Cablegate: Romania's New President: Former Sailer Pilots Ship of State
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 BUCHAREST 003442
STATE FOR EUR/NCE - WILLIAM SILKWORTH
STATE ALSO FOR INR/B
E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/15/2014
TAGS: PGOV PREL KDEM SOCI RO
SUBJECT: ROMANIA'S NEW PRESIDENT: FORMER SAILER PILOTS SHIP OF STATE
REF: A. A) BUCHAREST 3421
B. B) BUCHAREST 3415 C. C) BUCHAREST 3318 D. D) BUCHAREST 3092 E. E) BUCHAREST 2956 F. F) BUCHAREST 2748 G. G) BUCHAREST 2226 H. H) BUCHAREST 1730
Classified By: POLITICAL SECTION CHIEF ROBERT GILCHRIST FOR REASONS 1.4 B AND D
1. (C) Summary. Romania's President-elect, National Liberal Party-Democratic Party (PNL-PD) alliance co-leader Traian Basescu, is a skilled political campaigner and popular politician, renowned for his tenacity, but also for his approachability and straightforward style. Basescu is a long-standing domestic political figure, serving as Transportation Minister in the 1990's and Bucharest Mayor from 2000 until his presidential victory over Social Democratic Party (PSD) candidate and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. Basescu characterizes himself as a strong ally of the U.S. and a vocal advocate for strengthening transatlantic relations. He strongly supports Romania's EU integration and is known for his tough stance on corruption and drive for economic reform and modernization. Sometimes criticized for poor managerial skills in Bucharest City Hall, Basescu now faces the challenge of building a governing coalition and constructing a successful governing team. End Summary.
The Happy Warrior
2. (C) Bucharest's Mayor and President-elect Traian Basescu, the surprise winner in the December 12 runoff presidential election, is little known outside of Romania, as his entire political career has focused on internal politics until now. Within Romania, however, he is renowned as a consummate political wrangler and a longstanding thorn in the side of the center-left Social Democratic Party (PSD), which governedRomania from 2000 until Basescu's upset victory over PSD Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. A native of the seaport city of Constanta, the 53 year-old Basescu will now take on the role of Chief of State from outgoing President and PSD leader Ion Iliescu later this month. His next task is formal designation of a Prime Minister and formation of a government but at the time of this writing, Social Democratic leadership is still arguing that they have the prerogative to form a PSD-centered government based on the majority status of their newly forged parliamentary alliances. (Comment: We may have a Constitutional crisis brewing, but our reading of the Constitutional Article clearly gives a free hand to Basescu to attempt to form a government. End comment)
From Sailor to Alliance Leader
3. (C) Basescu was thrust into the national spotlight in October 2004 following the surprise withdrawal from the presidential race of PNL-PD candidate and Liberal Party president Teodor Stolojan for undisclosed health reasons. However, Basescu is no newcomer to Romanian politics and has been a major player on the Romanian political scene since the early 1990's. Prior to the end of communist rule, Basescu was in the merchant marines, finishing as an oil tanker captain before moving on to become a high-ranking civil servant in Romania's Transport Ministry. Basescu served as Transportation Minister from 1991-92 and 1996-2000. He was elected to parliament as a Democratic Party (PD) deputy from 1992 to 1996. He followed his first election as Mayor of Bucharest in 2000 with another victory in June 2004, handily defeating PSD candidate FM Mircea Geoana and quickly becoming the PD's most popular politician. Indeed, Basescu was arguably the "star" of the PNL-PD local election campaign; his easy win in Bucharest over the popular FM helped energize the PNL-PD Alliance for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
4. (C) Basescu was elected PD president in 2001 after an intense and sometimes acrimonious struggle for control of the party, leading to the defection of some former PD stalwarts. In September 2003, the nominally center-left PD entered into a formal alliance with the center-right National Liberal Party (PNL), elevating Basescu to co-president of the alliance. As alliance co-president, Basescu worked closely with PNL President Teodor Stolojan to forge a unified campaign and strong opposition challenger to the ruling PSD and its well-developed party machine in local and national elections.
Promoting the Transatlantic Alliance
5. (C) Basescu publicly and privately advocates a strong strategic alliance with the United States. During the final televised presidential debate on December 8, Basescu highlighted the importance of the "Bucharest-Washington-London" alliance. At the same time, Basescu insists that EU accession is Romania's number one foreign policy objective - a view shared by political leaders across the spectrum. During the presidential campaign, however, Basescu hammered his opponent for making concessions to EU negotiators without first laying the necessary groundwork domestically. In the course of his December 13 victory speech, Basescu stressed that political leaders must "explain the costs" of EU accession to the population.
6. (C) Basescu, a fluent English speaker, has long been a candid and reliable interlocutor with the Embassy. Indeed, one of his two daughters attended an American university, and Basescu has complained that Romania's rigid academic hierarchy is hesitant to recognize a U.S. diploma in some instances. Basescu's generally pro-American stance, however, did not prevent him from criticizing during the campaign a sole source highway construction contract awarded by the PSD government to Bechtel Corporation. (Note: Basescu also slammed the PSD government for awarding contracts to European companies under less than transparent circumstances. End Note.) In the past, Basescu has voiced reservations about the 2003 U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq. Subsequently, he has privately and publicly expressed his solid support for continued Romanian troop contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan - even advocating a potential increase, provided Romania has the capacity to do so.
