Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Unprecedented Political Crisis Hits Romania

Having survived a year of often violent anti-government demonstrations, Romania's prime minister has been ousted from office just as his administration grabs the prize of EU accession talks.
By Marian Chiriac

From time to time Romania comes under the international media spotlight. And almost without fail the headlines revolve around chaos and discontent.


In January thousands of disgruntled miners, armed with stones and clubs, clashed violently with ill-equipped riot police in Bucharest. Over 100 policemen and dozens of miners were hospitalised.


The miners, backed by popular opinion, were demanding the dismissal of the government and their street protests were only stopped following a compromise agreement with the authorities.


The January miners' uprising - the fifth in nine years - provided the backdrop again this December for the ousting of Prime Minister Radu Vasile, removed from office following an internal party revolt.


This was, of course, a harsh story about confrontation and political turmoil. No sooner had Romanian President Emil Constantinescu returned from the Helsinki summit on December 12, cherishing a fresh invitation to European Union (EU) accession talks, than he lashed out at the prime minister.


"The ministers did their job well... but what was lacking, and things cannot go on like that, was the co-ordination of their efforts," Constantinescu said in a televised address on Sunday evening.


Vasile's boat was sinking in a sea of complaints that his administration was failing to push through clear economic reforms fast enough. Many had anticipated a government reshuffle would follow the Helsinki summit but most were taken aback at the speed and harshness of Vasile's removal.


Following his TV appearance on Sunday, Constantinescu met ruling coalition leaders to discuss Vasile's dismissal. A steering committee of the main coalition party, the centrist Christian Democrats (PNTCD) withdrew its support from Vasile and all seven PNTCD cabinet members quit. Other members of the coalition parties quickly followed suit.


Despite this pressure Vasile refused to budge and on Monday he appeared on television to announce he would not give in to a conspiracy against him "by some internal forces". He addressed his statement "to the citizens, not to any institutions, including the presidency".


Vasile quoted British Prime Minister Tony Blair who had given his government full credit for the Helsinki decision to bring Romania into EU accession talks. Vasile also took the opportunity to remind viewers he had suffered a heart attack earlier in the year but had selflessly continued to work for his country. "I will not resign for, quite simply, moral reasons", Vasile concluded.


But early on Tuesday morning, the presidential spokesman announced that Constantinescu had decided to dismiss the prime minister because "he is unable to fulfill his duties following the resignation of the majority of his cabinet members". Alexandru Athanasiu, formerly labour and social affairs minister, was appointed interim prime minister, the spokesman announced.


Constantinescu's decision to sack Vasile provoked concerns that there was no constitutional basis for the action. The Romanian constitution, adopted in 1991, does not clearly define the legal basis for the removal of the prime minister, but does not grant such authority to the president.


Many Romanian constitutional experts argue that parliament alone has the authority to replace Vasile through a motion of no confidence. But on Tuesday Vasile announced his would abide by the president's decision because he did not wish to plunge Romania into an unprecedented political crisis.


Vasile did, however, reiterate that he still considers himself "the true prime minister of the Romanian government".


Vasile's removal comes after a period of increasing dissatisfaction with the country's economic and social problems. Civil unrest in 1999, starting with the miners uprising and ending with a series of protests by students and workers, has caused the government more headaches than usual.


The only good news in recent months was the announcement of full EU membership talks scheduled to begin in February 2000.


Romania's inclusion on the integration list has more to do with her pro-Western stance during the Kosovo crisis and pressure from some EU members on the European Commission and less to do with a satisfactory economic performance.


Brussels officials have warned Romania many times about serious shortcomings in the economic and social sectors, citing a precarious economy, legal uncertainty and the slow restructuring of loss-making state-run companies. Brussels has also sought the structural reform of childcare institutions.


But now it seems Western Europe has a political interest in Romanian integration. "The EU believes that Romania represents a key country for regional stability," noted EU commissioner Gunter Verheugen in early November.


But any future government will have its back to the wall in the short term, facing ever rising economic and social pressures. International lenders have criticised Bucharest for the slow pace of reform and foreign investors complain about the legal uncertainty caused by frequent changes in legislation.


The 2000 elections are not that far off and the main opposition party, the Social Democrats (the former Communist Party), has launched a campaign calling for early elections claiming the present Christian Democrat-Liberal coalition can no longer guarantee minimum living standards for the majority of Romania's 22 million inhabitants.


But regardless of who wins next years elections, no one should be counting on the country's dire economic situation to improve soon.


Marian Chiriac is news editor of the MediaFax News Agency in Bucharest and editor of Foreign Policy, a quarterly published by the Romanian Academic Society.