional obstacle to joining NATO. Romania finally became a NATO member in 2004. In the same year, Iliescu’s party lost elections and entered a period of internal crisis, with the anti-Iliescu wing apparently having the upper hand (the younger Mircea Geoană even became the leader of the party). Foreign policy choices were now limited to President Traian Băsescu’s project of a ‘Bucharest-London-Washington axis’ and Prime Minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu’s more pro-European orientation. Russia seemed to have completely lost its influence in Romania and had to accept the new situation since more pressing issues were coming to the fore in the aftermath of ‘coloured Revolutions’ in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.

2007: A New Beginning

Băsescu’s presidential tenure has not been free of hesitations and ambiguities. His adversaries constantly criticized his alleged appetite for power and his temperamental behaviour. It is suggested that his work during the communist period unavoidably put him in close relations with Ceauşescu’s Securitate. Indeed, in 1987-89 he was the head of the Romanian River Navigation Company Navrom’s branch in Antwerp, and it is widely believed that positions of this rank were reserved to agents of the secret service. Băsescu is also frequently accused of corruption. He was under inquiry for his alleged role in the fraudulent sale of 16 ships during his tenure as undersecretary of state for naval transportation and minister of transport in 1991-92. As mayor of Bucharest (2000-2004) he was accused of illegal activities favouring the interest group of Dorin Cocoş, whose wife Elena Udrea was one of Băsescu’s closest (and most controversial) advisers.

Nevertheless, Băsescu contributed significantly to the break with the neo-communist past that allowed Romania’s accession to the EU on 1 January 2007. Despite some hesitation, he addressed the declassification of most Securitate files, officially condemned the communist dictatorship in Romania and, more importantly, actively supported the fight against high-level corruption. In fact, he was the only constant supporter of Monica Macovei, the remarkably efficient minister of justice. A former NGO activist, Mrs Macovei launched an anti-corruption crusade targeting important members of both the opposition and the governing coalition. Her resolute actions were soon perceived as a lethal threat by many corrupt politicians. In February 2007, 81 senators (out of a total of 137) voted for a motion demanding her resignation. One of the most prominent figures under investigation was Dinu Patriciu, a very close associate of Prime Minister Popescu-Tăriceanu. Patriciu owned Rompetrol, which in 2006 became the most important Romanian oil firm, operating in 13 countries, including France and Spain. In May 2005, prosecutors detained Patriciu after an 18-hour marathon interrogation, although he was released the next day because of legal irregularities. However, scandal broke out when it was disclosed that the prime minister had asked Prosecutor-General Ilie Botoş and President Băsescu to help Patriciu. The president had little sympathy for this liberal who had financially contributed to Iliescu’s electoral campaign of 2004 and did not intervene in his support. This appeared to be the first ‘unfriendly’ action which triggered the increasingly bitter dispute culminating in 2007 in the break-up of Romania’s ruling coalition.

By September 2006, it was observed that ‘a blizzard of scandals, rows and resignations [had] hit the centre-right ruling coalition’. Băsescu supported a wing of the National Liberal Party led by Theodor Stolojan and Valeriu Stoica that finally broke away and created a pro-Băsescu Liberal Democratic Party (PLD). Tensions further escalated in January 2007, when the president and the prime minister had a brutal exchange of mutual incriminations on live television. The governing coalition collapsed in March, with Popescu-Tăriceanu forming a minority government informally supported by the social democrats. To the relief of many politicians, Justice Minister Monica Macovei was replaced. Ironically, the government of Macedonia asked her to become an adviser in its own campaign against corruption.

