Romania: Mass protests then and now

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Protesters shout as a background banner reads "Freedom, Early Elections" during an anti-government rally in Bucharest, January 24, 2012.

By Rupen Savoulian

February 15, 2012 -- Antipodean Athiest, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- Back in 1989, Romania was gripped by mass protests, led by miners, against the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. The protests in Romania were part of the generalised "Velvet Revolution" against the dictatorial, bureaucratised, deformed workers’ states in Eastern Europe.

Ceausescu, the last Communist Party head of state of Romania, headed a regime that was based on nationalised property and government-run industry, but implemented a bureaucratised, distorted form of socialism. While its dictatorial nature was well known, the regime was the beneficiary of multinational business dealings with the West. Many Western transnational corporations and businesspeople (including Australian Lang Hancock) never stopped doing deals and conducting trade with that regime. The queen of England bestowed an award on Ceausescu in 1978.

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Romanian tyrant toasts US President Jimmy Carter, 1978.

Ceausescu’s regime earned the wholehearted cooperation of the wealthy elites of Western Europe. Ceausescu sold Soviet military information to the United States, which resulted in the Romanian dictator being welcomed as a "freedom fighter" by former US President Jimmy Carter. The former British media tycoon, the late Robert Maxwell, who built his fortune extolling the virtues of the "free market", warmly appreciated the Ceausescu regime’s business-friendly political climate.

Following the fall of the Romanian tyrant, the capitalist press in Australia, composed of large transnational corporations, seized the opportunity to denounce the entire socialist project, claiming that it failed to provide for even the most basic needs of the population, condemning the majority to poverty, and backed up these claims with heart-rending images from abandoned orphans in Romania’s villages.

Fast-forward to 2012

Here we are in 2012, and there have been mass protests against the rampant corruption and inequality implemented by the capitalist parties in Romania. The demonstrations have been led by workers opposed to the harsh austerity measures demanded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European powers France and Germany. They have been the largest mass protests seen in Romania since 1989. Police and demonstrators clashed in Bucharest, and the Prime Minister Emil Boc was forced to resign. Unemployment is running at 7.3 per cent, and the average wage is €350 a month, which is about US$500. As even the mouthpiece of US capitalism, the New York Times, readily admits:

Romania suffered a sharp reversal of fortune as the global economic crisis worsened and foreign lending tightened up. After the economy grew 7.3 percent in 2008, it shrank a painful 6.6 percent in 2009, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency. The country was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union in 2009 for emergency loans totaling $27 billion at the exchange rates at the time.

The Romanian economy faced a serious budget deficit of 7 per cent back in 2009, and the prescription of the IMF, the European Commission and World Bank was to impose "austerity", meaning further cuts to public expenditure, pensions and public sector wages.

The Romanian secret police under Ceausescu, the Securitate, became synonymous with torture, brutality and state-wide repression. Its activities were shrouded in secrecy until the 1989 ousting of the Ceausescu regime. Surely the new Romania would never descend to such barbaric practices? The location of CIA secret prisons has been confirmed in that country. Former CIA operatives described how detainees were rendered to Romania and tortured in the dungeons of the Office of the National Register for Secret State Information, abbreviated as Orniss. Extraordinary rendition refers to the kidnapping and extradition of any terrorism suspects to a third-party country, usually a country governed by a regime that practices torture. The prison – codenamed Bright Light – was just one of a network of secret prisons across Europe.

Remember the abandoned orphans? In 2009, even the BBC carried images of starving orphans in Romania’s dilapidated orphanages, lambasting the lack of care and failure of the political establishment to serious address the plight of orphans in that country. Twenty years after the overthrow of Ceausescu, the institutions designed to care for orphans are still in a dilapidated, crumbling state, and their meagre resources are overstretched. As the BBC article comments:

The Carpenis institution is just 32km (20 miles) from the capital Bucharest, the heartbeat of the country’s growing economy. In the main squares, neon lights advertise the biggest Western brands; shopping centres are bursting with families spending new money on Christmas gifts. It is a measure of how far Romania has come since the fall of its dictator Nicolai Ceausescu who bankrupted the country. But not everyone has seen change in the last 20 years.

In Bolintin, another village close to the capital, a lone nurse and six helpers take care of more than 100 patients – they are not sure exactly how many. They were wrapped in blankets and thermal jackets to escape the freezing cold.

Political instability brought on by squabbling, ultranationalist-chauvinist parties, using patriotism as a diversion to implement strict IMF-regulated privatisation and austerity, have brought the economy to near collapse. In conditions of a deteriorating economy, the ultranationalist and racist parties exploit grievances to channel discontent into electoral popularity. In Romania, as with the rest of Eastern Europe, anti-Semitic prejudice is the usual conduit for parliamentary success.

The president, Traian Basecu, has minimised the culpability of Romanian authorities during World War II for their anti-Semitic measures and pogroms. In an interview in 2011, Basescu stated that he saw nothing wrong with the 1941 decision by Romania’s military government to join Nazi Germany and attack the Soviet Union, even though the 1941 attack resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews and millions of Russians. Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime dictator, enthusiastically joined the Nazi war on the USSR and is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Basescu has repeatedly "softened" Antonescu’s image, much to the outrage of Russia and the Jewish community. It appears that anti-Semitic killers have their defenders in high places in Romania.

Romania is today one of the poorest countries in "united" Europe. In November 2011, Austrian authorities instructed their largest three banks to restrict the amount of cross-border loans to eastern European countries, in particular Romania. The Economist bemoaned the "free-falling" Romanian political system and doubts the country’s ability to implement its austerity package.

It is time to question the viability of the neoliberal capitalist project and highlight its failure to meet the basic needs of the working people everywhere. The austerity measures being demanded in Romania are very similar to the cutbacks and reductions in wages being demanded in Greece, Italy and other European countries. When an economic system fails to provide a living for the majority of its people, it is time to ask wide-ranging questions about the ideological dogma that was implemented in Eastern Europe since 1989.

The "free-market" fundamentalism of the IMF, the World Bank and the European capitalist states must be rejected because its failures are becoming increasingly obvious by the day. The combativeness of the Romanian workers is a sign of growing class struggle. In 1989, Ceausescu’s dictatorship fell, and the corporate media were beside themselves with excitement – a new era of "prosperity" and "affluence" would begin in Eastern Europe, it was promised.

By today, the capitalist class, shifting the costs of the failing capitalist experiment onto the shoulders of working people, are forcing people to rise up again, this time against the capitalist system itself.