Occupy Bucharest and Romania Riots

You may have noticed or heard of demonstrations and riots on the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian cities in recent days. Will it turn out like the revolution (coup d’etat?) in 1989 that ended with the execution of Ceau?escu, or like the riots of 1990 where Ion Iliescu sent 20,000 miners to violently smash protests about the lack of forward movement? Whatever the outcome, it’s been a turbulent 22 years since the since the fall of Ceau?escu.

It could be argued that communism prospered in Romania until the mid 1990’s and beyond. Iliescu and his cronies effectively took one step forward after the departure of Ceau?escu and little changed for years (apart from party names). Politicians of all stripes talked about capitalism, building a free market economy and the concepts of privatisation as the silver bullets that would transform the economy and drive rapid growth. The concepts are powerful if the execution matches them – sadly the temptation to dip into the cookie tin has proved to be too much for too many and the Romanian economy is still blighted by corruption and chronic inefficiency. Politicians, however, cannot resist meddling, and health care is the latest victim (and it was not exactly robust to begin with).

So why are there rioters on the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian cities?

At the end of December 2011, the Romanian Ministry of Health published a draft law for public discussion. If implemented, the new law will effectively change the nature of the healthcare system. Under these new provisions, the private sector will play a more important role and there are references to the privatisation of hospitals and voluntary health insurance made by private companies.

In response to the proposed laws, Raed Arafat, the polpular deputy health minister, stated that the new health law would destroy the integrated system of emergency response that is instrumental in solving very serious cases and provides a key element of the national security and defense policy of Romania against disaster, replacing it with commercial competition. The main objection was against allowing private medical operators to run their own ambulance service, which should offer free emergency services, as a competition to the state run emergency services. Having seen how some companies have dominated the private security sector and are moving into ambulance services, there is clear cause for concern.

Raed Arafat was appointed Under Secretary of State for Health on August 23, 2007, by a decision signed by then Prime Minister, Calin Popescu Tariceanu. In the ministry, Raed Arafat was in charge of emergency medicine. He is also the founder and coordinator of the Mobile Emergency Service for Resuscitation and Extrication (SMURD), one of the most successful emergency systems in Eastern Europe. He was awarded with the National Order ‘For Merit’ in rank of Officer by President Traian Basescu in December 2005 he for his efforts in rescuing people from floods and for his daily efforts to save the lives of many Romanians. He is currently the coordinator doctor of SMURD (intensive care) of Targu Mures, and is undoubtedly a man that deserves genuine respect.

It must have been a blow for the government to see the resignation of Raed Arafat in response to their draft law on the reform of the healthcare system. President Basescu had already warned Arafat during a live TV interview “that the draft law is to be discussed, this is why it is open for public debate. The right approach is to present his concerns via the ministry and not create public outcry that this government wants to destroy the ambulance service.” This warning was arguably one of the key points leading to the resignation that subsequently sparked a series of protests that quickly transformed into protests against the regime itself. Many hospitals in Romania may amongst the worst in Europe but the system Arafat founded is one of the few things many Romanians think works properly – it literally saves lives. The proposal to restructure this was the spark to the tinder and 22 years after the first major round, demonstrators took to the streets.

After resigning as Under Secretary of State in Romania’s Health Ministry, Arafat condemned the draft law on health reform in the clearest terms possible, stating on January 10: “I have the obligation to warn, and not to shut up, not to stand still, hoping that this will be negotiated. This was not the first time an attempt to commercialise the emergency system has been made.” Arafat also added that he resigned because he felt by leaving the Ministry of Health he will have more chances to protect the emergency system.

In the face of this widespread opposition, B?sescu declared on Friday that the draft law should be withdrawn. As ever, Basescu displayed an alarming level of disconnection with the electorate when saying: “I reckon that very many are happy with the current health system.” Basescu appears to have assessed public opposition towards operating the health system as a market as opposition towards improving it in general. Since then the street protests have continued, highlighting the gulf between the country’s ‘elite’ class and the people on the street. People continued to gather in big cities, protesting in the name of a variety of causes.

Some of the international press are referring to these events as protests against the austerity measures that the government have had to agree with the IMF in return for monetary support. As ever, protesters look for key figures to direct their anger towards. Worryingly, the opposition have not been opposing the government, indicating that the entire political class is disconnected from the reality of the streets. This brings the harsh reality to light – when faced with choices between a leader like Basescu and leading opposition figures such as Crin Antonescu or Victor Ponta, Romanian voters could hardly be accused of being spoilt for options.

After riots on Sunday January 15th the Prime Minister, Emil Boc, called for dialogue. According to Boc, following the withdrawal of the draft law, Raed Arafat will return as Under Secretary of State in Romania’s Health Ministry. The streets will hopefully be restored to peace, but the underlying problems will not go away. When you live on a pittance and drive a Dacia 1300, watching the politicians swan around in their expensive limousines and gas guzzling SUV’s from expensive housing to expensive restaurants must create some bewilderment. It appears that there is some steel behind the discontent and we can only hope that the government can address concerns and drive a peaceable end to the protests.