Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 10, 30 August 1999

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

Catherine and David Lovatt

Romanian News Review for the week beginning 23 August 1999

The conflict which already exists within and between the Romanian political parties was emphasised this week at a special session of Parliament which began on Monday. The session was called to ensure that laws concerning the return of property confiscated by the Fascists in 1940 and then later by the Communists, would be adopted by September. This is the task of the Chamber of Deputies. The Senate are to debate the return of farmland and forests as well as a bill to dismantle the state farm structure.

In a news conference that the National Christian Democratic Party (PNTCD) held on Monday, Prime Minister Radu Vasile assured members of both houses of Parliament that the government would pass the laws by emergency ordinances if necessary. He was reacting to threats made by some of the opposition parties to hinder debate and walk out of the session. Vasile said that the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PDSR) had the opportunity to prove "how serious they are, that they defend property and have abandoned their old mentalities."

First Vice-President of the PDSR Adrian Nastase said that members of his party would not take part in the debate on the property laws if the Chamber of Deputies refused to allow "solid discussion." He criticised Vasile's threat to use emergency ordinances saying, "This is a masquerade and a political dictate. The current power does not want to discuss the restitution draft law with the Opposition."

On Tuesday, the second day of the debate, members of left and nationalist parties walked out of Parliament in protest against the legislation. PDSR members were joined by those representing the Great Romania Party (PRM) and the Romania National Unity Party (PUNR). Nastase emphasised the PDSR's total opposition to the bill by saying, "It's an attempt to restore conditions [which existed] before the Second World War, when five percent of Romania's population owned 92 percent of the national wealth."

Despite this, in the absence of the PDSR, PUNR and PRM, Wednesday saw the Lower House of Parliament pass the legislation with an overwhelming majority. Valeriu Stoica, Justice Minister, said the bill provided an historic moment for Romania and was sure that the bill would be passed by the Senate later in the week. The bill provides for a return of property, for compensation in cash or in bonds or shares with payments being made on up-to-date valuations over the next five to 20 years. Compensation to be paid to former owners will, it is believed, amount to USD 4 to 5 billion over a twenty-year period. That is equivalent to USD 250 million per year, which according to Chamber of Deputies Vice President, Andrei Chilman, would be acceptable in terms of Romania's economy.

However, the debate did not proceed without an accusation over the discriminatory nature of the bill. Members of the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania (UDMR) proposed an amendment which would include property that had been seized from religious orders. This property, most of which is linked to the areas of Romania with large Hungarian minorities, had not been included in the original draft. The compromise amendment which proposed regulation of these buildings by special law was accepted by the Chamber of Deputies. One is left to wonder whether any account would have been taken of the Hungarian minorities' rights and demands if the ruling coalition had believed itself to be completely secure. If the left and nationalists had decided to vote and had been joined by the UDMR in voting against the bill, the government's majority may have been less overwhelming.

The week ended with the Senate being unable to complete its consideration of any of the four bills. The passing of all the bills will now be left until the start of the next session of the Senate in the autumn.

Diplomatic sources have hinted that Romania, along with Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia, stands a good chance of being invited to the Helsinki summit in December to start negotiations for EU membership. Finland's foreign minister, Tarja Halonen, refused to confirm the speculation. He said that EU leaders would make no decisions until they received progress reports on the countries in question, which are due to come out in October. The list of countries to be invited to Helsinki appears to have grown from the original five Central European countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia) and Cyprus, following the Kosovo conflict.

Members of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) team, together with representatives of the International Commission on the Protection of the Danube, are to carry out an investigation into the possible pollution of the River Danube by the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. This investigation will include a study of the layers of sediment in the Djerdap Reservoir, created by the Iron Gates dam on the border of Romania and Yugoslavia, in the hope that this will reveal the extent of toxic waste carried by the river.

Prime Minister Radu Vasile reported on Monday that following discussions with the European Union several Romanian regions are to receive investment for their development. The criteria used to determine the areas to be supported include the number of unemployed and the standard of living in a region. The EUR 100 million package will benefit the Jui Valley, Brasov, Galati, Vaslui and Botosani and is to be used to create new jobs, support small- and medium-sized businesses and compensate those who lose their jobs through re-structuring.

Insight into American interest in the Balkan region was provided at the beginning of the week by American Congressman James Koble, who was speaking at a debate in Bucharest. In his opinion, the US did not count the Balkans as one of its priority areas. He said: "After the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the fall of Ceausescu and the events of the last ten years, the USA considers its role [to be] over. It is time for Europe to get involved." He went on to suggest that the US has already paid too high a price for military intervention in the Balkan region and economic reconstruction was a step too far.

Hillary Clinton has written to Petre Roman, Senate President, pledging USD 14 million in aid to help abandoned children in Romania. In her letter, the wife of the US president vowed, "to provide 14 million in balance of payment support to the government which could permit budget support targeted at children institutionalised in orphanages, special schools, children hospitals." Roman had written to Hillary Clinton about the plight of 200,000 children, emphasising that their conditions were expected to deteriorate as a result of the financial implications of the IMF agreement.

Both personal poverty and national budget stringency are affecting Romanian education. 55,000 pupils are reported to have failed graduation examinations at the end of year 8. Of these, only 31,000 have come forward to re-sit for the examination. It is believed that, because pupils have to pay ROL 65,000 in Bucharest and ROL 150,000 in other regions to take these tests, poverty is the root cause of so few pupils trying again.

