BUCHAREST (Reuters) - The president of a former communist country in economic turmoil anoints a security service chief as his successor. Sound familiar?
Romania’s Traian Basescu has named old ally Mihai Razvan Ungureanu prime minister and he is now the likely party candidate for the presidency when Basescu’s term expires in 2014, senior party members said, a move that would echo Boris Yeltsin’s promotion of Vladimir Putin in Russia more than a decade ago.
Since winning parliamentary approval earlier this month, the 43-year-old former foreign minister and intelligence head Ungureanu has restored the mood of the unpopular centrist Democrat-Liberal Party (PDL) before a November parliamentary election in the European Union’s second poorest member.
His predecessor Emil Boc put the economy back on track by enforcing austerity measures but the resulting slide in popularity left him little chance of posting a decent electoral result after anti-government protests swept the country.
“He (Ungureanu) is seen as the one able to revive the party, given his experience and his age,” said a PDL deputy, who took part in the talks which led to the prime minister switch and did not want to be named as Boc is still party leader, for now.
“He stands a strong chance of winning the presidency of Romania two years from now.”
Graphic on party blocs link.reuters.com/suc56s
The rise of a security service chief to run a country still traumatized by the communist regime’s feared Securitate has troubled some, but the parallels with Putin are limited.
Whereas Putin served in the communist-era KGB and helped launch a new war against Chechen separatists on his rise to power, Ungureanu is too young to have worked in the Securitate and unlikely to crack down on minorities; ethnic Hungarians, the largest group, are a key coalition partner.
Having studied at Oxford University, Ungareau has a pro-Western outlook. As foreign minister he cooperated with the United States over Iraq and as intelligence head, he worked with other members of NATO. Romania even had a row with Russia in 2010 over spying that resulted in a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats.
Basescu, a PDL stalwart until he resigned to take the presidency in 2004, is much less powerful than Yeltsin was.
But he uses his theoretically ceremonial job to push pro-market policies through the divided parliament and since he cannot stand again in the 2014 election, appears to see Ungureanu as the man to help secure his legacy and the fortunes of the party.
“Putin’s role is now taken by Ungureanu, chief spy, destined for a presidential career. So, we can say that Ungureanu’s appointment marks Basescu’s entry into the presidential campaign for the 2014 presidential election,” said political expert Cristian Parvulescu at the Pro Democratia think tank.
Ungureanu rallied the coalition to form a new government in just three days, switching the mood from despair to nascent hope the PDL can stage a comeback.
Fluent in four languages and known as a competent administrator who stays on top of his brief, Ungureanu pledged to continue Boc’s program - including privatizations, road building and making business easier - and work with the IMF.
He raised the possibility of limited pension and wage rises before elections and members of the PDL were in celebratory mood after parliament backed his cabinet, even though it has less than 20 percent support in opinion polls.
Romania’s per capita wealth is still less than half the EU’s average and five years after it joined the bloc, some villages and city districts are without running water or electricity.
A deep recession halted progress and was prolonged by cost-cutting under an International Monetary Fund-led bailout. Emigration is such that the population has fallen 12 percent in a decade and even some professionals struggle to make ends meet.
Boc repeatedly passed difficult laws like salary and pension cuts by decree, bypassing parliament in a technique which could be challenged only by confidence vote. That left a permanent - if small - risk of government collapse and angered the opposition, coalition partners, business and many voters.
Ungureanu, not currently a PDL member but expected to take its leadership at a congress in the coming months, indicated he would break from the previous brinkmanship and seek consensus.
“My experience in diplomacy taught me there’s no more powerful weapon than dialogue,” he told parliament.
Victor Ponta - who leads the leftist Social Liberal Alliance (USL), riding high with support of 50 percent or more - made a conciliatory speech which hinted there may be some easing in the confrontational approach of Romanian politicians.
Ungureanu has vocal backing from the PDL and analysts say he is in a strong position, despite the party’s standing.
“He is a professional, a fine diplomat and intellectual who has an impressive power to unite people around him,” PDL Vice-President Gheorghe Flutur told Reuters.
“The widespread idea that Ungureanu is now pursuing a ‘mission impossible’ is in fact a big political advantage for him, because any small success will bring positive points while any failure would be attributed to the context,” commentator Alexandru Gussi wrote in weekly Revista 22.
The often outspoken former sea captain Basescu has a close alliance with the historian Ungureanu from when the latter was foreign minister.
In 2007 Ungureanu resigned after he told Basescu, but not the prime minister who opposed the president, that two Romanian workers had been held at a coalition base in Iraq on suspicion of spying. He also supported keeping troops in Iraq, backing Basescu and against the prime minister’s wishes.
March brings his first big test, when the government will try and put a privatization plan - ambitious but potentially unpopular because of job losses - back on track.
It aims to sell a stake in Transelectica and needs a successful sale to show it is serious about reforming inefficient and debt-laden state companies, which still hold the country back more than 20 years after the fall of communism.
A local election is set for June and will give the first clear sign of Ungureanu’s chances in the parliamentary ballot.
Basescu nominates the prime minister so if the USL cannot secure a majority or maintain its fragile alliance, the president would be free to name Ungureanu again even if the PDL is not the leading party.
“He is clean and his profile recommends him for president,” said a third PDL lawmaker. “I’m pretty sure he will succeed first in pursuing his challenging tasks as prime minister.”
Additional reporting by Luiza Ilie; writing by Sam Cage; editing by Philippa Fletcher