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Romania: Prime Minister Steps Down, Reforms In Disarray

Prague, 31 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Romania Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea resigned last night, leaving the country with its reform process in tatters and its future uncertain.

Ciorbea's decision to go ends a lengthy chapter of political infighting in the ruling coalition. The end came after the clamor of opposing voices within the coalition became an irresistible tide.

In his resignation speech, broadcast on national television, Ciorbea spoke of his place in history, suggesting it will be different from the role assigned to him by his present detractors. What is his legacy?

The high hopes with which Ciorbea began his term nearly 18 months ago have not been fulfilled. He takes credit for setting the country on a reform path after years of inactivity by post-communist governments. But that faltered amid bickering and indecision: the national economy shrunk last year by six percent of gross domestic product, living standards continued to plummet, privatization has come to a halt.

RFE/RL's analyst on Romanian affairs, Michael Shafir, says Ciorbea's most lasting contribution might lie in his attempt to achieve the integration of Romania's Hungarian minority. Shafir says Ciorbea's tenure was marked by a desire to grant the ethnic Hungarians the basic rights long withheld from them. Shafir says it will be a delicate task for an incoming prime minister to continue this process, as well as economic reform -- and the omens are not all good.

President Emil Constantinescu has appointed Interior Minister Gavril Dejeu, a Christian Democrat, as caretaker premier, and Dejeu says the reform course will be taken over by a new government. The same four parties of the original coalition are moving to try to assemble a new line-up, but there's no clear successor to Ciorbea in sight. As to Dejeu, Shafir describes him as lacking in economic knowledge. He is also seen as lacking credentials on minority rights, and is apparently insensitive to democratic rights, judging by his action in using tear gas against labor demonstrators.

Another name widely mentioned in the media is that of Radu Vasile, the secretary general of the National Peasants Party. Shafir says likewise that Vasile does not have a strong economic profile, and in addition has headed a group within his party that could be seen as opposing concessions to the Hungarian minority.

On economics, the tasks ahead are urgent. A London-based analyst with the Chase Manhattan Bank, Michael Marrese, says the economy is at a standstill. Restarting the privatization program and getting the state budget through parliament will be among priorities of the new government.

Marrese notes that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has not released the third of five tranches of its standby loan to Romania. He says Bucharest will have a last chance to persuade a visiting IMF mission next month by presenting a program which includes the downsizing and restructuring state monopolies. He says that task will require political willpower because of the labor opposition it is sure to cause.

Summing up the situation, RFE/RL's Shafir says that the developments of recent months show the extent of the rifts between parties in Romania's pro-reform and pro-democracy movement. He says it is reminiscent of the developments in Bulgaria in 1991-92, in which the failure of a democratic coalition led to a return of the former communists. That relapse froze Bulgaria's recovery process, so that only now and with great difficulty is Bulgaria gaining reform momentum.