One of the first actions undertaken by the new minister of justice, Tudor Chiuariu, was to order the replacement of the chief prosecutor conducting corruption investigations, including that against Patriciu. Going one step further, Tăriceanu and the Social Democrats, led by Mircea Geoană, forced a parliamentary vote to suspend the president from office, which they won by 322 votes to 108, a showing not matched by that of the electorate. Successfully presenting himself as victim to the oligarchs’ plot, Băsescu received huge popular support and triumphantly returned to power after winning the referendum of 19 May 2007 with a spectacular 74.48 per cent of the vote. While both the Liberals and the Social Democrats were greatly delegitimized, the president reinforced his public image as a lone fighter against the corrupt oligarchy. There is, however, no apparent end to the present stalemate as all parties (except that of Băsescu) fear early elections. Most probably, the president and his opponents will continue their daily disputes until the end of 2008.

This tortuous episode seems exclusively related to Romanian domestic politics. Still, in an interview with România Liberă on 4 May 2007 Băsescu claimed that his recent suspension from office was in fact the result of ‘external structures interested in destabilizing Romania’, suggesting that the structures mentioned are Russian. Media owned by his adversaries—that is, most Romanian private media—immediately ridiculed the statement. Nevertheless, details progressively emerged in support of this allegation. First of all, it should be remembered that Băsescu was the first Romanian head of state to promote an openly pro-American foreign policy, best illustrated by his efforts to create a ‘Bucharest-London-Washington axis’. He actively supported Romania’s military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. He advocated the presence of American military bases in Romania. Furthermore, President Băsescu asked for the active involvement of NATO and the United States in the Black Sea region. In a speech delivered in March 2005 at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, he hailed the pro-Western (and anti-Russian) democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and asked for ‘the formulation of a common Euro-Atlantic strategy for the Black Sea region’ in order to promote ‘freedom, democracy, prosperity and stability’ leading to the creation of a ‘new identity for the Black Sea region’. The engine of the change would be the Romanian-American strategic partnership; its immediate goal would be ‘finding lasting solutions for the “frozen conflicts” in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh [which] threaten the security of Europe by spilling over organized crime, human and arms trafficking, and transnational terrorism’. More specifically, he asked for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria and Georgia. He tried to win President Bush’s support for this plan during two visits to the White House, in March 2005 and July 2006. In September 2005, in a speech delivered at Stanford University, he proposed the creation of a US-EU military task force in the region, as ‘the Russian Federation does not accept the internationalization of the Black Sea’. He insisted that ‘it is time for the Black Sea to cease being a Russian lake’. Romania’s ‘National Security Strategy’, adopted in April 2006, reflects the same ideas.

Another dimension of Băsescu’s provocative statements concerns Russian energy exports. Only 60 per cent of Romania’s total gas consumption is domestically produced, the rest being imported from Russia on the basis of contracts between Gazprom, Wintershall Erdgas Handelshaus, and Romanian companies. In December 2005 the price was $252 per thousand cubic metres. There was a planned increase to $280 in January 2006, but for the rest of that year the price was expected to be kept below $285. In fact, it reached $310, higher than in any other CEE country. Băsescu accused Russia of artificially increasing it for political reasons. He went so far as to compare Gazprom with the Soviet Red Army. In order to resolve this situation, he asked the European Union and the United States to accelerate the building of alternative routes of transit for Caspian Sea gas that would eliminate the Russian monopoly. Since Moscow was using frozen conflicts in the Black Sea area to hamper such projects, he stated, active Western involvement in the region was needed. While saying that Romania had already started to reorient its energy policy towards alternative sources such as coal, hydroelectricity and atomic plants, Băsescu called for an EU energy policy, reducing dependence on Russia. ‘Finding an alternative to Russian gas has to be the European Union’s No.1 priority’, he claimed.

These and other anti-Russian statements—including comments on Russia’s ‘democratic deficit’—were predictably met with hostility in Moscow. The Kremlin’s successive ambassadors in Bucharest formulated rather polite criticism, but the Romanian foreign affairs ministry concluded that Russia had initiated a ‘concerted diplomatic offensive’ against Romania. Indeed, in November 2006, Moscow reproached the European Union for not having consulted it on Romania’s membership. The protest was not turned down. On the contrary, in April 2007, EU officials agreed on a common declaration responding to Moscow’s economic demands:

