Tuesday 17 July 2012

Conspiracies and coups in the Balkans


Ronnie Smith believes a conspiracy involving the Pentagon and Mr. George Soros is behind the suspension of Mr. Traian Basescu. This is exactly the sort of thing many Russians apparently believe, but then quite a few of them believe September 11th was a plot organised by George Bush. (Absurd - had he organised it would have gone wrong.)

Ronnie is an old-fashioned 1970s anti-American Leftist who believes in conspiracies, especially ones involving the USA, but he should offer us evidence, if only circumstantial. Mr. Băsescu has been pretty loyal to the US and the US surely wants stability in Romania. The US Ambassador made it pretty clear he disapproved of the 'putsch'. But because people who discuss Romanian politics tend to become paranoid conspiracy theorists does not mean that there are no conspiracies. There are any number.

The sudden measures to change the presidents of the two chambers and suspend the president all by emergency ordinance sounded to foreigners like the story of an old fashioned Latin American coup. Why did it happen so quickly? I am told it was to prevent the President persuading deputies (unconstitutionally, of course) to defect from the governing coalition. 

Why did the PSD-PNL coalition take power this summer rather than wait till the November elections? There is more than one theory. The Government wanted to stop the PDL raising money for their campaign, by unethical means. And perhaps to raise some money themselves, who knows. And they wanted to  hold the PSD-PNL coalition together by allowing them to distribute the fruits of office.

Why impeach the president?  Perhaps to stop the President, who controls the very powerful secret services,  organising a series of bombshells from now to the November Parliamentary elections, like the revelation that Mr. Ponta had plagiarised his doctoral thesis. Whether Mr. Băsescu is behind it or not, Ponta and Crin certainly think he is - in fact almost everyone thinks he is since he made so much play with Mr. Ponta's doctorate in law speaking a week before the Nature article. But I am not clear why these things cannot continue whether or not  Mr. Băsescu is President.  Mr. Băsescu must have a lot of information to use and his links with the Secret Services will not come to an end if he ceases to be President.

Still it might be that the plagiarism scandal led Mr. Ponta to decide that it was impossible to cohabit with the President until the November elections. The discovery that the prime minister plagiarised his doctoral thesis probably did not greatly surprise the clever people here who know that very many doctoral theses are plagiarised just as it is fairly normal to cheat in exams.  But to the man in the street, who probably did not go to university, it looks bad. It is, in any case, something that humiliates Victor Ponta and which he may find  in the long term hard to ride out.The way in which he moved rapidly to change the composition of the body that rules on plagiarism an hour before it could pronounce against him looks terrible, in Romania and abroad.

The Constitutional Court, which people think is very friendly to the President who appointed many of its judges, ruled that it was not legal to remove by emergency ordinance the rule whereby 50% + 1 of the registered electors must vote for a vote to unseat the President. There is an argument for saying the change in the rules by emergency ordinance (used frequently here by all administrations), to return the rules to how they were before the PDL changed them after the last impeachment, was perfectly legal. On the other hand many lawyers say this could only be done by normal legislation. I am too ignorant to be able to venture an informed opinion but the Court's decision must be respected and Mr. Ponta has, grudgingly, under pressure from the EU, agreed that it will. 

What is certain is that it was always very likely indeed that the court would rule as it has and that the talk of emergency ordinances would sound like hell in the chanceries of Europe, coming immediately on the heels of the plagiarism scandal. Either Mr. Ponta did not care or he was in too much of a hurry to get the president out of the way before the president could retaliate.

People in Bucharest argue fiercely for and against the President, though there is enormous hatred for Mr. Băsescu among a lot of the voters. He is blamed for the austerity measures which the previous Governments took and accused of presiding over a system in which vast sums disappeared from public budgets while he purported to organise anti-corruption campaigns in which his opponents seemed to figure prominently. The austerity measures were severe but demanded by the IMF. I hear many rumours from well-informed business people about corruption in the President's camp  but I have no means of knowing exactly what really went on. 

I do remember enough from the last time there was a PSD government to expect them to plunder the country if they win in November, as it is assumed they will. Before November they scan be expected to be discreet, though if the parliamentary coup is their idea of being discreet we political anoraks will have much fun. The PSD are the de facto successors to the Communist Party and are not liked by most white collar workers in Bucharest and so hot discussions are taking place all over hot Bucharest during these dog days of July. All the factions in this fight are corrupt and it is very hard for foreigners to take sides but many Romanians seem to find it relatively easy, though some throw up their hands in despair. 

Both Mr. Băsescu and Mr. Ponta have stretched to breaking point and, yes, abused the constitution, as clever politicians are apt to do in a new democracy where conventions are fluid and the courts are considered partial and in some cases corrupt. But it is Mr. Ponta who has drawn international attention to himself and condemnation even from other Centre-Left parties abroad.  In the old days the courts did what the PSD told them to do discreetly but now things are much more complicated. Judges are less corrupt and they are split in their political sympathies between the parties. 

The recent events in Romania are a game in which ideals and principles do not play much of a part except that both sides really think the others are crooks and both of course are right. The most important aspect of the story is that it will lead some people to call for more powers for the European Union to intervene in the internal affairs of member states. These calls should be resisted at all costs, by Romanians and by all Europeans. 

European powers have tried to understand Balkan politics without much success from the Greek War of independence to the war in Kosovo and onwards to the present day and only succeeded in projecting onto the Balkans ideas which make sense in other parts of Europe. The Balkans said Bismarck, are not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. Opaque Balkan intrigues should not be an excuse for further diminution of the national sovereignty of E.U. member states. In any case the Romanian voters - who can envy them their task? - will have the chance to record their verdicts in this month's referendum and in the Parliamentary elections in November.


  1. This is a pretty balanced and objective article, Paul, not much to argue. I would just add that, even though there is a lot to criticize to former PDL government & Basescu (one of the main fault being to blow-up a second chance to restore the public trust in politicians, after being elected as an alternative to a former 'communist' regim), at least: 1. Media & the public were able to publicly curse the president and criticise the ruling party and 2. There have been arrests of suspect corrupts from all political parties. None of these happened during Nastase government, when nobody dared speak publicly against the regime and journalists were getting threatened and beaten up for doing so. My hope is that due to these last PSD-free years(so called "Basescu dictatorship"), these things will never be possible again, because people are today a bit more in love with their freedom. USL did not anticipate such opposition, they started where they left off and thought Romanians remained as ignorant and obedient as 8 years ago :))))

  2. I agree with what you say - I do not understand Basescu who seems serious about making changes and yet is said to be part of a vast web of corruption. I also do not really read Iliescu whose socialism is sincere - he presided over a kleptocracy because he had to work with the materials he had but I do not see what he was trying to achieve beyond power.