When you tell a European that you are from Armenia, you often get a clarifying question, “Romania?” The names of Armenia and Romania certainly sound similar. There is also some similarity in the histories of Armenia and Romania: both were under Byzantine and Ottoman rule, both served as battlefields in the Turkish-Russian wars, both were divided between the Russian and Ottoman empires, and ended up under Soviet control. Both are undergoing post-communist democratization.
The shared historical heritage is reflected in many cultural and political similarities between Armenia and Romania. A new member of the EU, Romania spent a decade implementing reforms. Armenia is embarking upon a similar journey, which makes Romania’s experience a valuable source of information and inspiration.
The political transformation of Romania was far from smooth. Soviet military forces only withdrew from Romania in 1958. Forty years later, the communist regime in Romania was so strong and consolidated that, in contrast to the velvet revolutions and soft transition of power in other Eastern European countries, the Romanian revolution was brutal. It took place in 1989 and as a result, the National Salvation Front (NSF) came to power in Romania. The NSF leadership consisted of politicians with communist backgrounds, which means that the level of reproduction of the political elite was high. Several months after the revolution, protests started against the new elite in Bucharest, leading to civil clashes between the supporters of the incumbent authorities and the opposition. The NSF served as a base for the establishment of the two most powerful parties: the Social Democratic Party (led by Ion Iliescu) and the Democratic Party. Similarly to Armenia, patronage and clientelism became typical characteristics of Romanian politics. Another point of similarity between the two countries stems from the fact that the modernization of the Romanian society was not completed: its society remained patrimonial, with social networks controlling access to goods and services. The bureaucratic institutions were weak and there were gaps between norms and reality.
In some ways similarly to Armenia, in the early 1990, not only the domestic, but also the external political situation of Romania was complicated. Romania was surrounded by conflicts. On one hand, the collapse of Yugoslavia created instability and military conflicts in the Balkans; on the other hand, the collapse of Soviet Union led to ethno-political conflict in Moldova. Romania did not have much strategic choice in its foreign policy and was in need of a military and political umbrella. The situation changed in 1995 when Romania started accession talks with the NATO and the EU. This was also a move towards Westernization, a natural strategic choice for Romania taking into account its geographical location. In this sense, Armenia is different, since its geographical situation precludes a straightforward pro-Western orientation, or indeed any other.
Another difference is that, unlike Armenia, Romania does not face real military threats. It joined the NATO in 2004 and currently there are more than 1000 U.S. soldiers in Romania, mostly stationed in the seaport in Constanta. The security of this port was strengthened following the Crimean crisis, since it is the closest port to Sevastopol. As a NATO member state, Romania currently needs to spend 2% of its GDP on defense. In order to build up its military capacity, the government of Romania plans to buy F-16 air jets and Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems. However, it does not need to prepare for a full-scale war.
An important point for Armenia to observe, Romania’s reform process and accession to the EU were challenging. It was planned for 2004, but Romania was only able to meet all the conditions for EU accession, including legal reform, by 2007. As a new member state, Romania received support from the EU for institutional reforms. This support was not only financial, but also structural and professional, and a number of institutions were reformed. However, EU membership didn’t solve all the problems which the country faced. Following admission to the EU, backtrack started, the level of corruption and clientelism did not decrease despite reforms made in a number of areas including the judiciary. This is a good lesson for Armenia, showing that fighting corruption is a complicated, systemic and long-term endeavor.
Like Armenia, Romania has faced the challenge of population loss. Economic instability contributed to the high emigration of Romania’s workforce. As a result of accession to the EU, many Romanians went to richer Western European countries, especially representatives of ethnic minorities, mostly Germans. At the same time, accession to EU was beneficial for the Romanian economy. In the 1990s, the heavy industry inherited from the Communist era was restructured, 75% of Romania’s economy was privatized, leading to economic instability and unfair redistribution of property but starting in mid-2000s, the economy started to grow. When Romania got its independence, its per capita GDP was equal to those of Moldova and Ukraine; currently it is five times higher. Romania is the second largest country in the Eastern Europe and with its geographical location, natural resources historical, heritage and creative inhabitants it has a chance to become the leader in the Black Sea Region.
In terms of handling interethnic relations, Romania is also an excellent example. It is a multiethnic country with 19 nationalities living within its borders. The biggest ethnic minority is Hungarian, almost 6%, followed by Roma minority, accounting for almost 3% of the population. Ethnic Hungarians comprise the majority In two of Romaina’s 41 counties, Harghita and Covasna. In the aftermath of the 1989 revolution, tensions between Hungarians and Romanians emerged in Transylvania, a region that had been part of Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when it was defeated and divided. Clashes between ethnic Romanians and Hungarians occurred in the Transylvanian town of Târgu Mureș, leaving 5 dead and hundreds of injured; fortunately, the conflict didn’t escalate. Following the 1989 revolution, the Romanian Hungarians established their own political party: the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR). DAHR joined the ruling coalition In 1996 and until 2014, it was either in coalition or supported those in power.
Romania has taken special measures to avoid discrimination on ethnic grounds and ensure political and cultural participation of its ethnic minorities. In Romania, it is now possible to study in Hungarian or German from kindergarten to university. Seventeen representatives of national minorities hold seats in the Romanian parliament; they form a separate faction led by an ethnic Armenian. The current president of the country, Klaus Iohannis, is an ethnic German.
Author – Gor Petrosyan
Caucasus Institute fellow
The post was written within the framework of the Transition Experience Exchange between Romania and Armenia program, implemented by the Caucasus Institute. The program is a joint initiative of the Caucasus Institute (Armenia) and Expert Forum (EFOR, Romania) supported by the Black Sea Trust, a Project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the Black Sea Trust or its partners.