Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 24
8 March 1999

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I T A:
King Coal and His Miners

Catherine Lovatt

History has shown that many events are comparable despite being the result of different circumstances. The recent Romanian miners strike is no exception. In 1990 and 1991, under the leadership of Miron Cosma, the miners marched into Bucharest in protest against government opposition. In January 1999, Cosma again attempted to assert his power by calling the miners to protest once more. However similar these events may appear, there are several distinguishing factors that help to dispel the fear of a repeated revolutionary struggle.

The aftermath of the Ceausescu regime brought with it the uncertainties of transition. The 'system' could not change over night. Ion Iliescu, the new Romanian President, capitalised on the situation to legitimately establish his position. As an ex-communist he drew support from the old vanguard to diminish any opposition he faced. The miners, composed of many ex-securitate, provided a force strong enough to quell any discontent. In 1990, student sit-ins at Universitate threatened the new regime. Iliescu's allergy to criticism encouraged him to invite Miron Cosma and his miners into Bucharest to alleviate the problem. Seven deaths were officially recorded. In 1991 the miners returned to repeat the operation, pillaging and ransacking the streets. This time they opposed the Prime Minister's (Petre Roman) calls for faster economic and political reform which contrasted with Iliescu's desire for slow rehabilitation. Roman was sacked.

The operation had been manufactured and enforced from above. The aims: to remove any opposition to the new regime, to threaten any potential opposition movements and to teach the country a lesson in mastery. Unfortunately for Iliescu the 'march of the miners' had little desired affect. An independent students' union soon revived, the print press eventually re-emerged and Iliescu's regime was confronted with international resentment. As Rothschild has said 'the concentration of power and the structure of privilege had tenaciously survived the fall of Ceausescu' (Return to Diversity, 1993). The collapse of Communism had not brought with it the collapse of authoritarianism.

The circumstances of the 1999 miners' strike differ greatly from those earlier in the decade. The protest was not ordered from above but encouraged from within. The change of government in 1996 removed Iliescu from power and replaced him with a more liberal leader, Emil Constantinescu. The position of the nationalist, Cosma, and his force of miners remained unchanged and they found themselves without the support of the coalition government.

The threatened pit closures were the catalyst that led the striking miners on their violent march from the Jiu Valley towards Bucharest. Already paid twice as much as most Romanians, the miners were demanding wage rises of 35% and a reversal of pit closures. However, unlike the early 1990s they were unable to secure sustained public support for their demands. This, alongside the new government policies meant that their position was greatly weakened especially as half of the country's miners had already accepted government redundancy terms (BBC News Online Network, 4 January 1999).

Despite the weakened position of the miners the government reacted in an extreme fashion. They misdiagnosed the problem, acting upon fears of past events rather than looking at the present circumstances in a rational manner. Constantinescu warned that he would declare a 'state of emergency' if the miners continued to march on Bucharest. The argument behind the statement being that it would enable the government to bring in troops to quell the disturbance. This shows hints of the 1990 reaction but with reversed roles. Then, the miners were brought in from the towns and countryside to rid Bucharest of any opposition. Now, the miners are the opposition.

Constantinescu was also quoted to say that if the miners continued their violent campaign then the country would have 'no future' (BBC News Online Network, 21 January 1999). Again, this was an extreme reaction and suggests that the government were out of control of the situation. Reports have said that the miners were highly organised but only armed with rocks, Molotov Cocktails, clubs and shovels. When confronted with trained police and military armed with tear gas and air guns one can hardly call them a strong force aiming to depose the government.

The government justified their reaction by claiming the miners were being manipulated by political forces opposed to economic change and the declared policy of closer links with the West. This argument highlights the conspiratorial attitude that the government possesses: an attitude that is a relic of the years of Communist rule. Yet, Cosma, is a member of the nationalist organisation, the Greater Romanian Party, which contains many ex-Communists and Securitate. Nationalist organisations such as these could still be clinging to the old Communist ideals and manipulating groups such as the miners to achieve their own ends. But still this seems unlikely and far- fetched. Cosma's power base is shrinking and his membership of the party has been suspended until the miners' dispute is resolved.

One continuing factor that connects 1990, 1991 and 1999 is Cosma himself. He is revered by the miners and reviled by others. His local position and his role amongst the miners has earned him the title 'King Coal.' Nationally, however, his power and position have diminished since 1996. When Iliescu and his government of ex-Communists ruled, Cosma was untouchable. A short while after Iliescu's fall Cosma was in prison for illegal possession of firearms. Recently Cosma has again been arrested and imprisoned for eighteen years by the country's Supreme Court who held him responsible for the 1991 miners' march on Bucharest. Cosma has been made a scapegoat, in 1991 he was the hero. Locally, his status remains intact. His negotiation of compromise over the recent miners' protest has resulted in the miners returning home and an end to the pit closures. The government has backed down and has identified weakness when in a relatively strong position. Cosma's power and influence is greatly reduced but his individuality and strength of personality may be enough to retain his local status.

Conspiracy and fear are two main factors that influence the decision making process of the Romanian government. Their inability to distinguish one set of circumstances from another in the cycle of history has clouded their vision and rendered them immobile. Unlike the 1990 and 1991 miners' strikes the latest protest has come from below. The miners are no longer a force for government control. The government has become obsessed with the threat of being overthrown and they have failed to see the strength of their own position. Communism has left its imprint deeply embellished on Romanian society.

Catherine Lovatt, 8 March 1999


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