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Romania: Government Comes To Mysterious Agreement With Miners

Prague, 27 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In many ways, the agreement reached by Romanian Prime Minister Radu Vasile and Miron Cozma, the leader of striking miners, at the Cozia monastery last Friday (Jan. 22) is as mysterious as the shrine in the village where the two sides met.

Only the participants in the discussions seem to have seen the document, which government sources claim exists "in a single copy." With no duplicates available, both sides can for the time being offer their own version of the accord. It is encouraging that after reaching an agreement, the two sides prayed together and lit candles. Everything else about that document, however, seems less heartening.

According to Cozma, the government has agreed to a 10 percent wage hike. He claims the government has also agreed to revoke the planned closure of two money-losing mines and to channel $200 million to the Jiu Valley, where the mines are located, from EU funds allocated to help Romania cover the social costs of reform. He also says that a joint commission will study ways of canceling, over five years, all losses of the state company managing the Valley's mines. That commission is to reach an agreement by February 15.

"Not so," Nicole Stoiculescu, deputy industry and trade minister and a leading participant in the talks with the miners, told RFE/RL, disputing Cozma's assertions. Stoiculescu says wage increases will be paid for by the company, not from the state budget -- an assertion that would make sense if a profit-making enterprise, rather than one that is supposed to cut losses, were involved. Furthermore, while Cozma claims the cabinet has agreed to increase the amount paid for coal extracted by the company, Stoiculescu's version of "zero-costs" to the budget again contradicts Cozma.

And these are not the only discrepancies. According to Stoiculescu, the closure of the two money-losing mines has not been revoked. Rather, it has only been postponed and is to be discussed by the joint commission.

It seems likely that the Romanian government agreed to more than Stoiculescu has admitted. His own statement that the "cost of saved lives" is smaller than the financial cost forced on the cabinet implied that some significant concessions were made. Just what those concessions are, however, is unclear. At least one was, above all, symbolic. Having refused to meet with Cozma either in Bucharest or in the Jiu Valley, Prime Minister Vasile was finally compelled to do so in Cozia. This, in itself, raises an obvious question about the cabinet's crisis management: If such a meeting could have averted the clashes in the valley and at the village of Costesti, why didn't it take place sooner?

But the cabinet in general and the Interior Ministry in particular seemed unaware of either the miners' strategy or their logistical capability to deal with the police forces sent to oppose them. The miners outwitted police officers by using such medieval tactics as rolling down huge stones from the surrounding hills, a possibility inexplicably ignored by those responsible for police deployment.

In a country where conspiracy theories are one of the media's favorite occupations, this has led to speculation that the forces of law and order were "betrayed from within."

On this occasion, there seems to have been at least some truth to the speculation. Deputy Interior Minister Viorel Oancea confirmed that the miners appeared to have inside information. Two officials at the ministry, both with the rank of general, have been dismissed, and, according to some press reports, at least one is related to a leader of the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania Party. Oancea also noted that some high-ranking Interior Ministry officials were known to harbor sympathies for the Party, led by Corneliu Vadim Tudor. The party co-opted Cozma when he was serving a prison sentence for his role in the miners' violent descent on Bucharest in September 1991. Interior Minister Gavril Dejeu had to pay the price for the failings within his ministry: He resigned and was replaced by Constantin Dudu Ionescu on the eve of the Cozia agreement.

But does the document constitute a genuine agreement or merely a truce intended to give both sides breathing space? Unless some serious questions are asked in the Interior Ministry by February 15, the answer to that question may come too late. Furthermore, if the miners prove to have had the upper hand in the negotiations, other trade unions are likely to be encouraged to follow their example. The Fratia Trade Union Confederation, for example, has already announced it plans to go on strike next month, and the National Syndicate Bloc has said it may follow suit.

This is hardly a good omen for the Romanian government's forthcoming talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which were postponed -- apparently at the government's request -- from January 25 to February 10. Romania's ability to service its foreign debt is dependent on the results of those talks, and the government will have to convince the IMF that it can reduce its deficit from 3.6 percent of GDP in 1998 to two percent this year. The concessions to the miners and to others affected by reforms will make that a difficult task.