Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000

Catherine Lovatt C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
News Review for Romania
News from Romania since 27 March 2000

Catherine and David Lovatt

The government confirmed that the first round of local elections would take place on 4 June 2000 with the second round taking place a fortnight later. The decision was put in place by an emergency order which also set the threshold at five percent and limited the number of rounds of balloting to just two. A campaign period of 45 days is allowed.

A call has gone out to all political parties to sign and support a protocol prepared by the Pro Democratia association. The protocol calls for an election campaign without malice which will focus on electoral issues and not on the personal lives or ethnic origins of candidates. The protocol also calls on the parties to encourage voters to use their democratic right and cast their vote.

Senators of the Social Democracy Party of Romania (PDSR) supported by their colleagues in the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) have said that Finance Minister Traian Remeş has gone against the Constitution as he has taken no account of the Senate budget which was set by the Upper House of Parliament in December. The Constitution says that both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are entitled to set their own level of spending. The budget approved by the government leaves the Senate about three million US dollars less than their plans call for. The Parliamentary budget committee has demanded that Prime Minister Mugur Isărescu provide the additional funds.

The World Bank has set stringent conditions for the extension of the Private Sector Adjustment Loan 2 (PSAL 2). The loan is linked to reforms throughout the economy. By the end of next year Banca Agricola, the Romanian Commercial Bank have to be privatised. The national airline, Tarom, Sidex steel mill and other loss making state owned companies have to be sold off through approved investment banks. The privatisation agency (FPS) has to be dismantled after dealing with the sale of these loss making companies - this is expected by the end of next year. As well as this the public utilities have to be privatised with the government being expected to sell off its stake in Petrom Oil, National Electricity and National Gas. But this is not all - the government is also required to prepare a capital market development strategy, to bring accounting systems in the financial sector in line with European standards and to deal with insurance, investment and pension legislation.

World Bank director for Romania Andrew Vorkink expressed his satisfaction at the way the Romanian economy is developing. He said, "Reform is working in Romania, it is a slow process, but the signs of an economic pick-up are already there. The pain is not over yet, and the impact on average persons will still be there until full growth returns. But, we can say the worst is over." (Romanian Economic Daily - 30 March 2000)

The International Monetary Fund have extended Romania's stand-by loan agreement by two months to allow the assessment of the first part of the agreement to be carried out. This assessment was originally set for October but was postponed. The extension will ensure that the 2000 budget will be in place before the assessment is made and is seen to be a positive sign that the IMF wish to continue with their loan to Romania. The first phase of the loan, amounting to USD 71 million out of the total loan of USD 540 million was made in August 1999.

At a meeting of the Balkan Donor Conference Bodo Hombach, who leads the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe commented on the building of a new bridge across the Danube at Novi Sad in Serbia. This bridge would replace the one that was destroyed during the Kosovo conflict and would remove the Danube blockage. Hombach said, "This bridge is an 'auxiliary, humanitarian bridge' which is necessary in order to remove the pontoon bridge (at Novi Sad) which is blocking the Danube. This bridge will be built. The financing is there." (Reuters - 30 March 2000)There are moves to clear the Danube by the summer so that the economies of countries such as Romania, who rely on the Danube for the transportation, can be restored.

The same conference decided that Romania should receive Euro 332 million to help fund projects to improve the roads linking Bucharest with Cernavoda and Bucharest with Giurgiu. The conference also agreed that a bridge should be built over the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria at Calafat. It is hoped that this project will create work for up to 20,000 miners who have been laid-off in the Valea Jiului region. The bridge construction is also expected to create at least another 10,000 jobs in ancillary industries.

Trade unions and road transport organisations agreed to support Transport Minister Traian Basescu's proposals to introduce a Special Road Fund. Basescu plans to do away with the annual Road Fund Licence and Vehicle Purchase Tax and to replace these with increased fuel tax. Transport organisations believe that haulage costs will be cut by these proposals. On Thursday the cabinet rejected the proposal for immediate implementation but will discuss the matter again in May.

The government also decided, following the lead of the Prime Minister, not to increase the price of the public utilities beyond that caused by the change to the single rate of VAT. Both this decision and the proposed increase in fuel costs were taken as the government do not wish to take any step which would increase inflation. Electricity provider CONEL had asked for a increase in electricity costs and their spokesperson Tudor Serban said, "The Government's approval only for the VAT, rejecting the increase requested by company since January, is a bad thing. We hoped it would approve our demand, which anyway would not have covered all our costs." (Mediafax - 30 March 2000)

A protest march made by about 3000 visually impaired people took place in Bucharest this week. They were protesting against the government's failure to meet the rights of the visually disabled and against their welfare benefits which falls well below subsistence level. Free telephones, free public transport, tax relief on imported aids and facilities for visually impaired children have all been removed. The government were warned that unless they met with representatives of the protesters they would go on hunger strike.

The end of the week brought relief to all the disabled when the government announced that an emergency ordinance had been approved which gave the blind an increase in benefit taking it up to about USD 45 per month. They, together with other disabled people, were also offered free medical care and free public transport while families with a young disabled member were granted free radio and television subscriptions and free telephone line rental.

Another group who took action, and threatened more, were former coal miners from Lupeni and Balan. They began a hunger strike and threatened to burn themselves alive or hang themselves outside of government offices unless they get help to find jobs. They protested that they had too few resources to survive, that local authorities were not dealing with their problems and that government grants given to provide work for the miners had been misused. The miners said they were prepared to do any type of work even the most menial.