The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Benita Ferrero-Waldner and the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier signed a common declaration in Luxembourg last Monday, recognizing Russia’s economic interests in Romania. … In the document there is a special clause on ‘the export of Russia’s traditional agriculture products to Romania’ not to be influenced by the new structural dialogue on EU agriculture. … According to the protocol, the EU commits to initiate consulting before applying measures that may harm the way such products are sold at present. … The EU is to respect the needs of two syderurgy [metallurgical] plants in Romania, ‘given the Russian investments there’. There is also mentioned the EU’s awareness of Russia’s concern about the use of European anti-dumping measures that would do harm to Russia’s export to Bulgaria and Romania. In case of such anti-dumping measures harming Russian export, the EU promises to proceed to revision.

Apparently, Moscow approached the White House in a similar fashion. In April 2007, President Putin expressed his concern over the presence of American bases in Romania in a conversation with the US defence secretary, Robert Gates. However, this was associated with Russia’s rejection of the American missile defence system in Eastern Europe and had little chance of influencing US military plans. Simultaneously, there were Russian reactions directed at the Romanian government itself. The Russian foreign affairs minister, Sergei Lavrov, told his counterpart in Bucharest, Mihai-Răzvan Ungureanu, that Russia was concerned about President Băsescu’s statements. The press agency ITAR-TASS likewise reproduced Lavrov’s criticism of the ‘unfriendly attitude’ illustrated by allegations on the Russian gas monopoly being used as a political instrument. In response, Băsescu bluntly stated he would never ask Moscow what he is allowed to say.

In general, Russia’s relations with Romania were becoming increasingly hostile in a way similar to the cases of Poland and the Baltic States. Nevertheless, there is an important difference. The anti-Russian stance is almost exclusively due to Băsescu’s personal foreign policy decisions, which were frequently criticized by his adversaries (and by media under their control). Prime Minister Tăriceanu held a different position. At first, stating that ‘the European Union is the most important strategic axis’, he moderately opposed the president’s pro-American attitude. Tensions with Băsescu made him more aggressive. In June 2006, Tăriceanu and the defence minister, Teodor Atanasiu, publicly announced the withdrawal of Romanian troops from Iraq without even consulting Romania’s president or the United States; the former was in fact able to stop this initiative. The Liberal minister of foreign affairs, Mihai-Răzvan Ungureanu, who supported Băsescu’s position, was forced by the prime minister to resign his ministry in February 2007. Tăriceanu gave the job to one of his suppporters, Adrian Cioroianu, whose nomination was in turn repeatedly rejected by the president. Visibly interested in having a say in Romania’s external relations, the prime minister went as far as temporarily taking over the functions of foreign affairs minister. It is true that the Romanian semi-presidential and French-inspired system makes the president the leading foreign policy authority. Disputes with the prime minister, however, limited Băsescu’s international credibility. The Social Democrat leader, Mircea Geoană, even claimed that Romania’s foreign policy was ‘completely incoherent’.

