Articles - December 2018

ROMANIA: Securing Europe's Flank

A conversation with Romania's Ambassador George Cristian Maior
By Roland Flamini

Ambassador George Cristian Maior of Romania has to be the only foreign chief of mission to publish a book in Washington about American spying – and to do so while actually serving in the nation’s capital. In his scholarly work, “America’s First Spy: The Tragic Heroism of Frank Wisner,” Maior delves deep into the emerging world of American intelligence in its formative years, and the index of names mentioned has the nostalgic ring of a Georgetown social gathering from the 1950s until relatively recently. Though trained as a diplomat, he was named director of the Romanian Intelligence Service in 2006, and held the post until January 2015. Later that year, in September 2015, he presented his credentials as Ambassador to President Obama. He has also had close connections with NATO, having negotiated Romania's accession to this organization, as state secretary in the Romanian Defense Ministry.

Romania, a difficult and independent-minded Soviet satellite under its despotic leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, made a long and bumpy transition to democracy. For example, it was not until 2007 that the former monarchy was finally admitted to membership of the European Union, in part because of endemic corruption in successive governments. The corruption problem persists, however, and in August 2018 led to protest demonstrations, the size of which had not been seen since the 1989 revolution that toppled the Ceausescu regime (and led to his execution).

The economic crisis of 2008-2009 hit Romania very hard, and inequality and poverty remain among the highest in the EU; as a result, Romanians have been among the largest groups seeking employment in western EU countries - more than 400,000 in the United Kingdom alone, the second largest number of EU immigrants in that country after the Poles. But, Ambassador Maior pointed out in his interview with Diplomatic Connections, the Romanian economy has gained, and continues to gain strength, which is expected to lure back many citizens to their homeland.

Russia’s recent aggressiveness and so-called hybrid activity (cyber attacks, etc.) has triggered a defensive NATO posture on its eastern flank, anchored on Romania, as the largest country in this dangerous neighborhood. The NATO multi-national headquarters for Southeastern Europe is in Romania, and the country is host to a multi-national brigade. “Let’s not forget that Crimea is less than 150 miles from Romanian shores, from Constanta, where there is a U.S. military presence,” the ambassador pointed out.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is your assessment of the bi-lateral relationship with the United States?

Ambassador Maior:  The relationship is very, very strong. We’ve had many interactions with the previous administration, and now with this administration, and it remains a strong partnership. I feel that I’ve accomplished my mission here.

Diplomatic Connections:  Which was?

Ambassador Maior:  Which was to enhance the bi-lateral relationship in all fields – defense, security, political communication between our two governments, economics -- and things are looking well.

Diplomatic Connections:  You have not served in this embassy previously, but you went to school here.

Ambassador Maior:  I went to GW back in the 1990s. It was a wonderful period in my life, quite stimulating from an intellectual point of view. Moreover, it proved to be helpful in my career because upon returning to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, probably for the first time in the ministry’s history, I established a Human Rights directorate designed to adapt our system of diplomacy and our international standing after communism towards democracy, with an extraordinarily strong rule of law, including a moral dimension.

Diplomatic Connections:  You’ve also had other diplomatic posts.

Ambassador Maior:  Yes, I was charge d'affaires  for four years in Ireland, which was my first experience abroad and remarkably interesting because Ireland was a very dynamic member of the European Union, with many similarities to Romania especially in its economic transition to Europe. It essentially facilitated in gaining a greater understanding with the complex process of EU integration.

Diplomatic Connections:  On January 1, 2019, Romania will, for the first time, assume the presidency of the European Union council. We know the presidency means a lot of extra work in Bucharest and in Brussels, but what does it mean for the embassy here?

Ambassador Maior:  Our position, which is a principled position inside the European Union, is to have a strong trans-Atlantic relationship. We feel that Europe needs America, and America needs Europe in economics, in security, and in politics. It’s important for the U.S. government to understand that our priority inside the European Union is to try to work in the context of that philosophy – a strong trans-Atlantic relationship. That’s why I plan to host a series of events presenting our priorities to the government, to the officials over here and to members of Congress. We really hope they will be successful, because it’s a difficult period for Europe – you have Brexit negotiations and the adoption of the European Union budget as well as the European elections. Romania will also host an important summit on the future of the European Union in Sibiu, a nice town in Transylvania.

Diplomatic Connections:  When is the Sibiu summit?

Ambassador Maior:  Next year, on May 9th. It should be a reflective summit, trying to contemplate the future of Europe, unfortunately, without the United Kingdom.

Diplomatic Connections:  The country that has the presidency usually focuses on a couple of initiatives that become the theme of its six-month term. Is this one of them?

Ambassador Maior:  Of course, inevitably, it’s one of them. There are others related to our region, the Western Balkans, for example: we feel that we need to accelerate negotiations (for enlargement) of certain countries with the European Union, for example, Serbia. But we should also support the European path of our Eastern neighbors: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia.

