A week ago Romanians took to the streets in support of Raed Arafat, who quit his deputy health minister position after disagreements with President Basescu over a new healthcare plan that would see most of the emergency ambulance system become private.
Arafat, a Syrian-born Palestinian, is highly admired and respected by Romanians for establishing the public emergency ambulance system in the country. A few days into the protests, President Traian Basescu announced he was withdrawing the healthcare reform plan in response to the massive opposition against it. Prime Minister Emil Boc reinstated Raed Arafat as deputy health minister and promised to find a better way to reform the Romanian healthcare system.
But the spark had been lit and the fire it caused kept burning. Romanians continued coming out on the streets every evening, demanding the government and the President to step down and voicing their frustrations toward all the austerity measures they have been silent about since 2008. The protesters spoke also about the endemic corruption of the political system, the rising level of unemployment, the 25% cuts of wages in the public system, the ongoing dispute over the exploitation of the gold resources in the city of Rosia Montana, and even about the legalization of marijuana.
“There are people of all ages in University Square (of Bucharest), including 10-year olds yelling “Down with Basescu”, said Catalina Ciorei, a Romanian student who took part in the protests on Thursday. “Being there gives you goose bumps”, she added. According to Ciorei, representatives of an NGO were handing protesters a “guide for civil disobedience”. The guide stated the protesters’ rights as guaranteed by the Romanian constitution. Heart-shaped balloons were also being given away.
“We want malls to be closed and factories to be opened”
Violence erupted between the protesters and the riot police a few times throughout the week-long social unrest. Many accused the football fans of throwing the first rocks toward the riot police. Some Romanian TV channels focused their coverage on the perpetrators of violence and soon the football fans were seen as the source of the evil. A football fan then wrote a manifest and sent it to the media.
In the manifest, the author who has come to be known by the first name of Mircea gathers many of the Romanian protesters’ concerns. He claims the protesters want laws made by public debate, with the citizens’ support, and not passed through Parliament by a majority more interested in political games than by the best interest of the citizens. According to the manifest, the protesters want debates on any issue, including the anti-missile shield (recently installed in Romania by the US). “We want malls to be closed and factories to be opened”, the author of the manifest goes on to write, claiming that Romanians want a prosperous industry, agriculture, and thus jobs instead of low consumerism. What people do not want anymore, according to the author of the manifest, is misery, corruption, bad management of public money, unfair public bids, and strange political unions (as it is considered to be the current union between the Social Democrat Party and the National Liberal party, both in opposition).
“The anti-crisis measures that were taken, although among the roughest in Europe, were as effective as they could get considering the circumstances imposed by the IMF. But the continued defiance, corruption scandals and general mismanagement of public funds and public policy are, in my opinion, the main things for which people felt the need to protest”, said Marius Iliescu, a Law student in Bucharest.
In downtown Bucharest, the capital city of Romania, University Square has been the scene of the most dramatic protests. The place is of symbolic significance to the Romanians. It is here where many scenes of the revolution that overthrew the communist regime in 1989 unfolded, and it is also here where the peaceful student protests were repressed in 1990 by miners specially brought to the capital by the first post-communist president of the country. University Square is the place where many Bucharest residents came in 2004 to celebrate with Traian Basescu his success in the elections and to cheer his speech delivered in front of thousands of people on that New Year’s Eve. Seven years and numerous political scandals and strict austerity measures later, the people came back to University Square for the opposite reason: to demand Basescu to step down.
Even though he spoke to the press on various occasions, the President barely addressed the issue of the protests. He jokingly asked the press at an event how come they were not somewhere out there covering the manifestations.
Traian Basescu, President of Romania since 2004.
Romanian Presidential Administration
The protests and the President’s silence have given the opposition the perfect opportunity to demand Basescu to step down and organize early elections. The opposition parties organized their own rally on Thursday, which eventually joined the crowd protesting in University Square. Even though some people support the opposition, many others complained their apolitical protests have been used by the opposition to seek political gains before the parliamentary elections scheduled for the second part of the year.
A member of the European Parliament who is part of the main opposition party in Romania compared President Basescu to the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been accused recently of trying to impose an authoritarian regime in his country. Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc, who is part of the same party as President Basescu, had a meeting in the same day with the representatives of his party in the European Parliament. The meeting was expected to produce a reaction to the actions being taken by the representatives of the Romanian opposition in the European Parliament to put pressure on the current government and on the President of Romania.
Part of the former Eastern European communist bloc, Romania joined the European Union on the 1st of January 2007, together with Bulgaria.