Romanians on the streets

By bne IntelliNews January 18, 2012

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If ever one needed an illustration of the growing disconnect between the Romanian people and their feckless politicians, then the waves of protests rocking the nation's cities for the sixth day running are surely it.

What began as a series of small demonstrations against proposed reforms to the healthcare system, have quickly snowballed into violent protests against economic reforms in general and the entire political system. "Newsstands, cars and a shop were set ablaze while riot police reportedly fired warning shots and used water cannons to disperse the crowd. Such violence may be discouraging other potential demonstrators to join the crowds, but an escalation of the protests remains likely," says Ana-Maria Morarescu, an economist with ING Bank Romania.

What initially brought people onto the streets were proposed changes to the dilapidated and cash-starved healthcare system that triggered the resignation of Under-Secretary of State for Health Raed Arafat, a popular and respected ethnic Palestinian doctor who created an efficient medical emergency system, but was critical of the draft bill which aims to privatise parts of the health system.

Small rallies in support of Arafat on January 13 quickly metastasized, descending into violence on January 14 and 15 as protestors clashed with police, leaving more than 70 people wounded. While politicians did their best to blame "football hooligans" from the "inept and violent slums", the government and President Traian Basescu - who helped spark the protests by accusing Arafat of leftist views on a TV show - clearly realised they misjudged the mood of the public and have tried to make amends.

Basescu has since announced the draft law be withdrawn and a new draft bill debated, and on January 17 Prime Minister Emil Boc reappointed Arafat. "He will resume his job as deputy health minister," Boc told the press, Reuters reported. "Mr Arafat remains the same expert and professional in his field... and will be part of the team working on the new healthcare bill."

However, given that the protests have moved beyond that narrow issue to one of wider dissatisfaction against the government's austerity measures and handling of the economy, few believe the protests will stop there. "The demands of Romania's protesters are political, and political demands need serious political responses," writes Cristian Cercel, a commentator for Observator, a Bucharest cultural weekly. "If Romanian authorities stubbornly continue to behave as if this were not the case, the 'inept and violent slums' might force Romanian politicians to be accountable to their electorate."

The problem for the government is that though the economy has perked up since the middle of last year after a deep recession for two years, it's been a jobless recovery. GDP growth turned positive in 2011 as activity expanded by an estimated 3%, aided by still strong external demand and a bumper harvest that probably made up a third of the growth figure. However, the unemployment rate has continued inching north, touching 7.7% in September, a level not seen since 2005.

Getting there has been hard on the population, with some of the continent's toughest austerity measures pushed through by the government last year, including deep public sector pay cuts. This has left the population in a funk and in no mood to be lectured at by their venal and widely despised politicians.

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