The Competition Council could review the debt forgiveness decisions

Ziarul BURSA #English Section / 20 mai 2004

(Second part of the interview with His Excellency Michael Guest, the Ambassador of United States of America)

The Romanian authorities have complained that, on the adoptions issue, Romania is caught in the middle between American interests that want international adoptions to resume, and those of the European authorities who want the practice to stop. What is your position regarding this delicate issue? What do you think the Romanian Government should do?

It's just flat wrong to say that this issue places Romania between the United States and Europe. There is no requirement in the European Union's acquis communautaire that member countries ban inter-country adoptions. There's been no statement to that effect by the European Commission. A number of European parliamentarians have made clear their disagreement with Baroness Nicholson's personal opposition to inter-country adoptions. We don't believe that countries can pick and choose in honoring some, but not all, of the treaties and conventions they have signed - and I would be surprised if the European Union would take such a position. In fact, many European Union countries are, like Romania, signatory to the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoptions, the spirit of which is to encourage placement of abandoned children into permanent families, whether at home or abroad, rather than in institutional care.

The prospect of lengthy institutional care of these children really is the point. Why should any child spend his or her childhood that way, when there are loving families available to train and guide and nurture them? Do the child welfare "experts" behind this law really understand the realities regarding the situation of abandoned children in this country? Are those who are prepared to vote for this law also prepared to adopt the children who continue to be abandoned at rates beyond the capacity of Romanian adoptive families to absorb? I've made clear my Government's views on this: children should be raised in permanent families, not in institutions, inasmuch as possible, and the law should be changed so that this can occur. If it's not changed, it will be a tragedy for the thousands of young lives involved. And it will be a tragedy for the country when these children are put on the streets at age 17 or 18, without either the skills or connections they need to find decent work, or in fact without the permanent, loving family structures on which they can fall back in times of trouble. Given what we're seeing now, some of those kids probably will end up in prostitution and human trafficking, here or in Western Europe.

It goes without saying that we would be delighted if enough Romanian families were willing and able to absorb the children who continue to be abandoned in this country. That's what all of us want, and it will happen one day, if the Government does more to educate adolescents on unwanted pregnancies, and as Romania's economy improves. But it's not happening now, and those children who cannot be placed in Romanian families shouldn't be consigned to live their childhoods and adolescent years in institutions, no matter how much better those institutions are now than they were in 1990.

Quite recently, a big scandal regarding the privatization of "Tutunul Romanesc" (the national state-owned tobacco company) began. The media carried information that this scandal may have been fueled by some multi-national companies. Did their representatives draw your attention to possible irregularities in this privatization? What measures have they asked you to take?

Look at who owns "Curentul" and I think you'll be able to make a good guess at who might be behind the allegations you cite, many of which appeared in that newspaper. Let me be clear. No company -- American or other -- has approached me regarding the SNTR privatization. Not once, not ever. And no company has ever asked me to take any measures regarding this issue.

I have, in fact, raised serious concerns regarding this particular privatization with the Romanian Government. Although the facts on the surface, as reported in the press, don't look very good, my discussions on this matter were not based on that information nor were they based solely on questions regarding the transparency of the privatization. Rather, we have raised serious questions regarding the origin of some of the money involved in the transaction, based on information brought to my Embassy's attention by IMF and other officials in Washington. I understand that there's an investigation underway, and we are awaiting a response from the Government.

What is your opinion about the fact that the Romanian Government grants state assistance to some private companies having majority American capital, and of which the stockholders are American multibillionaires?

Let's see. I guess you're not talking about European Drinks, since that company isn't majority American-owned. Nor is Argirom. Nor is Agroexport. Nor is Tutunul Romanesc or the Bega Group. Surely you're not referring to Corporatia Intact and Grivco. Maybe you're referring to Media Pro, although you don't say. Perhaps I should look again at the listing of the 300 richest Romanians, published earlier this year, to see how many have benefited from generous debt rescheduling or other kinds of state assistance.

The issue isn't really how wealthy an owner is. It's whether there's a level playing field for all investors. Depending on the situation, some sort of state assistance may be essential. For example, the state might find it necessary to offer to liquidate tax arrears in order to privatize a debt-saddled state company, or the state could offer to take on the costs of environmental repair for spills and damages that occurred when a plant was under state control. These are decisions that governments take all over the world when they decide that jobs need to be saved and that such assistance is necessary for the local economy to grow. But the Government also has an obligation to be transparent in any decision involving the taxpayer's money, and indeed in any decision that might otherwise be seen as providing unfair advantages to one company or another. That hasn't always been the case here. A number of state-owned firms, for example, have long had unfair advantages in tax debt accumulation and restructuring. And there's been little transparency in the motivations for tax and debt forgiveness in any number of cases involving private companies, whether Romanian or foreign. One solution might be for the Competition Council to review decisions on matters like these, and public hearings to be held at which the facts can be aired fully and citizens have a chance to make their voices heard. That's probably the best general solution for what admittedly is a complex issue.

The Romanian media has carried information alleging that you have been recalled as Ambassador before the end of your mandate. Is this true?

Of course not. The Department of State denied that allegation categorically some time ago when asked by a Romanian newspaper. The fact is that career ambassadors normally serve three years, more or less, from the time of their confirmation. The Senate confirmed my appointment at the beginning of August 2001, so my time is about up. I've won two awards from Washington for my service here, and I've known my next career move since last fall. I'm proud of what I've accomplished in our bilateral relations during my tenure here, and of the focus I've brought to the fundamental issues on which Romania really needs to take hard choices. But frankly, I'm more than ready to move on. I know there probably are folks who will be happy to see me go, and who hope that the next Ambassador will be less clear than I've been on questions of ethics and good governance. I think they're in for a disappointment in that regard, by the way. But I leave with no regrets. I've used my time here to press energetically for changes that can empower our bilateral relationship, and that can in fact empower this country's democratic and economic development. I only hope those changes will continue, for the sake of this country's future.

Looking back, what are the most important problems that Romania has to deal with? What has been done to solve them, and what still must be done?

There's a marvelous Romanian expression that has an interesting double meaning: "ca lumea." It means doing things right, but in old times it often was used to mean doing things as they're done in the West. That's how you need to do things in Romania - ca lumea. Press for real judicial independence and reform, and for scrupulous attention to the rule of law. Make Romania's business climate one that encourages entrepreneurship and investment. Spend as much time listening to enemies as you do listening to friends. Ask yourselves whether Romania's party list system, as currently configured, gives citizens a real voice or promotes accountability in public officials. Make the rules of the game apply equally to everyone, with no preferences to those who are connected to power. Consult with the business community, and indeed with, citizens, on issues that affect them. Most of all, face problems honestly, and invest yourselves fully in their resolution. That's the only way you'll earn the future that the people of this country deserve.

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