From Moscow’s point of view, the Băsescu-Tăriceanu duel was an unexpected opportunity to end Romania’s hostile attitude. The president was clearly pro-American and anti-Russian, but the prime minister seemed neutral, while Geoană strongly rejected ‘historical anti-Russian’ attitudes. It would have been perfectly logical to encourage and support an alliance between the latter two to sideline Băsescu. It is within this context that Tăriceanu met a person well connected with the Kremlin, and this only one week before the vote on the president’s suspension. The president mentioned the prime minister’s meeting with ‘a very important gentleman, Kondyakov’ in his interview with România Liberă. Aleksandr Kondyakov, a former employee of the Soviet TASS press agency and adviser to the chairman of the USSR committee of youth organizations, had then become the head of Novocom, a consulting firm whose clients include the Russian presidential administration and the Russian government. He had also organized a number of regional governor electoral campaigns in Russia, and is also an adviser to the Moldovan president. On 12 April 2007 Kondyakov visited Tăriceanu in his prime ministerial office. The Liberal senator Radu Stroe, who was present at the meeting, later stated that Kondyakov offered to lobby for the National Liberal Party in advance of the 2008 parliamentary elections. Tăriceanu denied that such an offer existed, while Kondyakov himself claimed they discussed ‘matters related to making possible new economic projects between Romania and Russia and between interested companies in the two countries’. Speaking on the same subject, the prime minister made a rather ambiguous statement: ‘Since I entered politics, I have affirmed without any hesitation my Western option. But this does not necessarily mean that Romania has to have a tense relationship with Russia.’ Of course, this is far from Radu Vasile’s pro-Russian profession de foi of 1999; but a further statement made by Dinu Patriciu makes things clearer (see below). Tăriceanu was not the only host of Kondyakov during the latter’s short visit to Bucharest: the Russian consultant also met the 1999 advocate of Vasile’s pro-Moscow turn, Eugen Ovidiu Chirovici, and the self-proclaimed friend of Russia, Cosmin Guşă. Furthermore, Guşă claimed Kondyakov’s next visitor was Ion Iliescu himself, while other sources mentioned an appointment with Geoană (both Social Democrats strongly deny any such reunion). Commenting on these meetings, Ioan Talpeş—a former national security adviser to Iliescu and former head of the Romanian intelligence service—spoke of a ‘Bucharest-Moscow ring that does not favour the state interest of Romania and Russia but its own interest, against Romania’.

These confusing and often contradictory statements became more coherent on 25 May 2007. On that day, at the Sofia meeting of the European Energy Forum, Dinu Patriciu presented his views on the European Union’s (and Romania’s) future relations with Russia in the field of energy. Comparing Russia with a bear, he stated that as long as you have to share the same cage with the bear you also have to co-operate with it. More specifically, ‘you have to invest in the side of the cage where the bear is and the bear has to be convinced and allowed to invest in energy projects in Europe’. This was no simple statement. In August 2007 Patriciu sold for $2.7 billion 75 per cent of Rompetrol to the Kazakh state-owned company KazMunaiGaz, while preserving his position of ‘president and general manager’. Kazakhstan’s authoritarian ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is a close ally of the Kremlin. Furthermore, KazMunaiGaz (which controls a third of the Kazakh oil production) had set up joint ventures with Gazprom in 2002 and with Lukoil and Gazprom in 2003. On 1 June 2007 it concluded with Gazprom a new series of agreements that ‘President Vladimir Putin welcomed’. Apparently, Gazprom itself had tried to buy Rompetrol but Patriciu turned down the offer ‘for political reasons’. He gave preference to the more discreet KazMunaiGaz to avoid public criticism. Nevertheless, this is a move bringing Rompetrol closer to Russian control. In the words of the political analyst, Traian Ungureanu: ‘Romania becomes a lane for promoting Russia’s agenda through a decision that places the state in a position of inferiority; politically strengthens an amoral oligarchy; and prepares future instability.’

This sheds new light on the ‘new economic projects between Romania and Russia and between interested companies in the two countries’ that Kondyakov had discussed with Tariceanu. At that point, the latter became less of a prime minister and more of a representative to Patriciu’s Rompetrol-centred interest group. It is widely known that the two Liberals are close associates of long standing. After the secession of the Stoica-Stolojan wing, they had gained full control of the National Liberal Party. However, they were unable to influence Băsescu’s anti-Russian foreign policy, which was threatening Patriciu’s energy plans; nor could they obtain the president’s support in order to block anti-corruption investigations targeting Patriciu himself. Their interest in bringing down Băsescu was therefore matching Moscow’s. Kondyakov’s visit and the possible deal he might have negotiated are the logical consequences of this match.

