By GERRY FOLEY
After they led the country’s increasingly desperate population to the brink of a general social explosion in January, the Romanian coal miners of the Jiu Valley suffered a disastrous defeat when they tried to renew their protest in February.
In January, the miners had defied a court order banning their strike and march and overwhelmed attempts by the police and military to stop their advance on the capital city. They halted their protest on Jan. 22 only when the government seemed to meet their main demands for wage increases and rescinding of plans for massive layoffs.
However, only three weeks later, on Feb. 15, before the government clarified what it had agreed to, the Romanian Supreme Court handed down a sentence of 18 years in prison for miners’ leader Miron Cozma in connection with a miners’ protest that took place in 1991.
The miners’ union recognized the court’s decision as a betrayal by the government and immediately tried to organize a second march on Bucharest. The workforces at all but two of the Jiu Valley mines rallied to the call for a resumption of the protest.
However, the momentum had been lost. The general population, apparently caught unawares by the sudden turn of events, did not mobilize in support of the miners as it had in January. The repressive forces had the opportunity to reorganize, and they were well prepared this time for a confrontation.
On Feb.17, at Stoenesti, the military crushed the miners’ march. At least one worker was killed. About 300, were arrested, including the main union leaders. Cozma was seized by police.
The miners’ leader is also being threatened now with an additional 15-year sentence for his part in the protest that was suppressed, unless he agrees to cooperate with the government in defusing the miners’ resistance.
The right-wing daily Romania Libera reported in its Feb. 27 issue that charges related to the last miners’ march were referred to a military court, and that the military prosecutor, General Voinea, had appointed a panel to investigate all the miners’ protests, going back to 1990.
The miners’ march on Bucharest in January against the austerity policies of the right-wing capitalist restorationist government elected in 1996 had terrified the regime and set the right-wing press howling for Cozma’s blood. (Premier Radu Vasile offered special thanks to the “Fourth Estate” for its work.).
Since the rightist government took office, the country’s gross national product has fallen by 15 percent, and it is expected to fall by another 6 percent this year.
Historically, the Jiu Valley miners have been the most militant section of the Romanian working class. They staged the only major protest against the policies of the ruthless Stalinist regime of Ceaucescu, a strike led by Cozma in 1977, until the revolutionary movement in late 1989 that finally brought the regime down.
The right-wing government obviously knew that it would have to break the miners in order to implement its economic policies.
Furthermore, when it was negotiating with Cozma, it was under the direct pressure of an IMF delegation visiting the country.
Loris Competti, correspondent in Bucharest for the Italian left daily Il Manifesto, wrote in the Jan. 26 issue that “many wept when Cozma signed the agreement with the Romanian premier [on Jan. 22].
“They-workers, pensioners, unemployed, and even policemen-saw that the miners’ struggle was an icebreaker for destroying a criminal social, political, and economic system. They were fighting not to help the miners but to liberate themselves from chains that had become unbearable.”
The day after the miners march was smashed, the engineering workers’ union announced that it intended to lead a march of 25,000 engineering workers on Bucharest. But in the aftermath of the miners’ defeat in Stoenesti, it apparently yielded when the government banned its protest.
Nonetheless, these sudden upsurges of protest by major sections of workers indicate an explosive situation that will not be ended by one tactical victory for the government.
In fact, the on-line Romanian daily that howled the most stridently for Cozma’s blood, Romania Libera, has warned the regime against overconfidence.