Romanians hope visit by pope leads to broader role in Europe

Country was disappointed after being turned away by NATO, European Union


BUCHAREST, Romania -- As Pope John Paul II prayed at an open-air Orthodox Mass yesterday at the side of Patriarch Teoctist, Cristian Andrei, 40, examined the historic moment from mammon's perspective.

"I think maybe this could attract new investors," Andrei, a Romanian executive at a U.S. venture capital fund, said as he sipped coffee at an outdoor McDonald's with his wife and twin 13-year-old boys. "Romania needs good publicity and profits, and the visit can do that. It shows that the West can trust Romania. It's a safe place in the Balkans for the pope to visit."

Landmark visit

John Paul II's three-day visit to Bucharest, which ended yesterday, is the first papal trip to a predominantly Orthodox country in more than 1,000 years, a bold mission to mend the breach between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. But for many Romanians, the visit was more than an ecumenical milestone. It was also an opportunity to bask in rare international attention and make a case to the West that Romania belongs in Europe.

Since the war in Kosovo began, the Romanian government has made the point repeatedly, opening its airspace to NATO forces and complying with an oil embargo against Yugoslavia. But it is an uneasy position for a former communist country that shares a border and the Orthodox faith with Serbia and has simmering ethnic tensions of its own.

The beaming presence of John Paul II, who drew more than 100,000 people to the Orthodox service in Union Square and twice as many to a reciprocal Roman Catholic Mass attended by the patriarch yesterday afternoon, charmed even wary Orthodox nationalists. Romanians of all faiths seemed to view the visit as a reward for less agreeable services rendered to the Western alliance that Romania hopes one day to join. It was bitterly disappointed that it did not make the first cut for post-communist countries, when the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians were admitted to NATO in March.

President Emil Constantinescu, a geologist elected in 1996 with a mandate to jump-start Romania's shaky transition to democratic capitalism, suggested as much in his greeting to the pope on Friday. He described the visit as among other things "a sign of your gratitude for the wisdom and balance that Romania has demonstrated during the difficult and troubled years of this close of a century."

A second chance

Romanians were deeply disappointed that recent bids to begin negotiations to join NATO and the European Union were rejected. Since the war began, though, Western leaders have suggested that Romania merits a second chance.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Bucharest Tuesdayand described Romania as an "exemplary partner and future ally" of NATO. He said he wanted Romania to be put on a fast track for NATO membership and also pledged to support Romania's negotiations to join the European Union.

The Romanian government has asked the International Monetary Fund to increase its loans, a request that seems likely to get approved.

Bucharest is keeping a sharp eye on how much the war, which has devastated trade and halted transportation on the Danube River, is costing its troubled economy. Zoe Petre, a foreign-affairs adviser to Constantinescu, said government economists had calculated that Romania is losing $500,000 a week because of the bombing. She had her eye on postwar opportunities.

Economic issues

"It is not so much whether the West will pay us back," she said. "There are other ways that are more interesting, such as insuring that Romania is really involved in rebuilding the economies of the Balkans."

Economic considerations are paramount to Romania right now, where high taxes, crippling bureaucracy and low wages (less than $100 a month on average) have made Romania's conversion to capitalism slower than the conversions of neighbors like Bulgaria or Hungary.

The government has recently sought to speed up the privatization process, but there is considerable skepticism about how deep such reforms really go in a country long stifled by the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, which was overthrown in 1989.

"It's a lot easier to invite the pope than to restructure the economy," Stelian Tanase, a political science professor at Bucharest University, said. But he too focused on the advantages to be found in wartime. "NATO needs our support and we need their money," he said. "Ordinary people are against the bombing, but that is actually not very smart. I may sound cynical, but if we want to be admitted to NATO and the EU, what we really need is a very long war."

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