guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 24 January 2012
Days of protests in Romania over government austerity measures have intensified, with thousands of demonstrators marching through Bucharest and elsewhere to demand elections.
The crowd in the capital, mainly trade unionists, teachers, nurses and retired army officers, gathered outside the main government building then marched to the HQ of the public television station, accused of being biased in its coverage of the administration of the prime minister, Emil Boc.
The protesters then moved on to University Square, where people have been assembling daily since 13 January.
Otilia Dobrica, a nursery teacher and part-time secretary, said she wanted Boc and his ally, President Traian Basescu, to resign. "I want to regain my dignity, I want this dictatorship formed by president and prime minister to fall," she said.
About 5,000 people chanted anti-government slogans in Iasi, Romania's second city, calling for the elections due in November to be brought forward.
Tuesday Boc address parliament at a special session for Romania's Day of Unity, a national holiday, and urged Romanians to work together to overcome the economic hardship facing the country during the global financial crisis.
The president also addressed the protesters. Basescu said: "I have seen a justified wave of discontent from people who … suffered wage cuts, VAT hike and a cut in certain pensions."
Romania joined the EU in 2007 (though not the eurozone), and its economy enjoyed 8% growth in 2007 and 2008. But in 2009 the economy shrank by more than 7%, leading the government to arrange a £16bn loan with the IMF, EU and World Bank to help pay salaries and pensions.
Following austerity measures imposed under the deal, the economy has limped back into growth, but at the cost of reducing incomes, which are less than half the EU's average. Romania's VAT rose from 19% to 24% in 2010, while public salaries were reduced by a quarter.
Many protesters are also angry at what they see as cronyism and corruption.
In the first weekend of protests more than 30 people were injured in University Square when demonstrators threw bricks while riot police fired teargas. A TV journalist was beaten by one group while broadcasting live.
Boc has made a few concessions in the face of the protests, such as reinstating a popular health official whose resignation prompted one demonstration.
On Monday, he fired his foreign minister, Teodor Baconschi, for having insulted protesters on his personal blog. The future of Romania, Baconschi wrote, would be decided by hard-working people and not by those from the "violent and clueless slums". Cristian Diaconescu, a member of a coalition partner party who has served in both leftist and centrist governments, was sworn in as his replacement on Tuesday.
Boc, who has been in power since December 2008, said in a speech on Monday that the protests were not just aimed at him: "Romanians protest not only because they are unhappy with the austerity measures, but because they are unhappy with the entire political class in Romania, not only with the government."
But, current opinion polls show his PDL party standing at 18% support, while the USL, a leftwing alliance also calling for early elections, has 50%.
Adding to Boc's woes has been the prominence given in the media to anti-government comments by Lt Alexandru Gheorghe, a serving officer. Members of the military are forbidden to join protests, but Gheorghe told the private Antena 3 TV station he had travelled 300 miles to Bucharest from his army base to take part. "I can no longer bear the way we are insulted," he said. "I saw old people beaten, and said to myself that we, the officers, who could die tomorrow in a mission in Afghanistan, must have the courage to fight and tell the truth here in our country."
Romania joined the Nato alliance in 2004, and 1,700 Romanian troops are in Afghanistan. The defence ministry said it was investigating what action to take against Gheorghe.