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Romania: Cozma Arrest Could Help Reforms

Bucharest, 17 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In a move seen as critical to preserving judicial authority in Romania -- as well as overcoming opposition to long-delayed market reforms -- Interior Ministry police today arrested Jiu Valley miners' leader Miron Cozma and dozens of his supporters.

The miners were advancing on Bucharest with a demand for Cozma to be pardoned for "undermining state authority" in connection with violent 1991 protests he led in the Romanian capital. Romania's Supreme Court convicted Cozma on Monday and sentenced him in absentia to 18 years in prison. Cozma -- defying arrest orders against him -- had called the sentencing "illegal" and "politically motivated."

One miner died and 20 police were injured today in the events leading to Cozma's detention in the town of Caracal, about 150 km southwest of Bucharest. His arrest took place after police stopped a column of more than 40 buses and 100 cars at a nearby bridge -- a convoy carrying at least 2,000 miners.

About 1,000 miners have been sent by train back to the Jiu Valley's provincial capital of Petrosani. Others are said to have fled after their vehicles were disabled and their march was dispersed. The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, has set up blockades at road and rail links to the Jiu Valley to prevent the miners from regrouping and launching a new drive on the capital.

Cozma -- dubbed by the government as "public enemy number one" -- has been flown by helicopter to Bucharest, where authorities say he could face an additional 15 years in prison for obstructing justice and resisting arrest. Two of Cozma's senior aides -- Dorin Lois and Romeo Beja -- also have been detained. Justice Minister Valeriu Stoica called the arrests "an act of justice." He said at a press conference in Bucharest this afternoon:

"Until now, unfortunately, in the Jiu Valley, [millions of millions] of lei have been spent without any economic effect. This was the result of the fact that everything was based on a lie spread by Miron Cozma which is against the real interests of the miners."

Since the collapse of communism in Romania, Cozma's Jiu Valley miners have been a major political obstacle to economic reform. Their violent protests in Bucharest in 1991 led to the resignation of Romania's first post-Communist government. Cozma also led three other violent demonstrations in the capital during 1990 and 1991.

Just last month, Cozma and his supporters advanced again on Bucharest to demand pay raises and the reversal of planned closures of loss-making state mines. They twice broke through police cordons, leaving about 200 police injured. They halted their protest only after the government offered a compromise that met Cozma's demands. But that deal has yet to be finalized because miners still must work out a restructuring plan with managers of the state mining company in Petrosani. Cozma's lawyers said today that his arrest will set back those talks.

Like coal sectors in other eastern and central European countries, Romania's heavily subsidized mines pose an enormous burden on the country's budget. Prime Minister Radu Vasile's government has planned to close down about 140 loss-making mines across the country this year. Those closures are seen as critical to Romania's bid to win fresh loans from international lenders and pay off about 2,200 million dollars in foreign debts this year. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has demanded that Romania cut its budget deficit to two percent of Gross Domestic Product -- about half the level of last year's deficit. Financial analysts say that will be impossible unless many loss-making state firms are closed.

Romania's parliament yesterday approved an austerity budget in line with the IMF's demands. But that budget plan has already prompted protests by workers in education, health and defense.

The fact that coal miners already receive more than twice the average salary in Romania has not endeared Cozma's miners to most Romanians. His repeated use of violence to win pay raises also has made him the target of scorn from Romanians outside of the Jiu Valley.

Former President Ion Iliescu's Party of Social Democracy in Romania is suggesting that the 18-year sentence imposed on Cozma is politically motivated. But Cozma's history of using force to bring down one government and win demands for his unionists has given Vasile's cabinet ample evidence to argue that Cozma poses a continuing threat to state authority.