Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 6
14 February 2000

Catherine Lovatt C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
Romanian News Round-up
News from Romania since 6 February 2000

Catherine and David Lovatt

On Tuesday, an Hungarian Foreign Ministry statement blamed Romania for causing an "environmental catastrophe" which had killed wild life and put water supplies at risk. The Romanian Ministry for Water, Forestry and the Environment accepted that a cyanide spill had taken place on 31 January when heavy snowfalls had damaged a dam at the Aurul gold smelting works in Baia Mare. A spokesperson said that although the cyanide levels in the River Tisza were 700 times above normal, the smelting works had been closed and everything was under control.

On Wednesday, Romania blamed the operators of the smelting works for the disaster. Deputy Minister Virgil Diaconu said, "We have issued repeated written warnings over the past year to the (Aurul) plant, asking them to check again all their technological equipment. We asked them to take all the steps needed to ensure maximum environmental safety, but it seems that they ignored those warnings." (Reuters, 9 February 2000) Esmeralda Exploration Ltd., an Australian mining company hold 50 per cent of Aurul SA, the Romanian government 45 per cent with the remaining five per cent held by private investors.

By Thursday, the pollution reached Serbia with its government warning that both water and fish from the river could, in no circumstances, be used. The Tisza joins the Danube in Serbian territory.

As the contamination moved down stream - now some ten days after the pollution incident - the countries involved continued with recriminations and even veiled threats. Hungary used the European card suggesting that Romania would want to cooperate in dealing with the problem because it wants to take part in European Union accession talks. Petru Cordos the Romanian Ambassador to Budapest was summoned to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry to be told that Hungary would be seeking compensation. Esmeralda Exploration Ltd., totally rejected any responsibility for the incident, chairman Brett Montgomery said, "These claims cause me considerable scepticism. Although full details are still some days away of the Romanian testing, all indications to date supported our belief that the accident did not cause a major environmental incident." (Reuters, 10 February 2000)

Thursday also brought news that Romania and Hungary were to co-operate - not in dealing with the effects of the pollution but in creating a team of experts to work out who would be responsible for paying damages. (See this week's Hungarian news.)

President Emil Constantinescu made a three-day state visit to the UK this week. He had meetings with political leaders including Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and discussed Euro Atlantic integration, EU visa requirements and UK support for the developing Romanian economy.

In a speech to the Royal Institute of Strategic Studies Constantinescu spoke about the growth of democracy in Romania and the move towards EU membership. "The East-European states that had premises for integration have undergone a rapid process of domestic reform unlike countries like Romania where the European and Euro-Atlantic integration were more rhetoric than tangible aims in the policy of the first post-communist governments." (Monitorul, 8 February 2000) He went on to discuss Balkan stability and security.

On Tuesday, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II awarded the President the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George - the highest honour that can be granted to a visiting head of state. Constantinescu and his wife, Nadia, discussed a range of cultural and humanitarian issues with the Queen together with the work of British Non Governmental Organisations in Romania.

On the third and final day of the President’s visit he met with the president and board of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The bank’s involvement with Romania is focussed on areas where infrastructure development is crucial such as transport, tourism and telecommunication. EBRD President Horst Kohler said, EBRD investment in Romania stands at nearly EUR 1.5 billion and this portfolio is performing well. Our message to the international community is that it is possible to find projects that perform well in Romania. The new government's commitment to reform is particularly encouraging. (Nine o’clock, 10 February 2000)

During a speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) President Constantinescu assured his audience that Romania’s economic reforms would continue whichever party was in power. He said, "Nothing will change among the reforms, whoever comes into power. Over 70 per cent of Romanians favour integration with the European Union, so it would be political suicide for any party to be against that." (Reuters, 9 February 2000)

In his final press conference of the state visit Constantinescu summed up the success of his three days in UK. He said, "We may say that a real partnership has been established between Romania and Great Britain. We have agreed on a meetings calendar in the forthcoming period, meetings which will deepen the decisions made with PM Tony Blair, with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and with the Lord Chancellor." (See analysis of UK/Romanian relations in this week's CER)

European Union Commissioner for Enlargement Guenther Verheugen announced this week that accession talks for the second group of candidate states, which includes Romania, is likely to proceed at a faster rate than took place with the first group. In announcing that talks will formally begin on 28 March he warned that the election to power of extremist parties would affect the chances of accession.

The Social Democracy Party of Romania were incensed by reports which linked Verhuegen’s statement to the possible electoral success of Ion Iliescu. PDSR spokesperson Ghiorghi Prisacaru said in an official letter of complaint, "This is, undoubtedly, a situation that is likely to affect Romania as a country and an element that could be used in the electoral campaign, leading to the impression that the Commissioner is getting involved in the Romanian political life." (Mediafax, 11 February 2000)

Bulgaria and Romania held talks in Brussels with Commissioner Verheugen and Bodo Hombach, Coordinator of the Balkan Stability Pact. The resulting agreement set out that Bulgaria would take on the responsibility for funding a new Danube bridge and would also improve the ferry link between Vidin and Calafat.