This is to say that Romanian domestic causes of President Băsescu’s suspension from office must be complemented with external ones, linked to Russia’s energy policy in Central and Eastern Europe. The phenomenon sometimes naively described as a personality conflict between the president and the prime minister is in fact a fragment of a much wider strategic game. As elsewhere in the region, Russia associates itself with local energy interest groups in order to influence the foreign policy agenda of their respective states. In a way, Tăriceanu is not unlike the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder as the latter became an advocate of Russian energy interests in Germany and Europe. The difference lies in the consequences: Tariceanu’s dramatic actions, if successful, would have eliminated one of the most vocal East European critics of Moscow. On the other hand, however, it should be noted that the situation is now fundamentally different from that in the 1990s. With or without Băsescu in power, Romania is a NATO and EU member. Tăriceanu and even Geoană cannot change this and do not intend to do so. There is no question of becoming part of a pre-1996-style Russian sphere of influence. The Kremlin’s renewed political control over the country cannot be imagined. Rather, the battle is now fought over ‘soft’—mainly economic—influence in a state that unequivocally belongs to the Western security community.


The beginnings of post-communist Romania were closely associated with a pro-Soviet foreign policy orientation that culminated in the signing of the 1991 treaty of friendship, forbidding Romania’s accession to NATO. The dismantling of the USSR forced the regime of Ion Iliescu to adopt the so-called ‘politics of ambiguity’, which balanced Western and Russian influence. However, unpopular links with Russia finally contributed to the fall of Iliescu after the 1996 elections. The new democratic government adopted a clearly pro-Western foreign policy. In 1999, Moscow did succeed in persuading the Romanian prime minister, Radu Vasile, to become its outspoken supporter, but this victory was short-lived. Back in power after the 2000 elections, Iliescu partly reformed the party, showing that it had learned the lesson of 1996. It avoided both openly authoritarian trends and a special relationship with the Kremlin. It even secured Bucharest’s accession to NATO in 2004. Combined with the December 2004 electoral victory of democratic parties, this seemed to mark the end of Russia’s influence in Romania. Furthermore, President Băsescu’s resolutely pro-American stance and his vociferous advocacy of NATO’s involvement in the Black Sea area led to unprecedented hostility between Bucharest and Moscow.

Nevertheless, the president’s support for an effective anti-corruption campaign led to an increasingly bitter conflict with Prime Minister Tăriceanu, whose close associate Dinu Patriciu was under investigation. As Patriciu headed Romania’s most important oil company and promoted energy relations with Russia, a natural convergence of interests was created between the Kremlin and Băsescu’s domestic opponents. It should not be forgotten that, besides Patriciu, a large number of Romanian politicians are threatened by the anti-corruption campaign. The Kondyakov episode suggested that Tăriceanu met a Russian envoy (who might have equally contacted Iliescu and Geoană) one week before the suspension of the president by the Liberal-Social Democrat coalition. Unsurprisingly, one month later Patriciu publicly advocated the European Union’s (and Romania’s) improved energy relations with Russia.

This is in fact the local reflection of a wider regional strategic game. On the one hand, a pro-American Poland and the Baltic States take advantage of the deteriorating relations between the US and Moscow in order to reject Russian influence openly, while on the other hand, energy interest groups in many West European states promote projects that clearly increase European dependence upon Russian resources. Despite its undemocratic course, the Kremlin is thus acquiring a long-term capacity to influence European affairs which Polish, Baltic or Romanian democrats assess against a background of historical adversity.

