The Washington Diplomat / February 2010
By Larry Luxner
Adrian Vierita will never forget the events of December 1989 as long as he lives.
At precisely 6 p.m. on Dec. 22, the 27-year-old engineer — who worked at a Bucharest factory that made computer monitors and keyboards — was ordered to attend a rally in support of beleaguered Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu.
The previous evening, police had opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators nearby, an event Vierita witnessed personally. That had followed a massacre in the western city of Timisoara, in which more than 1,000 protesters were killed by Ceausescu’s soldiers. Vierita had heard about the Timisoara massacre by tuning into Radio Free Europe.
“The Communist Party was not very much in love with people like us, but we were obliged to go to Ceausescu’s rally anyway and express our support of the working class, and say how bright he was,” Vierita recalled in a lengthy interview with The Washington Diplomat.“But it was clear that, after the bloodbath in Bucharest the night before, things would never be the same again.”
Vierita and his friends were standing in that crowd of 80,000 people — listening to Ceausescu explain the benefits of living in a socialist society — when all of a sudden, the mood turned and things got ugly, taking even the dictator by surprise.
“A woman started screaming, ‘They’re going to shoot us like they did in Timisoara!’ Ceausescu tried to calm down the crowd, but he couldn’t. They started destroying flags and banners. Then Ceausescu disappeared, and we saw a helicopter taking off. We were told that it was his helicopter. It was total chaos,” Vierita recalled.
Three days later, the dictator and his hated wife Elena were put on trial, found guilty and executed by firing squad — marking the end of half a century of communism for Romania and paving the way for democracy in this long-suffering land.
“Please don’t misjudge me, but we were relieved when we heard the news,” says Vierita, who today is Romania’s ambassador to the United States. “Was it better that the guy was sentenced to death by that ad hoc tribunal, or would it have been better for him to witness the changes of the last 20 years? I don’t know.”
To be sure, Vierita is glad he was a part of history in the making, but he says the events unfolded so quickly that nobody realized what was going on.
“Frankly speaking, my generation cannot be compared to the generation of my parents. We were born during communism, so we knew about democracy only through books,” he explained. “Occasionally we received a magazine smuggled from friends in the West. We were not in complete ignorance.”
Vierita told The Diplomat that for him, the events of two decades ago constitute nothing less than a miracle, “because back then, if you had asked me what were the chances of Romania becoming part of the free world, I would have probably said, ‘Don’t provoke me.’ This change was really a dream come true.”
In a sense, Vierita’s own rise from factory engineer to ambassador parallels Romania’s transformation from dictatorship to democracy. In the spring of 1990, the young man wanted to advance his academic career, so he returned to his alma mater, the Polytechnic University of Bucharest, to prepare himself for the entrance exam.
“But then I saw an advertisement for a vacancy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and said to myself, ‘Let’s try this.’ It was a kind of hobby of mine, international relations,” he recalled.
Since his entry into the Romanian Foreign Service in March 1991, Vierita has held a variety of positions, including chief of staff to the state secretary coordinating Romania’s relations with Asia, Africa, Middle East and Latin America; deputy director of the United Nations and International Organizations Directorate; director of the Central and Southeast Europe Directorate; and general director for European and transatlantic affairs.
Vierita also spent four years in Vienna, where he headed Romania’s Black Sea negotiations in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and he was Romania’s ambassador to Germany from 2002 to 2006. Prior to his current assignment in Washington, Vierita served as state secretary for European affairs.
In November, Germany celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the following month, Romania marked 20 years since Ceausescu’s overthrow. All these anniversaries make Vierita, 47, wonder what took so long.
“When I think back how many years we survived and didn’t speak out, I ask myself why. What is the limit of pain that people can bear? It’s unbelievable,” he said. “We could’ve done it five years before, or even 10 years before.”
Yet Vierita has little time for reliving in the past. Lately he’s been consumed with his country’s worsening economic crisis and Romania's recent political battles in the wake of Nov. 22 general elections and a contentious Dec. 6 runoff.
Officially, the incumbent, President Traian Basescu, won 50.3 percent of the votes, against 49.7 percent for Mircea Geoana, who was Romania’s ambassador to the United States from 1996 to 2000. Both sides claimed victory, with Geoana officially contesting the election as fraudulent — but the government eventually certified Basescu as the winner.
“What we see happening today in Romania is the expression of democracy,” Vierita suggested. “It is totally democratic to have the right to contest an election.”
The ambassador insists that irrespective of who won the runoff, Romania’s foreign policy and its transatlantic vision won’t change. "That vision includes strengthened relations with the United States. We now also have the Lisbon Treaty, which enters into force in January, so it’s important for Romania that the EU has a strong voice in international relations.”
Vierita said the Nov. 22 election elicited a 53.6 percent voter turnout and for the runoff it was 59.3 percent — which by Romanian standards is very high.
