Economy & Trade, Europe, Financial Crisis, Headlines, Human Rights

ROMANIA: Fixing the Economy, Not Lives

Claudia Ciobanu

PRAGUE, Sep 20 2011 (IPS) - The economic crisis has led Romanian authorities to take some of the toughest austerity measures in Central and Eastern Europe. While no big opposition movement emerged as a result, a special kind of protest has taken place: some have committed suicide to get their messages across.

The Romanian centre-right government’s response to the economic crisis centered around a 20 billion euros loan from the International Monetary Fund and European institutions in 2009, and a set of austerity measures adopted in 2010 to keep the budget deficit below 7 percent of GDP.

The government also ought to keep the country’s indebtedness at around 35 percent of GDP that year. Romania has one of the lowest public debts in the EU, with only three other countries faring better.

The measures adopted last year included a 25 percent cut in public salaries, 15 percent cuts in social assistance, including disability benefits and children’s allowances, and cuts in subsidies for medical treatments – hitting especially people with chronic diseases, such as AIDS, and mental conditions.

According to 2008 Eurostat data, Romania, alongside Latvia, spends the smallest percentage of its GDP on social protection (14 percent, compared to the 26 percent EU average). Yet authorities last year started a crackdown on social benefits which they argued represented a serious burden for the national budget: almost a quarter of persons on minimum income support and thousands of people on disability allowances saw their benefits cancelled or suspended last year on account of newly discovered bureaucratic irregularities.

Last year, according to World Bank figures, the country experienced 1.3 percent GDP contraction, with a mild recovery expected this year (1.5 percent) – if all goes well.

While the GDP presents a fairly calm picture, the social effects of the austerity measures are another story. According to Bucharest-based Institute for Quality of Life Research, quality of life deteriorated in 2010 to levels rarely seen after 1989: a third of Romanians said they could not afford even the basic necessities, and more than 50 percent expected their lives to worsen in the next decade.

At the same time, thousands of medics left the country as a result of salary reductions, hundreds of foster parents gave up children in their care, and pensioners have been routinely spending nights queing for free bread offered by municipalities.

And then there are the suicides.

According to the National Forensic Medicine Institute, suicide rates have been steadily increasing in Romania since 2008, reaching 14 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010. A study published this July by Lancet medical journal confirmed that the recent crisis has led to a hike in suicide rates across Europe, with increases more stark in old member states, a trend mainly explained through the effect of rising unemployment on mental well-being.

What is remarkable in Romania is that some of those committing suicide have explicitly linked their gesture to the economic situation in the country and the failure of the government to protect the most vulnerable.

In December, just a few days before Christmas, Adrian Sobaru, a 43-year-old technician working for national television, jumped from a balcony in the parliament during a session. “You have killed our future!” he shouted just before je jumped. “You have taken the bread away from my children’s mouths!”

Sobaru, who reportedly earned around 300 euros monthly, was a father of two. One of the children suffered from autism: the allowance for carers of disabled persons, which Sobaru was cashing, had been reduced, and this, alongside salary cuts, prevented the family from offering proper care to the child.

In June this year, pensioner Petre Morjan set himself on fire in front of the presidential palace in Bucharest. The man, who survived the attempt, told national media that his pension had been reduced and his protests were ignored. On the contrary, he claimed, he had been asked to pay a bribe in order to see his pension increased.

“In Romania, we still fail to understand what human dignity means, what respecting the law and democracy mean – we are still waiting to have a real democracy here…but everything has a limit, any despair reaches its brink,” Morjan commented.

Morjan spoke of teacher Cristiana Anghel who last went on hunger strike for 70 days last year, and ended her strike only after intervention by a priest. The teacher, who was protesting against salary cuts, declared after ending her strike, “It was worth it because it was a way to restore my dignity, to prove that I can protest and that I can stand against the tide.”

In early September, 56-year old Ioan Pohaci sued the pensions regulatory body (Casa de Pensii) for allegedly mistreating him for making a request over his reduced disability pension. In his complaint to the court, the man officially demanded that he be euthanised if his case is not solved to his satisfaction. “Casa de Pensii treated me like a slave,” the man told national media. “I am very sick and I cannot afford my treatment. If the court cannot help me, then it is simply better that I be euthanised.”

These cases are not unique, they fell under intense public scrutiny because the people putting their life on the line associated their actions with explicit and articulate political messages.

“Ours is a strictly electoral democracy,” says political scientist Victoria Stoiciu from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, “that is, here, exercising one’s democratic rights means just going to vote; there are no effective communication channels between the electorate and their representatives: no civic mobilisation, no functional pressure groups.

“Such an environment is a fertile ground for extreme gestures,” Stoiciu told IPS. “Even more, gestures of protest can only be extreme because, as the individual cannot make use of the strength and visibility that being a part of a group brings, then he or she feels the need to resort to desperate gestures in order to draw attention to the personal plight.”

Sociologist Bogdan Voicu from the Institute for Quality of Life Research agrees that such individual gestures are caused by a failure of democratic practices in Romania.

“Our society lacks a culture of public debate and negotiations. This is explained by the long period of communism following an inter-war period which, despite being the times of modern flourishing of the country, saw only authoritarian leaderships: democracy was not allowed to develop until 1989 and, according to some, even afterwards.

“People do not trust and do not use either official institutions that could mediate between themselves and authorities or civil organisations in which they could get together and create public patters of action,” Voicu added. “In this situation, what is left are desperate gestures which can attract the media and thus ensure attention.”

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