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More Protests In Romania After Prime Minister Steps Down

  • RFE/RL's Moldovan Service

BUCHAREST -- Protesters took to the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian cities for a second straight night after Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his cabinet resigned amid outrage over a nightclub fire that left more than 30 dead.

A correspondent for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service said some 30,000 people demonstrated in the Romanian capital on November 4. Protests were held in at least 13 other cities, with some 5,000 turning out in Timisoara and Iasi, as well as 3,000 in Cluj.

The fire at a nightclub in Bucharest on October 30 left 32 dead and more than 200 injured, many of whom remain in critical condition.

Anger has been brewing for some time in Romania against the government, which many perceive as corrupt, and the nightclub fire has added to that discontent. Ponta himself is facing corruption charges, and there are allegations that safety at the nightclub could have been compromised due to corruption.

On November 5, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis named Education Minister Sorin Campeanu as interim prime minister until a new premier is named and approved by parliament.

Iohannis praised the current street demonstrations and said he was listening to what protesters had to say.

"I have a message for protesters," he said. "I saw you, I heard you, I will take into account your demands."

He said he would meet political parties for political talks, adding that he would bring "a new actor" to the table.

"I will meet a group which represents civil society and the street. It is important for me. I want to know their wishes and opinions," Iohannis said.

Ponta said on November 4 that he hoped his government's resignation would "satisfy the people who came out in the streets."

However, Sabina Fati, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, said the protesters' anger was not only directed at Ponta but at Romania's "whole political class."

"People are frustrated over many things, from parliament to corruption and the lack of transparency in government among other things," Fati explained.

Such concerns were voiced by protesters in Bucharest on November 4.

"First of all, we want a state that works. We want parliament to be dissolved and new politicians who are able to lead this country because the old ones can't do it," one male protester told RFE/RL. "We don't want to be spectators to our own lives. We want to be the main actors, the main directors of our lives."

Marchers in the Romanian capital chanted "Ponta resign" and "Killers," and some waved the national flag with holes in it -- a symbol of the popular revolution 25 years ago that toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Some protesters' anger has also been directed at the powerful and rich Romanian Orthodox Church.

Protesters want an end to hefty state subsidies to the nation's biggest church, to which 85 percent of Romanians belong, and for the church to pay tax. Other officially registered churches are also given subsidies.

The toll from the nightclub fire would have been worse if not for the heroism of two men. Claudiu Petre, a physicist, and Adrian Rugina, a drummer, worked to save concertgoers before dying themselves. The two were awarded the National Order for Merit for their courage.

Witnesses said pyrotechnics used during the concert triggered the blaze at Colectiv, a club located in a former shoe factory. Those inside panicked as the fire spread, rushing to flee through the club's only exit. Many died in the ensuing stampede.

The tragedy shocked Romania and prompted Iohannis -- Ponta's bitter political rival -- to call for fundamental change in Romania.

"We should no longer tolerate government incompetence, institutional inefficiency, and we cannot let corruption spread to the point that it kills people," he said on November 1.

Ponta is accused of taking the equivalent of 55,000 euros ($63,000) from Dan Sova, a political ally and a member of parliament suspected by prosecutors of abuse of power but who enjoys immunity.

Ponta stepped down as in July as head of the Social Democrat party, which holds a comfortable majority, but survived a no-confidence vote in parliament in September shortly after his trial started.

Another preliminary hearing is due on November 6 over the charges, which date back as far as 2007 when Ponta -- the first Romanian head of government to stand trial while in office -- was working as a lawyer.

Prosecutors also suspect Ponta of a conflict of interest during his time as prime minister, but that probe was stymied when parliament refused to lift his immunity from prosecution.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP
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