Diplomatic Connections:  Turkey?

Ambassador Maior:  Also Turkey, yes. A strong ally of ours. That’s why it’s important for the U.S. to have good communication with us during the presidency, because the U.S. is very much interested in the stability of those countries, the evolution of those countries towards democratic reforms, better market economies, more security.  Thus, a very complicated presidency, not to mention, challenging.

Diplomatic Connections:  And Romania will speak from experience in building up institutions because it has been through this in the transition phase from the communist regime – as a qualification, if you like, for joining the European Union.

Ambassador Maior:  Yes, and this is a substantial part of our foreign policy – to try to assist our neighboring countries, especially the Western Balkans together with our Eastern Neighborhood, in what is an intricate process requiring political will for structural reforms in addition to knowledge and expertise in adapting the economy and institutions. To this extent, it’s part of our, let’s say, mission. Our foreign policy attempts to speed up the processes of further integration of those countries for the benefit of the EU, providing a vantage point of security and stability in those areas.  It’s considered problematic from many points of view; even so, I think it serves in the interests of the United States also.

Diplomatic Connections:  You do have some current differences with the European Union, one of which is the issue of corruption, including the dismissal of Romania’s anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Kovesi. Has the government appointed a successor?

Ambassador Maior:  The most important aspect is the fact that the institutions are functioning well. I won’t mention other member states – but in comparison with other countries in the region, in recent years, Romania has done more than its share of combating corruption. High officials have been sentenced, the institutions are functioning and we are now in the process of naming anti-corruption officials – it’s a rigorous process that is ongoing.

Diplomatic Connections:  What do you think is the root cause of this corruption problem. Is it a legacy of the communist era?

Ambassador Maior:  It goes back to the communist period, and to the difficult economic and social situation during that time, and then an arduous transition. Just imagine the fact that Romania had probably the worst dictatorship in terms of political regime, but also in terms of economy inside the Soviet bloc. And when you transfer a very centralized economy from state to the private sector (as Romania has done) you inevitably have to deal with corruption. I don’t think that we were a singular case: other nations in the region underwent similar processes, more or less difficult. Nevertheless, we are on the right track. Just look at the figures in our current economy, it’s one of the fastest growing in the region.

Diplomatic Connections:  Yes, before we speak further about that – in reference to Romania and the European Union: if a Brexit type referendum were to be held in Romania tomorrow, what do you think would be the result?

Ambassador Maior:  The reality is that we are one of the most pro-Europe countries inside the European Union. Consistently, 60-70 percent of the population supports Romania’s membership of the European Union. And that’s important as more integration is requested in a period when the European Union has to reflect on its future. We are strong European supporters, and equally, strong U.S. supporters. We are America’s strongest ally in terms of security, and in terms of politics.

Diplomatic Connections:  What does Brexit mean for Romania specifically, for example, given the fact that there are more than 400,000 Romanians actually living and working in Britain, many of whom are likely to have to pack their bags?

Ambassador Maior:  We hope not; we have had intensive discussions with the British government – in fact will have another one here soon – and this is an issue which needs an approach in the interest of both sides. These (Romanians) are hard-working people, well integrated in the U.K. We’re working hard to preserve the right of these people to continue to work inside the UK, but apart from both the social and economic aspects there are many other   issues connected to Brexit. It will generate a strategic gap, because of Britain’s trans-Atlantic ties within the European Union, its historical knowledge of the eastern frontier of the European Union, especially Russia. So we have to find a way to compensate for that, and I’m glad that Romania has a similar standing inside the European Union in terms of its trans-Atlantic ties, in terms of its preoccupation about our eastern neighbor, its knowledge about – for example – what Russian influence means to the evolution of European society. It’s a unique experience for us, 30 years after the fall of communism to have this position in Europe, and we want to rise to the challenge – to be an honest broker with a voice of trans-Atlanticism, favoring more integration inside the European Union.

Diplomatic Connections:  Talk a little about Romania’s vision of the European Union going forward. For example, does Romania favor more centralization, or less, or is your position somewhere in the middle?

Ambassador Maior:  We are very constructively somewhere in the middle. Nation states are the basis for such a union, but the need for cohesion, solidarity - in terms of economics, financing and security –  is very important.

Diplomatic Connections:  The Romanian economy, after some years of poor performance, has recently been on a promising trend – 4.8 percent in 2016, and more than five percent in 2017, and yet one of Romania’s problems is a continued exodus of young people seeking employment in other European countries. What is it that prompts them to leave in spite of the fact that there is now employment at home?

