Areas of the Romanian capital Bucharest were paralysed today by 50,000 demonstrators protesting against the savage austerity measures currently being pursued by the Romanian government. Meanwhile, unions have threatened a general strike on the 31st of May.
The protest was one of the biggest since the fall of the Ceauşescu government in 1989, and follows a number of demonstrations in the Romanian capital since the announcement of the cuts. Traffic was blocked, and a senior government official was doused with water and attacked with stones - Economy Ministry official Marcel Hoara had to be escorted away from the area by police after being ambushed by demonstrators on his way out of a televised debate.
Economic crisis and brutal cuts
The Romanian government has announced its intention to axe 70,000 state employees out of a public sector workforce of 1.36 million before the end of the year. On top of this public sector salaries will be slashed by 25% and pensions will be reduced by 15%. One third of workers in Romania are employed by the public sector, and the IMF forecasts that unemployment could jump by a third to 1 million by the end of the year. The cuts are due to come into effect on the 1st of June.
The cuts follow the severe effects of the economic crisis on the Romanian economy, which shrunk by 7.1% in the last year. The cuts are part of the International Monetary Fund’s stipulations for the release of the next tranche of finance as part of its 20 billion Euro loan package. Further bailout payments have been suspended until the Romanian government is able to demonstrate its ability to quell dissent and force through the attacks on living conditions.
The economic collapse has spelled the end of Romania’s position as the so-called “tiger of Eastern Europe”. The collapse of Ceauşism following mass anti-government strikes and street fighting at the end of the 1980s was followed by yet more austerity of a free-market capitalist nature, with most Romanian experiencing stagnant living conditions throughout the 1990s. The courting of heavy foreign investment during the 2000s led to economic growth, which has utterly collapsed as a result of the international economic crisis.
Anger at ordinary Romanians being forced to pay for the economic crisis (exacerbated by the government’s refusal to reform its flat tax system, opting instead to cut jobs, wages and pensions) has led to a wave of protests centred on the capital city, Bucharest.
Last Tuesday saw thousands of farmers blockade the area around the main government building in Bucharest, arriving in tractors which they parked outside cabinet headquarters. Their protest concerned the late payment of government agricultural subsidies. On Wednesday around 500 angry pensioners attempt to force their way into the presidential palace, with other demonstrations taking place around the country. The mass demonstration today follows 4 days of protests by unions.
Wages in Romania aren’t large. The Washington Examiner quoted a Romanian nurse, who earns earns 900 lei ($265) a month:
Our salaries are very small. They weren't good before, but with the cuts we don't see anything good coming. I am sorry I haven't emigrated.
64 year old teacher Constantin Dragomir noted that this is only the first phase of the assault on living conditions:
We are aware that the government will not stop at these measures. In a few months, they will increase VAT and the income tax
Whether or not ordinary Romanians will be required to pay for the economic collapse will depend on their ability to resist the austerity measures in coming weeks and months.