Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 9, 23 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

Severe weather has, once again, affected Romania. In Arges County flash floods caused the death of four people with a further two injured and two reported missing. In the wine producing regions of Buzau and Vrancea, vineyards were destroyed by a storm of enormous hailstones, and hail also devastated agricultural land in Gorj county. In the Prahova valley, north of Bucharest, railway lines and roads were blocked by fallen trees and dislodged boulders. The town square of Poiana Tapului, together with at least 20 houses, was flooded. In the Jiu valley the army was struggling to restore road and rail links following landslides. Buzau seems to have suffered considerable damage with 2300 houses being damaged or destroyed and up to 90% of agricultural crops being affected. In total, thirty regions in seven counties have been affected.

On Wednesday, Vlad Rosca of the Local Public Administration Department announced that the government had released 18 billion lei to provide support for inhabitants in the 28 counties affected by flooding between April and July. The support will mainly consist of construction materials to repair damaged homes.

The Romanian government announced on Thursday that they were to send USD 500,000 in aid for the victims of the Turkish earthquake. The aid will consist mainly of blankets and medicines and will be supplemented by tents and equipment from the army reserves. Rescue experts and sniffer dogs have already been sent to Turkey as part of the international aid effort. Romanian ships, fire engines and members of the military and civilian services are set to join the relief operation.

Arges County suffered another catastrophe on Wednesday morning when an explosion at the Boteni coal mine killed three workers and injured two others. The miners were preparing charges at the coalface some 1200 metres below ground. Trade Union officials describe the incident as an ordinary working accident but are concerned as to how it occurred. One young miner told Pro TV that the accident took place because of the appalling working conditions in Romania's coal mines. The Labour Ministry have launched an investigation

The meningitis outbreak shows no sign of coming to an end; in fact, it appears to be spreading across borders. It is reported from the Moldavian capital, Chisinau, that 67 cases were registered there in July with the same number of new cases already registered in August. On Monday, Olha Bobulyova, Deputy Health Minister of Ukraine, advised against visiting Romania because of the meningitis epidemic in areas near to the Ukrainian border.

The Health Ministry reported that the number of confirmed cases had now reached over 2400 but most patients have a mild form of the disease. Viral meningitis is chiefly linked to unclean water supplies and attacks the nervous system and the brain. Foreign tourists have been assured that they are not at risk so long as they are meticulous over hygiene. The Education Ministry is considering delaying the start of school (normally 1 September), as 77% of all cases have affected children and young people.

In the county of Iasi, meningitis has been followed by an outbreak of Leptospirosis, a disease which is spread by rats. So far there have been 23 cases diagnosed and two people have died.

On 17 August, Romania banned the sale of tobacco to anyone under 18 years old. According to World Health Organisation figures it is believed that at least 20% of children between the ages of 10 and 14 are smokers and at least 50% of street children are smokers from the age of 5. Tobacconists who break the new law could be fined between USD 30 and USD 300. They are also required to display notices on their premises which inform customers of the ban.

At least 300 people have attended the main eye clinic in Bucharest following the solar eclipse. About 30 have suffered permanent damage to the retina by watching the eclipse without suitable eye protection. Many more cases are expected from the more rural areas where many people are believed to have looked at the eclipse through smoked glass.

The National Authority for Tourism reported an 11% increase in the number of foreign visitors to Romania during the first 6 months of the year. It is thought that the number of people who came to Romania to see the solar eclipse will lead to a whole year figure of about 1,000,000 visitors - an increase of 25%.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Agriculture announced that Romania's wheat crop amounted to 4.65 million tonnes. Although this is lower than the yield in 1998, it is believed that a surplus of about one million tonnes will be available for export. Spokesperson Ileana Gaita said, "Wheat exports would help prices remain at a realistic level and would not put pressure on the local grain market." (Reuters- 17 August) She went on to list flood damage and the farming community's inability to buy enough fertiliser and herbicide as reasons for the decline in yield.

On Monday, Mircea Geonana, Romanian ambassador to the US, said he felt that, although Romania had received the first part of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) standby loan, he believed that it was unlikely that all the IMF loan would be released. "It is very hard to believe that all the criteria included in the IMF agreement, which are very clear as regarding the conditions to release the next tranches, can be fulfilled by the Romanian economy without real and significant progresses within the real economy," said Geoana (Mediafax 16 August). During a National Liberal Party (PNL) press conference, the Finance Minister, Traian Remes, also warned against using the loan to adopt populist measures which would be against the conditions of the IMF agreement. Remes said, "I'm afraid we'll be tempted to take measures that will return against us." (Moniturul, 14 August)

Compliance with the agreement will be examined by IMF representatives three times during the year. It has been suggested that the IMF are likely to impose further conditions on Romania for completion of the full loan. These include increases in taxation and freezing of wages. "We were not officially informed on such a move", said Ovidiu Grecea, head of the Agency for recouping banking assets. (EvZ Friday 13 August.) Minister of Finance Remes has announced that any budget correction will take place in September during the IMF visit. He is clear that any variation will be as a result of decisions taken and imposed by the Romanian government following an examination of the economic situation. "We will not yield to social or political pressure," said Remes. (EvZ 15 August.)