Ambassador Maior:  We have the highest percentage of hi-tech engineering graduates in Europe per capita with some exceptionally creative people. However, to be honest, there are still disparities between the eastern part of the European Union – I’m not referring only to Romania - and the western part.  Our hope is to accelerate the process of development in order to close this gap in economy and prosperity. This will likely be achieved in the medium term, and I’m sure that those people who find work abroad will be tempted to return, because they really love their country and, of course, they can always express themselves in their own nation. For example, there are many Romanians in Silicon Valley, and they are constantly telling me that they really want to do something for Romania, and at a certain point return, bringing back their expertise and their knowledge.

Diplomatic Connections:  What are the key factors of Romania’s economy?

Ambassador Maior:  The growth, going back more than five years now, is based on manufacturing, export – tourism is also a factor, but mostly the productive areas, including energy, car manufacturing, which is very dynamic currently.

Diplomatic Connections:  When you say car manufacturing you mean the Romanian automobile, Dacia?

Ambassador Maior:  Yes, Dacia, which has been owned by Renault for some time and has new models; but also Ford has a plant in the south of Romania, one of the largest factories in the country, selling in Central and Eastern Europe and reaching a production of more than 100,000 cars per year. So those dynamics are very good.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the size of bi-lateral trade with the United States?

Ambassador Maior:  It exceeded $3 billion in 2017 and is growing. American investments in Romania include energy. Right now Exxon is operating in the Black Sea region, where they discovered large quantities of gas both on and offshore, and some American companies are operating over there. Hence, I believe this is an area that will develop in quantity and quality in the medium term.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the state of the Romanian oil industry?

Ambassador Maior:  Oil is becoming again a solid industry in Romania. It needs technological investment, but I can say we are less dependent for energy on Russia than any other Eastern European country, and certainly in a good position inside the European Union, which is significant in terms of politics.

Diplomatic Connections:  And what pipelines are now either in operation or planned?

Ambassador Maior:  There is a pipeline project called BRUA linking Central Europe, including Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Austria, with financing from the European Union. It has an economic impact, but also a strategic impact in terms of diversifying the supply routes, and pipelines, and transportation - again with a thought to the Russian (energy) monopoly, which creates problems not only in economic terms, but also in terms of political leverage.

Diplomatic Connections:  There is presently at least one generation of Romanians, possibly two, for whom the communist regime, Nicolae Ceausescu, the Securitate (the notorious Romanian communist secret police), are issues for the history books. How do post-communist generations confront, or cope with the past?

Ambassador Maior:  That’s a very interesting question, and next year we will celebrate – and I insist on the term celebrate – thirty years since the fall of communism. I think Romania is the only country in Eastern Europe that has officially condemned communism in a parliamentary resolution, which was very difficult to achieve because mentalities die hard after almost half a century of communism. The new generation is more inclined towards the Western philosophy of life in its understanding of democracy and market economy. In a way this is a good thing, of course, but also remembering that difficult period of the 1970s and 1980s, we should reflect on our history, and the lessons to be learned from it.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is there a debate in Romania among historians and scholars about what happened and why, or is it universally recognized as a period of great suffering and repression?

Ambassador Maior:  Well, that’s clear. Albeit, there are nuances, and the period still needs to be properly analyzed and discovered, and to take a closer look at the evolution of certain time frames inside the communist system. For example, the end of the 1960s was considered a better period in terms of the economy along with Romania’s standing internationally. Then the 1980s, there were many mistakes in our economic policy and our international standing, and in human rights.  All those have to be debated, and it is always my hope that people will gain a fuller understanding of our past.

Diplomatic Connections:  The collapse of the regime in Romania was more violent than in other communist countries. Ceausescu was the only communist leader who did not die in his bed.

Ambassador Maior:  It was more violent because it was the most repressive towards the end, which generated that counter-reaction of the population. It was a difficult period; it is a vivid memory for me. I was a student then and it was not easy to see even some of my colleagues dying, shot by the repressive forces in street demonstrations.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is there any support for a restoration of the Romanian monarchy, forced out by the communists in 1947?

Ambassador Maior:  King Michael I [Michael von Hohenzollern-Siegmaringen died in Romania in 2017 at the age of 96] was regarded with great sympathy by the Romanian People. Hundreds of thousands of Romanians attended his funeral in a sign of love and respect for his tragic destiny and his role in Romanian history. However, several polls have shown there is no political sentiment regarding (the restoration of) the monarchy, and reinstating it as an institution is not a political option. The Royal Family has lived in Romania following special legislation in 1999, and their properties, which were confiscated by the communist regime, were returned.

Diplomatic Connections:  Going back to security, is Romania now the NATO headquarters for the south east?

Ambassador Maior:  Romania hosts a multi-national divisional headquarters for the south east, and as we are the largest country on the eastern flank, that brings a lot of responsibility. Let’s not forget that Crimea is less than 150 miles from Romanian shores, from Constanta, where there is a U.S. military presence.  Romania allocated more than 2 percent of its GDP for defense before the big discussion in NATO about burden sharing because we feel the need to have a strong military and a strong deterrence, in light of current evolutions in Russia, for example.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is the multi-national brigade in place today?

