BUCHAREST, Jan 27 - In December 1989, art student Titi Amzar risked his life to join the demonstrations in University Square that brought down reviled communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Now 43, Amzar is back on the square demanding much the same thing - a new leader for Romania.
“All these post-communist governments have been incompetent,” Amzar, now a designer, told Reuters at the crossing of broad boulevards in central Bucharest where some 50 protesters were killed more than 20 years ago.
“The political class is the main culprit for the collapse of our economic system and the ills of the society.”
Protests against President Traian Basescu and his close ally, Prime Minister Emil Boc, have occurred daily for two weeks and spread around the country, initially against proposed health reforms but quickly broadening to express unhappiness with tough austerity measures and corruption.
Many demonstrators, like Amzar, have also criticized the opposition and questioned if any of Romania’s current leaders can fix the country’s problems.
The unrest, the worst in more than a decade, is still far from serious enough to sway policy or threaten the government.
But it may derail Boc’s chances in parliamentary elections late in 2012 and leave Basescu, who will not face the voters until presidential elections in 2014, stuck in an unhappy marriage with his opponents.
Basescu has a theoretically non-executive position but makes almost all major Romanian policy announcements himself, including wage and pension cuts in 2010, a new International Monetary Fund deal and withdrawal of the healthcare reforms.
The bluff former sea captain, president since 2004, made a serious misstep when he criticized the popular deputy health minister Raed Arafat, prompting his resignation and sparking the demonstrations.
Basescu had accused Arafat, a Palestinian-born doctor who created Romania’s widely admired main emergency response system, of being a left-winger - a sensitive thing to say in post-communist Romania - after he opposed privatization of the health system.
While Romania has made huge strides in the last 20 years, its per capita income is still less than half the EU average and it is still markedly poorer than other former communist countries like Poland and Hungary. Many villages and even some parts of Bucharest still have no running water or electricity.
Romanians tended to suffer quietly under communism and there was no equivalent of 1956 in Hungary or the 1968 Prague Spring. But tempers boiled over in 1989 after years of food and energy shortages and Romania’s revolution was that year’s bloodiest, with more than 1,000 killed.
The thousands who have taken to the streets this month chose
University Square, where the 1989 protesters assembled and now known as ‘Kilometer Zero of Democracy’, to echo the events of that year.
They are angry about lack of progress in catching up with other members of the European Union and a perception that politicians are more interested in lining their pockets than working to improve the country.
“Romanians put up with a lot if they perceive the government to be fair, but this government has come to be seen as acting unilaterally and imposing discretionary cuts,” said Alina Mungiu-Pippidi of the Romanian Academic Society thinktank.
The demonstrators wave placards comparing Basescu with Ceausescu and Dracula, saying he is sucking the nation’s blood. But they also criticize the opposition, some of whose MPs have said they will push for Basescu’s impeachment.
Although the protests have been mostly peaceful, demonstrators have thrown bricks and set fires, prompting the police to respond with tear gas.
“A large majority of the population would now like ‘Basescu out’ but beats a retreat when the talk turns to who they would like to put in,” wrote Grigore Cartianu, editor of daily Adevarul.
The Basescu/Boc team presided over boom and bust and passed some of Europe’s harshest austerity to balance the economy, including 25 percent salary cuts and a 5 point hike in value added tax.
About three quarters of the population think the country is heading in the wrong direction, a Eurobarometer survey showed.
“The whole system is wrong ... otherwise how can one explain that people who work legally don’t have the basics assured from a state salary?” said 42-year-old Daniela Lupu, a public clerk who lives on a monthly wage of just 700 lei ($210) a month.
Boc has effectively admitted the weakness of his Democrat-Liberal party’s position by reappointing Arafat and has a long way back from 18 percent in opinion polls, compared with about 50 percent for the USL, an uneasy leftist alliance.
The USL has promised to revoke some austerity measures and if it sticks together and polls well enough to take power it would be stuck with Basescu - who can delay and try to block legislation - until 2014.
Ultimately Boc and Basescu will be judged on results. But with growth of only about 2 percent expected this year, the clock is ticking.
“If in spring some growth starts coming then they can start reaping benefit. If it doesn’t come by then, it’s too late,” said Guy Burrow, partner at consultancy Candole in Bucharest.
Amzar, protesting in the chill breeze on University Square, runs his own small advertising business which has been hurt by dwindling demand, though he has not been directly affected by salary or pension cuts.
“It is clear that incompetence, siphoning of public money and improper laws designed for cronies have affected the whole economy,” he said.
“I don’t love Basescu’s government nor do I like the opposition - all the politicians now are like dogs fighting over a bone.”
($1 = 3.4134 Romanian lei)
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall