BUSINESS

Romania's government calls crisis meeting over violent protests against austerity

01/15/2012 04:51 EST | Updated 03/16/2012 05:12 EDT
BUCHAREST, Romania - Romania's government called an emergency meeting late Sunday to discuss violent protests that show no sign of abating after demonstrators angry about austerity measures hurled stones and firebombs at police. At least 13 people were injured.

More than 1,000 protesters clashed with police, who used tear gas and flares to repel demonstrators who blocked a main road in Bucharest. One man was briefly set ablaze during the chaos. Interior Minister Traian Igas called an emergency meeting to deal with the crisis.

The protests, in their fourth day, are the most serious since President Traian Basescu came to power in 2004. They are the result of frustration against public wage cuts, slashed benefits, higher taxes, cronyism in state institutions and widespread corruption.

Protesters yelled "The Mafioso government stole everything we had!" and "Get out you miserable dog!" — a popular expression of contempt used to refer to Basescu. Protesters roamed through the centre of the capital, and Mayor Sorin Oprescu called on them to refrain from acts of violence. Antena 3 TV reported that shops in the vicinity of the protest were vandalized.

"We are here to protest, we cannot face it any more, we have no money to survive, our pensions are so small, the expenses are more than we can afford. It's no way to live," said a protester who would only identify himself as Sorin. Thirteen people needed medical treatment, said Bogdan Oprita, who heads emergency services in Bucharest.

Protests began Thursday in support of a health official who resigned because he opposed government health care reforms. Basescu withdrew the health care bill Friday, but protests continued.

Anger has mainly been directed against the once-popular Romanian president. Basescu, 60, vowed to be a hands-on president when he came to power in 2004. He regularly gave interviews in supermarkets, was filmed dancing with his wife in restaurants and enjoyed a reputation as a man of the people.

The former ship captain, who is staunchly pro-American, has always relished a political fight. He was suspended by Parliament in 2007, but reinstated after a national referendum. He narrowly defeated former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana in the 2009 presidential runoff to be re-elected for a five-year mandate, which ends in 2014.

But Romanians have become disenchanted with the president, particularly with the economy in a downturn. Critics say he is too outspoken and has grown increasingly argumentative, which is inappropriate for his office.

In recent months, he has publicly expressed dislike for journalists, former King Michael and the highly respected public health official Raed Arafat, whose resignation prompted the protests which started on Thursday.

On Sunday, hundreds of people of all ages noisily protested in Bucharest's University Square, a day after demonstrators clashed with police there. They shouted "Down with Basescu!", calling for early elections and held caricatures of the powerful Tourism Minister Elena Udrea, a close aide of Basescu and Basescu's daughter, Elena Basescu, who is a lawmaker in the European Parliament. Hundreds rallied in the cities of Iasi, Cluj, Deva and Galati. On Saturday, more than 3,000 protested in cities outside Bucharest, police said.

Prime Minister Emil Boc said the government together with coalition partners would draw up a new health care bill Monday consulting politicians and civil groups. He spoke after visiting a police officer who was hospitalized after he was hit by a stone in the head in Saturday's protest.

"The solution is dialogue, not throwing bricks left and right which can endanger lives," Boc said. Nine people received medical treatment in Saturday's protest.

Basescu has also not commented on the protests. He told Romanians to be proud of their history Sunday in a message sent to mark the birthday of Romania's national poet Mihai Eminescu.