Radu Sigheti / Reuters

A change Romania can believe in

Klaus Iohannis’ election stirs hope for deeper European integration

December 8, 2014 11:30AM ET

Romania’s path to democracy has been profoundly troubled since the spectacular Christmas revolution of 1989, which overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. The country’s recovery from the trauma of communism has been halting, bogged down by graft and self-serving elites. This is why the election as president last month of Klaus Iohannis, who made his name fighting corruption as a small-city mayor, is a magnificent present for the country on the revolution’s 25th anniversary.

If Iohannis lives up to his potential, Romania could well be the next Central European success story. This would have been impossible to imagine were Romania not firmly embedded in Western Europe’s structures. Romanians don’t have to look far to their east to see the fates of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova — all in limbo between East and West, unstable, poverty-stricken and easy prey for Russian President Vladimir Putin. This could have been Romania’s story too, had it not entered the EU in 2007. (At the time, many observers criticized the EU for allowing Romania to join the union, given the country’s entrenched rule-of-law deficiencies.)

Iohannis, 55, is an unlikely leader for Romania for several reasons. First, he’s an ethnic German Protestant from Transylvania, a historic region stretching from central Romania to the Hungarian border where Iohannis’ forefathers made their home some 850 years ago. (Romanian is his first language, although his antiquated German is serviceable.) After the revolution, almost all of Romania’s 800,000 ethnic Germans saw better prospects in Germany, leaving behind only about 36,000 Romanian Germans, including Iohannis. His parents and two sisters moved to Germany, but Iohannis stayed on to help change his troubled country.

Second, Romanians have never voted a non–ethnic Romanian into the highest office before. During the campaign, Iohannis’ rival candidate, the current Prime Minster Victor Ponta, tried to use the ethnic card, regularly referring to “true Romanians” and flaunting his support from the Romanian Orthodox Church, a bastion of conservatism and a powerful player in Romanian politics. A non–ethnic Romanian becoming president in Romania was as unthinkable as an African-American becoming the president of the United States before seven years ago.

Last, as with other authoritarian leaders in the region (for example, Hungary’s Victor Orban), Ponta built up a vast network of clients loyal to his party, the Social Democratic Party, which has been in power for most of the postcommunist era. German political scientist Florian Bieber calls this phenomenon the “authoritarian temptation.” In countries across southeastern Europe, Bieber argues, the vestiges of democracy such as periodic elections and multiparty systems exist, but corrupt, populist governments and their parties control the state and media through patronage.

In other words, Ponta had everything going for him. But ordinary Romanians voted to do away with business as usual. Romanians were so fed up with the status quo and nationalist crowing that they turned out in numbers more than double those of the 2009 election (a 62 percent voter turnout, the highest since 1996) to elect Iohannis.

The EU and Germany would do well to help Iohannis enact the reforms that Romanians voted for.

Iohannis’ election bodes well for Romania. For one, it is a sign of waning fervent nationalism, which has colored Romanian politics since 1989 and led to troubling relations not only with Roma, gays and lesbians and other minorities but also sporadically with Romania’s neighbors Hungary and Moldova. This Romania-first chauvinism dates back to the interwar years, when a young Romanian state, twice as large as its pre–World War I incarnation, wrestled with its new territories and ethnically diverse population.

Similarly, under Ceausescu, Romania leaned heavily on nationalism to shore up its legitimacy. Ceausescu’s communism was bombastic, outstripping that of every other communist country (save, perhaps, Albania). It set ethnic Romanians against minorities, including 1.6 million ethnic Hungarians, roughly 2 million Roma, ethnic Germans and other groups. This authoritarian chauvinism was amplified in the 1990s and 2000s, sometimes reaching fever pitch, courtesy of populist rabble-rousers.

In a nation beset by persistent cronyism, Iohannis’ foremost selling point has been his anti-corruption credentials. Romania’s graft was so rampant that in 2007 the EU had to relax its accession criteria to let Bucharest into the union. The idea was to have Romania (and Bulgaria) join — and then enact economic and political reforms within EU structures. But the EU had little leverage to make Bucharest comply with its norms. Romania experts such as Tom Gallagher argued that the EU had been suckered by Ceausescu’s heirs and in the process severely compromised its principles.

Meanwhile, as mayor of Sibiu in central Romania for the last 14 years, Iohannis stamped out corruption, turning the historic town into a magnet for business and tourism and a thriving example of what good governance can do for Romania. Sibiu attracted private investment as well as EU funds to repair its infrastructure.

During the campaign, Iohannis challenged Ponta to reject a draft law on amnesty and pardons, which many observers said would set back the work of Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate. The agency in recent years prosecuted several former Romanian politicians, including a former prime minister, for corruption. Iohannis also took aim at the immunity of Romanian MPs, calling for their investigation and prosecution while in office. His clear anti-graft stances resonated with voters.

Romania’s future

Iohannis wants to bring Romania’s democracy up to scratch with other standouts in Central Europe. He is pledging to relax centralization — one of many hangovers from the communist past — by granting regions such as Transylvania more autonomy. He is calling for fully reforming the judiciary, education and health sectors. To be sure, Iohannis is not a lawmaker and will have to work closely with Ponta’s government, at least until the next elections in 2016.

He has much catching up to do. Jobs must be created so that Romanians need not go abroad to work, as millions have since the early 1990s. The rights and welfare of the Roma are one of the toughest nuts they have to crack. And Romanians must come to grips with the less savory elements of their past, including the country’s persecution of Jews and other minorities during World War II, and end the lionization of historic nationalists, including Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime leader and an unabashed anti-Semite. 

Romania and its neighbors on the EU’s eastern fringe are now at the front line of the new East-West conflict, bordering countries burdened with frozen conflicts and even civil war. It is important that Romania and the others project a face worthy of the EU to countries such as Moldova, which could gravitate to the EU or easily fall into Putin’s lap. It’s even more important that these nations not succumb to authoritarian temptation, as Hungary did, furthering complicating the turmoil in Eastern Europe. Nor should they go overboard in exaggerating the threat of Putin’s Russia, as others do.

One thing is certain: 25 years after the Christmas revolution, Romania has taken a promising step in the right direction. The EU and Germany would do well to help Iohannis enact the reforms that Romanians voted for. Iohannis cannot work miracles, but he is well positioned to bring Romania into the European fold in more than just name.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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