Meanwhile, the government have introduced a tax on state companies to support education. Every company will be recquired to pay two percent of their gross wages, with penalties imposed on those who refuse to pay. The money collected will be added to the national Education budget.

Prime Minister Vasile has stated that there is no alternative to the government's economic programme and that even if the government is replaced at the next election, the policies of austerity will have to continue to maintain the IMF agreement.

The government subsequently announced some of the requirements of the agreement. Taxation is to increase to reduce the budget deficit, and an economic recovery plan is to be set in place. This plan willinclude the privatisation or liquidation of a large number of companies, the closure of mines and cuts in subsidies. Inflation is set to rise and the welfare budget is to be pegged at 10.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

On Monday, the government announced a change to the tax system in Romania. Under the new system, everyone will be taxed on "global income." This is to include wages and any other earnings, accumulated both in Romania and abroad. Following the intervention of the President, Emil Constantinescu, it was decided that pensions would not be taxed. Rasvan Popescu, spokesman for the President, said that Constantinescu's opinion was based on, "Romania's social and economic context," where "the old people have extremely low incomes."

Simona Marinescu, state secretary with the Labour Ministry, has announced that pensions could go up for the first time this year as the Ministry has accrued enough money to pay for the increase. The increase in businesses' contributions to the welfare budget was explained by Marinescu, who said, "I think...they got scared by the government decision to turn companies' debts into shares and put them up for sale."

The economic austerity facing all Romanians will not be improved by an announcement that the cost of gasoline and diesel oil will increase by six to nine percent as of this Tuesday. As a result, it is envisaged that prices of milk and milk products will rise by between 2 and 5 percent and that other foodstuffs will see price increases of about 5 percent. Valeriu Steriu, chairman of the National Association of Milk Produces said in an interview with Mediafax that milk and milk product consumption is "in a continuous decline, and the new prices will lead to its extension, as the population's purchasing power becomes less and less."

Moniturul reported on Monday that the modest allocation of financial resources to the army in last year's budget meant that they were only able to complete four of their proposed 21 programmes. General Decebal Ilina reported that the Ministry of Defence had been allocated ROL 500 billion for the 21 programmes when the true cost had been estimated at around four times that sum. Nicolae Alexandru, president of the Senate Commission for Defence, said, "the budgetary situation of the army is disastrous." The Romanian army is seen as being run down and having the oldest equipment in the region. Nothing seems to be being done to improve the situation. Is the cause lack of money, lack of opportunity or lack of interest?

Minority issues continue to pervade all aspects of Romanian life and are often to be found just beneath the surface of what seem to be normal everyday happenings - such as football. Supporters of Transylvanian teams such as Resita are demanding to play in the Hungarian league. They believe that that is where they belong - after all, Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and not part of Romania. Whether this call has more to do with Resita's position at the foot of the Romanian league is debatable. However, there are much more worrying calls from football fans. Jews and Roma have become targets of racial attacks not only on the grounds but in the media and on websites ostensibly linked to football clubs. Racism is by no means confined to the fans. The International Football Federation (FIFA) have demanded that the Romanian Football Federation (FRF) investigate the activities of the federation's vice-president, Dumitru Dragomir, who owns the weekly tabloid Atac la persoana. It is alleged that the tabloid often contains anti-Semitic sentiments.

At the end of last week, FRF president, Mircea Sandu, reported that the Prosecutor General's Office, who along with the Romanian Intelligence Service have been brought into the investigation, have informed him that "there are no anti-Semitic organisations in Romania." Such organisations were made illegal in 1991 under the Romanian Constitution.

The distrust of minorities and potential racism in parts of society were further illustrated this week by an attack on Senate Chairman Petre Roman by a member of the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR). Miron Mitreu, when commenting on Roman's decision to stand for President, said he should rather run for "chief Rabbi." In disputing that his comments were anti-Semitic, Mitreu said, "he who believes that being a Jew is shameful must be considered an anti-Semite." He was referring to the fact that Roman's father was a Jew and yet Roman considered himself a member of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The Romanian media reported on 24 August that Mitreu had written to Roman to apologise for his anti-Semitic remark but suggested that it had been taken out of context. Deputy Dorel Dorian of the Federation of Jewish Communities is reported in Cronica romana as saying that Roman, whose mother was a gentile, is not a Jew.

The potential for minority conflict in areas of Romania with large Hungarian populations was highlighted by two stories from beyond Romania's borders. 10,000 people demonstrated in Budapest against the return of the Yugoslav province of Voivodina to Hungary - before the 1918 Treaty of Trianon, most of the province was part of Hungary. There were reported to be many Romanians in the crowd. On 24 August, Hungarian Finance Minister Zsigmond Jarai reported his budget plans for next year. The plans included USD 8.5 million for the creation of a Hungarian university in Romanian Transylvania. One is driven to ask why the Hungarian government pledges support for Romania's existing borders, while at the same time encouraging the ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania to consider themselves as different from other Romanians and as possibly having a different future.

Iulian Radulescu, the self-styled emperor of Roma peoples around the world has, at the age of 61, become the oldest student ever to register for the baccalaureate. Radulescu blamed the Communists for interrupting his education and is hoping to take a degree in law if he is successful with his studies. A representative of the Education Ministry said that, because of his age, special dispensation had been granted to allow him to take the course and examination. Radulescu will take his examination in a separate room from other candidates so that he will not be embarrassed by younger students.

Catherine Lovatt and David Lovatt, 27 August 1999


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