Romania Seeks Balance of Power in the Black Sea Region

Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu (left) shakes hands with members of the ruling PNL (National Liberal Party), before addressing the Romanian Parliament in Bucharest. (Photo: Daniel Mihailescu / AFP-Getty Images)

Romania became a member of the European Union (together with Bulgaria) on Jan. 1 and realized a vision sought since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990's. Since then Romania has aligned itself with Europe and the United States and almost totally disengaged from its post-cold war posture that followed Russian policy or a neutral, introverted stance.

Over the past decade, the administration in Bucharest has formed a strategy by which it invests in its peripheral role, not only as a Balkan country, but also as a Central European and Black Sea one. Considerable procurements have seen its military expenditures reach 2.2 billion euros—the third largest military budget after Turkey and Greece in southeastern Europe. Romania has devoted its attention to the navy by acquiring two British-made frigates and five naval combat helicopters, signing an agreement for naval training with a leading British institution, participating regularly in NATO-led exercises in the Black Sea, and upgrading its special naval operation forces.

Romania's main aim is to play an active role in the crucial geopolitical area of the Black Sea, traditionally dominated by the Russian navy. The coastlines of the Black Sea are much related to the oil trade routes and the overall hydrocarbon export strategy of the Russian Federation and the Central Asian states. Russia, Greece, and Bulgaria signed an agreement last month to construct the Burgas-Alexandroupoli pipeline. Oil will be transferred by vessel from Novorossiysk (Russia) to Burgas (Bulgaria) and then by pipeline to the port of Alexandroupoli (Greece).

Moreover, two other major oil-related projects draw attention to the Black Sea. The proposed Constanja-Trieste pipeline will connect the Romanian port in the Black Sea with the Italian port in the Adriatic through Serbian and Croatian territory. Also, the AMBO pipeline (to be constructed over the coming years) will connect Burgas in the Black Sea with Vlore (Albania) in the Adriatic. The total volume of oil trade should all three projects become operational will exceed 100 million tons per year and will constitute a large segment of Russia's oil exports.

Since June 2004, the Romanian military has drafted a plan that details the steps needed to create a force on par with NATO standards and modern norms by 2012. For that reason, it has procured 43 German antiaircraft systems, rocket-launcher systems, and training aircraft, with Israeli assistance, and has bought Hawk antiaircraft missile systems from the Netherlands. Along with numerous other schemes, Romania is striving to become a significant balancing actor in the Black Sea.

Romania will meet opposition in the form of renewed Russian power, as well as Turkish power. Turkey was accustomed to being the only NATO state in the area until both Bulgaria and Romania joined the alliance in 2004. During a recent visit by Greek President Karolos Papoulias, Romanian President Traian Basescu sided with the Greeks in relation to the Turkish issue and most importantly the Cyprus problem, drifting from its traditional pro-Turkey orientation. At least as far as peripheral issues are concerned. Thus, Romania seems to be on the verge of framing a new strategic outlook that will include among other things an increased opposition to Turkey because of the importance of the Black Sea and its desire for advancement there.

At societal and economic level, Romania has progressed significantly over the years and is one of the prime locations for the international capital in southeastern Europe. Its G.D.P. is set to increase some 5 percent this year while industrial output will increase around 7 percent. Moreover, foreign direct investments soared by about 80 percent between 2005 and 2006. It now receives more investments than any other Balkan country in recent times.

Despite the positive investment climate, wages for the average employee is still low—below 300 euros per month in most instances. Poverty is widespread both in rural and urban centers and unemployment hinders social stability in much of the state. The main issue in the Romanian political sphere is the opposition between the politicians, who often accuse each other of corruption. The prime minister has recently expelled the minister of foreign affairs from government and the president has done the same for the minister of defense. President Basescu has also stated in public that the national Parliament protects corruption by voting for laws that assist in the perpetuation of public misbehavior. The parliamentarians for their part have enacted the process of relieving the president of his duties.

The political atmosphere in Romania is also heavily influenced by the appearance of a new dynamic and populist politician, Jiji Bekali, who is the owner of the popular football team Steaoua. He has gained in popularity over the past few months due to the state's instability and the various corruption charges that mainstream politicians have leveled at each other. Even though his ideological leanings cannot be identified at first glance, he is considered to be driven by populist nationalism and a mixture of socialist and right wing elements—most likely to satisfy a wide range of the electorate.

Romania also faces the issue of the Hungarian minority in near the Western border with Hungary. Numbering some 1,500,000 people, it has habitually demanded wide autonomy, even confederation status. Romania has a total population of 23 million citizens. Last month, Hungarian President  Laszlo Solyom paid a visit to Transylvania and called for Romania to increase the rights of autonomy for Hungarians. The Romanian press responded with negative comments; the government, with vexation. Members of the Hungarian minority declared that they would hold a referendum in the future to vote for autonomy. The response by Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu was that the whole process is unacceptable and unconstitutional. The minority issue is the main cause behind Bucharest's decision to back the Serbs in their Kosovo negotiations. Romania is adamant in not recognizing an independent Kosovo since it will become a clear-cut precedent for its Hungarian minority. This is why it remains staunch in demanding that international law be followed and the sovereignty of nation states be protected.

Romania, for the time being, seems to be absorbed in the political intrigues of its politicians and the perpetuation of state corruption. This is reflected in its policies. In the foreign affairs arena, it clearly follows NATO, having sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq—in parallel with its will to spread Western influence in the Black Sea. This risks antagonizing the long-established nation in the area, Russia (and to a lesser extent with Turkey), which is not willing to share its naval presence with the new NATO member. In the Balkans scene, Romania follows a policy of alignment with Serbia for geopolitical reasons and due to its Hungarian minority. Furthermore, it retains a good neighbor policy with Bulgaria and Greece with an aim to preserving its status as an ideal location for investments, as well as to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Judging by the fact that Romania is the most populous state in the Balkans, the richest one in natural resources (including oil), and a neighboring state to the sensitive areas of Ukraine and Moldavia, it seems probable that it will upgrade its role in the region over the coming years and perhaps become an actor of balance between the antithetical political forces of NATO, Russia, and the smaller countries in between.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Ioannis Michaletos.