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BUDAPEST, Jan 20 2012 (IPS) - Protests in Hungary and Romania are the first signs of anti-systemic mobilisation in the Eastern half of the continent. While protests in both countries indicate dissatisfaction with their governments’ authoritarian turn, their origins differ, as does the European Union’s reaction to them.
Romania, EU member since 2007 and Hungary, which joined in 2004, have both been badly hit by the economic crisis.
Romanian and Hungarian protesters of various social and ideological backgrounds have poured into the streets this month, demanding fundamental changes in their political systems, and accusing the political elite of degenerating into authoritarianism while ignoring growing poverty.
Comparisons with 1989 are rife among demonstrators. Around 80 percent of Hungarians and Romanians believe their countries are headed in the wrong direction and are disappointed not just by their right-wing governing parties, but by the entire political system.
Opposition parties appear hopeless and powerless to oppose governmental authority, especially in Hungary where the conservative Fidesz party won the 2010 elections with a two-thirds majority.
Hungary’s protesters are so far peaceful and well organised: the peak of mobilization was on Jan. 2 when 70,000 people mobilised by several novel social movements gathered in Budapest to protest the government’s new conservative constitution.
The EU is arguing that provisions in the country’s new constitution challenge the independence of the central bank, the data protection authority and the judiciary, but the government is also being criticised for curtailing media freedoms, criminalising the poor and conducting purges in the public administration.
Romania’s protests are more spontaneous and at times, violent. Thousands have protested in various cities around the country, the trigger being a government attempt to privatise the healthcare system.
The draft law was in the meantime withdrawn, but people are continuing demonstrations to protest unemployment, lowering living standards, corruption and authoritarianism.
“The protests are a sign of normality, of a society that cannot bear the harshest austerity measures in Europe,” Victoria Stoiciu, a Romanian political scientist told IPS, “but it’s more than that, people are questioning the whole system and the entire way of doing politics in Romania. It resembles the situation of Madrid’s indignados.”
In 2009, shortly after the global financial crisis, Romania accepted a 20 billion euro loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the EU Commission which would help stabilise its currency and its banking sector in exchange for government commitment to austerity measures.
Critics say the government’s commitment to austerity policies has given Romania’s ruling politicians more leeway to act as they please: “Romania has been an extremely diligent and submissive student of the EU and IMF,” says Ciprian Siulea, a founding member of CriticAtac, the main leftist discussion forum in the country.
“This is why the obvious and repeated infringement of democratic rules and values is overlooked. In a certain sense, politics came to an end and we are governed mainly by economics,” he told IPS.
Romania’s government is accused of ignoring official and unofficial mechanisms of social dialogue, approving laws without any consultation or parliamentary debates, manipulating elections and splitting opposition parties with corrupt means.
Labour has been especially hit by the authoritarian drift. Justifying it with austerity measures, the government has promoted temporary employment and facilitated the dismissal of trade union leaders.
National collective bargaining and the collective work agreement, the most important tools in fixing the minimum wage, have been abolished, while the government has created several legal hurdles over demonstrations.
The austerity package has also meant a 25 percent cut in public sector salaries. This has had an enormous negative impact on the image of conservative President Traian Basescu, the ‘big boss’ of Romanian politics.
Basescu came to power as a protector of global capital and free markets against an alleged communist oligarchy in the country, much in contrast to Orban who, while also elected under a promise to protect the population from the post-communist oligarchy, claimed this group was linked to foreign capital.
But now Hungary faces the possibility of a full-blown debt crisis and is seeking a Western loan of 20 billion euros – the same amount requested by Romania in the past – backtracking on its promise to pursue a sovereign and independent economic policy that keeps austerity measures at bay.
This is why Hungarian protesters feel the West is on their side – even if only for the sake of promoting the EU’s economic policy among member states – whereas for Romanians Basescu’s commitment to austerity means the EU will probably keep ignoring their cause.
“Contrary to what happened in Hungary, Romania was very much in line with the economic policies of the IMF and the EU,” Stoiciu told IPS.
However, Stoiciu notes that the Romanian leadership has been careful not to step on the most visible pillars of contemporary liberal democracy. “The abuses were not as flagrant as in Hungary. It is the ‘spirit’ of democracy that has been violated in Romania, not its legal framework. The government, and especially the president, was always playing at the limit of the Constitution, but never clearly against it.”
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