The year 1997 in Romania began with great expectations following the victory of the democrats in the November 1996 parliamentary and presidential elections. In January the new president, Emil Constantinescu, vowed to do something about rampant corruption and organized crime, and in February the coalition government led by Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea kicked off its "shock therapy" economic program.
Despite the will for change and an initially high level of public confidence in the new leadership, a thoroughgoing reform of the economy and society proved difficult. Restructuring of mammoth state industries was fitful, and privatization proceeded much more slowly than envisaged. The government sought to place the blame for this dysfunction on the old bureaucratic structures and initiated a drive to streamline various departments from the top down--changes that were promptly denounced as "political purges" by the leftist and nationalist opposition.
The main reason that needed reform could not be properly implemented was that homogeneity and consensus in the government itself were lacking. The ruling coalition consisted of three political alliances: the centre-right Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR), the Social Democratic Union (USD), and the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania (UDMR). Widespread disagreement and tension surfaced within each of the three groupings, as well as between them, and nearly every political formation was plagued by infighting and rifts. In October, for example, Sen. Constantin Ticu Dumitrescu of the National Peasant Party-Christian Democratic, the main component of the CDR, was suspended from the party after he criticized its leadership for delaying the passage of a law that would allow access to the secret files of the communist political police.
Perpetual friction within the coalition often delayed the adoption of laws by the parliament. The Cabinet had to resort to "urgent ordinances" to speed up decision making, a practice that many felt circumvented normal democratic procedures. Coalition solidarity was more in evidence, however, when the government rejected the flurry of no-confidence and nonbinding opposition motions directed at the government, such as the one introduced in mid-December that would have held the government responsible for the plummeting living standards.
In August the Cabinet admitted that economic reform had stalled and announced the closing of 17 of the biggest loss-making enterprises (the number was later cut to 14). A government reshuffle, primarily aimed at consolidating the economic ministries, was announced in late October but could be completed only on December 2. One-third of the ministerial posts, including finance, reform, and industry and commerce, were affected. A privatization ministry was created to replace several institutions with overlapping responsibilities. Only days later, however, the Cabinet was again plunged into crisis when the two UDMR ministers boycotted meetings to protest the coalition's failure to permit education of the country's large Magyar minority in the Hungarian language in all subjects. In yet another scandal, Foreign Minister Adrian Severin of the Democratic Party (PD, the leading force in the USD) resigned on December 23 after he claimed that some party leaders and media directors were working for foreign secret services. Another PD minister, Traian Basescu (Transport), had to quit on December 29 for criticizing the Cabinet.
Growing dissatisfaction with government policies led to a wave of protests by workers, students, and others that peaked in October. The left-wing opposition parties proved unable to harness this popular discontent, however, chiefly because they too were divided. Former president Ion Iliescu's Party of Social Democracy in Romania split in June, and in December the new Alliance for Romania proclaimed itself "a third force" in the political arena.
Early in the year Romania launched a diplomatic offensive to improve its image abroad. President Constantinescu received senior foreign officials, including French Pres. Jacques Chirac (February) and U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton (July). Joining NATO and the European Union were proclaimed Romania's top foreign policy priorities. With these objectives in mind, Romania sought to improve relations with its neighbours and signed a basic treaty with Ukraine in June. The country was nonetheless passed over in the first wave of expansion by both NATO and the EU.
This article updates Balkan States: Romania.
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