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Romania: Ciorbea Faces Protests From Worried Workers

Bucharest, 11 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The reformist Romanian government of Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea, which has so easily overcome opposition challenges in parliament these past weeks, today faces a challenge of a different sort, namely that of mass trade union rallies.

In Bucharest and nine other cities and towns this evening, workers from the BNS trade union, one of the leading unions in Romania, are expected to attend protests against the government's policies. Similar protests were organised last month by another big trade union, the CNSLR-Fratia, but on a smaller scale.

BNS leader Dumitru Costin said yesterday that his union is unhappy at the lack of dialogue between the government and its social partners, as well as at the slow pace of implementing social protection measures. The BNS is also making a series of specific demands, which include pay rises, indexing of wages in line with the price rises, and a cut in the Value Added Tax for basic food products.

RFE/RL's economic correspondent in Bucharest reports that the reality of life for most wage-earners in Romania is indeed grim and likely to get grimmer as the pro-market reforms take hold. But at the same time, the latest nationwide poll, released on Monday, confirms that the great majority of Romanians -- some 70 per cent -- accept the sacrifices demanded by the present austerity period designed to bring the country at last to a healthy economy.

Analysts are interpreting the sustained support for Ciorbea as a sign that the population does not want a continuation of the post-communist policies of the last seven years, in which lukewarm reforms led to a steady depreciation of living standards

The present plight of the average Romanian is documented in a report presented last week by the Bucharest office of the United Nations Development Program. This notes that in 34 percent of families, the income is not sufficient even for essential needs; in 37 percent the income covers only essentials; while in only 21 per cent of households does the income assure a reasonable standard of living.

The report says that during the country's seven-year transition period spending on social areas has not exceeded 17 percent of gross national product, while in most of the developed European countries those expenses represent 25 percent of GNP. The UNDP report calls for supplementary social protection measures, covering social welfare, health and education.

The Prime Minister, considered the driving force behind Romania's ambitious market reforms, defended last Friday in Parliament his six months in office by saying his government had taken "the necessary steps to create a real market economy". He said prolonged mismanagement by the ex-communists who took power after 1989 had thrown the country into crisis. His government was now curbing inflation, stabilising the leu currency and preparing Romania for integration with the European Union. "The current situation is the legacy of the former government," he told the joint session of parliament.

He said industrial policy in recent years had been a failure, and his government would support only those sectors which can compete with Romania's future EU partners. He says it's not the government which is closing down factories, but market laws.

International financial institutions have responded to the Romanian government's efforts, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) extending credits of over $ 400 million and the World Bank offering a further $ 550 million in loans. Our correspondent reports that the first benefits of the present tough governmental policies are visible -- a relatively stable currency, partially convertible, an inflation rate in May of 4.3 per cent, well down from a peak in March of 30.7 per cent, a boost in foreign investment in the last three months, and a capital market growing day by day.