138755 1/25/2008 17:06 08BUCHAREST67 Embassy Bucharest CONFIDENTIAL VZCZCXRO1460 PP RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR DE RUEHBM #0067/01 0251706 ZNY CCCCC ZZH P 251706Z JAN 08 FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7816 INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 BUCHAREST 000067
STATE FOR EUR/NCE
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/25/2017 TAGS: PGOV, PREL, RO SUBJECT: ANOTHER ZERO-SUM YEAR: SENIOR PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR ON THE THE COMING POLITICAL SEASON
Classified By: Polcouns Theodore Tanoue for 1.4 (b) and (d)
1. (C) Summary: A senior Basescu advisor said that the President will not compromise on the appointment of the next Justice Minister, and would continue to hold out for a nonpolitical candidate. He justified the hardball tactics that the Presidency had deployed against Justice Minister nominee Norica Nicolai, citing her shortcomings and potential to do enormous harm to the anti-corruption battle. He argued that Prime Minister Tariceanu was beginning to lose ground to rivals in the PNL, further restricting room for compromise. He noted, too, that the upcoming electoral season would provide the backdrop for a turbulent political year ahead. End Summary.
2. (C) President Basescu's absence from Bucharest January 24 provided an opportunity for Polcouns to obtain a lengthy tour d'horizon on the coming political calendar from Senior Presidential Advisor Sebastian Lazaroiu. Lazaroiu defended President Basescu's hard-ball tactics against Justice Minister nominee Norica Nicolai (including leaking her personnel files and requesting a second opinion from the CNSAS as to whether she had been a Securitate collaborator) by arguing that Nicolai's ability to damage the judicial system justified these tactics. He noted that her shortcomings and conflicts of interest (including close links to oligarch Dinu Patriciu) were an open secret in the legal community. These were worrisome since, as Justice Minister, she would have the power to appoint the next head of National Anti-corruption Agency (DNA). Moreover, given the deteriorating relationship between President Basescu and Prime Minister Tariceanu (described as several notches lower than "cohabitation") any erosion of the President's ability to "filter" Tariceanu's ministerial appointments was a blow to the Presidency, as the game was now zero-sum. Asked about Basescu's bottom line for the Justice portfolio, Lazariou said that only an independent candidate representing civil society--along the same lines as former Justice Minister Monica Macovei--was acceptable to Basescu.
3. (C) When queried about acting Justice Minister Melescanu's abrupt volte-face in approving Basescu's request to begin criminal investigations of corruption allegations against seven former and one incumbent ministers, Lazaroiu said Melescanu was misled by his subordinates in the Justice Ministry, who had urged Melescanu to deny the request on procedural grounds. He said that these aides--holdovers from Justice Minister Chiuariu's team--knew exactly what they were doing in giving bad advice to the new boss. Melescanu had subsequently realized that he might himself be culpable for obstructing justice and had wisely decided not to block Basescu. Lazaroiu noted with some satisfaction that Melescanu had also recanted rumors--begun by Melescanu himself--that Basescu had used threatening and salty language in a telephone call, when it was hinted that the President's office might release the transcripts of the conversation.
4. (C) Lazaroiu was pessimistic that there would be any sort of "soft landing" on the issue. He said that Tariceanu was losing ground to other factions within the PNL and thus now had little room to negotiate with Basescu. He recounted that in their last private meeting, Tariceanu had admitted openly that Norica Nicolai was not his personal choice for the job, but that he was under intense pressure from PNL leaders Crin Antonescu and Ludovic Orban not to back down. Lazaroiu opined, however, that one possible way out might be if the Prime Minister chose to withdraw Nicolai's nomination and to pursue a cabinet reshuffle instead. Tariceanu could then remove Foreign Minister Cioroianu as a sop to Antonescu and Orban, and to name a neutral candidate acceptable to Basescu for the Justice portfolio.
