Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 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
News from Romania since 5 December 1999

Catherine and David Lovatt

The disruption caused by strikes and demonstrations appears to have intensified this week with a national rail strike. Some trains were still running, however, as Romanian law requires that 30 percent of rail traffic must operate in these circumstances. The rail workers are demanding a pay raise of 70 percent, while Transport Minister Traian Basescu has offered 20 percent. He said, "Unfortunately we find the same inflexible position of the trade unions, that maintain their claim of a 70 percent rise of the salaries for all the railway employees and a 1,500,000 lei (USD 80) bonus for each employee and a 1,000,000 lei (USD 56) aid supplement for each child. Under these circumstances it is obvious that we cannot avoid the general strike anymore." (Monitorul - 7 December 1999) As negotiations began on Monday, a leader of the National Trade Union Bloc (BNS), Matei Bratianu, said, "I doubt we could possibly reach a compromise today. The transport ministry is not willing to give in to our demands." (Reuters - 6 December 1999)

By Tuesday, the situation had deteriorated, with aircraft and buses being used to move stranded passengers at the instigation of the transport ministry. The rhetoric of the trade union group became more extreme, when trade union leader Dumitru Sandel said, "We are determined to fight to the bitter end, as our pay demands are legitimate. The administration is defying us, so we have to respond in kind." (Reuters - 7 December 1999) As the week continued, the dispute began to have knock on effects in other industries, with both delivery of raw materials and completed goods being affected. In Constanta, only half the usual number of trains moved in and out of the port area, causing delays in shipping, while about 250 wagons loaded with finished steel waited to be moved from the Sidex steel mill in Galati.

On Wednesday, President Emil Constantinescu called on the Economic and Social Council (CES) to meet in emergency session to make proposals which may be acceptable to both sides in the dispute. CES is an independent group, composed of employers organisations, trade unions and government representatives. By Thursday, Prime Minister Radu Vasile and Minister of Finance Traian Remes agreed to attend the talks between the trade unions and the transport ministry. The trade unions expressed the hope that their presence would lead to a compromise solution to the dispute. However, the strike could now lead to coal production being stopped in the Jiu Valley with the inevitable effect on the electrical generating industry.

Education trade unions are also planning demonstrations and possible strike action. Members of the Alma Mater trade union picketed government offices for most of this week demanding more funding for higher education. Meanwhile, teachers in the earlier phases of education have issued an ultimatum to the government. Aurel Cornea, President of the Education Free Trade Union, said, "The Ministry of Education should address the government to notes asking for money for the payment of salaries and of due payments, according to law no 154/1998. We are waiting to see if the government session on Thursday rules to give us the money. If not, we will picket the government. As of 10 January, when the assessment tests begin, we will launch the strike." (Nine o'clock - 6 December 1999)

Romania's uranium mines provided another point of protest during the week. About 300 miners in the Crucea and Botosana uranium mines in Suceava county have barricaded themselves underground. The miners are demanding that their November wages be paid. The National Uranium Company has assured the local prefect that the wages will be paid before Christmas.

A crowd of predominantly older people gathered at a cemetery in Bucharest on Monday at the supposed tomb of former communist president Nicolae Ceausescu. They lit candles and placed flowers at the memorial to celebrate Ceausescu's name day. Members of the crowd commented on the present state of ordinary people in Romania, suggesting that the quality of their lives had deteriorated in the ten years since his execution.

The Senate passed the public pensions bill unanimously on Tuesday. The bill will eventually lead to a rise in pensionable age to 65 for men and 60 for women. In addition, it specifies compulsory pension contributions for employees, the unemployed, government official and other persons working in the public sector. This bill, together with that concerning private pensions, will bring about the reform of the pension system in Romania by 2001.

On Thursday, President Constantinescu approved a law which allows access to the files of the Securitate - the communist secret police. Romanians can now have access to any personal file that may be held. The law also demands that people who stand for election to any public office must declare any links they had with the Securitate. A presidential official said, "After 45 years of lies and terror and ten more years when unproved accusations increased suspicion and mistrust...we can finally consider ourselves free from the oppression of the past." (Reuters - 6 December 1999)

The President received a personal vote of confidence on Wednesday from intellectuals in Romania and abroad. They praised the President for having delivered all his constitutional duties and went on to say, "We can no longer passively witness so many false scandals being staged trying to involve the President's name.. that is why we find it our duty to support his actions, ...to ask ruling coalition parties and their cabinet members to cooperate to render powerful and efficient the message and actions of the Romanian President." (EvZ - 8 December 1999) The 700 academics who signed the document of support are concerned that change could bring about a return to isolationist policies. They said, "We have to choose between the future and the past, between integration and isolation, between the Europe of democracy and prosperity and this country's return to the colourless area devoid of any bright prospects." (Nine o'clock - 8 December 1999)

The Romanian parliament passed the land restoration bill on Thursday, in a joint sitting of both chambers. The bill will restore land seized by the communists to the original owners - up to 50 hectares of farmland and ten hectares of forest. This bill moves Romania in line with European Union (EU) legislation and is part of a package of reforms which returns property confiscated by previous regimes. The day before saw the government using its emergency powers to set up the State Lands Agency, which will be responsible for the privatisation of the state farms.

