Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Romania PM reappoints deputy minister to ease anger

BUCHAREST, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Romania's Prime Minister Emil Boc on Tuesday reappointed a popular deputy health minister, whose resignation last week over proposed healthcare reforms sparked violent protests across the country.

Raed Arafat, a respected Palestinian-born doctor who created an efficient medical emergency system in Romania, resigned after criticising the draft bill, which aimed to privatise parts of the health system and is backed by President Traian Basescu.

Protests which initially began on Thursday in support of Arafat have widened to express general discontent against government spending cuts. Arafat's return is unlikely to satisfy thousands of Romanians who have staged street protests for five straight days and are gearing up for more.

Protests in Bucharest on Tuesday drew more than 1,000 people but were largely peaceful. More rallies were expected on Wednesday, riot police officials have said. Thousands of protesters demonstrated in other cities.

"The protests signify an undercurrent of strong anti-Basescu feeling as well as discontent with the government's austerity measures," Barclays Capital' Daniel Hewitt said in a note.

"This is hardly a game changer, but it is negative for the government because Romania had been relatively quiet for some time."

Riot police estimated that a total 13,000 protesters have hit the streets across the country since Friday. Bucharest has seen Romania's worst unrest in more than a decade.

Small rallies in support of Arafat quickly turned into wider protests calling for the resignation of Basescu and Boc's centrist coalition government, even though it has now withdrawn the healthcare bill.

"He will resume his job as deputy health minister," Boc told reporters. "Mr Arafat remains the same expert and professional in his field ... and will be part of the team working on the new healthcare bill."

Unlike other European states, Romania had managed to avoid violent protests despite cutting state wages and jobs, freezing pensions and raising value added tax in 2010 to shore up public finances it committed under an international aid deal.

In Bucharest at the weekend, protesters smashed windows, set fire to newspaper stands and rubbish bins, damaged bus stops and buildings and hurled stones at riot police, who used tear gas.

"I think officials realised they have made a mistake in pushing away a reputed expert," said Cristian Patrasconiu, a political commentator. "But this move will not cancel the idea of protests, which have long ago moved to other topics than healthcare."

Earlier in the day, Romanian media said the International Monetary Fund had postponed a mission to review Romania's precautionary aid deal due to the protests but the Fund said it would stick to its scheduled visit which starts on Jan. 25.

"In contrast to what has just been reported in the press today, the IMF mission is still on schedule as indicated in the press notice previously sent," it said in a statement.

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