BUCHAREST BLOG: Can Romania’s Klaus Iohannis take the Nato helm?

BUCHAREST BLOG: Can Romania’s Klaus Iohannis take the Nato helm?
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis formally announced his candidacy for the Nato secretary general post earlier in March. / Romanian presidency
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow March 26, 2024

Ten years ago former provincial mayor Klaus Iohannis won the Romanian presidential election almost by default as voters turned on his rival after a scandal over overseas polling stations. Now nearing the end of his second and final term as president, Iohannis is looking for his next role. He has formally announced his candidacy to become the first East European head of Nato, but is also understood to be angling for other top positions in Europe. 

No-one from Central or Southeast Europe has yet headed Nato. The defence club that was started during the Cold War began to admit its eastern members in the decades after the fall of communism, but it is only with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the threat it now poses to other near neighbours that Nato’s Eastern Flank has become the centre of the new geopolitical struggle. 

This year it is two decades since Romania joined Nato, following other former communist states from Central Europe into the alliance. It remains one of the poorest states both in Nato and the European Union. However, Romania’s geographic position puts it on the frontline of the new geopolitical divide created by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and as such it has never been a more prominent member of the alliance. 

It is one of the states that border Ukraine and thus received tens of thousands of Ukrainians in the early weeks of the war. Romania’s Black Sea port of Constanta has played an important part in getting Ukrainian grain and other exports to world markets after Russia’s blockade of Odesa and other Ukrainian ports. This has opened it up to risks as some of the Russian missiles raining down on Ukrainian ports along the Danube, which marks its border with Romania, have crashed onto Romanian territory. 

Bucharest is also the staunchest supporter of Moldova, which lies between Romania and Ukraine, and has faced repeated destabilisation efforts by Kremlin-backed politicians and provocateurs. 

Eastern Flank 

The increased importance of Romania and other states along Nato’s Eastern Flank has weighed in the ongoing debate about who should succeed incumbent Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, whose prolonged term ends in September. 

Gabriel Elefteriu, deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy and a fellow at Yorktown Institute, argued in a comment published by The Daily Telegraph that Nato should pick a candidate from the east of the bloc this time around. “The next head of Nato must come from Eastern Europe,” Elefteriu wrote, because “these front-line states are hugely exposed to Russian pressure and propaganda.” 

“Appointing one of their own as Nato chief would shore up these eastern allies politically and strengthen deterrence. It is long-overdue. In 20 years of membership they have never held the top post and feel increasingly like second-class members. Sustaining this situation is unfair and unwise,” Elefteriu added.

Poland and the Baltic states have long warned of the danger posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and states from the region (including Romania) have made more effort than many of their Western counterparts to raise defence spending to 2% of GDP. As the US presidential election approaches, they are very worried about a possible return of former US president Donald Trump to the White House.

As the decision approaches, several representatives from the CEE region aside from Iohannis are seen as potential candidates to lead the alliance.

These include politicians from all three of the Baltic states. Estonia's premier Kaja Kallas was initially seen as the top candidate from Central and Eastern Europe, but is potentially too hawkish for fellow members to stomach. Other politicians whose names have been discussed include Latvia’s Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski.

Despite this, outgoing Dutch premier Mark Rutte is the clear frontrunner to succeed Stoltenberg, having the backing of the key members of the alliance, the US, the UK and Germany. However, Rutte is still far from the needed unanimity. Hungary has threatened to veto the Dutch candidate because of his past criticism of the ultra-nationalist government in Budapest, and it is not the only member of the alliance likely to object to Rutte’s bid.

Moderate candidate

In Romania, Iohannis and other officials have taken a less openly hawkish stance on Russia, despite upping military spending and making the country’s commitment to Ukraine clear. 

After weeks of speculation, the Romanian president made a formal announcement on March 12 that he has decided to run for the secretary-general position, making a case for the appointment of a leader from the eastern part of the alliance at this critical moment for Europe’s security. 

Announcing his plans at a press conference, Iohannis spoke of the contribution Romania can make with its experience and “deep understanding” of the region. Eastern Europe has a valuable contribution to the discussions and decisions adopted within Nato, he added. 

While lagging well behind Rutte, it’s worth pointing out that Iohannis pulled off a similar coup by beating the clear frontrunner in the past, when he first ran for the Romanian presidency in 2014. 

Iohannis was an unlikely choice as presidential candidate. He is the first president of the country that is not an ethnic Romanian. Instead he is descended from the Saxons who settled in the Transylvanian region from the 12th century. 

A former physics teacher, he won a surprise victory as mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu in 2000 and was re-elected several times with overwhelming numbers. He is widely credited with putting the historic city on the tourist map, and securing it the title of European Capital of Culture in 2007, at the same time as attracting Romanian and international investors to the new industrial zone. 

The city’s acting mayor Astrid Fodor, who took over after Iohannis became president in 2014, told me in an interview in 2015 of the “very long and difficult path of turning a dusty provincial town into a modern European city”. 

