The resignation of Romanian Deputy Health Minister Raed Arafat last week over the government’s intention to introduce a bill to privatise half the emergency healthcare system sparked demonstrations around the country.
The government abandoned the proposals but demonstrations continued into the weekend. On Sunday (15 January) demonstrators wielding rocks and Molotov cocktails gathered at University Square in Bucharest, leading to some of the heaviest clashes between police and protestors in the capital since the 1989 revolution against communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu.
At least 29 people were injured, 15 of whom were hospitalised.
“Come out of your homes, if you do care about what is happening”, protestors shouted in central Bucharest. The motivations for joining the demonstration appeared to differ.
Some of the 2,000 people gathered in University Square were asking for the current president, Traian Băsescu, to step down and for the government to stop austerity measures that have seen salaries and pensions cut by around 25% over the last year.
Supporters of popular football clubs Steaua and Dinamo, believed to represent a large part of the demonstrators, were among the most vocal. However, their main concern appeared to be a law forbids the use of pyrotechnical material at stadiums.
Similar protests took place in two of the country's main cities, Braşov and Timişoara.
Demonstrators were described as “hooligans” by some of the Romanian new media, after several shops and cafés in the centre were looted and vandalised. Several bus stops and traffic lights in central Bucharest were also broken.
Opposition stirring in the pot
Crin Antonescu, president of the opposition National Liberal party (PNL), urged his supporters to join the protests “in a peaceful manner”.
Antonescu is calling for early elections to oust the government that has been “intimidating” the country for the past few years, he said. Antonescu has also created an online forum gathering signatures for the current president step down, EurActiv Romania reports.
“All these people are … showing those in power that if they want to avoid violence, they have to act accordingly upon all the responsible people in power,’ Antonescu said Sunday night.
Prime Minister Emil Boc said that even though freedom of speech is guaranteed in Romania, only peaceful protests would be tolerated. “Street violence is unacceptable,” he said, addressing the country. He said he sympathised with “the very hard times” Romanians are going through, caused by a crisis that is “worse than anyone could have ever imagined”.
Watch EurActiv Romania's video showing the violent protests in central Bucharest: