Vladimir Mitev: Romania’s rotating government formula has brought stability

Romania has a negative historical baggage in its relations with Ukraine, but in the autumn of 2023 it announced a strategic partnership with Kiev, a sign that geopolitical and economic interests are more important than those that cause discontent among Romanian sovereignists

Lyudmila Zhelezova, BNR

On January 8, 2024, during the program “Something More” on Bulgarian National Radio’s news and analysis program “Horizon”, host Lyudmila Zhelezova interviewed Vladimir Mitev from the Romanian section of Radio Bulgaria on current Romanian domestic and foreign policy issues. The conversation focused on the reasons for the rotating government formula in Bucharest and the results of its existence, the political and civil reactions to the partial Schengen accession agreement, the expectations for the role of Romanian sovereignism in 2024, the current state of Romanian-Ukrainian and Romanian-Moldovan relations, and the forecast for Romania’s economic development this year.

One of the challenges facing Bulgarian politics in 2024 is the upcoming rotation of power in March. The Denkov cabinet is then expected to resign and the post of prime minister will be taken over by the current deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Mariya Gabriel. A similar power shift took place last year in Romania, where the two largest parties made the move to avoid a deepening political crisis in the country. How exactly did this rotation happen? What were the political benefits, what was the public assessment? That’s why we will discuss with my colleague Vladimir Mitev from the Romanian section of Radio Bulgaria.

Good afternoon!

How did the rotation between the two largest parties happen in practice and what is the assessment of citizens and politicians about this model?

This governmental formula was established with the help of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, at a time when the disputes over resources in the previous government, which was between the National Liberal Party, the Save Romania Union and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania, got so bad that they could no longer share power.

In the end, there are differing opinions about what has been achieved. It depends on who you ask in political and citizen circles. But I think everyone agrees that it gave stability to the country, which may have mattered at times when the COVID-19 crisis had not yet passed. Maybe it was also important when the war in Ukraine started. This stability has different faces. Of course, it can also be seen in a negative light. But thanks to this formula, politics has become more predictable, resources are allocated ‘to whom they should’, and the specific thing is that these two parties are the largest and most influential. They somehow occupy all the space and a kind of hegemony of these two parties is achieved for the time being. Before, they were competing and challenging each other’s positions. Now they are together.

What changes in Romanian politics and Romanian society are associated with this joint rotating leadership, as you said, of the two largest parties in Romania?

I will try to give a good and a negative example of these changes.

It is important, when the recovery and resilience plan has been adopted, to have a government that is able to accept and tick the points in the plan, to receive the appropriate funds, because these funds lead to the development of the country. And Romania, like other countries in the European Union, is pulling ahead thanks to the income from European funds. This is something that is positive. After all, the government in Bucharest has already received two parts – if I am not mistaken, EUR 9 billion out of the total of EUR 29 billion in this plan. I mean, there is an entity that makes decisions, adopts laws and so on.

On the other hand, however, one negative thing, which I think must also be said, is that a practice has been established in Romania, where parties receive large party subsidies. This money goes directly into buying media influence or, rather, into obtaining media silence. There have been many investigations, many publications, that the biggest TV stations in Romania receive huge amounts of money from the parties, with the result that if any criticism and corruption of the government is noticed, it appears in some of the more niche media. They are not bad media. It’s really good media, it’s just that the mainstream media, the most popular media, is not as critical of the government, and that makes it hard to change things.

This formula has led to a media silence. Let’s hope that won’t happen here. Now, before we move on to 2024, let me ask you how Romania reacted, how Romanians reacted to the phased entry into Schengen? What were the comments there?

Again, I will try to give a political comment and a citizen comment. Of course, the government boasts that a great success has been achieved, but I was impressed by Dacian Ciolos’ position. Perhaps our listeners know that he is quite an influential figure. He has been a eurocommissioner, he has been Prime Minister of Romania. He is associated with the Macronist current in European and Romanian politics. He pointed out that, with this agreement, Romania basically accepts that any country in the future can set any conditions for Romania’s accession to Schengen on land. Even a possible lawsuit at the European Court of Justice – such as the one currently being conducted by an NGO to change these decisions towards Schengen, according to Ciolos, cannot succeed, because Romania has already accepted the redefinition of the conditions. This is at the political level. 

At the citizen level, there are all sorts of funny, ironic comments. There have been memes about getting into Schengen on a plane. For example, there was a picture of a helicopter carrying a jeep through the air and entering Schengen that way. There have been all kinds of jokes and ironic comments in the last few days.

This year, all possible elections will take place in Romania – European, local, parliamentary, presidential. What is the intrigue of these elections?

