Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 22
22 November 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 14 November 1999

Catherine and David Lovatt

Unrest amongst workers and students has continued throughout the week, culminating with demonstrations on Thursday across Romania. The country's largest trade union groups have taken to the streets to protest against the government's economic performance, which has resulted in low wages, rising unemployment and rapidly declining standards of living. Workers marched through Timisoara and Ploiesti, in Constanta a protest meeting was held outside government offices and in Turnu Severin thousands took to the streets to demand job security.

Trade union leaders see these protests as only the beginning of long-term action. The National Trade Union Bloc has announced that street protests will be launched on 24 November unless the government takes steps toward meeting its demands. The Bloc wants the wage index linked to inflation, a price freeze and involvement in budget 2000 discussions. The Government has been warned that it will be forced into early elections if it does not accede to the trade union requests.

In Iasi, students confronted the police during demonstrations. They are demanding that four per cent of GPD be spent on education, that scholarships are linked to inflation, that hostels are repaired and that free, good quality health care is available to students. Student leaders have made it clear that they do not see their protest as being politically based. Academic staff are also involved in the protest. Professors from across the country who are members of the "Alma Mater" union are expected to join their striking Timisoara colleagues next week. This action is being supported by the pre-university education trade unions, who appear to be prepared to abandon the agreement they made with the government in June.

An Open Society Foundation survey did not provide any relief to Romania's government. Of the over 2000 people who were interviewed in October, 84% clearly stated that they lacked confidence in the Government, while 80% said that the lack of confidence extended to political parties and parliament.

These figures are reflected in the lack of support for President Emil Constantinescu (17%) as against his rival Ion Iliescu (44%), of the Social Democracy Party of Romania (PDSR). Those questioned cited massive unemployment, falling living standards, the slow rate of privatisation and the failure to deal with corruption as reasons for changing their allegiance.

In a survey of mixed messages, 77% of those surveyed agreed with the market economy, while a huge 87% believed that it has been advantageous only to Romanians with "the right contacts." However, 70% believe Romania is on the wrong track with, 61% reporting that they were better off under Nicolae Ceausescu. "This is a very sad picture of Romanian society. The situation in the country is very tense, the mood is bad and pessimism is on the rise," said political scientist Dorel Abraham. (Reuters - 18 November 1999)

One thing that a majority of Romanians do agree on is that property seized by the former Communist regime should be returned to its original owners. 36% of those questioned believed that there should be total restitution of property, while 41% felt that only partial restitution should be made. 59% of the sample said that damages should be paid if the property no longer exists, but this should only take place when the economy would not be damaged by such action. Meanwhile, the full land restoration bill remains in the Senate. Although the Government's deadline has passed, the future of the bill is undecided.

Two days earlier, President Constantinescu told television viewers that his third year in office was the year which would determine the future course of the reforms set in place after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. He said, "Now we are in the third year of tough (market) change, which has proved to be make-or-break for all post-Communist reforms."

He expressed his understanding of the protesting workers, who have seen living standards fall and job security become more precarious during this year, but offered no instant solutions. He reported that he believed the slow pace of reform was the principal cause of the country's present predicament, which sees Romania as one of the poorest countries in the region. "Popular discontent and its release through protests is justified. What is wrong is not the direction we are going, but the slow pace of reforms," he said.

The President told Romanians that he was determined to see through both his term of office and the range of economic reforms which have been instituted to bring the country within reach of both European Union (EU) and NATO membership. He promised the country that these reforms would take priority and would not be subordinated to populist measures to make his candidature for the presidential elections in the year 2000 more attractive.

Constantinescu did not miss the opportunity to roundly criticise his main rival, Ion Iliescu, whom he condemned for leaving the country with enormous foreign debts as a result of his actions when president. He went on to highlight the success of Romania in not only stabilising, but reducing this debt of USD 7.5 billion without needing to seek further loans.

The success of Romanian foreign policy was also a key issue in the President's comments. This success was illustrated when the headquarters of the Southeast European Co-operation Initiative (SECI) was opened this week in Bucharest. The centre is sponsored by the United States, which will provide USD 400,000 for equipment. The centre will co-ordinate regional action in the fight against organised crime throughout the ten partner states in the initiative. Minister of the Interior Constantin Dudu Ionescu welcomed the move, which he also believed would increase investment in Romania and improve business co-operation throughout the region. Nini Sapunaru of the Customs Department said, "For the first time, all the countries in the region are working together. We work together to get ready to live in a common Europe." (Reuters - 17 November 1999)

On Thursday and Friday, the sixth conference of the 54 Nations which make up the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) took place in Istanbul, Turkey. Romania was represented by the President, Emil Constantinescu. It is expected that Romania will hold the presidency of the organisation in 2001.