Rolling Up the Shirt Sleeves
7. (C) Even Basescu's fiercest opponents acknowledge that he is a brilliant debater. He punctuates his blunt speaking style with wry humor and a candid admission of his own weaknesses. Indeed, during the last presidential debate, he bemoaned the fact that Romania's two presidential contenders were both ex-communists. One political observer who had been with Basescu on the hustings in rural Romania during the campaign described audiences breaking into tears as Basescu eloquently described the disastrous impact of corruption and inefficient bureaucracy on the lives of ordinary citizens. Earlier, after his city administration came under attack for lagging road repairs, Basescu occasionally doffed his sport coat and pitched in with one of the repaving crews working in the evening under artificial light. It was great politics and endeared him to the citizens of Bucharest.
8. (C) Basescu is famed for his approachable style. As one Romanian remarked to Poloff, he is not intimidating and "anyone can talk to him." His favored public attire is an open collar polo shirt. When forced by official business to don a tie, his cravat is invariably slightly askew, with top button often undone. During the June mayoral race, the shirt-sleeved Basescu mocked his opponent, FM Mircea Geoana, who campaigned at factories and subway stops in tailored, Italian suits. Basescu's informal, straightforward manner starkly contrasted with PM Nastase's button down reserve during the presidential campaign. Indeed, during the debate Basescu consistently referred to his opponent by his first name and by using the informal form for "you." Those who know Basescu insist that his public demeanor accurately reflects his personal style. In a meeting with the Ambassador, his chief of staff remarked that he was a wonderful person to work for and that what you see is what you get. In stark contrast to many of Romania's political elite, whose lavish lifestyle occasionally is featured on tabloid front pages, Basescu has a reputation for dwelling with his wife in a relatively modest home decorated with model ships he has assembled.
Foot in Mouth Disease
9. (C) Nonetheless, Basescu's informal demeanor and shoot from the hip style - which can blend irony and pathos in a few sentences - has occasionally been his Achilles heel. During the campaign he caught flack from the powerful Christian Orthodox hierarchy for his statement that one in five Romanians is homosexual and for his reported endorsement of gay marriage. In classic Basescu style, however, he bluntly admitted that he had "made an error." During the presidential campaign, his opponents attempted to portray him as "unpresidential" - perhaps a competent mayor but, at heart, a former merchant marine lacking the "gravitas" to steer Romania through the shoals of EU accession.
Sharing the Reins of Power?
10. (C) Some former colleagues of Basescu bitterly complain that his management style is non-consultative and frequently disregards the concerns of colleagues. Indeed, one of the most pointed questions leveled at him during the debate inquired whether he was capable of working with a team. Basescu insisted that he is a "team player," but politicians who have worked with him insist that he is a poor manager. Political insiders caution that Basescu will need finely honed diplomatic skills to build a cohesive and consistent PNL-PD led government.
11.(C) During the presidential campaign, Basescu identified eliminating rampant corruption as a national security priority. His tough talking stance on corruption resonated with many voters who, despite Romania's impressive macroeconomic growth, continue to live in straitened circumstance fifteen years after the end of communist rule. The Nastase campaign's promises to continue fighting corruption were small beer compared to Basescu's insistence that many PSD leaders were directly or indirectly benefiting from a culture of corruption and that state institutions, including the judiciary, must be insulated from political influence.
12. (C) Basescu himself, however, remains dogged by a National Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (PNA) investigation launched in the summer of 2004 into his alleged profiteering from the sale of Romanian merchant marine ships during his tenure as Transport Minister in the 1990's (Ref G). He has vigorously denied these charges, claiming that they are politically motivated. Similar charges in 1996 were dropped due to lack of evidence, following Basescu's agreement to give up his parliamentary immunity to be investigated. This gesture clearly boosted his popularity, marking him in stark contrast to other MP's that allegedly hid their misdeeds under the cloak of parliamentary immunity.
Many Romanians saw the case simply as an attempt by the PSD to tar Basescu with corruption charges. He did not appear to have financially benefited from the fleet sale and any misdoings on his part appear to have been procedural, if that. Constitutional lawyers now say that, with his election to the presidency, the "Fleet File" charges against Basescu will be suspended, as a sitting Romanian president can only be prosecuted for crimes of "high treason."
13. (C) Since the mid-1990's, Basescu has been a stalwart advocate for economic reform, including transparent privatization of state-run enterprises, fiscal reform, and economic modernization to attract foreign investment. During the presidential contest, Basescu reached out to the domestic and international business community, holding forums with leading business groups and pledging to institute market-oriented reforms. Liberal economic reform - including major changes to the tax code - remained a central component of PNL-PD's campaign platform. Political analysts are now watching to see if he will succeed in putting together a government capable of implementing this program.
14.(U) Amembassy Bucharest,s reporting telegrams are available on the Bucharest SIPRNET Website: www.state.sgov.gov/p/eur/bucharest