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.

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.