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March 7, 2021
DIPLOMACY

Foreign Affairs Minister Lazar Comanescu: Romania can become a stronger regional actor

Romania has the capability to evolve into a stronger actor in its region, as member of both NATO and EU, Foreign Affairs Minister Lazar Comanescu told Agerpres in an interview. The top Romanian diplomat referred to Romania’s relations with Russia and the United States and to the importance of the Eastern Partnership.

 

In the context of problems facing the EU because of migration and terrorism coming from its Southern neighbourhood, the Eastern Partnership was relegated to a second-level priority of Brussels and of Western states. What are Romania’s arguments to keep the West interested in this instrument?

 

The observation on new challenges from other geographical directions – you mentioned the Southern neighbourhood – could generate (also justifiably, I think) a certain downturn of the attention or importance attached to the Eastern dimension of the EU and North-Atlantic neighbourhood (…) your observation is at least partly justified. On the other hand, or perhaps precisely because of that (…) as indeed it is a vital component of our foreign policy interests, countries like Romania and others from this part of the EU and of NATO have drawn and keep drawing the attention and take steps to maintain the attention and the importance of our Eastern neighbourhood.

 

Why? Because – besides the need of having the safest and more stable area in our direct neighbourhood – it is also a matter of fact that a stronger European Union can affirm itself if it has firstly stability in its neighbourhood, Southern, Northern or Eastern.

 

Getting back to the Eastern neighbourhood, attention must be maintained and increased, especially considering that when talking about stability and security risks, about instability factors, we see that the challenges keep coming from this part of the world. In our talks and actions in various formats in which we participate, in the dialogue within the EU, on a bilateral level, too, we draw attention on the need for a balanced approach. We do not contest that challenges to stability and security exist in the South – mentioning the crisis in Syria, the migration and so on is enough – but it is equally important that, paying the appropriate attention to the efforts of managing the challenges from the South, we give the impression that somehow the factors that have generated and keep generating instability and insecurity in the Eastern space can keep acting as instability factors in the Eastern neighbourhood.

 

If we think to the places where we note either frozen conflicts or new developments with an impact on security and instability – Ukraine, Crimea – then we’ll see that it is very important that the need of ensuring stability, of consolidating it and the security in our Eastern neighbourhood is vital not only in Romania’s interest, but also in the interest of the whole structures we’re part of.

From this perspective, the forthcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw has a very special significance. It is important to mention that by the end of this month a new global strategy of the EU in the foreign and security policy should be completed.

 

Also in this context, I’d like to focus on the Republic of Moldova. After a relatively long period of political instability, which according to many impacts the reform process there, a government has been appointed. Half a year passed since then. Do you think the work of the new government was along implementing these reforms Moldova needs to continue its European track? Ultimately, does Romania need arguments to plead Chisinau’s cause in Brussels?

 

Romania is and will be the most active supporter of the approach aiming at getting the Republic of Moldova closer to the European Union, hopefully up to its full integration. Implicitly, we have been and still are supporters on a concrete level of the creation of the framework that allows this closing. We have been active in all matters of negotiations of the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. We initiated the Friends of Moldova Group; we are its co-chair alongside France. Moreover, in a not-so-distant future, the French minister of European affairs and I will pay a visit, precisely to show the importance we attach to Moldova’s nearing to the EU.

Besides what we did and what we are doing on a European level, what we did and we’re doing in our bilateral relations with the Republic of Moldova is very important. I’d not get into details; you know very well the assistance we provided, either about the connection of the Republic of Moldova to the energy flows in this region, or about the development of the infrastructure, for instance in schools and kindergartens in this country. The Parliament has approved a 150 million euros credit in three instalments, and so on.

We were especially preoccupied, and the EU was, too, about the last year’s slowdown of process that at some point had made the Republic of Moldova the front runner of the partner states acting to make reforms and get closer to the EU. The encouraging thing is, since the incumbent government was appointed in Chisinau, despite many reservations and question marks, we can say that the present authorities prove a good understanding of the problems facing the Republic of Moldova and of the need to act more decisively for the preservation and consolidation of this European course. Indeed, the ways of guaranteeing the continuation of reforms are the topic of an intense dialogue with our partners in Chisinau.

Our evaluations show significant progress has been accomplished. There is still need for special efforts, and I think our friends in Chisinau have understood that. It will thus become possible to meet the prerequisites for us to begin releasing this credit, in a first instalment of 60 million euros. We’re in an intense dialogue, with our Moldovan partners on one hand, and with the European Commission and the IMF on the other hand, precisely to concentrate and coordinate these approaches to result in continuing the reforms in the Republic of Moldova. It concerns the banking system, the consolidation of the rule of law, the fight against corruption, and so on.

