U.S. envoy meets Romania power rivals, voices concerns over crisis

BUCHAREST Mon Aug 13, 2012 8:20pm EDT

1 of 3. Romania's suspended President Traian Basescu (L) talks to Philip Gordon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, in Bucharest August 13, 2012. Gordon is in Bucharest to meet Romanian government officials to discuss concerns about democracy in the country, the U.S. State Department said, after attempts made by Prime Minister Victor Ponta to oust Basescu. Ponta's drive to force out Basescu has been condemned by the European Union and United States, which say his cabinet is undermining the rule of law. The row has stalled policymaking in Romania, delayed vital economic reforms and raised concerns over the Balkan state's International Monetary Fund-led aid deal.

Credit: Reuters/Press Office of Romania's suspended President Traian Basescu/Handout

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BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A senior U.S. official met the two rivals battling for power in Romania on Monday and expressed Washington's concerns about the political crisis that he said could create economic and diplomatic problems.

U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon met Prime Minister Victor Ponta and the man his Social Liberal Union (USL) is trying to oust as president, Traian Basescu, in a legal and political struggle that has unsettled Washington and the European Union.

Ponta's USL suspended Basescu in parliament and called a referendum on July 29 where 88 percent of those taking part voted to impeach him, but turnout was below a threshold of half the electorate required to make it valid.

A ruling on the validity of the vote is pending at the Constitutional Court which meets to discuss the issue on Tuesday, ahead of a ruling postponed until August 31. The postponement came as USL officials claimed after the vote that the total electorate was lower in reality than on paper and that the turnout threshold had been met.

"We heard credible allegations of large scale fraudulent votes, attempts to change voter lists and attempts to pressure the Constitutional Court ... any of these raise questions about the ruling, regardless of what it is," Gordon was quoted as saying by Romanian news website HotNews.

"If legitimacy is under question ... financial markets will be spooked, investors will find other places to go and allies will be less comfortable continuing common projects."

Markets have already reacted to the power struggle between the leftist Ponta and his right-wing rival Basescu, with the leu currency dropping to record lows amid concerns about an International Monetary Fund-led aid deal and Romania's stalled policies.

Romania, one of the EU's newest and poorest members, is a planned site for U.S. anti-missile interceptors as part of a NATO missile defense plan.

"Because we care about Romania ... we are concerned about some of the recent developments regarding the referendum and the process by which it is being reviewed," Gordon said.

Prosecutors want to investigate a former minister in Ponta's USL, who resigned last week, to see if he tried to influence the court ruling by raising doubts about the voter lists.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has told Ponta the government reneged on a commitment to protect democracy, citing delays in the court ruling.

Ponta said after his meeting with Gordon that his government was interested in seeing a final ruling as soon as possible.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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