January 19, 2012
By NICHOLAS KULISH
BUCHAREST, Romania — Thousands of protesters gathered in Romania’s capital on Thursday to demand the ouster of the government and new elections, as a week of demonstrations against far-reaching austerity measures and years of difficult reforms seemed to gain strength.
Economic frustrations have spilled into the streets here, as they have in Spain and Greece. Protesters in University Square downtown shouted chants calling for the resignation of President Traian Basescu and his ally, Prime Minister Emil Boc.
Around 11 p.m. several demonstrators began dragging metal barricades into the street, and some hurled bottles and other objects at the police. Hundreds of riot police officers in black ski masks moved in, clearing the square and nearby streets. Fifty-five people were arrested, and five were treated for injuries, according to Realitatea TV.
The demonstrations were reminiscent of Sunday’s protests, which turned violent, with demonstrators smashing store windows, setting newsstands on fire and throwing stones at police officers, who dispersed the crowds with tear gas and arrested dozens of people.
The wave of protests, which have spread across the country, broke out after a popular health official resigned last week over government proposals to overhaul the health-care system. The official was reinstated this week, and a controversial proposal to partly privatize the medical emergency-response system has been shelved for now, but the protests have continued.
“I want the president to resign, the prime minister to resign and the entire government to be replaced with experts who are not involved in politics,” said Mihaela Leonte, 31, a hairstylist who joined the raucous crowd in the square in Bucharest on Thursday night. The dispute over the health overhaul “was the final straw,” said Ms. Leonte, who held a picture of President Basescu with the nose of a pig superimposed on his face. “But it is more than that. People are determined.”
Protesters focused much of their anger on Mr. Basescu, a former ship captain whose leadership style has been widely criticized as increasingly authoritarian. They cited cuts to government salaries, frozen pensions and an increase in the value-added tax, as well as what they said was deep-seated corruption and a broader sense that the government served only its own interests and those of its richest constituents.
Many of the same broad themes have been voiced by demonstrators in countries as diverse as Israel and India, from the “indignados,” or outraged, in Spain to the Occupy Wall Street protests that started in New York and spread around the world.
In Romania, news media reported that the unrest had spread over the past week to about 60 cities nationwide. About 7,000 people turned up at a rally in Bucharest on Thursday organized by the opposition National Liberal Party, according to the Ministry of the Interior, and the crowd in the downtown square later was said to number about 1,500.
Romania had to turn to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union in 2009 for 20 billion euros in emergency loans (about $27 billion at the exchange rates then). In response the government took tough steps to rein in the budget deficit, which was 7.3 percent of gross domestic product that year. Without the spending cuts and tax increases, that could have risen to 13.7 percent in 2010, according to Andreea Paul, an economic adviser to Mr. Boc. Instead the deficit was cut to 6.9 percent in 2010 and an estimated 4.2 percent in 2011, and the economy began to grow again.
“It was not easy at all, politically speaking, but these are times when political leaders separate themselves from demagogic politicians,” said Ms. Paul, who placed blame for the protests on opposition parties trying to drum up discontent in an election year.
Laura Stefan, a senior analyst at the Expert Forum, a research institute in Bucharest, disputed the government’s characterization of the demonstrations as driven by the opposition parties. “Economically, those were sound decisions taken by the government, but that doesn’t mean people were happy with them,” Ms. Stefan said. “It’s not at all an attempt to change the government for the opposition, but people saying that all parties are just as dirty.”
Octavian Caldararu, 75, a retired construction worker, said he was not a member of any party but took part in the opposition rally at Bucharest’s triumphal arch, modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, to show his displeasure with the direction the country had taken in recent years. “I took part in the revolution in 1989” against the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Mr. Caldararu said, “and the ideals of the revolution have not only been forgotten, they have been broken.”
Mr. Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Dec. 25, 1989. Since then, Romania has made significant strides, joining the European Union and NATO. But the recession in the wake of the global financial crisis struck the country of 22 million particularly hard. And even as the economy has recovered here, some Romanians who used to work in other European Union countries whose economies have slowed, particularly Spain and Italy, have been forced to come home, making the search for jobs even harder for the long-term unemployed.
Alexandru Dragan, 46, an electro-technician, said he had been unemployed since 2009 despite having a lengthy résumé and work experience in Germany.
“Regular Romanian citizens who are not a part of any political party should be asked about new laws,” Mr. Dragan said. “If we look at the people, we can find smarter individuals than the ones in the current government.”
Mihai Radu contributed reporting.