31584 4/27/2005 14:23 05BUCHAREST1030 Embassy Bucharest CONFIDENTIAL 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 02 BUCHAREST 001030
DEPT FOR EUR/NCE - WILLIAM SILKWORTH
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/27/2015 TAGS: PGOV, PREL, PTER, MOPS, IZ, RO, hostage, military cooperation SUBJECT: HOSTAGE CRISIS TESTS ROMANIAN PRESIDENCY; BASESCU VOWS TO STAY THE COURSE IN IRAQ
Classified By: CLASSIFIED BY POLITICAL SECTION CHIEF ROBERT GILCHRIST F OR REASONS 1.4 B AND D
1. (C) Summary: The kidnapping and potential killing of three Romanian journalists presents an unprecedented challenge to President Traian Basescu, four months into his tenure. He has staked out a firm position in favor of strong transatlantic ties and a continued Romanian military contribution to Iraq and Afghanistan. However, to a degree unseen since the beginning of the war, many in the Romanian media and some mainstream politicians are now calling for withdrawal. If the hostages are killed, Basescu and the government may also face scrutiny over their handling of the crisis, effectively a first scratch in what so far has been a "teflon" presidency. The terrorists' taped threat to kill the hostages on April 26 has intensified pressure on the government and captivated a nation glued to television screens. Basescu has told us he plans to stay the course and will not succumb to the terrorists' demands. End Summary.
Cynicism Becomes Horror
2. (C) The March 28 kidnapping of three Romanian journalists and their American-Iraqi guide, Mohammad Munaf, has dominated Romanian news headlines in recent weeks. In the early days, however, the media and much of the public had become convinced that the kidnapping was merely the work of wealthy Romanian-Syrian businessman Omar Hayssam. According to general media opinion, Hayssam had been involved in nefarious business deals linked to prominent members of the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD). He now sought to orchestrate a crisis that he could solve and thus win the favor of Romania's new leadership. This view was also shared by some in government. Hayssam's arrest by the Romanian police on April 5 convinced many Romanians that the crisis would soon be resolved. This seemed to be confirmed by the fact that the initial videotape of the hostages on March 31 did not resemble the tapes released by known Iraqi terrorist groups. Perpetual rumors that the hostages had been freed and were being secretly detained by the Romanian or U.S. governments added to many Romanians' misplaced optimism.
3. (C) The release of a second tape on April 22, however, marked the beginning of a new stage in the crisis, focusing public attention on the true plight of the hostages. With the terrorists holding guns against their heads, the distressed hostages in the tape stated the kidnappers planned to kill them if the Romanian government did not withdraw Romanian troops from Iraq within four days. A third videotape, broadcast by Al-Jazeera on April 26, set a new deadline of 17:00, April 27. The release of the third tape followed a telephone call earlier in the day in which kidnappers announced the same deadline to the news director of the Romanian television station employing two of the hostages.
Wavering Public Resolve
4. (C) In addition to the horror many have expressed in response to the crisis, in recent days there have also been new calls for the government to reevaluate its troop commitment to Iraq. Covered extensively in the news have been public demonstrations in Bucharest and other major cities to show solidarity for the victims and to call for their release. Mixed with these messages have been emotional calls, including by the victims parents, for the withdrawal of Romanian troops. These sentiments have also drifted into political rhetoric, particularly that of opposition politicians. Former Foreign Minister and new PSD leader Mircea Geoana April 25 urged President Basescu develop "correct balance" toward a calendar for troop withdrawal without giving the image that Romania has yielded to "political blackmail." (Comment: Geoana immediately called the Charge to "explain" his position, agreeing that Romanian troops, in fact, should not be withdrawn unless conditions on the ground permitted. Charge also told Geoana that his rhetoric ran a risk - in that "calls for a calendar could develop expectations for a near-term withrdrawal." End comment) Some PSD leaders have also criticized Basescu for not having an "exit strategy" from Iraq. On April 26, one of the victims' father, who is also a PSD senator, tearfully called upon the population to organize peaceful demonstrations so that troops could be withdrawn beginning immediately. He emotionally declared that the most recent videotape showed young people who looked like they did not have much time to live. Late afternoon April 27, roughly thousand protesters marched peacefully down a major Bucharest thoroughfare calling for troops to depart. 5. (SBU) Politicians from lesser parties have also joined the fray. The crisis has been a mainstay in publications of the extreme nationalst Greater Romania Popular Party (PPRM), with PPRM leader Corneliu Tudor calling for an immediate withrawal of Romanian troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Dan Voiculescu, leader of the small Romanian Humanist Party (PUR) has similarly called for a withdrawal and even volunteered to travel to Iraq to exchange himself for the three journalists. PUR is a member of the center-right governing coalition. The Parliament is scheduled to debate the crisis further in a joint session the afternoon of April 27.
6. (SBU) While most public voices recognize that ceding immediately to the terrorists' demand would be the equivalent of succumbing to blackmail, the crisis has provoked far greater discussion on Romania's troop presence in Iraq than ever before. The evolution of this crisis has dovetailed with Romania's first combat death in Afghanistan since October 2003. Public polling on Romania's troop contribution -- which was scarce during the last two years of PSD government -- has now begun to appear more regularly in daily newspapers. A Center for Urban and Regional Sociology (CURS) blitz poll conducted April 23-24 asked respondents if Romania should withdraw its troops in response to the terrorist demands in order to save lives -- 70 percent said "yes" and 18 percent "no", with 12 percent "no response/don't know. When asked whether or not troops should be withdrawn irrespective of the journalists fate, 57 percent said "yes," 33 percent "no," and 10 percent "don,t know/don,t answer." Another CURS poll carried before the crisis showed similar figures. (Note: The CURS poll was sponsored by PUR leader Voiculescu, already firmly out in front in opposition to Romanian participation in Iraq.)
Basescu/Tariceanu Stand Firm
7. (C) The Government's public reaction has been to stress that it is doing everything possible to free the victims without yielding to the terrorists. Prime minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu April 26 made a televised appeal for Romanians to trust the authorities and to refuse to endorse kidnappers, demands. He said that the pressure to give-in is increasing, but he reassured the public that the authorities are acting responsibly, know how to handle the situation, and will make every effort to release the hostages. Basescu -- who has been repeatedly criticized by the media for being too opaque about the crisis -- has relied largely on press statements released by his spokesperson. Some media analysts have asserted that Basescu has micromanaged the crisis without consulting advisors, cabinet members, or other key political players.
8. (U) Mid-afternoon April 27 Romania's top defense officials issued a press release urging the terrorists to extend the deadline. They also asked Sunni religious leaders to become involved in freeing the hostages, including through negotiations.
9. (C) Comment: In his conversations with Charge, Basescu continues to emphasize that Romania will not succumb to blackmail and will stay the course in Iraq. Given his strong commitment over time to such a policy, we believe that his determination is steadfast. Nonetheless, the ongoing hostage crisis has prompted the most intense debate yet over Romania's troop commitment to Iraq. It also marks the first real test of Basescu's presidency. We share the view of some in the media that Basescu has centralized decision-making on the hostage situation. Indeed, the crisis has prompted several of his senior advisors to approach us requesting long-term assistance on crisis management and organization structure. We are now looking at options to provide such assistance. More fundamentally, however, we continue to reassure Basescu that we are doing all we can -- at multiple levels -- to assist him and his government during this trying time. End Comment.
10. (U) Amembassy Bucharest,s reporting telegrams are available on the Bucharest SIPRNET Website: www.state.sgov.gov/p/eur/bucharest .
11. (U) Minimize considered. DELARE