The President of the European People's Party (EPP), Wilfried Martens, met with Prime Minister Vasile on Tuesday. Martens expressed the support of the EPP, to which the Christian Democratic Peasant Party (PNTCD) is affiliated, for Romaniaís participation in EU accession talks. The former Belgian Prime Minister said that Romania had met the political criteria for membership. The economic criteria would be a point for negotiation following the Helsinki summit meeting in December. In inviting Vasile to attend an EPP conference prior to Helsinki, Martenís said, "Europe means solidarity and we want to show this solidarity to all candidate countries." (Nine o'clock - 17 November 1999)

Decebal Traian Remes, the Finance Minister, confirmed on Wednesday that Romania would receive the second phase payment from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stand-by loan by the end of November. He explained that there is no substance to the story that the loan will be further delayed until an IMF team visits Romania. He emphasised that the visit is solely to examine and discuss the budget for the year 2000.

The city of Arad saw the first joint Romanian-Hungarian military battalion taking part in a peace-keeping exercise on Monday. Officers from both countries, who officially communicate through the English language, emphasised the importance of such exercises in establishing trust and co-operation between the two countries.

At the beginning of the week, Ion Iliescu, in a speech to his supporters at the PDSR Youth Rally in Bucharest, said, "there is no MP or minister of the ruling parties who is not involved in businesses and who has not made a spectacular fortune." (Monitorul - 18 November 1999) As the week progressed, politicians from across the parties demanded hard proof to support the allegations. Prime Minister Radu Vasile advised his ministerial colleagues that they were free to take legal action against Iliescu following his defamatory statement. By the end of the week, Iliescu had withdrawn his statement, assuring the ruling coalition that they had misinterpreted his words as a result of the way they had been reported by the press.

The PDSR itself has not had a good week as some senior members of the party, and a large number of their supporters, have changed their allegiance to the Alliance for Romania Party (APR). The move follows the election of Alexandru Athanasiu as PDSR president and allegations that he has set up a "genuine dictatorship" in the party. In Hunedora county, at least 2400 members of the PDSR have left to join the APR, and this seems to have been repeated in several other areas of the country, according to former party secretary Dumitru Ifrim.

Even though they are trailing in opinion polls, representatives of the senior partner in the ruling coalition, the PNTCD, will meet with colleagues from the National Liberal Party (PNL), Union of Right Wing Forces, UFD and Christian-Democrat National Alliance (ANCD). The purpose of the meeting, which was arranged by the Civic Alliance, is to prepare a strategy to ensure that the PDSR does not achieve power after the next general election.

The Romanian government has put so much pressure on the Kurdish minority in the country, according to the Kurdish Information Bureau in Romania, that nineteen members of their community have started a hunger strike in protest. Ibrahim Mohamed Huseyn for the Bureau said, "Romanian Kurds want to inform public opinion and the Romanian authorities about the situation of the Kurdish people." (Agence France Presse - 15 November 1999) He continued by commenting on the increase in Kurds who have been expelled from Romania or have been prevented from settling in the country. He further raised the issue of the arrest of 14 Kurds who were accused of being involved in a plot against Pope John Paul II during his recent visit to Romania. He said that the protest would continue indefinitely.

The Minister for Minorities Peter Eckstein Kovacs has announced that a draft anti-discrimination law is to be presented to the government for its approval. The draft takes into consideration, not only religious and racial minorities, but also women, the disadvantaged, sexual minorities and children brought up in institutions. Rights of these groups in the workplace and in the economy, to individual freedoms, to have access to services and freedom from discriminatory acts are enshrined in the legislation. It has proposed to set up a National Council Against Discrimination to monitor and ensure these rights. Kovacs emphasised the need for such a law by illustrating discriminatory behaviour in Romanian society. He referred to a recent instance where the Mayor of Piatra Neamt had inappropriately used force to move a group of Roma and to the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.

Kovacs also made a personal protest this week against the erection of a statue of Marshall Antonescu in Cluj. He said that such a statue would give offence to both Roma and Jewish minorities. Antonescu instituted the anti-Semitic laws in Romania, which led to the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps. Cluj City Council has been instructed by the prefect to reconsider their decision or face court action.

The Romanian Soccer Federation has agreed to a request from international football body FIFA to monitor the publications owned by their vice-president Dumitru Dragomir. If any of his publications use racist or anti-Semitic language in the future, all Romanian soccer squads could be banned from international competition.

The Romanian Soccer Federation appointed a new national team coach at the weekend, Emeric Ienei of Steaua Bucharest. Ienei replaces Victor Piturca, who was dismissed in early November following disagreements with senior players, who suggested that he was responsible for creating tension in the squad during the European Championship matches.

As a new soccer coach was appointed, the international rugby team coach, Mircea Paraschiv, was dismissed - for creating tension in the World Cup squad. The Romanian Rugby Union Federation reported that Paraschiv was criticised by senior players following the team's performance in the competition. Now where have we heard that before?

Catherine Lovatt and David Lovatt, 19 November 1999

Sources:

Evenimentul zilei / EvZ online

Moniturul

RFE/RL

Reuters

Mediafax

Agence France-Presse

 

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