Vol 1, No 22
22 November 1999
M I O R I T A:
Restless in Romania
Civil unrest causes problems for the Government
Discontent with the present situation in Romania is becoming ever more apparent. The Government are facing criticisms from all sides, not least from Romanian society. Last week alone saw various sectors of society taking to the streets in demonstration against poor pay, layoffs and poor management. The economic and political transition is taking its toll and this can only be detrimental for President Emil Constantinescu and his ruling coalition.
Protest demonstrations are not alien to the Romanian Government. In 1996, students came out on strike against constitutional infringements on their rights and at the beginning of 1999 miners from the Jiu Valley marched towards Bucharest. However, civil discontent is becoming more widespread, with different sectors of society coming out in protest simultaneously.
Last week, students, workers and even the homeless publicly vented their opposition to the economic circumstances in which they find themselves. Romanian students took to the streets after a breakdown in talks with Prime Minister Radu Vasile. They brought traffic to a standstill and symbolically waved red flags depicting the hammer and sickle. Students are demanding an increase in their monthly grants to USD 16 and an increase in their monthly accommodation allowance to USD eight. Lecturers and professors at the university and polytechnics of Bucharest have warned that they too will join the protests because they are unhappy with the allocation and management of funds. They are worried that by the end of the year funds will not be available to pay their salaries. As it is, students in the polytechnic and in student hostels are currently without heating due to debts to the heating utilities. Student protesters have been warned by the Interior Minister, Constantin Ionescu, that the police will take firm action if the protests get out of hand. Despite this, the Government have said that they are prepared to double student grants within the next ten months. In the meantime, with rising inflation and a weakening economy, many students have to supplement their studies by working long hours.
Railway workers have also been protesting in Bucharest. Around 4000 of them marched through the streets and later blocked trains at the main railway station, Gara de Nord. They were calling for increased wages, better conditions of service and pay rises linked with inflation. The protest also drew attention to the 140,000 workers who have been laid off this year due to the Government's restructuring plan to weed out inefficiencies.
The homeless have demanded their freedoms and rights in protests against impossible living conditions. Upon turning 18, the homeless are no longer eligible for state housing. No address means no social security, which means no job - which means no identification card for the area of Bucharest.
It is apparent that the situation in Bucharest is on a knife-edge. History has shown that unity amongst the different forces in a society can result in dramatic political change. Romania last experienced such social pressures in 1989, when the collapse of the Ceausescu regime was facilitated by the population's desire for change. Although not yet at this level, the protests in Bucharest could undermine the legitimacy of the present government.
The extent of the discontent is of great concern as Bucharest is not the only hotbed of opposition. In Brasov, protests have also been occurring. Two weeks ago, at the truck builders' factory, Roman SA, workers threw rocks and petrol bombs at local government offices in anger at false promises. In July, Roman SA had promised a 15 per cent pay increase by November. It didn't happen. Instead there were debts of USD 166 million to be paid, a decrease in orders and workers were laid off. Additionally, in Neamt County, 1000 employees of Petrotub Roman blocked the E85 European highway, calling for an end to redundancies and for increased wages.
In essence, the government have found themselves in a "Catch 22" situation. They are facing increasing demands from the Romanian population but are also dealing with severe economic restrictions which prevent them from offering any immediate financial appeasement. Consequently, the Romanian population is becoming more and more frustrated with their own economic position, and they are venting these frustrations on the government.
Despite their restrictions, the government have not been completely oblivious to the concerns of the Romanian people. Discussions to alleviate tensions with the students and workers are scheduled or underway. However, a solution to the overall problem will inevitably take a long process of reform. Some reforms are being implemented, such as the privatisation of industry, but the transition from Communism is slow, not only requiring the remoulding of the Romanian system but also a change of mentality in the Romanian population. Changes are occurring but, as yet, remain incomplete.
The coalition government are facing economic, social and political crises, all inextricably linked. Efforts to alleviate social anxieties are hampered by a weak economy. The deterioration of the economy is creating further social problems which, in turn, create a lack of confidence in the government. Protests across the country from various influential groups in society epitomise the situation, raising doubt over the future legitimacy of the government. Although at present acting as separate forces in society, the unification of opposition groups could result in a government collapse, even before the general elections next year. Unless the government can remedy the situation, their success next year lies in the balance.
Catherine Lovatt, 22 November 1999
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