Thursday, 26 January 2012

Romania's Revolution- It's not a party like 1989

It was about 8pm when I arrived. My taxi driver pulled up on the far side of a hotel and said he would go no further. He said it was just round the other side of the building. I paid and stepped out into night air thumping with the sounds of protest.

I saw the police lorries belching exhaust fumes and the Jandarmeria, Romania’s police for civil order huddled round in groups. As I rounded the side of the hotel onto University square in the middle of Bucharest I saw the crowd spread out across it. Romanian flags were waving as protesters young and old were gathered around. “Get out you filthy dog!” came the roar. Then they switched to hoarse, boo-like yells of , “Resign! Resign!”

As I entered the crowd more detailed grievances emerged, usually written on plaques; from a few words to detailed essays. The themes were similar. Economic- They’ve taken our money, stifled our chances of earning it and denied prospects to the young. And Political- They don’t care about democracy, all our politicians are corrupt, Basescu bullies around a puppet government.

Much of the anger in Romania’s anti-government protests is being directed at President Traian Basescu. He’s been in the post for seven years and was originally popular. The problems really started since the financial crisis hit in 2008. Romania’s economy is weak, one of the weakest in the European Union. In 2009 Basescu and his government arranged a 20 billion euro loan with the International Monetary Fund, European Union and World Bank.

It helped pay salaries and pensions but came with stringent conditions. Unlike Greece, the Romanian government has tried to be financially responsible. But what might please international financiers is unlikely to please the people on the receiving end of the austerity. In 2010 sales tax was ramped straight up from 19% to 24%. Public sector salaries were slashed by a quarter. Pensions were frozen. Living standards have taken a battering.

He was getting ready to join a protest expected to bring 10,000 out onto the streets when I managed to catch him. Adrian Vasile is a University assistant doctor. He and his wife can hardly afford to pay their mortgage because of the pay cuts. “They’re happy to cut our pay, but they don’t cut the mortgage repayments even though the banks are the ones who got the IMF loan,” he says.

Adrian Vasile says he's being squeezed by the government's austerity measures.

He’s just one among countless others; a woman who has to pay her social security out of her frozen pension money; a 56 year old engineer who’s been fired after 35 years work but with no pension until he’s 65 because the law changed. Until then he’s trapped because no one will hire him. Tudor Gheorghe, 58, who won a medal from President Basescu for designing a scanner which can detect illegal cargo inside lorries. He’s handing his medal back because the government revoked the money that came with the medal to save costs.

There are many economic grievances against the Romanian government. But they’re rarely far away from political ones. Government corruption and contempt for democracy here are cited as much as austerity by people fed up with having their voices ignored. The Prime Minister Emil Boc is frequently accused of being President Basescu’s poodle. The Romanian constitution holds the president as a national arbitrator, a conciliatory political figure, not an executive one. Boc was chosen and pushed by Basescu as his candidate for Prime Minister despite widespread opposition. When parliament rejected him for the job, Basescu used his prerogative to put him forward again and he was chosen by a brow beaten parliament.

Not that the parliament is a bastion of hope either. Many highly contentious laws pass without debate and many see both government and opposition as riddled with corrupt cronyism. When various opposition politicians tried to join the protests in university square they were bundled out by angry crowds.

Many people are comparing Basescu to former Communist Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who was shot after a popular revolution in 1989. The main protests then were held in university square. Holes are now being cut out of Romanian flags just as they were then. And cartoons have emerged with Basescu’s and his wife’s face pasted onto pictures of the hated Ceausescus.

The protests in 1989 though were much bigger than this. The protest that Adrian the assistant doctor went to gathered maybe seven thousand people. In 1989 there were hundreds of thousands. The whole country was in revolt. Today the demonstrations seem like political trouble, but not a revolution. When fighting broke out with police at the end of what had been a peaceful if rowdy protest on my third day in Bucharest it was a hard core of young men and football fans who caused the trouble.

Things can get rather blown out of proportion when you’re surrounded by like-minded and outraged fellow protesters. Basescu knows that. He has come on television to say he has no intention of stepping down. He is not a dictator he says. And he adds that his austerity measures, while tough, have saved the country from recession. The IMF does confirm that it expects the Romanian economy to grow 2% this year. Basescu said that reforms under his leadership have helped reform the criminal justice and education systems. He says that he knows what must be done. “We must continue the fight against corruption and tax evasion,” and he wants to create jobs.

Mr Basescu has said nothing about the protests since they started. Now he has says a lot that sounds good. But the protesters say a lot and sound convincing too. At the moment it seems that neither of the sides seem to particularly impress the other. The protesters see Mr Basescu’s record as saying it all and his words now are to them so much hot air. For Mr Basescu the protests are simply not big enough to make him seriously worried. For the moment it’s the government that still holds the cards in Romania. If people start seeing things turn round the protests could well melt away with the spring. If they don’t though, Mr Basescu may not be able to be so blithe sitting in his presidential office.  

Police examine a protester who claims he had been affected by tear gas and beaten. He put up a hell of a fight when they tried to take him to the police van though, so they called an ambulance instead.

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