“We would have preferred to have 100 percent, but that’s unfortunately not possible,” he said. “This is proof that people are interested in exercising their right to vote. It’s far from perfect, but at least it’s an improvement over the past.”
However, Romania’s president has many challenges facing him. The country is experiencing its worst recession since the fall of communism — and that’s the country’s biggest concern at the moment.
In the first 10 months of 2009, Romania’s gross domestic product tumbled 7.4 percent compared to the same period in 2008, contracting more than many of its European neighbors. And even though the country expects to see a slight recovery this year, the current crisis has largely reversed the astonishing GDP gains of the last several years.
The boom was fed by massive foreign direct investment and capital inflows — much of it facilitated by foreign banks that had set up subsidiaries in Romania. All this capital fueled consumer spending and Romania’s deficit, as imports outstripped exports.
This sudden increase in borrowing left Romania highly exposed when the global financial crisis hit. It has also affected the exchange rate, forcing Romania’s leu to lose more than 15 percent of its value against the euro since October 2008.
In early 2009, Romania became the third European Union member state after Hungary and Latvia to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. The $30 billion IMF loan is aimed at helping Romania climb out of its crisis and help stabilize the leu, but the IMF has frozen access to some of the funds pending the formation of a stable government.
In the meantime, Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, plans to adopt the euro as its official currency in 2014, but before it can do that, it must meet a series of benchmarks imposed by Brussels. Yet the government has fallen far short of certain expectations, especially in tackling corruption, which remains pervasive throughout the country. In fact, the latest corruption index from Transparency International ranked Romania as the most corrupt country in the EU, followed by Bulgaria and Greece.
Another major issue is Romania’s current account deficit — more than twice the level recommended by the EU — which has been sparked by a drop in remittances from abroad. An estimated 2.5 million Romanians —10 percent of the population — live in other countries and send money back home. Spain and Italy alone are home to 1 million Romanians. With those economies also tanking, fewer emigrants are returning with cash in their pockets, complicating the problem.
Yet Vierita insists things are looking up, despite all the gloom. “I wouldn’t say our economy is in serious trouble. All of us were confronted with a crisis, and Romania was no exception,” he said, noting that Romania’s unemployment and GDP figures are no worse those of its neighbors in Eastern Europe. “Actually, the prognosis for 2010 is giving us a reason of hope, because they say we’ll have 0.5 or even 1 percent growth, which will probably represent the end of the crisis and put us in a position to balance this financial arrangement with the IMF.”
Despite the economic uncertainty, according to Vierita, few of Romania’s 21 million people feel nostalgic for the days of Ceausescu, when at least everyone had a job (though not always food).
“Some pensioners have enormous problems in facing day-to-day life, but I don’t think anybody wants to go back to the communist era and live under those circumstances and conditions,” he said, “not being allowed to speak freely, not having electricity or hot water all day long, and having to stand in enormous lines for coffee or chicken, or even a good cigarette.”
Moreover, few want to break off their relations with the West, especially the United States. On the wall of Vierita’s spacious office are two large maps: one of the United States, the other of Romania. The U.S. map is plastered with photos of senators and representatives from states with large Romanian communities, and the location of every honorary consul from San Francisco to New Orleans.
The Romanian map is dotted with stick-it notes pinpointing every major U.S. investor in the country — including General Electric, Honeywell, Cargill and Ford (which just announced the construction of a $300 million car and truck factory in the city of Craiova).
Vierita said Romania has received a cumulative investment of $1.1 billion since 1990, with Qualcomm, Ford and Smithfield Foods among the top U.S. investors. Among its attractions is the fact that wages average only $4 an hour, meaning labor costs are only 13 percent of that of the euro zone.
“Romania is the biggest country in southeastern Europe, with a relatively skilled workforce and a stable business environment that offers the possibility of using Romania as a center for expanding U.S. investment in the region,” Vierita said. “This is one of my most important tasks, attracting U.S. investment. I’m working on that in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest.”
Romania’s relationship with the United States appears to be rock-solid. A member of NATO since April 2004, it’s one of the most pro-American nations on Earth and has overwhelmingly supported the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan despite suffering casualties in both countries (11 deaths in Afghanistan at latest count).
Through Joint Task Force-East — a partnership between the Pentagon and various European countries — the U.S. Army has set up an army training base near the Romanian city of Constanta, on the Black Sea, that will support 1,700 troops deployed for periods of four to six months at a time. It has also constructed accommodations at the Babadag Training Area to support an additional 150 troops, while the U.S. Air Force operates a small contingent of troops at Romania’s Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base.
Asked if he has a specific message to share on 20 years of freedom in Romania, Vierita says he does but that “I’m not sure I’m the right person to convey it, because I was fortunate enough not to die when the shooting started.”
So his message is simple: “Democracy should not be taken for granted, and that in fighting for democracy, never forget the evil of the past.”