5. (C) Reflecting on the sudden merger of the PD and PLD, Lazaroiu admitted that it had been a rocky process, as the newly-formed PD-L was rife with personal rivalries and antagonisms. Nevertheless, he said, the situation in the PD-L camp was preferable to that within the PSD; it was always easier to maintain cohesion in a party that was on the upswing and which was looking forward to winning the next election rather than one which he asserted was in terminal decline.
6. (C) Lazaroiu said that election considerations were now foremost in the calculations of all of Romania's political players. Despite the fact that Basescu was himself not a candidate this year, he would remain the target of PSD and PNL attacks since he was the biggest obstacle to success in upcoming elections. Lazaroiu predicted that the PSD would continue to collaborate closely--if informally--with the PNL in coming months, but added that where the two parties parted
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ways was over the election calendar. The PNL's preference was for separate elections (e.g., local elections in the spring, followed by a parliamentary contest in November) as this was advantageous to a smaller party, both in terms of mobilizing supporters and in giving the PNL a stronger hand in post-election bargaining with other parties. Conversely, a single winner-take-all election favored larger parties including the PSD and PL-D. He opined that the PSD also wanted to delay the local elections until the fall in the hopes that their poll standings would improve over time.
7. (C) When queried as to what lessons the Presidency had absorbed after last year's Euro-Parliamentary election, Lazaroiu said that Romanian political parties had all failed to realize that the "political market" was now much smaller than before. While there had been a gradual decline in voter turnout over the past decade, there was also an unanticipated boom in the number of citizens living overseas, now estimated at over 2.5 million voting-age Romanians. Lazaroiu said that, assuming a fifty percent voter turnout, the number of voters expected to participate in future elections was only around 7 million. There were two conclusion to draw from this: first, future election success depended on better mobilizing existing party networks; secondly, unless the referendum laws were changed, there would be no more valid referendum results for the forseeable future, since no referendum was likely to surpass the fifty percent-plus-one hurdle.
8. (C) Asked about his expectations for the coming year, Lazaroiu reiterated that the upcoming local and parliamentary elections (to be followed by Presidential and Euro-parliamentary races next year) provided the backdrop for continued political turbulence. However, that the deteriorating global economic picture might prove to be a "game changer" in Romanian politics, although it was still unclear which party would be affected most. While both the PNL and PSD were having second thoughts about some of their budget-busting welfare initiatives, even the President was concerned that--as the Head of State--the Romanian public might blame him for what happened during his tenure.
9. (C) Asked whether last year's suspension of President Basescu set the high-water mark for domestic political turmoil, Lazaroiu responded that nothing had changed, as Basescu was still the PSD and PNL's biggest target. Last year, two options were available to Basescu's enemies: removing the President by invoking article 95 of the constitution (e.g.,suspension of the President for "serious misdeeds") and article 96 (impeachment for "acts of treason", not further defined). Lazariou said that the failure of the PSD/PNL campaign to suspend and remove the president last year meant that they were unlikely to retry the first open, especially given Basescu's overwhelming 74 percent "yes" vote in the referendum last May. He added, however, that a worst-case scenario could the article 96 "treason" route, with Basescu's opponents creating a scandal related to "foreign affairs". When asked whether he meant the Omar Haysaam case, Lazaroiu winced, paused, and nodded yes, adding that the case was, of course, "absolute nonsense." Nevertheless, he added, that was exactly the sort of tactic that Basescu's opponents might take this year, if they could manage to make a convincing case to the public. (Note: the media has seized on a recently-leaked transcript of a 2006 conversation between a prosecutor and Syrian-Romanian businessman Haysaam, who is accused of being the kingpin behind a kidnapping plot in Iraq. Haysaam in the conversation makes reference to a mysterious "Professor" who was his political protector. Media speculation is that this "Professor" is Basescu himself. End Note.)
10. (C) Comment: Lazaroiu's comments are worth noting, as his take-no-prisoners approach appears to have found a sympathetic ear in Basescu. 2008 has already begun on a turbulent note, including Basescu's veto of the Prime Minister's candidate for Justice Minister, and the more recent flap over Basescu's demands that prosecutors initiate corruption investigations of eight prominent former and sitting ministers. End Comment. TAUBMAN