CPT Matt Schleupner is a Foreign Area Officer for the U.S. Army specializing in Eurasian Studies, specifically in the Black Sea region. He has extensive time deployed in support of U.S. operations in Asia and Europe. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins SAIS MIPP, class of 2017.
How malign influence, the legal system, and voting are becoming weaponized in Romania
Since the pivotal event of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s execution on Christmas Day 1989, and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union, Romania has established itself as a friend to democratic values and to global security and stability. In less than 30 years, Romania has adjusted its economy to support capital markets, strengthened its institutions enough to gain membership into the European Union, and invested in its security and its internal values enough to gain membership into NATO. These are large achievements for any nation (think about the United States 30 years into its Republic), but Romania is not unique in these achievements within the group of former Soviet Union nations; the Baltic States are NATO and European Union members, for example, and Bulgaria is a NATO and EU member.
What makes Romania unique is its strategic location on the western Black Sea and its continual resistance (both in popular support and government support) against Russian-aligned parties and leaders. Unlike Bulgaria and Moldova, who have elected presidents that can be described as pro-Putin (or in general pro-Russian or sympathetic towards Russia), Romania has gone the opposite way, electing President Klaus Iohannis. President Iohannis has taken the approach of letting the Kremlin know that Romania will not be intimidated by Moscow. This is a bold step in this part of the world, where your neighbors to the north in Moldova and Ukraine both have territories within their borders under occupation with, at least, tacit Russian support (Transnistria and Crimea) and a fellow country on the eastern coast of the Black Sea (Georgia) having seen areas within their own borders spurred to rebellion with different levels of Russian support or involvement (Abkhazia and Ossetia areas).
Romania has benefited for this steadfast pro-West position, seeing increased investment by the United States and western businesses and hosting Trade Winds 2017, the largest annual United States government-led trade mission, connecting United States companies and organizations to business and government leaders in some of the world’s most promising markets. With the combination of their work and external support, Romania posted the highest levels of GDP growth in the European Union in 2016, and recently the World Bank issued a report stating that Romania will beat growth forecasts this year and into the foreseeable future. Additionally, while many countries on the Black Sea and further west into Europe still rely on Russian natural gas, Romania has cut their reliance by over 60%, investing in their own development and export market. Romania has, estimated, the third largest natural gas reserves in the European Union and is now seeking to build upon that for their energy and security independence.
In the security realm, the culture of the government – on all major sides of the political spectrum – has been that Romania should be a fully committed member of NATO and should seek to be able to defend itself from external aggression. Romania has consistently maintained defense expenditures close to the level of 2% GDP, as required for NATO membership. Their rapid growth has actually been of detriment in this realm, as quick economic growth means more must be spent on defense purchases to maintain a 2% level. Romania has purchased F-16 fighter jets and recently signed agreements to purchase Patriot missile defense systems. Additionally, Romania hosts Exercise Noble Jump under the NATO banner, led Exercise SeaShield this year in the Black Sea (the largest naval exercise in NATO during 2018), and is a strong ally with the United States in Afghanistan, continually deploying thousands of soldiers in support of operations in Afghanistan and allowing use of their airfields in the eastern areas of the country. All of this has been to the detriment of Moscow. To understand the Kremlin’s take on Romania, just read the Russian Kremlin-aligned media’s attacks on Romania’s government, designed to discredit and politically isolate it from existing and potential European allies. This is not because of a perceived threat from Romania; rather, using the media to delegitimize the Romanian government and shape Romanian perceptions is a standard method from the Kremlin’s playbook throughout Europe.
Romania faces its own legacy issues concerning pensions, taxes, and spending, though. Additionally, a growing problem has been the weakening of public corruption laws and reworking of voting laws. Romania ranks 59 out of 180 countries public corruption, according to Transparency International, putting it in a category with only Bulgaria within the European Union. Like many countries, from a Western, liberal democratic point of view, corruption is an issue and the rolling back of anti-corruption protections has to be watched and warned against in order to promote an open and transparent society and government for the citizenry.
