A Romanian politician has sparked outrage for likening President Klaus Iohannis to Adolf Hitler on social media. German authorities are demanding Romania's government distance itself from the inflammatory comparison.
Tensions flared in Romania this week after a politician from the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) posted a video on social media comparing the country's president to Adolf Hitler.
The central focus of the attacks is Romania's German minority, sometimes called Transylvanian Saxons, and above all its most prominent representative, President Klaus Iohannis.
Last month, Senator Liviu Pop, the former education minister, called the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania (DFDR) a Nazi organization. For years, the liberal-conservative Iohannis was chairman of the DFDR, a group established for German minorities in 1989 after the fall of communism.
PSD Labour Minister Lia Olguta Vasilescu also joined in on the Nazi comparisons after Iohannis sharply condemned the harsh police crackdown against peaceful protesters in Bucharest's Victoria Square on August 10. "Cheeky, as a German, to speak of attacking [people] with gas," she said.
An immense fallout
Iohannis has long been a thorn in the side of the ruling PSD and their junior coalition partner, ALDE. He is staunchly opposed to the two parties' attempts to bring the judiciary under their control and has been fighting their effort to weaken the country's anticorruption rules.
Recently-convicted politician Liviu Dragnea, the head of the PSD and president of the Romanian Parliament, would stand to benefit from the reforms. Dragnea, who is unable to serve as prime minister because of a 2016 conviction for vote-rigging, has dismissed the Nazi comparisons as "unfortunate formulations."
Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, who critics accuse of being a puppet of Dragnea, has not commented on the incident. It was, in fact, her chief adviser and Dragnea's right-hand man, Darius Valcov, who further inflamed the controversy when he posted a video to the internet on Monday that depicted Iohannis with a Hitler mustache and hairstyle. In the video, the DFDR is equated with a Nazi organization and the words "Hail Johannis" appear.
Critics say the attacks are part of a coordinated campaign against Iohannis and Romania's German minority. The offending video has now been deleted, but the fall out for the PSD, and Romania more broadly, remains.
Romania's EU post may 'fail before it begins'
Romania is set to take over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union at the beginning of 2019. In an interview with the Romanian news portal Hotnews.ro, Gunther Krichbaum, chairman of the European Affairs Committee in the German Parliament and an expert on Romania, said that "red lines" had already been crossed several times in Bucharest.
Krichbaum, who is a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative faction, said the Romanian government has not yet clearly distanced itself from the video. He believes one can infer from Bucharest's silence that the government is tolerating the anti-Iohannis sentiment, even if it's not entirely responsible for it.
"This would cause serious damage to the good German-Romanian relations," Krichbaum said. "These are certainly not good omens for the upcoming Council Presidency. Romania's term could fail before it begins."
In a letter to the Romanian prime minister, Germany's commissioner for ethnic German emigrants, Bernd Fabritius, called on Dancila to distance herself from the Nazi comparisons.
If she fails to do that, the government would have to "accept blame for the public's collective insults," said Fabritius, adding that the ongoing attacks on the German minority were not only tasteless, but they also insulted victims of Nazi tyranny. Besides, they are a gross violation of the bilateral German-Romanian friendship treaty, Fabritius said.
Susanne Kastner, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, a former vice president of the German Parliament and a former chairwoman of the German-Romanian Forum, also condemned the Nazi comparisons. "I am ashamed of the so-called 'social democrats' in Romania," she wrote on social media.
Criticism from Jewish groups
Numerous organizations and private individuals in Romania have strongly condemned what they view as a smear campaign against Iohannis and the German minority. The President of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania, Aurel Vainer, stressed in a statement that government adviser Valcov's actions were "consternating" and that he would not tolerate any comparison between the Romanian president and "one of the greatest criminals in the history of mankind."
The Elie Wiesel Institute for Holocaust Research in Romania condemned the "serious statements" and pointed out that Valcov had made himself liable to prosecution.
The DFDR announced that it would speak with the German government over the matter and requested a clear statement in accordance with the bilateral German-Romanian Friendship Treaty, which also pertains to the joint protection of the German minority in Romania.