The NATO secretary-general, Lord George Robertson, arrived in Bucharest on Thursday as part of an official visit to South-eastern Europe. The secretary-general is to express his thanks to Romania for the part it played during the Kosovo conflict at a series of meetings with the President, Emil Constantinescu, and political leaders. Lord George Robertson will also emphasise the key role that Romania has to play in the defence structures of South-eastern Europe and in the Euro-Atlantic Alliances during discussions ranging from the Balkan Stability Pact to the preparation for admission to NATO. During his visit the President decorated the Nato secretary-general with the order "Romania’s Star." Lord Robertson said, "My message will be: welcome to the New Europe!" (Monitorul, 11 February)

On Monday, teaching staff throughout Romania resumed the strike action which was suspended at the end of January. The teachers are demanding an increase to four per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for funding education and a doubling of teacher’s salaries. 90 per cent of teachers refused to work with the only teaching taking place in Cluj and Constanta where legal action had prevented the strike from taking place.

PDSR Senators came to the support of the teachers by demanding on Wednesday that the government took immediate action to deal with the issue of teacher’s salaries. They threatened that they would disrupt Senate sittings by demanding quorum checks and indulging in filibustering unless the government acted on teachers’ pay. A PDSR statement referred to teachers only receiving "very small salaries off which they can no longer pay for the minimum they need to live."

Trade union leaders called for a mass demonstration to take their protest to the streets of Bucharest. On Thursday an estimate 10,000 teachers gathered in Revolution Square to put their case. They marched to Victoria Square from where a delegation went forward to present an open letter to the Prime Minister. In it they demanded that Isărescu as Prime Minister should take responsibility for personally negotiating with the teachers’ leaders.

The pressure on the Government from the education sector was increased with the announcement that it could face a vote of no confidence in the Chamber of Deputies. 86 deputies, mostly from the opposition parties, have signed the motion which demands that the Prime Minister, Mugur Isărescu takes control of the negotiation which are taking place with the education trade unions.

A UNESCO report shows that Romania allocates the lowest funds to education out of all the European and North American countries. The report says, "The low budget of the Romanian education has led to the substantial decrease of the teachers' salaries so that the salary of a Romanian teacher represents now about 40% of the payment he received in 1990." The report was presented to the "Education for All" conference which took place in Warsaw, Poland, this week.

Trade unionists in the finance sector across Romania took strike action on Monday. They have called for increased salaries, improved conditions of service and a change in the laws on the duties and rights of public sector finance workers. Following the intervention of Finance Minister Decebal Traian Remeş , who pledged to put the workers concerns about the changes in law to government, the strike action was suspended.

The Senate is to debate a bill this week which will amend the election law. The bill sets a five per cent threshold which must be achieved to enable a party to be represented in Parliament - at present the threshold is set at three per cent. This bill has already been approved in the Chamber of Deputies and appears to have the approval of all parties except the Greater Romania Party (PRM). This bill, if passed could seriously affect the chances of the National Unity Party of Romania (PUNR) having any seats in the next Parliament. Opinion polls have seen an ongoing decline in the party’s popularity from a high of 16 per cent at the 1992 elections to six per cent in the 1996 polls and the most recent polls giving them only three per cent. The June 2000 local elections will decide the future of PUNR.

The Social Democracy Party of Romania (PDSR) is to invite Romanian rock music groups to take part in a concert which will be partly funded by them in a bid to prove that they are not against rock music. This follows the withdrawal of a bill which was intended to protect young people against Satanism but it was widely viewed as being against hard-rock and heavy-metal music. A revised version of the bill is being worked on which avoids the ambiguities which appeared to condemn the music.

The National Christian Democratic Peasants Party (PNŢCD) continues to be faced with disarray within its ranks. The resignation of Bucharest City Mayor Viorel Lis from the party has been described as sour grapes by party leaders Ion Diaconescu and Remus Opris. They believe that Lis only resigned because PNŢCD had decided not to nominate him for a further term of office. Lis blamed the pressure put on him by Opris as the reason. He said, I resigned as I can no longer stand the pressures exercised on me, to ruin my public image. I am independent now, and I intend to carry out my work with good results and help with the legal organizing of the future elections." (EvZ - 10 February 2000)

PNŢCD Senator Gheorghe Pavalascu has also resigned from the party and let it be known that he would be joining the Popular Party which is led by former Prime Minister Radu Vasile. Pavalascu said, "I was discontented with the way in which Radu Vasile was discharged. I think he is a special, pragmatic person, who can carry out a leading position in this country." (EvZ - 10 February 2000)

Could movement between parties for Deputies and Senators be a thing of the past? A draft law was presented to Parliament on Tuesday by the Ecologist Federation Party by which any member would lose their seat if they resigned from the party to which they belonged when elected.

The Prime Minister has taken the first steps in the austerity drive to reduce government expenditure. The cabinet spokesperson Ionut Popescu affirmed on Tuesday that 306 government workers out of 602 are to be made redundant. Further savings are to be made by reducing the number of government cars. 37 cars are to be sold by auction leaving 25 in government service.

And finally, the following slogan referring to Finance Minister Decebel Traian Remeş was seen by a Mediafax reporter during the teacher’ demonstration in Bucharest on Thursday, "Remeş, dear, you forgot to put tax on breathing." Now I wonder...

Catherine Lovatt and David Lovatt, 4 February 2000

Archive of Catherine Lovatt's articles on Romania and Moldova


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