It was February 1976, and Alfred Moses was about to have a life-changing encounter.
Leading an American Jewish Committee delegation on a trip to Romania, Moses, a Washington attorney, was walking with his wife, Carol, on the streets of Bucharest when three young men approached them.
They asked if I was an American, and I said yes,” Moses says in an interview.
“They asked if I was Jewish, and I said yes. Then they said everything in Romania is trouble for them, that the Jews get blamed for everything that goes wrong. They asked for help in getting out, and I helped them,” says Moses, 89, who has written about his experiences in “Bucharest Diary, Romania’s Journey from Darkness to Light: An American Ambassador’s Memoir.”
Thanks to his intervention, the three men — whose forbidden public conversation with a foreigner, Moses says, probably was spurred by both courage and desperation — were able to leave the country, two of them going to Israel and one to California.
But that was only the beginning of Moses’ 13-year-long work on behalf of that country’s Jews, thousands of whom were allowed to emigrate due to his diligence. To pressure the communist regime to let its Jews leave, Moses, a partner at the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, used the annual renewal of Romania’s most favored nation trade status as leverage. Getting access to the American market was important enough for Romania to permit some of its Jew to leave. (At the same time, Israel was paying the Romanian government to let its Jews immigrate to the Jewish state, which was “a waste of money,” according to Moses.)
In addition to working on behalf of Romanian Jewry, Moses in 1986 learned that the Great Synagogue of Bucharest, built in 1845, might be demolished. Working through his contacts at the State Department, he saved the historic building.
Moses met Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu three times during that period. “I found him singularly unimpressive — in looks, manner and substance,” he says. “He was uneducated but wily and controlled the Communist Party and the country.”
After Ceausescu was overthrown, tried and executed, Moses’ mission came to an end. But in 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. ambassador to Romania.
Then, he began a three-year campaign to persuade the Romanian authorities to complete the process of democratization by ditching radical coalition partners, modernizing the armed forces and privatizing the large corporations and utilities that were still under government control.
Ion Iliescu, the first post-Ceausescu president, was a former communist who was committed to democracy and free enterprise, Moses says. “He [Iliescu] didn’t like to see rich people, but I told him you couldn’t have a rich country without rich people,” quips Moses.
Emil Constantinescu, who succeeded Iliescu, also was committed to Westernizing his country.
Moses writes that he helped broker visits by President Bill Clinton, first lady Hillary Clinton and former President George H. W. Bush. Despite everything that the American ambassador did, getting the Romanians to change — especially, in the area of privatization — was extremely difficult.
That was so, Moses believes, because the leaders’ decisions were rooted in electoral politics. Privatization would put people out of work, at least in the short run, and those in power feared those newly unemployed workers would punish them at the polls.
In addition, he says, “the bureaucracy didn’t really know how to privatize, there were vested interests not committed to privatizing the major industries and there was even ideological resistance.”
But in the end, the country’s officials came around. First of all, Moses notes, the Romanians had experienced communism for 40 years and “it was a disaster.” In the book, he describes the poverty of the people and the country during his first visit in 1976:
“In the airport, the metal detectors did not work and the baggage conveyor was broken. … Outside the airport, the sense of desolation grew deeper, with hushed conversations on street corners, bugged hotel rooms, paid informants, and soldiers lolling about smoking cigarettes and asking for ‘gifts.’ The streets were dimly lit to save energy in a near-bankrupt economy. Room temperatures were bone-chilling.”
Conditions had improved considerably for Romanians by the 1990s, but the rulers understood that the industries still under state control, in need of subsidies, were inefficient and dragging down the country’s standard of living.
They hoped for membership in the European Union, which they knew would help spur the economy to higher growth rates.
Fearing a resurgent Russia, they also desperately wanted to join NATO for protection.
Those needs gave Moses leverage, and he used that advantage to help Romanian leaders create the kind of society, economy and armed forces that would eventually lead to membership in both the E.U. and NATO.
With help, the author says, the Romanians were able to establish the post-World War II order in their country. As his friend, scholar Robert Kagan, says, they were able “to beat back the jungle.”
Moses says his outsider status, not being a foreign service officer, was an asset in his efforts.
“I was a successful lawyer with a great deal of experience in Washington and around the world,” he says. “I took on Romania as if it were a client. I was audacious and able to take initiatives that I thought were appropriate and needed, but I never acted contrary to U.S. policy.”
He is proud to have been part of the effort, as the book’s subtitle notes, of taking Romania “from darkness to light.”
Aaron Leibel is a Washington-area writer.