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Romania: Miners' Protest Endangering Government

Prague, 19 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Striking Romanian miners today are continuing their march on Bucharest. After police blocked roads, they spent last night near the mining town of Petrosani in the Jiu Valley. This morning, some 10,000 miners broke through barricades and moved on.

Police said afterwards that the miners would be allowed to march to the next town along the road, Bumbesti Jiu, where negotiations with the strikers could take place.

But the march, which started yesterday, the 15th day of miners' strikes, has already become a major event in Romania's politics, threatening to affect the authority of the country's government and its program of economic reform.

Speaking today in Prague, RFE/RL Newsline analyst Michael Shafir said that mining protests have a long tradition in Romania. As long as 70 years ago (1929), Romanian miners demonstrated successfully against a Christian Democratic government. They also forced communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to come and negotiate with them in 1977, at the peak of his power.

More recently, similar miners' marches on Bucharest in 1990-1991 resulted in the ransacking of some political offices in the capital and were responsible for several deaths and many more injuries.

Miners' protests were instrumental in the downfall in September 1991 of the first post-communist Romanian government led by Petre Roman, after the then President Ion Iliescu appeared to have manipulated the protests for his political ends. Perhaps as a result of those past experiences, Shafir said, "miners perceive that they have a certain power," Shafir noted that this political fact has not been lost on the current government.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Radu Vasile offered to negotiate in person with the march leaders --as long as they first returned to work. The offer was made to prevent, in the words of Vasile's spokeswoman Adriana Saftoiu, "the escalation of the conflict and to avoid confrontation between the strikers and security forces."

The strikers, however, have so far failed to respond to the offer, with march leader Miron Cosma declaring today that "we will not give in to the government's intimidation attempts."

The situation is doubly difficult, first because of the volatile character of the miners' protest, but also because of Romania's sensitive relations with international financial institutions. Bucharest is about to begin important negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to gain financial help for continued economic reforms. Analyst Shafir made this point: "The government is very much aware that if it gives up this time, if it gives in on the mining closure, then it sooner or later will end."

Shafir also said that if the miners fail to win concessions from the government, their political influence and power will be seriously undermined. This perception could push them to continue their strikes and the march.

But if the government gives in to the miners, it could well collapse. Even if the government survives, its program of economic change would certainly be disastrously affected.

The government has recently decided to close a number of mines and restructure loss-making industries. The proposed lay-offs could affect thousands of workers.

Two days ago, Industry Minister Radu Berceanu rejected miners' demands for a 35 percent pay increase --the miners now earn about 230 dollars a month, double the national average-- and an end to the government's plans to close unprofitable mines.

To make matters even more politically complicated, there is a possibility that the miners' protest could be manipulated by radical politicians. Shafir says that the "xenophobic, extremist Greater Romania Party has managed, to gain a degree of influence among the strikers." The miners' leader, Miron Cosma, belongs to the party.

Shafir said, "There is little doubt that the party's leader Cornliu Vadim Tudor would greatly enjoy being able to manipulate the miners to his own ends."

It is still not clear how and when the mining crisis will end. Each day of protest brings major losses to Romania's economy. And it is increasingly clear that the country's political stability and economic progress depend on the speedy and effective conclusion of the conflict.