 

The migrant crisis is still paramount in EU’s concerns. Can we expect discontinuances in the EU-Turkey Agreement? Ankara has recently complained about the Union failing to honour its part of the deal and procrastinating visas for Turkish citizens.

 

The agreement was an important evolution in the overall efforts of the EU to manage this large-scale problem, the migration. I hope that both sides will stand to their commitments under this agreement, making it a truly significant contribution to the efforts of solving the migration problem. I am optimistic about these commitments not being only assumed, but also enacted within the agreed deadlines.

Besides that, the sealing of this agreement is a reflection of the awareness of a very important matter, which Romania has highlighted since the beginning of debates on migration, namely a much tighter cooperation with the countries in the immediate vicinity of the areas that generate refugees. The relation with Turkey and the cooperation with countries like Jordan or Lebanon respond to the request that really addresses the need for a more effective approach to the migration problem. Besides that, it is extremely important, in the case of Syrian refugees, to make efforts for finding a political solution to the conflict there, to combat the Daesh, and on a broader plane, when we talk about migration, the roots, the background causes of the phenomenon must be tackled.

The European Union has been and still is by far the most important supplier of official aid to development. Tens, hundreds of billions of euros have been directed to the areas where we deal with migration. This development aid should have logically contributed to the development in those areas of an economy to keep there the inhabitants of those countries; I mean especially the Sub-Saharan region, but not just that; it didn’t happen. This means that, despite these huge sums, the migration phenomenon continues, and it’s a migration for economic reasons. This means we have to rethink the whole construction, the whole architecture through which the development aid is granted. It must be more targeted and have clear conditions, and it should benefit those who really need it; it shouldn’t be sent just blindly, funds to governments who prove corrupt, and the aid never getting to those who really need it.

 

Despite all the funds you mentioned and all its investments, the EU seems to fail managing the migrant crisis properly – at least not as efficiently as Turkey. What does the EU need for an adequate management of the crisis, and what more does Turkey have?

 

Firstly, we need to understand this phenomenon, the causes that generate it. This is the first thing. Secondly, we need an approach on a European Union level, but one based on the agreement of all its member states. Third thing: we need, on the other hand, starting from the root causes of this phenomenon, decisions with really long-term impact. Because what actually happened in more than one and a half years? Talks within the EU, unfortunately, focused especially on the quantitative matter, on arithmetic, on how to dispatch a number of migrants. This is a quantitative, limiting and short-term approach, instead of focusing on finding the root causes and eliminating them.

Then there were too many manifestations of individualist approaches, which led to situations I’d call paradoxical from the perspective of the European project. Getting to building fences at the borders between EU member states is a contradiction in terms. On the other hand, we’re talking about how important the creation of this Schengen Area was, and now measures are taken to limit the benefits created by this framework. It is very encouraging that lately, and with the contribution of countries like Romania, attention goes more to this comprehensive, inclusive approach. I mean the awareness of the fact that the essential matter about borders is that we think to consolidate the security of the outer borders of the European Union, not to limit the movement of European citizens in the EU space by individual measures, which only generate other problems.

 

American analyst Robert Kaplan said a weaker Russia is a greater threat to Romania than a strong one. How is Russia now – weak or strong? To what extent is it a danger to Romania?

 

When discussing the relations with a country like Russia, either bilateral or between the EU and the Russian Federation, between NATO and the Russian Federation, when talking about the relations with Russia in a Euro-Atlantic and global context, we obviously cannot overlook the fact that this state is an important actor, both on regional and global levels, and from our perspective, a very important actor in our actual neighbourhood. Therefore, finding ways to ensure not just the continuation, but indeed the development of the dialogue with Russia is very important. To this effect, however, some prerequisites – I’d say minimal, but essential ones – must be met. We’re talking about the convincing commitment by all the dialogue partners to follow some rules, some principles of international law. Well, from this point of view, unfortunately, we have witnessed a situation where the international law, its principles, such as the inviolability of borders… Unfortunately we’re witnessing actions in violation of those principles, precisely by the Russian Federation.

Thus, insisting on the fact that dialogue is necessary, this dialogue involves returning – by everybody, so also by the Russian Federation – to the observance of the relevant international rules. Well, as long as this does not happen – we hope it eventually happens – of course a dialogue with Russia or a revival of this dialogue is impossible in a ‘business as usual’ system. It is impossible as long as these rules are disregarded.

 

How does one discuss with an interlocutor who breaches the rules?