As the year 2000 approaches, Romania moves closer to its Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The Alliance for Romania (ApR) launched its election campaign this weekend with the publication of a report entitled Romania 2000: Our option for an efficient governing, to the benefit of each of the country's citizens. The report, which was presented by ApR president Teodor Melescanu, set out the party’s political goals and aspirations for the country. In criticising the governments of the past ten years, Melescanu said, "It is obvious that Romania needs now not only a mere alternation of governments but a major change in the governing policy." (Nine o'clock - 6 December 1999) He said that the main priorities of the ApR would be to develop an alternative method of developing the economy, to reform the political system and to combat poverty.

Senior coalition partner The National Christian Democratic Peasants Party (PNTCD) also appears to have taken the initiative in preparation for the elections by attacking their opponents. PNTCD vice-president Remus Opris opined that the Social Democracy Party of Romania (PDSR) would damage or even negate Romania’s move towards integration with the EU. He cited the policy of the PDSR to modify the laws relating to the status of civil servants and the restitution of property if they come to power. He also highlighted the appeal in the Constitutional Court by PDSR against the establishment of a National Child Protection Agency. The establishment of this agency was a requirement of the EU, prior to accession negotiations taking place, and was set in place by government decree.

Eugen Maniac, the Director General of the National Employment and Vocational Training Agency (ANOFP), announced on 6 December that the European Union RICOP programme would be providing Romania with EUR 100 million. The purpose of the RICOP programme is to provide funding to help deal with the social effects of restructuring and privatisation. 20 percent of the funding will be used to provide compensation payments to those who lose their job, while a further 20 percent will be used for retraining and job creation initiatives. The remaining 60 percent will be used as loans to set up small and medium-sized businesses, for public works and for technical projects. The RICOP funding will be used in Brasov, Galati and Hunedoara counties and in two other, as yet unnamed, regions. During this year, the Romania government has paid in the region of USD153 million in compensation to over 200,000 people made redundant as a result of restructuring and privatisation.

European Integration Minister Alexandru Herlea left Romania on Thursday to go to the Helsinki Conference of the EU. One of the agenda items is to consider whether Romania can join accession talks. Herlea said, "I hope Romania will be nominated to start negotiations with the EU. We did our best." (Reuters - 9 December 1999)

Herlea went on to speak about the efforts made by the government led by Prime Minister Radu Vasile to meet the conditions set by the EU. He highlighted the creation of the National Agency for Child Protection, which came into being following the governments use of emergency procedures on Wednesday. In speaking about Romania’s economic problems, he referred to the progress in economic planning that was being made. The working group proposed by European Commissioner Gunter Verheugen, which includes representatives of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the EU as well as Romanian officials, should have completed a draft medium-term economic strategy by early next week. "I'm confident the Helsinki summit will allow countries with economic problems to solve them in time, along with the progress of negotiations, and not ask them to fulfil economic criteria before the actual start of talks," concluded Herlea.

The European Council began its two day meeting in Helsinki on Friday. EU President, Finland’s Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, announced early on Friday afternoon that Romania, along with Bulgaria, Slovakia, Malta, Latvia and Lithuania had been invited to negotiate on accession to the EU.

President Constantinescu greeted the announcement by saying, "Ten years after the collapse of communism, Romanians had fulfilled the ideal which had claimed the lives of the heroes of the 1989 December revolution." (Reuters - 10 December 1999) The Foreign Ministry said that the government trusted in the support of the people of Romania to enable it to meet the challenge of accession. Positive statement came from representatives of most political parties, with PDSR senator Gheorghi Prisacaru, president of the foreign policy committee, adding, "Romania's being nominated has an historic importance. This is the proof the Union is expressing its firm will to have our country as a partner." (Monitorul - 11 December 1999)

And so at the end of a week which began with uncertainty and discord, there is hope for a better future. The Supreme Court has ruled that the railway strike be suspended for 45 days to allow negotiations to take place and so as to avoid further damage to the economy. The desperate financial state of the country still demands the undivided attention of its leaders, but there is hope in the proposals from the group working on the medium-term economic strategy. And Romania has met the severe demands of the EU - the potential of membership is now within its grasp.

In a spirit of hope for the future we send our greetings for a Happy New Year to all Romanians and to our readers everywhere.

Catherine Lovatt and David Lovatt, 10 December 1999

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