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Romanian report Romanian report
by Euro Reporter
2012-12-18 09:32:17
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Romania's prime minister to form new government

Romania's president asked the prime minister today to form the new government despite a bitter feud between the two men. President Traian Basescu's decision followed the victory of Prime Minister Victor Ponta's center-left governing alliance in the December 9 parliamentary vote. Ponta, whose coalition won 68 percent of the seats in Parliament, has 10 days to appoint a new Cabinet that is expected to be approved by lawmakers. Ponta, who is expected to name his Cabinet on Tuesday (local time), said he will present his government to lawmakers for approval on Friday. He has already announced the names of his three deputy prime ministers.

The enmity between Ponta and Basescu has poisoned Romania's political atmosphere for months and came to a head last summer when Ponta tried unsuccessfully to impeach Basescu, a 61-year-old former ship captain. Romanians voted overwhelmingly to impeach Basescu, fed up with the combative leader who had been in power since 2004, but the bid failed because of low voter turnout. Before the election, Basescu had said he was reluctant to reappoint Ponta, calling him "a compulsive liar." European Union officials have voiced concern that the feud would bring more political turmoil, harming Romania's reputation and deterring much-needed foreign investment.

The EU and the United States criticized the Romanian government this summer for failing to respect the rule of law during the impeachment process. Ponta has admitted that the government "hurried" the procedure to oust Basescu on the grounds that he overstepped his authority. Romania, one of European Union's 27 nations, has been rocked this year by political turmoil and huge anti-government protests against tough austerity measures aimed at dealing with the country's debt. The struggling government had to take out a €20 billion ($26 billion) bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 2009 to help pay pensions and salaries.

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The Roma who were evicted to live by a landfill site

Two years ago the local authorities of Cluj-Napoca forcibly evicted around 300 people – mostly Roma – from Coastei Street in the centre of the Romanian city. Since then, most of them have been living close to the landfill and a chemical waste dump in an area on the outskirts known as Pata Rât, where they were moved by the municipality. Soon after their eviction, Romani people started a long struggle for justice. One of them is Ernest Creta who now lives in an improvised home in Pata Rât. “It is a sad anniversary for us. On 17 December 2010, early in the morning, an impressive number of police forces arrived on Coastei Street, joined by the local authorities. We were overwhelmed and terrified by the number of police officers. Following pressure and verbal threats from the local authorities, we accepted the housing they proposed without knowing the exact location and the condition it was in,” said Creta.

And it turned out the new conditions were grim.  Around 36 out of the 76 evicted families were not offered any alternative accommodation and were effectively left homeless.  The remaining 40 families were provided with one room per family. They each have to share communal bathrooms with three other families. The main connection with the city is a school bus that leaves at 7.15 am. The closest regular bus stop is 2.5 kilometres away across the railway. “We were integrated in the life of the city when lived in Coastei Street. We used to have jobs, the children went to high school, we had decent living standards, we had access to the park, etc. Here, by the garbage dump, we feel like in a ghetto, we feel discriminated against from all points of view,” said Creta.

For the past two years, the Working Group of Civil Society Organizations (gLOC), Amnesty International and European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) have been supporting people from the former Coastei Street in their struggle for justice and dignity. In their joint statement issued at the anniversary of the December 2010 eviction, the organizations appeal on the local authorities in Cluj-Napoca: “The municipality carried out a forced eviction that violated the human rights standards applicable in Romania. Central government failed to ensure that the municipality’s actions did not lead to human rights violations. The local and central authorities have an urgent responsibility to put this violation right and to ensure that people who were forcibly evicted are relocated to adequate housing, and brought back to the city.” People evicted from Coastei Street have been trying to meet the authorities and raise the problem of their living conditions ever since the eviction. The municipality finally met with them earlier this year. The authorities said they would move the Romani people away from Pata Rât in early 2014, as part of a joint project with the United Nations Development Programme. However details of the planned relocation are vague and the Romani community face another year of living in substandard accommodation that stops them from fully accessing their basic rights to education, employment and healthcare. There are some 1,500 people living in Pata Rât area, including around 300 people from the former Coastei Street. The others reside in Cantonului Street, Dallas and a number of people live on the city’s landfill.

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From Crisis to Elections and Back

