By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 6, 2006
MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU, Romania -- Camelia Mohorea stood outside the Vascov Nonstop shop with a big bottle of beer and a huge sack of pig feed, waiting for a ride home and daydreaming about American soldiers. "If the Americans come, they will give us a better life," said the 43-year-old woman, puffing a cigarette as cart-pulling horses clomped by, hauling hay.
U.S. soldiers have been the talk of this poor little town since last month, when U.S. and Romanian officials announced that the Romanian air force base here would soon host the first permanent U.S. military presence in a former Warsaw Pact country. From the presidential palace in Bucharest, 130 miles west of here, to the humble pig and chicken farms of this Black Sea hamlet, the announcement has been greeted with undisguised delight.
"The dramatic wish of Romanians at the end of the Second World War was to be occupied by the Americans and not by the Russians," President Traian Basescu, a cheerful former oil tanker captain, said in an interview.
Echoing a widely held sentiment here, Basescu said that while Romanians were looking west and waiting for U.S. troops as the war ended, the Soviets swept in from the east, bringing a half-century of communism that kept Romania poor and backward while Western Europe thrived.
"It was something that was transferred from generation to generation that we would like very much to have the Americans on Romanian territory," said Basescu, who was elected in 2004 promising closer ties to the United States and Western Europe. Romania joined the NATO alliance in 2004 and is scheduled to join the European Union in 2007 or 2008.
The deal for the U.S. military presence here was signed in December by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu. Details are still being negotiated, but U.S. Army Col. Pat Mackin, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Europe, said troops could begin arriving by summer 2007. Mackin said the presence in Romania -- about 100 permanent headquarters staff members, and as many as 2,000 soldiers rotating through at any given time -- would be far smaller than at traditional U.S. bases in Europe.
Mackin said the idea was to have smaller and "more agile" forces in strategic locations in Europe, where the United States is reducing its troop level from a Cold War presence of about 315,000 to as few as 65,000 over the next decade. A similar deal is being negotiated with neighboring Bulgaria, Mackin said.
Basescu said Romania saw close military ties with the United States as critical to its own security, especially in the face of what he called the increasing traffic of drugs, arms and illegal immigrants across the Black Sea region into Europe. Military cooperation between the two countries has increased markedly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, he noted, adding that Romania's more than 800 troops in Iraq and nearly 600 in Afghanistan would remain in place as long as the United States and those countries wanted them.
In November, The Washington Post reported that the CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe as part of a covert prison system that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe.
The Post did not identify the Eastern European countries at the request of senior U.S. officials, who said the disclosure could disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.
Human rights groups have persistently identified the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, widely known as "MK," as a prison site -- a claim that Basescu has repeatedly denied.
He said he allows the CIA and other U.S. agencies to land planes at the base but has never permitted a prison or any mistreatment. Personnel from the CIA and other U.S. agencies work in Romania at a joint anti-terrorism intelligence center that opened within months of the Sept. 11 attacks, he added.
"You can't be a partner of the United States only when you need advantage and the support of the United States," Basescu said. "Sometimes the United States needs your support, and this is what we are doing."
The headquarters for the U.S. military's new Eastern European Task Force will be at the base, where 18 decommissioned MiG jet fighters with flat tires are parked along the tarmac as rusting echoes of the Cold War. Three other Romanian military sites will also be used for training, according to the agreement.
Times have clearly changed here since the Soviet Union collapsed: The base's main drag is called George Washington Boulevard. It was built by U.S. military engineers in 2003, when the base served as a stopover point for U.S. planes headed to and from the Iraqi theater. The engineers also renovated a gymnasium and built a helipad, said Romanian air force Lt. Cmdr. Adrian Vasile, a member of the command staff of the helicopter squadron stationed here.
Vasile said Romanian and U.S. troops had conducted at least six major joint military exercises here in the past decade. "We are a reliable ally," Vasile said.
Outside the base gates, in this town of 10,000 where people live in crumbling apartment blocks or on ramshackle family farms, the talk one recent day was not of geopolitics, but of jobs, roads, gas pipes and water systems.
"We think the establishment of an American base here will be an opportunity for our little town for development," said Vice Mayor Gheorghe Ciocoiu, a former Romanian air force pilot who flew MiG-29s at the base for 13 years before retiring to "this place we love." He said an American presence at the base would mean more commerce and more local people employed as bus drivers and construction workers, and in other service jobs.
"God knows how much we need investors to make the people's lives better," he said.
Along one of the town's dirt back roads, Catalin Gheondea was chopping firewood in a yard he shared with geese, chickens, turkeys and pigs. Like most people here, Gheondea, 28, said he struggled to get by on his animals and crops of corn and sunflowers. He said U.S. military exercises in the past had brought ripples of prosperity.
"We could feel something happening economically in the community," he said. "They created jobs and opened shops. It was different -- people had money."
Nicoleta Coconcia, 34, who runs a little shop selling products that include "American Cola" and "Original American Quality" chewing gum, said U.S. troops on the base would mean more business for her.
"I think we will be safer with the Americans here," she said, putting a sandwich into a microwave. "During communism, we never talked about America; it was something unknown. But now Americans and Romanians are getting more acquainted. Whenever we talk about the Americans, people are happy."