While Romania is not unique in this regard, recent acts by the ruling party, Partidul Social Democrat (PSD), have demonstrated its clear ambition to change corruption and voting laws to seemingly suit political ends. For example, in 2017 and 2018 alone the PSD proposed changing national laws to make public bribery a lesser offense and raise the limits of what constitutes influence peddling as well as reworking the election laws so that those who have been indicted or convicted of certain felonies can still hold the positions of Prime Minister and cabinet-level appointment. These proposed changes have been met with continual protests across the country and the diaspora, and even warranted statements issued by the U.S. Department of State in December 2017 and again in August 2018, noting “with concern” the moves of the Parliament of Romania was taking in regards to the fight against public corruption. The Department of State was “urging” the Parliament of Romania to reject such proposals. As of August 2018, the public statements of the Americans, along with EU counterparts, have caused the PSD-led government to avoid large-scale changes to public corruption laws, but the situation requires continual watching from the West.
The leader of the PSD party, Liviu Dragnea, has appointed a new Prime Minister recently after several others were rejected by President Iohannis or resigned because they refused orders from Dragnea. Viorica Dăncilă now holds the seat of Prime Minister. Liviu Dragnea would like to be Prime Minister or President but a voting-fraud conviction bars him from holding those offices. These internal political upheavals and the general chaos of government have opened the door to malign influences. These influences, mostly from Russia, have worked hard within the media and political circles to drive a wedge further in between the political parties of Romania – in particular, between President Iohannis and the ruling party of Parliament, PSD. While it is too early to tell if Dăncilă will act as an independent voice in the Parliament, recent moves indicate that she and Dragnea are on the same page when it comes to modifying election and corruption laws. Outside influences, particularly from Russia in the media sphere, seek to undermine public support in the elected government in order to weaken support in its institutions.
Such outside influence is not a new move by Russia. As stated in “The Kremlin Playbook,” one method Russia uses in the field of quasi-warfare is to establish state-backed media organizations within a country and publish stories from a sensationalist point of view, trying to cause or sow seeds of discontent within a country against its government, interrupting the status quo. The growing influence of Russian state-sponsored media in Romania is a point to be watched, as the EU recently noted.
In the shadow of this continual Russian threat, the Western allies of Romania should work with it to develop a strengthened relationship. This is important for several reasons. First, Black Sea countries are seeing increased land disputes and minority population issues within their borders. In this strategic area of the world, it is important for peace and quality relationships to be maintained for financial and military access. Second, if Romania were left without support against Russian influence operations, it would be a large blow to the Western argument that NATO and EU systems support transparent, liberal democracy. Other striving countries in the neighborhood, such as Macedonia or Kosovo, are constantly assessing the validity of the argument that NATO and EU accession makes their governments stronger and less unstable. If the West does nothing to inhibit Russian meddling in and destabilization of a NATO and EU government, it would hinder further enlargement. This location on the Black Sea is a critical figurative beachhead in blunting Russian interference in political systems in order to send a strong message that Western allies stand with their Eastern partners.
The United States has every reason to act. It should strengthen its relationship with Romania, increasing support and engagement on both economic and security issues. Closer relations with Romania would not only benefit Romania and other European partners; it would also advance the United States National Security Strategy, in particular contributing to Pillars III and IV, to preserve peace through strength and advance American influence. Moreover, it would require only limited American financial expenditure and military engagement. By working with the United States business community, defense industry, and allies, through public and private support, the United States can help Romania flourish despite Russian interference and antagonism.
On the eastern front of NATO and Europe, Romania remains the United States’ strongest ally in the Black Sea region. By further inspiring all partners in the area, but particularly Romania, through economic investment and opportunity, the United States will maintain its strong foothold in the Black Sea region. While Romania and the Romanian people have a long history of spurning the advances of Russian influence in their proud culture, without American economic, diplomatic, and military leadership we have seen that leaders in this area of the world can falter.
Additionally, Romania can seek to do even more by recognizing the gravity of Russian influence within its institutions and taking pragmatic steps to develop a counter-strategy. The region can learn lessons from the annexation of Crimea. While the annexation of Crimea was a wake-up call to Romania and many other former Soviet sphere countries, to strengthen their national defense, political leaders must recognize that malign influences seek to exploit differences in political ideology or ethnic backgrounds to weaken political institutions. While challenging, for the betterment of their country, perhaps these differences should be tampered until those institutions are strengthened. This is particularly true of Romania’s political parties, who at times seek short-term political advantages in scoring points over the political opposition, instead of working to assure citizens that the institutions of government are sound and stable through public statements and the introduction of legislative reform to reduce corruption and increase transparency.