The investigation into the "hot line" between Bucharest and Moscow has continued during the week in the Senate Defence Committee. Former Chief of the General Staff General Constantin Degeratu presented to the committee documents originating from the Special Telecommunication Service (STS) and dated 27 September 1994. The documents, which were signed by former President Ion Iliescu, authorised the continuation of discussion with Moscow about the installation of a "hot line." Degeratu said that the talks about the "hot line" took place between 1993 and 1995 and although a document setting out agreement was prepared it was never signed due to the result of the 1996 elections. Chairman of the Committee Senator Alexandru Nicolae told colleagues that Iliescu and former Foreign Minister, and current presidential candidate of the Alliance for Romania Party (ApR), Teodor Melescanu knew of the negotiations - in fact he had evidence that Melescanu met with a Russian delegation to discuss the matter during 1995.

The General Prosecutors Office is to investigate the disappearance of documents associated with the case. The documents which were discovered to be missing at the beginning of the week concerned talks that had taken place between Bucharest and Moscow at the time. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, "We tried to find those documents to clarify the hotline issue. But it appears that they are not in our archives any more." (Reuters - 28 March 2000) This will add to the ammunition of those groups who are using the hot line case as a means of attacking the political credibility of Iliescu and Melescanu.

The PDSR has called on all members of the party together with its supporters and the Civil Society organisations to stand up to those groups who are deliberately attacking the party leader and former president Ion Iliescu. The party commented critically on the concern expressed by American Congressmen Christopher Smith and Frank Wolf about the possible electoral success of Iliescu and what that could mean for Romania. They also highlighted the "invention" that caused the scandal of the "hot line" between Bucharest and Moscow and the suggestion that a return to power of Iliescu would see the "Haider phenomenon" in Romania.

In response the National Christian Democratic Peasants Party (PNŢCD) leader Ion Diaconescu has suggested that Iliescu intended to establish a socialist state and not a Western democracy when he came to power in 1989 and that even today Romania is adversely affected by his actions when he held office. President Emil Constantinescu has added to the criticism saying that, "It is unimaginable for the ex-President of Romania, who wants to run for a new presidential term, to declare in public that two important representatives of the USA Congress "must be cut short." There is nothing to excuse the violence and suburban language of the PDSR leader." (Monitorul - 28 March 2000)

An interesting link to the original Zavtra report occurred at a conference organised by the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). Two senior officers presented a paper in which they made the proposition that Romania should seek an alternative military alliance other than with NATO. Their argument suggested that Romania should not only be linked to Euro-Atlantic institutions. The alternative power was not named but it was clear that Russia was that alternative. One of the officers was trained at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Soviet Army on the orders General Vasile Ionel who was then Chief of the Romanian General Staff - the same General Ionel mentioned in the Bucharest/Moscow hot line controversy. The proposition was condemned by the Ministry of Defence who clearly stated that Romania had made the decision to join NATO and there was no alternative.

Representatives of Central and Eastern European countries met in Bucharest at a conference hosted by the Romanian government entitled "Justice, Order-keeping Forces and Society Fighting Corruption." The 130 delegates included officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union, the World Bank and the Foundation for an Open Society. The principle focus of the conference was anti-corruption action in the region.

President Emil Constantinescu addressed the conference in a speech that concentrated on the steps that Romania was taking to deal with corruption. He said, "There are three major factors in the fight against corruption: the justice system, order-keeping forces and civil society. It is not enough for each of these institutions to operate well, there is a need for coherent actions to finalize actions towards justice... we must abandon theoretical discussions, to break this wall labelled 'all are corrupt' and seek out the guilty. Responsibility lies with everyone." (Nine o'clock - 30 March 2000)

Foreign Minister Petre Roman spoke of Romania's role as Chairman on the OSCE in 2001 but warned, "We must be painfully honest, with ourselves and with the outside world, if we want to have credibility about our good will and determination: corruption is still one of the unsolved problems of our society." (Nine o'clock - 30 March 2000)

The two-day conference has an agenda which includes the effects of corruption on the transition democracies and economies of Central and Eastern Europe and the importance of cross border and international co-operation in the war against corruption. Another key feature of the conference will be developing strategies to speed up the process of harmonisation with European Union legislation that deals with corruption and organised crime.

Another pollution incident has affected the River Tisza. On Sunday the dam wall of the Novat smelter at the Baia Borşa mine broke for a second time causing the Tisza to be polluted with high concentrations of Lead and other heavy metals. The Baia Borşa mine is no longer operational as it had its licence removed by the Environment Ministry following the first spillage from the mine. The accident is thought to have been caused by heavy rain and thawing snow causing excess pressure on the dam wall. Miners leaders at the Baia Borşa mine believe that an even greater catastrophe is waiting to happen.

The was echoed by Aurel Ciobanu Dordea who is the Romanian EU membership negotiator in Brussels. He insisted that this and any subsequent pollution incidents would have a detrimental effect on Romania's chances of EU accession. He said, "I would like the government to give more attention, including in budgetary terms, to the measures which have to be taken in order to prevent such accidents. Otherwise it will be useless to speak about reaching the highest EU environmental standards." (Reuters - 28 March 2000)

A programme to improve the child-care institutions and to promote child protection in the family and throughout society was approved by the cabinet on Thursday. Part of the conditions for Romania to take part in European Union accession talks was that positive action must be taken with regard to improving the conditions of institutionalised and street children. The programme will involve creating regulatory laws for institutions, training for social workers and setting out clearly the responsibilities of local authorities who will be required to regulate the institutions and deal with abandoned children.

Catherine Lovatt and David Lovatt, 1 April 2000

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