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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Romania, The Benefit Of the Doubt

VIENNA - Last month, at a brief ceremony in the Austrian capital, Romania was admitted to the Council of Europe.

It was not an easy decision for the council's 31 member-states. Admission into the organization serves as a kind of international seal of approval for a state's record on human rights and democracy. Few council members believed that post-Ceausescu Romania met the high standards that the council upholds.

On the other hand, most countries saw little point in continuing to exclude Romania. All other former East Bloc states had already joined, and the general view was that if Europe wanted to encourage progress, it was better to have Romania in the council than outside. The council's members therefore sacrificed a principle in the somewhat pious hope that everything would turn out for the best in the long run. We shall see.

Doubts about Romania's democratic record are well documented. No one knows this better than the Council of Europe's own officials. They drew up three reports earlier this year that defined the areas where Romania falls behind European standards. These include an insufficiently independent judiciary, an excessively powerful secret service and police force, discrimination against ethnic minorities, and official harassment of the media.

Friedrich Koenig, a member of the Council of Europe's Political Affairs Committee, noted in the report that the authorities had encouraged gangs of miners to attack opposition activists in Bucharest in June 1990. Those responsible for this thuggery have never been brought to trial. The council's reports recommended that the State Prosecutor's Office and the police should be demilitarized, that the Romanian Intelligence Service (formerly the reviled Securitate) should be brought under parliamentary control, and that the state should give up its monopoly of television. The Romanian authorities have failed to act upon these recommendations. Indeed, the Greater Romania Party, an extremist party whose votes in parliament help to keep the present government in power, denounced the recommendations as "counter to the customs and nature of the Romanian people".

The Romanian government's campaign to join the council placed members of opposition parties in a difficult position. They knew in their hearts that admission could not be justified but did not wish to appear traitors to an important national cause. In the end, they told the council's officials that conditions in Romania were much improved.

However, as one opposition senator, Valentin Gabrielescu, later pointed out: "We did not express our true feeling but told patriotic lies". The only political force to object to Romania's admission was the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania, the party that represents the country's ethnic Hungarian minority.

To its credit, when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe approved Romania's application, it adopted a series of amendments designed to keep pressure on the Romanian government, the most important of which calls for Romania's human rights performance to be reviewed every six months. If it does not come up to scratch, the council may suspend Romania's membership.

If the Council of Europe and its noble ideals are to mean anything, member states must be prepared to enforce this sanction. For now, Romania's rulers have been given the benefit of the doubt. If they abuse this trust, they must be held to account.