It took longer for Iohannis to make his mark at national level. He was put forward as a candidate for prime minister after the fall of Emil Boc’s government in 2009, partly because of his image as an independent outside of the fray of national politics, but was vetoed by then president Traian Basescu. 

In 2013, he was invited to join the National Liberal Party (PNL), where he was straight away elected vice-president, and took over the helm of the party in June the following year, shortly after the PNL agreed to merge with the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL). 

He talked of his plans to run for the presidency at a briefing with international journalists at the Athenee Palace hotel in Bucharest that summer. At the time, it was still unclear whether Iohannis would be picked as the candidate for the newly merged centre-right party. At the briefing he came across as serious but low key, especially compared to some Romanian politicians like his eventual rival Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD). The key message of the briefing was Iohannis’ ambition to make Romania as prosperous as other European countries, and bring in a “decade of prosperity and rule of law”. 

Election race

That autumn, Iohannis and Ponta were the two leading candidates in the race for the presidency, albeit with Ponta considerably ahead of his rival. It was a dirty fight, with Iohannis being attacked over his religion (he is a Protestant in the largely Orthodox Romania), and Ponta over corruption and plagiarism allegations. Basescu slammed both candidates as “equally immoral and equally unfit to lead Romania”. 

The first round put Ponta 10 points ahead of Iohannis, but even as the exit polls came out there were reports of chaotic scenes at embassies in London, Paris and other cities with a large Romanian diaspora, with many voters unable to enter the booths before polls closed for the day. 

Romania erupted. Protests started in Iohannis’ hometown Sibiu then filled the streets of Bucharest and other cities. Protesters demanded that the authorities ensure Romanians abroad were able to vote in the second round. Foreign minister Titus Corlatean took the fall and resigned, but the blame increasingly fell on Ponta. Diaspora Romanians typically favour rightwing candidates, meaning the centre-left PSD’s candidate clearly benefited from the chaos. 

If it had been a deliberate ploy to stop Iohannis’ supporters from voting, it backfired spectacularly. There was a massive swing towards Iohannis in the second round of the election, giving him the presidency. 

Iohannis’ presidency 

After his dramatic election, Iohannis embarked on a considerably less eventful presidency, at least in his first term. 

While fighting corruption was one of the messages of his presidential campaign — and Ponta and the PSD were easy targets — he was relatively quiet during the mass anti-government protests in early 2017, sparked by the ruling PSD’s move to decriminalise many forms of corruption. 

On the foreign policy front he was more active. From the start of his presidency, Iohannis sought to increase military spending to at least the Nato target of 2% of GDP. The latest report from Nato does, however, show that Romania's success in this regard has been patchy, and spending dropped to just 1.6% of GDP in 2023 as the government grappled with a yawning budget deficit. 

In 2015, he co-founded the Bucharest Nine alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda, bringing together nine countries from Central and Southeast Europe after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 

Additionally, Iohannis has backed Kyiv since Russia’s invasion, despite eschewing inflammatory rhetoric. As Iohannis commented after a meeting with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in October 2023: “Strengthening Ukraine's security means strengthening Romania's security.” 

Political crisis 

However, while Iohannis is seen from outside the country as quietly effective, his actions during the 2021 political crisis created a very different image within Romania. 

His backing for then prime minister Florin Citu of the PNL was seen as instrumental in the collapse of the PNL-Union Save Romania (USR) coalition government, which the USR quit, making accusations of corruption against Citu.

That left Romania without an effective government for many weeks at a time when the country was struggling to contain a deadly wave of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Iohannis was widely criticised both for backing Citu in the first place, and then for his failure to help form a new government quickly. When that government was formed, it was a coalition between the PNL and its old foes in the PSD — again, upsetting many Romanians whose memories of the anti-corruption protests a few years earlier were still strong. 

That alliance has, somewhat unexpectedly, endured to the extent that the two parties are planning some form of collaboration in this year’s elections. However, that has been at the expense of popular support for both the PNL and Iohannis personally. 

A November 2021 opinion poll showed that more than a third of Romanians blamed Iohannis for the crisis, and for allowing the PSD to return to power. Since then, support for Iohannis has been further eroded by the country’s continuing failure to secure membership of the EU’s Schengen border-free zone. 

More recently, a poll conducted by the Avangarde agency for the PSD in January showed just 16% of Romanians trust Iohannis — putting him well behind Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu of the PSD and far-right leaders Diana Sosoaca and George Simion.

Next steps 

Nonetheless, it is not among Romanians, but among the governments of other members of Nato that Iohannis now has to seek backing. 

Or, should he fail to win support away from Rutte, there is speculation he may be angling for to move from the Romanian presidency to another top international position. 

Not only the Nato secretary general position but several others including the appointment of new European Commissioners as well as the president of the European Council will be up for grabs this summer.

Iohannis’ ten-day tour of Africa in late 2023 led to rumours that Iohannis could be seeking to secure the position of EU high commissioner for foreign policy. There is also discussion of a new EU defence commissioner position. Meanwhile, the PNL has opened discussions about Iohannis being proposed for the position of European Council president, which will become vacant in July as the incumbent Charles Michel has announced he will run for an MEP seat in the upcoming elections.