 

If we look into history, there was dialogue between strong opponents, because eventually reason must prevail. Precisely to preserve such dialogue channels, they have the role of making the effort of persuading the Russian interlocutors about the need to return to normalcy, which means placing the observance of international law principles at the base of the whole approach. Well, we’re not there yet. There is the Minsk Agreement, which’s implementation is the basic prerequisite for lifting the sanctions imposed by the EU, not just to the Russian Federation. These agreements are not yet implemented; quite the contrary. Obviously, the fact that Russia aligns and participates in the efforts of finding a solution to the crisis in Syria or in other instances is important, is commendable, but it is very important not to perceive this matter as a license to continue the state of instability, of insecurity, to prolong frozen conflicts – which we witness from the Russian Federation.

 

We recently received a release of the Foreign Affairs Ministry with a content I must admit I have failed to understand: after 10 years, the Romania-Russia joint commission was convened again; it deals among other things with the issue of Romania’s treasure, not returned by Russia. In these times of cooler bilateral relations, we have this information. How should we read it?

 

The Russian Federation is an important actor, like it or not, in ensuring stability and security in our neighbourhood, in the wider area of the Black Sea; the existence of the Russian factor in this effort cannot be ignored. Therefore, while maintaining a firm stance on the need of observing the international law principles and international relations rules, it is obviously natural to seek ways to solve concrete matters, to make their solving possible. This is why other frameworks also exist. Here, there is the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organisation, the OSCE, or on a bilateral level there is a committee of historians to research and possible find answers to these treasure problems. They must not be frozen; their potential must be used. It is a very good thing that this committee could be convened after 10 years of cessation. Moreover, it was agreed that the committee meets again in 2017. The existence of problems in the relations between states does not mean sitting and waiting for these problems to eventually solve by themselves. We must be active in finding and generating solutions to these problems. Things must be considered from this perspective.

 

To approach the background of this matter, you know very well that the treasure is a very sensitive problem in the Romanian-Russian relations. Are there good perspectives for continuing these talks? Are there any chances for Romania to get something?

 

On many occasions in international or bilateral meetings, the question arises, ‘Why do you gather, if nothing comes out of it?’ Experience proves that many times, even if you get nothing at one point, the very fact of meeting is positive in itself. So the issue you mentioned must be seen in this optic. The fact that this availability for dialogue has appeared has by itself an encouraging signification, I’d say.

 

You travelled recently to the United States with Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos. What are the development perspectives of the strategic partnership with the USA, beyond the defence area? I am especially interested in the economic field.

 

We can qualify with no hesitation the Romanian-American relations as excellent. Of course, especially on the security level of cooperation in defence, in military terms; but the strategic partnership also has other dimensions – economic, cultural, political dialogue. There have been significant developments lately also from this perspective. Last year, in September, President Klaus Iohannis was in Washington, he met Vice President Biden and other American officials. The President participated in the end-March nuclear summit. Prime minister Ciolos also paid a visit ot Washington. I was honoured to be part of both delegations that accompanied the two high officials. On these occasions, talks covered more than the partnership in this security field and in the context of the forthcoming [editor’s note – NATO] summit in Warsaw, namely – a very important thing – there was insistence, and I believe both sides clearly understand that, on the need and opportunities of strongly developing the other components of the partnership, especially the economy and education.

Referring to the economic area, prime minister Ciolos had meetings in Washington with the U.S. Secretaries of Trade, Agriculture and Energy. In the energy sector, both sides noted the existence of conditions for the substantial consolidation of our cooperation. Indeed, if I’m correct, an important delegation of American energy experts should come to Bucharest for consultations this summer.

We also talked earlier about the official development aid. Precisely on the occasion of this visit of prime minister Ciolos, I and the USAID vice president signed a protocol of cooperation in the official development aid. After joining the EU, we have turned from beneficiary to a donor state in terms of development aid. It is very important to use this instrument to consolidate our relations with the countries that benefit from aid in this field, and a cooperation with the U.S. in this area – as America has a very rich experience – has the potential of increasing the efficiency of our development aid work, which is a factor that generates stronger economic relations between Romania and the beneficiary countries. I have provided just a couple of examples, we can talk about education, Fulbright grants, and so on.

 

You have more than six months in office. What were your priorities, and what difficulties you faced?

