The Washington Diplomat / June 2005
By Larry Luxner
If Romanian Ambassador Sorin Ducaru ever needed a mission statement to explain what he's doing in Washington, all he'd have to do is show visitors the two large colorful maps hanging on the wall of his spacious office.
The first, a detailed map of the United States, pinpoints the location of every Romanian consulate and honorary consulate, as well as the names and mug shots of each of the 100 members of the Senate whom Ducaru has to influence in foreign-policy matters.
The second, a map of Romania, indicates the factories and sales offices of major U.S. investors — including household names such as General Electric, Qualcomm and Procter & Gamble, along with lesser-known companies like California semiconductor maker Solectron, Ohio-based Timken Roller Bearings and Smithfield Foods of Virginia.
Those maps are very instructive, but nowhere near as personal as the framed photograph of Ducaru posing with Zbigniew Brzezinski at the former U.S. national security adviser's Virginia estate. The photo shows Ducaru and his Polish-born friend with their two dogs in the countryside, and Brzezinski's handwritten inscription: "Your dog looks thirsty, my dog looks angry, but both are now in NATO!"
Only a year after its induction into NATO, Romania has learned that it — along with nearby Bulgaria — will soon join another once-exclusive club: the European Union. When that happens on Jan. 1, 2007, membership in the powerful bloc will rise from 25 to 27.
Both Ducaru and his Bulgarian counterpart, Ambassador Elena Poptodorova, say EU membership will have a tremendous psychological impact on their formerly Marxist nations.
"It's a validation of our return to our original European identity which we inhert from ancient Roman times and which was disrupted — first by the Nazis, then the Communists," according to Ducaru. "It validates our return to the family."
Says Poptodorova: "A very long road is about to lead to a very much expected result, which is full membership in the EU. I hate using the same words and phrases over and over again, but this is indeed a homebound journey."
Ducaru, interviewed last month at the stately Romanian Embassy right off Sheridan Circle, is only 40 years old — making him one of the youngest ambassadors in this town.
He was only 24 in December 1989, when the government of socialist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in a popular revolt, following the army's massacre of hundreds of demonstrators in Timisoara.
Ceausescu was promptly captured, tried and executed on charges of genocide, and Romania began the long, difficult task of repairing the damage of four decades of tyranny and uniting the 23 million inhabitants of Romania, whose ethnic makeup is 89% Romanian, 6.5% Hungarian, 2.5% Roma and 2% other minorities.
In 1993, Romania signed an association agreement with the EU. When it finally becomes a full member, it will be the seventh-largest EU member nation in population.
"EU accession is a lot of hard work," he said. "There are 28 chapters of negotiations, and in each chapter, there are timetables, measures to be taken, rules of competition, etc. The key sectors we have to focus on are justice and home affairs, competition and the environment."
Ducaru added: "All of a sudden, we will have visa-free travel to Europe and gradually, free movement of labor. This will also profoundly transform our whole legal and administrative system. In a way, it's a fast track towards modernization, a push from outside to change according to the new rules of the game."
Per-capita GDP currently stands at around $2,500, and unemployment is around 8%. And even once Romania is accepted into the EU club, it won't officially adopt the euro before 2012 — and it might happen as late as 2015.
In the meantime, Romanians will continue to use their national currency, the leu. Last month, that currency was revalued from 27,000 to the dollar to 2.7 to the dollar. The removal of four zeroes will make transactions much easier than before, Ducaru said.
"We are still in a process of reducing inflation. We had 300% inflation in 1999, and only 9% last year. Our target for this year is 6-7%. In order to become an EU member, you need to have three years in a row with inflation of less than 3%."
Ducaru added that "several sectors of our economy, like mining and agriculture, will need to adapt or will be wiped out." Even so, over 70% of all Romanians support EU membership. "There are many more gains than losses, especially for a country like Romania."
In 2004, the country enjoyed economic growth of 8.2%, the fastest in 15 years.
"Last year was a peak year," he explained. "After a decade of a very tough transformation, all of a sudden, the economy started to catch up. What helped a lot was our passage of a 16% flat income tax, a reduction from 25-27% before. In the first three months of 2005, this flat tax has generated around 100,000 new taxpayers. These were not new jobs created, but jobs transferred from the gray economy into the formal economy.
Romania's per-capita Gross Domestic Product is around $2,500 a year, with more than 75% of GDP being produced by the private sector. That's quite a switch from a decade ago, when most of Romania's economy was still in state hands.
Bilateral trade with the United States is now at $1.3 billion a year. One of the largest U.S. investors in Romania is Smithfield Foods, which started with a $40 million investment but plans to expand that to over $300 million. Another U.S. company, Qualcomm, is investing heavily in wireless data and Internet infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Romania is pursuing a foreign policy very much in line with that of the Bush administration. It has been one of Washington's strongest allies regarding the war on terrorism, with 800 troops now in Iraq and 700 in Afghanistan.
"Becuase Romania lived under a dictatorship and Ceaucescu was associated with Saddam Hussein, we believe that the kind of freedom we have achieved must be supported in other places," he said. "So for us, there are two issues: fighting against terrorism and assuring free, democratic societies."
However, Ducaru conceded that public support for Romania's presence in Iraq is waning, particularly since the recent capture of three Romanian journalists by a shadowy terrorist group known as Squadrons of Mu'adh bin Jebel.
Only a block or so away from Ducaru's office is the Embassy of Bulgaria, a country also slated to join the EU on Jan. 1, 2007.
At the embassy's entrance is a large statue of national patriot Vassil Levski.
