After crisis, Romania exhales

Striking miners reach deal with government, but the nation stillfaces tough transition to capitalism.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For Constantin Botezatu, democracy and capitalism don't make sense.

Mr. Botezatu, a coal miner from the city of Banat in southwest Romania, says he yearns for the days of communism, when admittedly there was less personal freedom, but work was steady and paychecks came every week.

"I have good memories of [Nicolae] Ceausescu," he says, referring to the former Communist dictator whose regime was arguably the most brutal in Eastern Europe. "In those days we were obliged to work; now we cannot."

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Wearing a white scarf on his forehead - ready to be lowered in case of a tear-gas attack from police - Botezatu was among some 10,000 miners who last week protested their working conditions by trying to march on the capital city of Bucharest. In the process they sent a wave of fear through Europe's second poorest country, which owes $3 billion to the International Monetary Fund.

Capitalism: a distant concept

The protest, which on Jan. 21 turned into a melee between police and miners, underscores the difficulty former communist bloc countries have had in transforming to market economies. For many in Romania, capitalism is a distant concept, associated less with opportunity than with slick-dressing mobsters who speed around in BMWs.

Similarly, pork producers last week in Poland blocked part of the border with Germany. They were protesting imports from Germany which, though highly taxed, were undercutting their products.

In Romania, President Emil Constantinescu nearly activated a state of emergency to allow the army to break up the miners, who came within 150 miles of the capital in their march. A last-minute deal on Friday between Prime Minister Radu Vasile and the leader of the miners, Miron Cozma, averted the crisis - but about 150 policemen were injured.

According to eyewitnesses, the miners had outmaneuvered the police, who reportedly numbered 10,000 outside of Rimnicu Vilcea to block the miners' advance to Bucharest.

The incidents were an embarrassment to the Romanian government, especially as they lobby to join NATO and the European Union.

The miners were demanding $10,000 and five acres of land for each miner who may be laid off in the future. They were also trying to prevent the closure of mines in the west of the country, which the government says are inefficient.

But to some there was more at stake: The fight between the miners and the government was viewed as a battle between different views of history, between communism and capitalism, and between country and city.

In the settlement, the government agreed to not close two mines and to give the miners a wage increase of as much as 35 percent. In return the miners, who are already paid well above the national average of $100 per month, must increase production by 20 percent. Other issues have not been publicly announced, and it is still unclear which side came out with an advantage.

"Victory was obtained by the men of the Jiu Valley," says Mr. Cozma, the leader of the miners, making reference to the region of Romania through which they marched. "We showed them we are strong, and we can defend our rights."

Earlier unrest

Romanian miners, of which there are about 120,000, have a history of provoking unrest. In demonstrations in 1990 and 1991 they terrorized the capital, killing nine people and forcing the prime minister to resign. In their latest action, some in the capital feared that they may have tried to overthrow the government.

Cozma is a former member of a radical political party that advocates a "Greater Romania." Analysts say Cozma may be using the miners as his henchmen, just as Mr. Ceausescu did.

Though Ceausescu was executed in 1989, his memory still casts a shadow over much of this country. "The miners are the last expression of communism," says Eugeniu Georgescu, a former dissident in Bucharest. "I waited 55 years for this [the last of the Communists to be defeated], and now it has finally happened."

But more than anything, Romania is a country of the poor, decades behind the rest of Europe and still vulnerable to a revival of communism.

"Capitalism is for criminals," says Botezatu, the miner. "It is very bad for Romania."

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