Controversial Moves by Romanian President Before Exit

Romanian President Traian Basescu and outgoing President Ion Iliescu

Romanian President Traian Basescu (L) says goodbye to outgoing President Ion Iliescu as he leaves the Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest, on December 21, 2004.(Photo: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP-Getty Images)

President Iliescu of Romania, who steps down this week, has made two controversial last-minute decisions designed to shock the public and the Romanian and foreign political elite.

On December 13th, President Iliescu alienated a Romanian-born Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, by bestowing medals on two extreme nationalist politicians. Only two years ago, President Iliescu gave the same medal to Mr. Wiesel, who is Jewish.

In a letter sent December 15th to President Iliescu, Mr. Wiesel said he was returning the “National Order the Star of Romania, rank of grand officer,” a title he received from Iliescu in 2002 because he cannot accept being put on the same level as the extreme nationalist and anti-Semitic political leaders Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Gheorghe Buzatu.

Elie Wiesel recently led an international committee of historians from Israel and the US to Romania to uncover the truth about Romania's role in the Holocaust. At the time, Iliescu's decision to invite such a committee into Romania was a complete reversal of his earlier position, which leaned towards minimizing Holocaust crimes in Romania.

"With sadness and disappointment I read that the man who decided to create the International Committee for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania also decided to bestow this order upon two people whose poisonous ideas are opposing the committee's higher goals,” the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote in a letter to Iliescu returning his medal of honor. “Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Gheorghe Buzatu are well-known for their constant anti-Semitic stance and denial of the Holocaust. Vadim Tudor printed offensive, ugly, and slanderous words about the Jewish people, its culture, its traditions, and its commitment to moral values and preservation of history.”

Last week, the outgoing president also signed an amnesty decree for Miron Cozma, the former leader of the miners, and then reversed himself in the final hours of his presidency by retracting the amnesty decree because of widespread protest. Cozma, serving an 18-year prison sentence for undermining state order and democracy, and his miners had come to Iliescu's rescue in the past, using brute force to crush protests against the government in the early 1990s. Cozma led the so-called Mineriads on Bucharest several times after 1990, most recently in 1999.

Objections to the controversial amnesty decree arose as soon as it was issued, and likely led the President to his change of heart. The US Embassy in Romania, through its Ambassador J.D Crouch, found the amnesty decree “alarming.” Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase initially denied signing it. Calin Popescu Tariceanu, Co-President of the Truth and Justice Alliance, the opposition party to the governing PSD (Social-Democrat Party), declared that he believed the decision to liberate Miron Cozma was exclusively a political one. In his opinion, the fact that Iliescu offered such an important medal to C.V Tudor is a sign that democracy is an empty concept for Iliescu, who remains “the same old Bolshevik, influenced by the taints of his communist past.” Moreover, the amnesty of Cozma proves that President Iliescu was indebted to him.

Numerous NGOs, including the Civic Alliance, the Association of the Mineriad Victims, the Association of 21 December 1989 and others, protested against Iliescu's decision to free Cozma. These groups contend that such a gesture represents a form of complicity to the crimes that happened during the several waves of the Mineriads and shows support for Cozma's attempt to destabilize the young democracy in the 1990s.

The “star of mineral coal,” as Miron Cozma is called, had asked for amnesty in 2003, but President Iliescu rejected his request. However, Iliescu has publicly said more than once that Cozma's sentence was magnified.

Traian Basescu, the newly elected President of Romania, said that “the pardon of Miron Cozma demonstrates how low the official institutions led by Nastase and Iliescu have become.”

Taking into consideration the signals received from the Romanian mass media, politicians and civil society in his last hours as President, Iliescu cancelled the amnesty decree. The legal implications are yet to be solved by Cozma’s lawyers and by the Romanian Court of Justice. From a political point of view, Iliescu’s last minute change of heart is yet another sensational turn of events. The solution to this problem will have to be worked out during Traian Basescu’s term as President. Nevertheless, the last minute change did not remove the suspicion of Iliescu’s motives.

A supporter of state owned property and of a communist dictatorship with a humane face, Iliescu departs office with last gestures that have cast a shadow of doubt on his rule during the three terms he obtained and on Romania's respect for the law and its institutions.

Taking into consideration the Romanian bid to be part of the European Union and the country's still vulnerable democracy, these last-minute acts were at least unwise, if not dangerous.