Romania’s Pits of Despair

BUCHAREST: Nearly at the gates of Bucharest, Romania’s miners were turned back by a combination of bribes and threats. Sullenly, bitterly, they are returning to their pits. What they were attempting was no mere strike, however, but amounted to nothing less than a failed coup. The government’s "victory" over them may, perhaps, turn out to be equally important for Romanian reform as Mrs. Thatcher’s facing down of Britain’s radical mining unions in the 1980s. This year started ominously for Romania, with living standards declining and heavy foreign debt repayments - $2.3billion - falling due. This was the background to the miner’s march, armed with clubs and axes, on Bucharest; this and the memories of a previous "visit" to the capital by rampaging miners in the early post-Ceausescu years. Halfway to the capital, the miners inflicted two humiliating defeats on police and security forces, injuring 30 soldiers and taking hundreds prisoner. Some police and army officers deserted and the commander-in-chief ran away from the battlefield dressed as a peasant. Darkly, many local people joined in as miners began to shout for the government’s overthrow.

In Bucharest, politicians played politics. The interior minister was sacked. To no avail. Corneliu Vadim Tudor, leader of the extremist "Greater Romania Party" (GRP) praised the miners and proclaimed a new "National Revolution". He demanded that the army disobey any order to put down the miners, and pushed for the resignation of President Constantinescu. The worst was only averted by the last-ditch agreement between the miners’ leader, Miron Cosma, and the Prime Minister, Radu Vasile, struck at a famous mediaeval monastery on the Olt river.

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Since 1990, coalminers from the Jiu Valley (about 300 km from Bucharest) have been the nightmare of any Romanian government keen on reforming the economy. For those opposed to, or afraid of, reform, they appeared as the guardians and shock troops of the socialist past. In June 1990, former president Ion Iliescu called on the miners to help him brutalize the pro-democratic movement in Bucharest. In September 1991, the miners returned again to Bucharest and violently toppled the pro-reform government of Petre Roman (who is now the speaker of the Senate). Both riots brought Romania to the rim of the abyss.

How can a few thousand miners, no matter how dedicated and violent, pose such a threat? After the general elections of 1996, when today’s ruling center-right coalition came to power, most people expected to see a gradual, yet steady, improvement in their lives. For many, however, things today are worse than two years ago. And people are told to wait, that a price must be paid for necessary changes.

Miners are particularly hard hit, due to the closure of some inefficient mines. A growing part of the population feels betrayed and deceived; all the more so for people, like the miners and other industrial workers, who under communism enjoyed a high social status and good wages. After the 1996 elections, a resolute, efficient, and trustworthy government willing to tackle decisively the nation’s festering problems was expected. Instead, the contrary took place.

The coalition in power since 1996 is inefficient, lacks resolve, is riven by petty disputes, and is often on the point of falling apart. Common people believe that most politicians, irrespective of party, care only about lining their pockets. They are easily portrayed as quarrelsome, selfish and corrupt.

When an entire government appears on the make and on the take, people are easy prey for any demagogue who promises to replace the real vices of a sick democracy with the imaginary virtues of a sound dictatorship. Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a former admirer of Ceausescu, is just such a demagogue. His far-right party is xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and authoritarian. Tudor claims that only he can pull Romania out of its disorder and despair, and many are beginning to believe him. In the 1996 elections, his party secured only 4% of the vote; now it scores over 16% in polls.

The National Front gets about that much of the vote in France and nobody worries about French democracy, so should we care? Absolutely. The French far right is posed against real and established democratic parties. Tudor’s party confronts inept, feuding, and confused parties in the governing coalition, and the opportunistic, and scarcely reformed postcommunists led by Iliescu.

Moreover, the hard core of Tudor’s party is composed of former Securitate men, dissatisfied army officers, and other worshippers of the old regime. Tudor has good connections in the military and in the secret service. It is no mere chance that Miron Cosma, the miners' uncrowned king, is a member of GRP and that party functionaries advised him on every step of the march.

No one knows what would have happened if Cosma and his miners had pushed on into Bucharest. For whatever reason, they did not. But many fear that Tudor’s "National Revolution" was only postponed, not renounced. Perhaps - as Lenin put it - conditions were simply not yet "ripe." If the volatile mix of government inefficiency and pervasive corruption continues to grind down Romania’s democratic institutions as people struggle vainly to seek to make a decent living, it won't take long before Tudor or other would-be dictators seizes the moment.