BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romanian police fired tear gas and clashed with protesters during an anti-government rally Saturday, the third consecutive day of demonstrations against austerity cuts and falling living standards.
The protests were the most serious since President Traian Basescu came to power in 2004 and were the result of pent-up frustration against public wage cuts, slashed benefits, higher taxes and widespread corruption.
In 2009, Romania took a two-year €20 billion ($27.5 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the World Bank, as its economy shrank by 7.1 percent. Romania imposed harsh austerity measures under the agreement, reducing public wages by 25 percent and increasing taxes.
The unlikely catalyst for the protests, however, was the resignation of popular health official Raed Arafat, a Palestinian with Romanian citizenship who opposed health reforms proposed by the government. On Friday, Basescu told the government to scrap the reforms, but public anger had already risen against Basescu and the government.
Widespread support for Arafat has led commentators drawing parallels with ethnic Hungarian Laszlo Toekes, whose opposition to late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 was the spark for the anti-communist revolt.
It was a day of discontent in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, with thousands taking to the streets in Croatia to rally against the country joining the EU, and in neighboring Hungary, where a far-right party called for a referendum on the nation’s EU membership.
In Romania, nine people were injured in the clashes and scuffles between police and demonstrators, authorities said. A TV journalist was among the injured after protesters threw stones. One police officer sustained head injuries after he was hit by stones during the unauthorized rally in Bucharest’s main University Square which blocked traffic on a main thoroughfare. Police detained 29 people, including soccer hooligans with a police record of violence, for acts of violence and for disturbing public order.
More than 1,000 protesters waved flags with the center ripped out, the symbol of Romania’s anti-communist revolution, yelled anti-government slogans and called for early elections. Young men climbed on cars waving flags and the crowd chanted anti-government slogans for hours, undeterred by chilly temperatures.
After seven hours, protesters refused to leave, and scuffled with riot police who then used tear gas and flares.
Protesters staged smaller anti-government rallies Saturday in the major cities of Timisoara, Constanta, Craiova and Cluj and in other smaller cities.