 

Before attempting to answer, allow me a final observation on our foreign policy approach, which is relevant to your question about the Eastern neighbourhood. I have said it is not difficult at all to see where challenges to stability and security come from. From this perspective, we have insisted and we keep insisting, either we’re talking about the EU or especially about NATO, on the need for a balanced approach from a security perspective of the whole Eastern flank of NATO. This is one of the primary goals we’re following in the perspective of the Warsaw summit, and I am confident that the decisions made there will show the awareness of this need for a balanced approach, resulting in an advanced and strong presence of the Alliance in this area, a presence that – speaking of the [editor’s note – missile defence] shield in Deveselu – has a defensive purpose

To get back to your question, when the incumbent government took office, on a foreign policy level, what prevails, and not since yesterday, is a guideline of our whole foreign policy approach since 1989, enhanced as years passed – it was continuity. In matters of foreign policy, the goals are the same, namely it is very important to us that we succeeded, we’re NATO and EU members, we have a strategic partnership with the U.S. What’s very important – and the incumbent government is working to this effect – is to consolidate, if you wish, make Romania more assertive, more visible, more active within the structures we’re in. Obviously from this point of view our affirmation, on a regional level firstly, in our area, in relation with our neighbourhood, is a very important matter, and we’re doing this, as you can see. I mentioned the Republic of Moldova, but I could add our efforts to consolidate the relations with our direct neighbours. Indeed, the President of Ukraine has paid an official visit to Romania last month. Then I have met my Ukrainian counterpart and we opened a new Romanian consulate in Ukraine, across the Tisa River, in Solotvino. Last week I was with the prime minister in Bulgaria. The President of Romania will pay an official visit to Bulgaria by mid-June.

These are topics on which the Foreign Affairs Ministry focuses in our efforts to make Romania a voice that increasingly counts within the structures we’re in. I want to say that, for instance, as regards the management of the relations with the Republic of Moldova on EU and NATO levels, Romania is presently an essential actor, whose opinions and suggestions are retained with maximum attention. We’re in a very close dialogue on this matter; this also applies to other areas.

 

Does Romania have assets to become a regional power?

 

I would not discuss in terms of power. I don’t know why, but when we talk about powers, and especially looking into the past, we might have some… not reservations, but anyhow… The thing it seems to me most relevant to discuss is whether Romania has the capability of being an even stronger actor in its region, and within the EU and NATO. I want to assure you that Romania does have these capabilities, and I’d say they begin to show, they’re ever more visible. This is also one of our goals as a foreign ministry, precisely to be able to contribute to this increased assertiveness. Therefore, a goal of the house, if I may say so, is precisely to consolidate this capability of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. I am trying to build upon my predecessors’ work. I have already taken some measures, and others will follow, precisely to consolidate this capability. It is a matter of making sure the foreign ministry has the human resources fit for the challenges it faces.

Here, I have to admit, a revival is necessary. This is why we have organised – the final stage is being completed – a contest to hire young people. More than 40 positions are open to competition, it’s almost completed; it will be over, I think, by the end of this week. We will organise a similar contest sometime this fall. Meanwhile, another contest on the administrative and financial level. Also, in the same context, I have the satisfaction that both the President and the prime minister agreed with our idea of rethinking to some extent the way of managing this binomial relation between diplomats in the ministry and those in missions abroad. An adequate alternation is necessary to allow continuity while also enhancing the work. I have introduced the rule of having diplomats on four-year missions – about the practice of other states – with few exceptions a little more, but no more than five years. You will note that a very important first step in this direction was made by nominations of ambassadors accepted by the President, endorsed by the prime minister. Presently they are already in the Parliament. Overall, this year we will recall and respectively appoint 40 new ambassadors. The most important thing I want to underline is to make sure that new ambassadors are very well trained.

You might have noted that practically all of them are career diplomats; three or four are personalities from outside the ministry, but they are people that have proven by their experience that they are capable of performing as heads of mission. From this total of more than 40 people appointed this year, 14 are in their forties or younger. I wanted to mention this because it is relevant to prove that there are young human resources in the foreign ministry, who can already perform at top level in terms of diplomatic ranking. Corroborating this with the contest I mentioned, all this converges to what I said – the need to really offer a career perspective to the foreign ministry’s staff.

Another important direction of our work is the consolidation – as visible as possible, we hope – of the economic dimension of the Romanian diplomacy. We are now working with Vice Prime Minister [Costin] Borc and the president of the Chamber of Commerce to set up a new paradigm for Romania using its assets in terms of economy and modernize its diplomatic economy. It means rethinking the way of providing Romania’s economic representation, namely counsellors to deal with economic matters, a much stronger involvement of the political factors in promoting the economic relations. It’s important that every time a member of the Romanian Government or a high official pays a visit abroad, they consider the economic dimension. Everybody does that, and I think we must grow more pragmatic and efficient in this respect, because it is absolutely necessary. Diplomacy must bring a much stronger contribution to promoting our economic interests.

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