"He's probably the only Bulgarian public figure who is not contested by anyone," said Bulgarian Ambassador Elena Poptodorova, gesturing toward the statue facing 22nd Street. "This is somebody we look up to and refer to whenever we need self-confidence and assurance of what Bulgaria stands for. This was the man who organized a whole network of revolt against the Ottoman Empire. He said, 'if I lose, I will just lose myself. But if I win, this will be a win for the whole nation.'"
Poptodorova, one of a dozen or so female ambassadors in Washington, has represented Bulgaria since February 2002. A career diplomat who has also served in Italy, she spent 11 years in the Bulgarian Parliament, running in the first democratic election after the fall of communism in 1990. She lives in Washington with her husband George, an economist, and a 16-year-old son.
A friendly, informal woman whose English is tinged with a distinct British accent, Poptodorova says she can't overemphasize the importance EU membership will have on her country's eight million people.
"Bulgaria was torn away from its natural place of being for a long time," she explained. "This happened the first time, when Bulgaria was under Ottoman occupation. Then it barely became independent when it was forced to follow a new division, regrettably as part of a bloc which was alien to the West," she said.
Poptodorova, who oversees the embassy's 22 employees, remembers Bulgaria's communist past well, but says few people have nostalgia for those days.
"Nobody misses the system as such, though there may be some older people who felt more secure because of the guaranteed job and health services," she told the Diplomat. "There used to be a lingering regret, but now, it's gone."
In 1989, Bulgaria was more or less at a similar level of economic development as the rest of the Soviet bloc. But after the fall of communism, it was quickly outstripped by countries like Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
These days, after a very painful transition, the Bulgarian economy is doing fairly well, with GDP growth of 5-6% a year. She said unemployment has dropped from almost 20% to 11.5%, the Bulgarian leva is quite stable, and the country has a "comfortable national reserve" which enhances financial stability.
"There's lots of new construction, lots of new hotels and a booming tourism industry. Last year, we had four million tourists and a 16% increase in tourist arrivals," said Poptodorova, noting that a year and a half ago, the U.S. Department of Commerce declared Bulgaria a free-market economy.
"Our major asset is our excellent relationship within the region. We've never had such a smooth, outgoing relationship with all our neighbors, including practically all new members of the EU, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic states and the Balkans. This is because everybody appreciates the advantages of cooperating rather than competing over historical issues," she said.
"In order to become full EU members, we'll have to comply with certain requirements and standards of free trade such as job protection, competition and the environment. All these criteria need to be met, and that elevates the country's economic level as a whole, which makes us good partners for everybody else including the United States."
Unlike Romania, Bulgaria will adopt the euro much earlier, in 2009.
"We have a different situation," she explained. "We have a currency board which was introduced in 1997 to control skyrocketing inflation. We signed an agreement with the IMF which pegged the Bulgarian leva to the Deutsche mark. Now that the DM is no more, we are automatically llinked to the euro. That will be a smoother way of entering the euro zone."
Catching up to the rest of Europe will take some time, said the ambassador, "though optimistically, I hope that in a matter of a decade, we'll be comparable to countries like Portugal and Greece, maybe even Italy."
On the political front, Poptodorova explained, "relations with the United States have never been better. There's been an unprecedented, positive trend, in particular because Bulgaria supported the U.S. all along in the war against terror. We have 400 troops in Iraq."
She added: "We've had our own casualties, which can never compare to what the United States has lost, but for us, this was a baptism of fire. For decades, the Bulgarian Army was never engaged in real combat."
Like Romania, the Bulgarians overwhelmingly supported the Iraq war effort in the beginning.
"We had full political support for sending our troops to Iraq, I think, because this is a way of being present in a new environment, being part of a decision-making process which we've never been part of before. Now, Bulgaria makes its own decisions, but that doesn't mean there's no opposition."
In fact, that opposition has risen dramatically in the wake of casualties and the beheading of two Bulgarian truck drivers by shadowy terrorist groups operating inside Iraq. A decision passed by Bulgaria's Parliament in mid-May calls for the withdrawal of all Bulgarian troops by the end of 2005.
"That doesn't mean Bulgaria leaves the coalition. It's just that under the respective resolution of the UN Security Council, we would have completed our mission by then," said Poptodorova, noting that her country also has troops in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo.
But Bulgaria's most serious foreign-policy crisis isn't in Iraq. It's in Libya — where seven years ago, the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi arrested five Bulgarian nurses working at a hospital in Benghazi and later sentenced them to death. Their alleged crime: intentionally infecting 426 Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS. Forty of those children later died.
Several months ago, the Qaddafi regime hinted that if Bulgaria pays financial compensation to the victims and helps build a hospital for AIDS patients in Libya, the death harsh verdicts could be reconsidered.
"Of course they are innocent," Poptodorova insisted. "That was proven by everybody. The pandemic started a year before the doctors were physically assigned to the hospital, but the regime needs a scapegoat. The point is to get support and financial assistance to make up for the money Libya has to pay for Lockerbie."
The ambassador explained that in order for Libya to restore diplomatic and commercial relations with the West, it agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of those who died in the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
"They want 15 million Libyan dinars per family [of each child who died of AIDS], and Bulgaria cannot pay that. Qaddafi wants to find some solution to this tragedy, and he cannot handle the situation himself. So according to our own analysis, he would like to get money from the international community so that he's not held responsible for what happened."
Poptodorova said a new hearing is scheduled to take place May 31 in Libya regarding the death sentences. There's no telling what may happen, though she said that "for the last year and a half, we have had the full support of both the EU and the United States, trying to find a plan of action so that these people can be released."