An obvious (and frustrating) flaw in this article is related to the difficulty of assessing the internal Russian mechanisms for conceiving, executing and supervising actions directed towards Romania. ‘The Kremlin’ or ‘Russia’ both seem to be absurdly monolithic entities engineering perfectly coherent strategies. This is because there is no inside information, while available public statements, mostly from Foreign Minister Lavrov, are scarce and of little relevance. For example, nobody can say who are Kondyakov’s real contacts in the Kremlin, or whether he represents Russia’s government, Russian interest groups (as Ioan Talpeş seems to suggest), or both. It is clear that the chaotic foreign policy of the Yeltsin era has been replaced by an efficient, highly coherent, and secretive mechanism not unlike that of the Soviet Union. The uncontested authority of President Putin in his second term left little space for other decision makers, and it is too early to discern the real power of his successor, President Dmitrii Medvedev. Still, this does not exclude the existence of autonomous Russian interest groups supporting (and taking advantage of) economic involvement in Romania. The visible part of the iceberg is represented, as elsewhere in Europe, by Gazprom, not inappropriately compared by President Băsescu to the Soviet Red Army. While linked to certain Russian energy interest groups, Gazprom is directly subordinated to the Kremlin and has closely followed Putin’s foreign policy moves; it is not inappropriate to note that Medvedev served as chairman of Gazprom from 2002. The situation of Russian companies operating on the Romanian market—Lukoil, equally involved in energy supply, is a good example—is less clear. Unlike Gazprom, they benefit from substantial autonomy and have created their own networks of influence involving Romanian politicians and businessmen. But it is difficult to know to what extent such companies use their networks to support the Kremlin’s strategic goals beyond their own simple, profit-oriented interests. Added to the complete lack of transparency in Moscow’s foreign policy decision-making process, this makes the assessment of the Russian side of the Russian-Romanian relation extremely difficult.

It is nevertheless obvious that Romania’s case is different from those of Poland or the Baltic States because of the above-mentioned post-1989 pro-Russian episodes. The existence of three categories of potential Moscow allies can be identified as consequences of these episodes. First, most politicians, top civil servants and businessmen that helped establish the special relations with the Kremlin from 1990 to 1996 still hold important positions. All of them (or, at least, their families) had belonged to the communist nomenklatura. For purely electoral reasons, they now have to display pro-Western and pro-democratic convictions. But they remain genuinely pro-Russian and are ready to improve relations with their former protector. A second category is illustrated by former Christian Democrat prime minister, Radu Vasile, and his ‘conversion’ in 1999. Moscow is able to use political and perhaps economic incentives efficiently to attract support from Romanian politicians who had nothing in common with Iliescu’s regime. Tactically, this can be extremely useful precisely because nobody can foresee (and thereby prevent) such sudden changes. The final and perhaps most important category is represented by Patriciu-type interest groups that engage in energy business with Russia or intend to do so. This is an important sector, as it includes a large network of gas and oil importing, processing and distribution companies. There are many petrochemical works built during the communist period, and most Romanian city houses use natural gas for heating. Energy supply is therefore paramount. Consequently, Prime Minister Popescu-Tăriceanu is not alone in his struggle against anti-Russian Băsescu. Despite Romanians’ general lack of sympathy for Moscow, a significant number of politicians and businessmen implicitly support Russian interests.

However, the nature of this support is fundamentally different from that of the 1990s. There is no Romanian parliamentary party challenging the country’s pro-Western orientation. This is a forced decision: the spectacular economic growth is overwhelmingly attributed to EU accession and is contrasted with the economic and financial crises that prevailed during the pro-Russian period. Romanians’ historical hostility toward the Eastern neighbour and the progressive Europeanization of society are equally important. Consequently, political forces openly demanding a radical foreign policy shift towards Moscow would simply be faced with electoral suicide. For this reason, the country’s inclusion in a pre-1996-style ‘Russian sphere of influence’ has become highly unlikely. Ironically, this is an important advantage for energy interest groups. Precisely because the country’s independence is in no way menaced, they suggest, good economic relations with Russia should not be rejected. The Kremlin’s ‘soft’, energy-based influence in Europe is presented not as a new imperial strategy but rather as a normal, mutually beneficial economic process. The profitable agreements between Germany or Italy and Gazprom are contrasted with Poland and the Baltic States’ counterproductive anti-Russian policies. The next logical step is to ask the replacement of the anti-Russian, Polish-style special relationship between Bucharest and Washington with a ‘pro-European’ orientation of the type embraced by the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. This corresponds to Prime Minister Popescu-Tăriceanu’s proposal. For the time being, President Băsescu remains in control and has no intention of changing Romania’s foreign policy preferences. However, one should be reminded that these are mostly due to his personal choices and might not survive his presidential tenure. The energy lobby, by contrast, has long-term interests that may one day impose a different foreign policy orientation.