Ambassador Maior:  The multi-national brigade is part of the NATO tailored forward presence and it will be operational in the coming year: several thousand troops with a multi-national component. For example, Poland sent a company, other battalions are Romanian.

Diplomatic Connections:  But there’s also a U.S. Marine and Army presence, at Constanta.

Ambassador Maior:  At Constanta, but also in southern Romania as part of the common project, the missile defense system. This was initially a Romanian-U.S. project, now it’s integrated with NATO, and that is practically the first U.S. Navy base to be established overseas since the end of the Cold War.

Diplomatic Connections:  Are you referring to the U.S.-European Phased Adaptive Approach Missile Defense?

Ambassador Maior:  That’s the protective system against ballistic missiles threats originating in the wider Middle East, including Iran, but also against other non-state actors that might develop that technology. So it’s a very important dimension attached to the security of the area.

Diplomatic Connections:  So there’s sizable NATO presence in Romania.

Ambassador Maior:  Yes, with interceptors.

Diplomatic Connections:  Including an Alliance air force presence with planes occasionally having to scramble to intercept Russian planes which stray into Romanian air space.

Ambassador Maior:  It’s an intense activity; unfortunately, that happens in the Black Sea area. It’s not good for security, making Romania an essential and vital component in the equation of the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Diplomatic Connections:  How frequent are such incidents?

Ambassador Maior:  More frequent in the past few years, sadly. It’s not happening only in Romania, it’s also in the Balkans, and even Britain had some incidents.

Diplomatic Connections:  Where does the Romanian government stand on the apparent intention of the Trump administration to scrap the intermediate range treaty (INF) with Russia?

Ambassador Maior:  This is something that interests us a great deal. Russia has accused, wrongly, that Aegis Ashore violates the INF Treaty. But Aegis Ashore is not about intermediate range missiles, it is a defensive system, and it’s not oriented against Russia; they know this, of course. Russia, in our view, is not complying with the INF treaty, and new discussions on being in compliance with the INF treaty are a good idea. We need such a strategic treaty for stability.

Diplomatic Connections:  So really, the bottom line is that as concern for Russian activity grows, so does NATO’S response.

Ambassador Maior:  Yes, absolutely, and that’s good. We are strong supporters of more U.S. involvement in NATO, in Central and Eastern Europe because the situation is more problematic here with regard to Russian activity. And not only military, but also hybrid and cyber activities. We need clear responses to this type of aggression.

Diplomatic Connections:  And are you getting clear responses? Is the message from Washington a clear reassuring message, or is it one that leaves you anxious because it’s open to interpretation?

Ambassador Maior:  I would say clear, and supported by facts.

Diplomatic Connections:  The rhetoric is one thing, but the strategy is another?

Ambassador Maior:  Sometimes, yes.

Diplomatic Connections:  How worried are ordinary Romanians about a Russian threat?

Ambassador Maior:  We detected Russian activities a long time ago. I remember in my previous position discussing with my European counterparts the intensification of a (Russian) hybrid approach and Russian use of new technology, and cyber activity inside neighboring states, inside the European Union, to aggressively promote its interests. Although at the time, there was a certain skepticism. As Russian interference developed in the U.S. and in Europe, in elections, I think now it’s very well understood that we are in a constant state of counter-information – I don’t like to use the term warfare – with Russia.

Diplomatic Connections:  At the moment, another area of disagreement between Romania and Brussels is the recent ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that, following 9/11, Romania hosted a CIA prison where an al-Qaida terror suspect was tortured, and indeed Romania and Lithuania were fined by the court.

Ambassador Maior:  We deny any charge of torture. That’s out of the question and there’s no proof in this respect. We had a parliamentary investigation related to those issues some years ago which didn’t find any evidence of this. Now we have a new investigation by the public prosecutor about this. One aspect here is our cooperation in anti-terrorism, and counter-terrorism, which is strong. Such allegations, which I vehemently deny, are another issue.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is there any indication that ISIS foreign fighters include Romanians?

Ambassador Maior:  That’s not a concern for us. We are very efficient in having information on those issues, and we didn’t encounter such a situation.

Diplomatic Connections:  So finally, you’ve been here as a student, and now as an ambassador. How do you find working in the United States as an ambassador?

Ambassador Maior:  It’s the most demanding posting for a diplomat because of the involvement in all matters. You clearly need to understand America’s position on certain issues, so that you can inform your government, and subsequently discuss it with them as well. So it’s fascinating. And most of all I very much like the American culture and society.  Remembering my life as a student with fondness and now, as ambassador, continue to enjoy my life in the United States.

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