Proposals are to be laid before the next cabinet meeting to increase the duty paid on tobacco, spirits and coffee. The increase will be in line with the rate of inflation. The Finance Ministry do not envisage the introduction of any new taxes. However, Remes is to propose to the cabinet that he is given the power to update excise duties at any time by ministerial order. He will also propose that excise duties are index linked to the leu/euro exchange rate which is set by the central bank. At present, the finance minister is only allowed to adjust the rates of excise duty with the consent of the government.

The final text of the IMF agreement, signed by Remes and Governor Isarescu of the central bank on behalf of the Romanian government remains unknown to members of the cabinet and leaders of the ruling coalition. National Christian Democratic Party (PNTCD) deputies have repeatedly asked for details of the agreement, as have members of the National Liberal Party (PNL) executive (Remes is a member of the PNL executive). Labour minister Alexandru Athanasiu is reported to know nothing about the final text of the accord.

Opposition parties are using the agreement to put pressure on the government. The Romanian National Unity Party (PUNR) has demanded, as a condition of taking part in the special meeting of the Chamber of Deputies which is to begin on 23 August, that the IMF agreement be put on the agenda. PUNR deputy Valentin Iliescu told Mediafax, "The transparency of the agreement with the IMF is necessary and of national interest, considering the present government is a mechanism controlled by Washington and IMF, in order to annihilate Romania's economic and human capital." The Social Democratic Party of Romania (PDSR) will also demand that the IMF agreement is placed as the first item on the agenda. Deputy Florin Georgescu suggested that only after such a debate could the property laws be considered and passed. It appeared by Thursday that the Chamber of Deputies Permanent Bureau had rejected the PDSR call for the IMF agreement to appear on the agenda by eight votes to five.

The extraordinary meeting of the deputies has been called to take place between 23 August and 31 August to discuss the bill which will give restitution of land and property seized by the Communists. The bill was approved by the Chamber of Deputies judicial committee after opposition members left the debate when no details of financial implication were available to the committee. This session of the Chamber of Deputies promises vigorous debate with Victor Ciorba, leader of the National Christian Democratic Alliance (ANCD) and former Prime Minister attempting to amend the proposed laws. He is also prepared to initiate a series of bills to regulate the restitution and privatisation of these properties if his amendments fail. At the same time the Hungarian Alliance (UDMR) leader, Marko Bela, is determined that the government's promise to restore property formally owned by religious denominations should be delivered as soon as possible.

Romania's political parties are involved in much discussion and positioning over alliances that may be made either before, during or after the general elections. Prime Minister Radu Vasile's comments that he did not exclude an alliance with the left wing have continued to create political waves. The PNTCD and the PNL have both declared against an alliance with the "red left wing". This leaves Vasile, a member of the PNTCD, in a difficult position when the congress of his party meet in October to discuss party and leadership issues. The Social Democratic Party of Romania (PDSR) have been discussing with other left-wing parties the establishment of a Social Democratic Union. The Democratic Party (PD) and the Alliance for Romania (ApR) both believe that a strong social democratic grouping can only take place through merger by absorption. The Romanian Humanist Party (PUR) have, however, agreed to co-operate with the PDSR in local elections with mutual support for the candidate with the best vote in the second round of polling.

Valeriu Tabara, leader of the Party of the National Romanian Unity (PUNR), has announced that he is also to stand in the Presidential elections. The formal decision to adopt him as candidate is to be taken at the PUNR conference which is to take place in Bucharest during September.

Democratic Party chairman Petre Roman announced on Tuesday that he would stand in the Presidential elections. He went on to say that the PD would make no alliances before the elections and if offered the opportunity to become part of a government team the PD would only do so if the government programme matched the beliefs of the party. In his speech made at Targu Mures he called for "peaceful and fruitful living together" between the Hungarian and Romanian communities and denounced extremist nationalism. He said that the PD wanted the region to build on its history, and lead co-operation between all Romanians in the drive towards membership of the EU. He said, "we respect and back your fidelity toward your national cultural values and we expect to receive from you a political pledge of fidelity toward the Romanian national unitary state." (RFE -17 August.) His announcement and speech has brought comment from across the political spectrum. PUNR have denounced the speech as an electoral message claiming that the ruling coalition has betrayed Transylvanians. PDSR have named Roman a politician of many compromises while UDMR consider his message to be "European and poised."

A Hungarian-language high school in Oradea is to open as a private ecclesiastical university in September specifically for the Hungarian minority. Details of the Partium Christian University, which plans to have outposts throughout Transylvania, were announced by Bishop Lazlo Tokes at the Ady Endre Academy in Debrecen, Hungary on Monday.

Nationalism seems to be rearing its head on the football ground. At the weekend Resita, who are bottom of the 18 team Romanian league, were beaten 5-2 by Astra Ploisti. This led to angry fans demanding that they should leave the Romanian league and join the Hungarian league. There were violent clashes with the police. The fans fear that discrimination against Transylvania will force their side into relegation and accused the Romanian Soccer Federation and the Bucharest clubs of conspiring against them.

Romanian painter Ion Pacea died on Friday after a long illness. He was 74. Iona Berenda of the Romanian Artists' Union said, "He was modest and very polite with everyone. He was one of a golden generation."(Associated Press, August 16) Pacea was noted for oil paintings in vivid colour which used the Romanian countryside as inspiration.

Catherine Lovatt and David Lovatt, 20 August1999


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