The results of the December 9th parliamentary elections in Romania brought the Social-Liberal Union (USL) — a coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the small Conservative Party (PC) — overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the parliament: almost two-thirds of the total number of seats. The Right Romania Alliance (ARD), which consists of parties close to President Traian Băsescu, came in a distant second, with 14 percent of the seats. The landslide victory gives the social-liberals the upper hand in the upcoming negotiations with the President for the nomination of the new Prime Minister. For all of Mr. Băsescu’s declared antipathy against the incumbent prime minister, Victor Ponta (PSD), and the feisty president’s degree of constitutional latitude, he has little choice but to establish a cohabitation arrangement with a new Ponta government. The expectedly acrimonious upcoming confrontation between the president and parliament over the composition of the government will wrap up an exceptionally eventful year in Romanian politics. It began in January with street protests against President Băsescu, who was largely perceived as being personally responsible for pushing through painful cuts (of up to 25 percent) in pensions and public sector salaries. Two governments were changed within the next three months. What followed, as a culmination, was the attempt by the new USL-dominated parliament to impeach the President. But the July 29th referendum failed to meet the legal participation quorum and Mr. Băsescu remained in office — despite the vote proving his immense unpopularity. The impeachment process was a no-holds-barred fight, which caused Romania’s already dim external image to go from bad to worse. The USL action was technically not unconstitutional (with the exception of the Prime Minister’s decision to discount a Constitutional Court ruling, according to which only the President can represent the Romanian state at the European Council summits). Yet while occasional accusations of a “coup d’état” were certainly misplaced, the episode raised serious and legitimate doubts about the functioning of the checks and balances in the Romanian democratic system. Among Romania’s Western allies the democratic credentials of the Ponta government plunged dramatically. The opprobrium was compounded by the unrepentant and occasionally defiant attitude of USL leaders in response to the strong-worded expressions of concern by Western leaders. By choosing to depict them as ill-informed and politically biased, the USL attempted to take a “people’s sovereignty” approach, capitalizing on the President’s and the PDL’s obvious unpopularity. Eventually, however, the Ponta government bowed to external pressure and agreed to have the impeachment referendum organized under the old law, which is biased in favour of the incumbent president by requiring an unreasonably high validation quorum of half plus one of all the legally entitled (as opposed to actual) voters. All the same, the feud continued — this time about the precise number of the latter.

Apart from damaging the country’s image abroad, the highly personalized battle between the president and the prime minister conveyed a sense of decisional paralysis, especially on economic matters. The lack of predictability and coherent governance put off investors at a moment when the economy is slowing down again. The crisis in the Euro-zone, which is Romania’s main export destination, surely compounds the problem. In addition, since becoming a European Union (EU) member, Romania has been disastrously inefficient at absorbing Brussels’ Cohesion and Structural Funds, utilizing just over 12 percent of the available €19.8 billion ($25.7 billion) between 2007 and 2013. Bucharest can thus barely make a convincing case for increased allocations in the ongoing negotiations of the new EU Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2014-2020. Moreover, in October, the European Commission decided to block the disbursement of Structural Funds to Romania due to concerns about fraud and corruption. The government is now looking to negotiate a new loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as the current €5 billion ($6.5 billion) stand-by agreement will run out in March. A joint mission of the IMF and the EU is expected in Bucharest early next year, but the possibility of a long-lasting political fight may well delay it. In any event, international investors tend to have a negative view of USL’s dominance, because of its potential to protract the standoff. As a testament to the government’s severe budgetary constraints, after having restored most pensions and salaries that were cut in 2010 as part of the IMF-EU loan agreement, the current government has just announced its own austerity measures for 2013 (a freeze on public sector salaries and increases of local real estate taxes), thus dispelling some of the hopes stoked by the populist electoral rhetoric.

By and large, however, the country’s macroeconomic indicators are reasonably stable. The forecasted dramatic depreciation of the national currency (Leu) has not occurred; inflation has increased only moderately, reaching 5.3 percent in November (BNR Inflation Report 2012); and the GDP growth projection for next year is about 2.5 percent (IMF, October 2012). Ultimately, the direct negative effects of Romania’s current political condition, which is likely to be aggravated if the conflict turns into an outright constitutional crisis with a potential renewed impeachment attempt, are predominantly economic. Of course, this is bound to raise the country’s external political vulnerability as well. Against the backdrop of Russia’s heavy-handed efforts at regional hegemony, the concern is to a great extent justified. This is especially true with regard to energy security, where the Central and Eastern European markets are particularly exposed. That being said, any concern about a fundamental strategic reorientation of Romania is unsubstantiated. Some voices in the country and abroad depicted the recent elections as a crossroads between East and West, and lament an allegedly inherent inclination of the USL to team up with Moscow and Beijing. This is sheer nonsense. The sad reality is more banal: by developed countries’ standards, Romania is a poorly governed country, with still a long way to go to reach Western levels of democracy and good governance. Its political life has been marred by fragile institutions, administrative incompetence, clientelism and corruption. Besides, Russian interests have been represented and advocated for in all governments and parliaments of Romania’s recent history. These flaws surfaced with unusual intensity during last summer’s crisis. But there is little qualitative difference in Romania before and after the summer, for better or for worse. The country is no less stable or less committed to democratic values and to its Euro-Atlantic partners and allies. For all its weaknesses, Romania is on a steady and measurable track of social and economic development, and politics will have to follow suit. The country’s security is essentially anchored in its membership in the Western clubs and there is no national discord whatsoever about that. The summer’s events have surely been an unfortunate hiccup in terms of due process in Romania. And with a renewed standoff appearing virtually inevitable, a substantive degree of political uncertainty is still in the offing. But the fundamentals of democracy, immature though it might still be, have never been endangered. A lesson learned is that to keep the country steadily on its course, a helping hand from friends and allies may be necessary at times.



      
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