I think the thing that everyone will be watching – some perhaps with excitement, others with alarm – is the strengthening of so-called Romanian sovereignty. It is a concept perhaps less known in our country. It is about nationalism, but in a European context. That is, sovereignists are more anti-European Commission, against the rights of the LGBT community. But I think this is not the standard kind of nationalism that existed before the EU accession. It remains to be seen to what extent they will amplify their influence and what changes will occur.

There are many opinions that the rest of the political establishment will unite against these parties in this current. There are also fears that perhaps the Social Democratic Party could somehow turn around and ally with it, especially if Trump or a Republican with more vehement views becomes president. And then, somehow, across Europe we will probably have a return to sovereignism.

How far do you think the rise of Romanian sovereignism could go?

We have seen for some time that public support for it is somewhere between 25% and 28%. We have seen this in various polls for months. Clearly, at this stage, this is its influence. I don’t know what it would be like if the Republicans actually got even stronger in the US.

But I still believe that Romania has a middle class. There are people very connected to Western European investment, Western European money, there are elites connected to Euro-Atlantic structures. So somehow this turn towards sovereignism would not be so drastic. At least that’s how it seems to me at the moment – that there wouldn’t be too dramatic a departure from the West European line, because there simply isn’t the economic dynamic to support such a shift. There is a lot of Western European investment in Romania. If sovereignism wants to have an economic base, investment and economic dynamism for it has to come from elsewhere.

Nationalists have an anti-Ukrainian message. Although you said, the Euro-Atlantic elites support the Kiev government. What is Romania’s attitude towards Ukraine?

I think it is similar to Bulgaria. For example, there is a willingness to participate in the reconstruction of Ukraine. I mean, there is an economic interest in supporting Ukraine. There is also a geopolitical interest in keeping Russia away from Romania’s borders. And this interest still seems to me to be the dominant one, although it is more complicated.

It’s just that, historically, Romania has had a more complicated relationship with Ukraine. There have been disputes from the 1990s to the present – all kinds of disputes – territorial and related to the Romanian minority. But we can see that, since last autumn, a strategic partnership has been reached between the two countries. It was also related to the fact that the language that Ukraine considered Moldovan started to be called Romanian by Ukraine. I mean, I suppose that gradually, perhaps with American support, some obstacles in these bilateral relations are being removed.

And, indeed, there is a feeling that some people in the elites in Romania have a more nuanced position towards Ukraine. There have been scandals involving influential intellectuals or politicians that have suggested that there is a more distinct position. Perhaps Romania sees Ukraine somewhat as a competitor in the region for Euro-Atlantic attention. And perhaps the balances in the world are such that you cannot play with one international power. And perhaps there is also a desire in Romania for strategic ambiguity in certain respects. But, as I said, I have the impression that the Euro-Atlantic trend is predominant.

The former Romanian Finance Minister, Anca Dragu, has been approved by the Moldovan Parliament as Governor of the Central Bank of the Republic of Moldova. Now you will tell us about the extent of Romanian-Moldovan cooperation in recent years.

They are very large. Hundreds of thousands of Moldovans have become Romanian citizens. Even the President of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu, and the head of the secret service, Musteață, are Romanian citizens. We have a case where the largest Romanian bank with Romanian capital, Banca Transilvania, has also bought one of the largest banks in the Republic of Moldova. In other words, there is economic cooperation. Romania also helped the Republic of Moldova to survive the war in Ukraine, when there were problems with gas and electricity supplies.

However, it must be said that Moldova has various partnerships – not only with Romania. For example, it has quite good relations with Poland, with Western European countries. In fact, Romania participates in the Moldova Platform, whereby Germany, France and Romania financially support certain reforms in Moldova and support the country in general. From my point of view, in spite of the close cooperation with our Romanian brothers, the Republic of Moldova also has its own state line. Simply because there are different partnerships and different influences and they balance each other somehow.

The last question is what do you expect 2024 to be like for Romania. As far as I know, Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu said that it will be the year with the highest economic growth.

There really is such a thing. I have already looked at the budget figures for this year and, if I am not mistaken, they expect a 3.4% increase in GDP. When I travel to Romania, I am particularly impressed by the fact that it is very calm. There you have a feeling of security, which I, at least in Sofia or Ruse, feel less. So I expect that in Romania people will continue to live and assert themselves as much as possible. And Romania has many social problems. Beyond the big cities there is poverty. There is emigration. So I expect to see more of the development that already exists. But what qualitatively and structurally stands as problems will continue as well.

If we go back to the beginning of the conversation and summarize, you tell us that this rotation has brought stability to Romania.

Yes.

Thank you very much. In the commentary and analysis programme, we spoke to journalist Vladimir Mitev from the Romanian section of Radio Bulgaria.

Photo: Romania’s two rotating prime ministers – Nicolae Ciuca (right) from the National Liberal Party and Marcel Ciolacu from the Social Democratic Party (source: YouTube)

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