The EU demanded austerity in Romania – now there are riots

Jan 18, 2012
Neil Clark

Thousands are demonstrating across Romania – is this the start of a European Spring?

ONE YEAR AGO this week, President Ben Ali of Tunisia became the first casualty of the 2011 Arab Spring. Could we now be witnessing in Romania the first shoots of a European Spring?

Over the last few days, the republic in south-eastern Europe – a member of the EU for the past five years - has witnessed large-scale public protests against the government‘s harsh austerity programme.

On Sunday, more than 10,000 took to the streets in the capital Bucharest. Fifty-nine people were injured in clashes with the authorities. Worse could come with the Romanian police union warning that its members might join the protests because of unpaid wages.

The disturbances are undoubtedly embarrassing for the EU, the IMF and those western leaders for whom the Romanian government has been a staunch ally.

The Romanian government - unlike the government of neighbouring Hungary, where there have also been anti-government protests - has done everything that the EU and international lenders have demanded of it.

In 2009, the government took out a £16.5bn loan from the IMF, the EU and the World Bank in return for making savage cuts in spending. VAT has been hiked to 24 per cent, while public sector pay has been slashed by 25 per cent.

Romania’s ruling elite is also in the West's good books for its foreign policy. Romania dutifully sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. It has even been claimed in a Council of Europe report that the Mihail Kogalniceanu international airport was a “black site” involved in the CIA’s extraordinary renditions programme.

On his visit to the White House last September, President Basescu, a hard-core Atlanticist, was formally “congratulated” for signing up to the US-Romania Ballistic Missile Defence Agreement and the US-Romania Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century. While on a visit to Israel last year, Prime Minister Emil Boc was told by his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu: “The people of Israel know that we have a great friend in the Romanian government.”

So, Western leaders will be hoping that the Romanian government can survive the current disturbances intact.

But it seems that ordinary Romanians, who have seen their living standards plummet, have had enough. The ferocity of the protests - banks have been smashed up and petrol bombs thrown - has clearly shaken the government. Raed Arafat, a popular health official who opposed a bill which would have privatised parts of the health service, has been reinstated. And Prime Minister Boc has been forced to adopt a more conciliatory “I feel your pain” tone.

But the bad news for Boc and his colleagues in the governing Democratic Liberal party is that the disturbances show no sign of abating. “People are now standing up for themselves against the government’s corruption,” one protester, Brianna Caradja, told the BBC. “There are thousands of people demonstrating in over 40 cities - this uprising is bigger than the 1989 Romanian revolution.”

If a ‘European Spring’ does kick off in Romania and people power deposes the regime there, it will be interesting to see how the western leaders who cheered on anti-government protestors in Libya and Syria react.

It’s easy to take the moral high ground and condemn Middle Eastern governments for using force against their protesters, but what will the response be if European capitals beyond Athens – where thousands of strikers were on the march yesterday  - are taken over by angry protesters, throwing stones and petrol bombs, and making a beeline for the corridors of power?

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