The integration of Romania into NATO and the EU shows Romania is moving in the direction of Western values, integrated economically with the EU and with NATO in the field of defense. For sake of its continued prosperity and independence, it should seek to further disentangle itself from Russian influence within the industrial and business fields, where Russia seeks political influence at high levels of governance, such as supplying one-third of all natural gas to Romania and having large stakes in the Romanian financial industry. If Romania continues to move in this course, then the United States should seek to continue to support their cause, so that liberal democratic nations continue to grow and flourish in the former Soviet bloc.
Committed partnership will be beneficial to the United States, its NATO partners and allies, and most importantly, to the Romanian people. Romanian history and current politics have opened this door to mutually beneficial cooperation; let it remain open for generations to come.
 Adriana Girneata and Monica Nedelcu, “Competitiveness Analysis Of the Romanian Economy”, 8th LUMEN International Scientific Conference Rethinking Social Action: Core Values in Practice, December 2017, https://doi.org/10.18662/lumproc.rsacvp2017.30.
 Ana Maria Luca, “Romania’s Relations With Russia Remain Study in Complexity”, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/romania-s-relations-with-russia-remain-study-in-complexity-05-24-2018.
 Boryana Dzhambazova, Kit Gillet and Rick Lyman, “Pro-Russia Candidate Appears Likely to Win Bulgarian Presidency”, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/14/world/europe/pro-russia-candidate-appears-likely-to-win-bulgarian-presidency.html.
 Deutsche Welle, “President Igor Dodon: Moldova needs a ‘patriot’ like Putin”, https://www.dw.com/en/president-igor-dodon-moldova-needs-a-patriot-like-putin/a-42745175.
 Carmen Paun, “Romania’s president: Russia cannot intimidate us”, https://www.politico.eu/article/romanias-president-klaus-iohannis-russia-cannot-intimidate-us-vladimir-putin-united-states-missile-defense-shield/.
 European Commission, “Summer 2018 Economic Forecast – Romania”, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/economyfinance/ecfin_forecast_summer_12_07_18_ro_en.pdf.
 Kremlin Watch Team, “Kremlin Influence in Visegrad Countries and Romania”, Wilfried Martin Centre, October 2017, http://www.europeanvalues.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Kremlin-Influence-in-Visegrad-Countries-and-Romania.pdf.
 Romania Insider, “Romania’s ruling party comes up with new changes to anti-corruption laws”, December 2017, https://www.romania-insider.com/romania-changes-anti-corruption-laws/.
 Deutsche Welle, “In Romania thousands rally against proposal to water down corruption laws”, November 2017, https://www.dw.com/en/in-romania-thousands-rally-against-proposal-to-water-down-corruption-laws/a-41539714.
 Associated Press, “US urges Romania to carry on the anti-graft fight”, August 2018, https://apnews.com/a872f4d350a5495f925ff3f8ad909167.
 SeeNews, “Seven EU member states urge Romania to persist in anti-graft fight”, December 2017, https://seenews.com/news/seven-eu-member-states-urge-romania-to-persist-in-anti-graft-fight-595650#sthash.L1TZp8Pk.dpuf.
 Lisa Sawyer Samp, “Attempted Coup in Montenegro and Malign Russian Influence in Europe”, United States Senate Armed Services Committee, July 2017, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/download/samp_07-13-17.
 Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe”, Rowman & Littlefield, October 2016, https://www.csis.org/analysis/kremlin-playbook.
 See the speech by George Maior, Ambassador of Romania to the United States, quoted in Paul McLeary, “With Demands for More NATO Spending, Romania Steps Up”, Foreign Policy, May 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/03/with-demands-for-more-nato-spending-romania-steps-up/.
 The White House, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America”, December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.
 See the UNESCO report on empowering developing nations through use of public/private partnerships: UNESCO, “Empowering the private sector to drive economic growth in low-income countries”, April 2016, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/member-states/single-view/news/empowering_the_private_sector_to_drive_economic_growth_in_lo/.
 Steven Pifer, “Ukraine four years after the Maidan”, February 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/02/22/ukraine-four-years-after-the-maidan/.