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Romanians Discover Street Protest

WARSAW, Jan 23 2012 (IPS) - For more than a week, thousands have been demonstrating in cities across Romania. Participants from all walks of life bring to the fore the broadest array of demands in what looks like a celebratory discovery of street protest. The main call is against lack of transparency and accountability in decision-making.

In 2009, Romania’s centre-right government contracted a 20 billion euro loan from the IMF; the government then adopted one of the toughest austerity packages seen in Europe, centered around 25 percent reductions in state salaries and cuts in social assistance.

What sparked the protests was a draft law to privatise the health system presented by Romanian President Traian Basescu in early January, authored by a presidential commission without public debate. The draft proposed that all medical insurance packages including basic universal coverage be managed by private funds and that emergency services be opened up to private providers.

This prompted Secretary of State Raed Arafat, the creator of an efficient ambulance system (SMURD) functional in many Romanian towns, to argue that the implementation of the new law would destroy SMURD.

For a demoralised people, this may have just constituted the last straw: people took to the streets, in Bucharest and other cities, in the hundreds and thousands, starting from Jan. 12.

“Family doctors do not want to see a reform in healthcare, emergency system employees do not want reforms, and a large section of the public does not want reform either,” Basescu declared Jan. 13 while withdrawing the draft law, apparently failing to make the distinction between “reform” and “privatisation”. It is such statements – against the backdrop of austerity – that have made Basescu increasingly unpopular.

The executive has bypassed the parliament to decide over major laws 13 times over the past four years compared to only four times during the social-democrats’ 2000-2004 mandate.

In 2011, the government introduced legislation to outlaw public gatherings near public institutions without permission as well as legislation allowing private companies to conduct expropriations in the name of the state. This last law was meant as a direct tool to help Canadian company Gold Corporation finally win its long-term battle with locals to open a cyanide-based gold exploitation in Rosia Montana, western Romania.

The end of last year saw the emergence of small episodes of public mobilisation against these government tactics: using the headings of the Spanish indignados or of the Occupy movement, young people in major cities protested the expropriation law, often merging this theme with calls for better grassroots representation.

Apparently inconsequential, these actions now find their natural continuation in this month’s protests. But what makes the current protests particularly striking is their bringing together of young educated people with other social categories most hit by austerity measures: pensioners, working class, even the homeless.

Banners seen in the centres of major towns exhibit anti-government slogans, image associations between President Basescu and communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, calls for direct democracy, criticisms of corruption (a popular display is ‘We apologise for not being able to produce as much as you steal’), expressions of desperation such as ‘We are hungry’, but also more specific demands such as the halt of the Rosia Montana project, free healthcare and decent education for all, rights for the disabled.

“There is a lot of trust among people, it is easy to discuss everything with those around even though many social groups and political positions are present, from pensioners who come and spend the afternoon in the square and working class middle aged ladies, to NGO activists, punks, anarchists, hipsters and football fans,” says PhD student Mihai Lukacs who has participated in the demonstrations.

“Everyone is looking for the same thing, direct participation, direct democracy – all political representatives attempting to come to the square have been rejected by the people. The same thing happened with fascist groups such as the New Right: they were kicked out of the square by protesters.”

Protests have on a couple of evenings turned violent, most notably during the first weekend of protest (Jan. 14-15) when bank machines and shop windows were smashed, trash bins set on fire and several people were wounded by flying rocks. Different accounts claim that the violence was committed by football fans, or by provocateurs infiltrated by the government or the police, or by angry youth wanting to smash the symbols of neo-liberalism. The media has focused extensively on the violence.

Yet sociologist Mircea Kivu argues that too much attention to the violence erodes both the understanding of the protests and their strength: “Identifying the ‘violent people’ as a common enemy of the police and demonstrators creates a new theme that replaces the core message of these protests: the exasperation that brought people to the streets in the first place. The debate becomes centered on the violence, the government is able to declare its concern with it, rather than be concerned by the main calls of the protest, while demonstrators begin to stress non-violence rather than insist on their core message.”

That violence is in reality marginal is confirmed by political scientist Oana Popescu, who has been witnessing the demonstrations: “The majority of people out in the streets considered the violence as something unrelated to them, to their protests, and kept themselves away.”

For Popescu, one main lesson to be learnt from these events is how to integrate protest into regular democratic practices in Romania: “It is good these actions are taking place: they can be an opportunity to learn how to protest, how to express ourselves. I hope this will be an occasion for us to become more mature politically and that it will not end up with all of us going home and just congratulating ourselves for a great deed.”

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