- Associated Press - Monday, September 27, 2010

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — The Romanian government was in an uproar Monday over austerity protests: The interior minister resigned, the opposition demanded the prime minister go as well, and top police officials held emergency talks with the president.

The chaos reflected social fallout from the sharp wage cuts, tax hikes and other austerity measures the government has taken to fight its budget deficit amid a deep recession.

President Traian Basescu’s government has been unable to pay wages and pensions without a 20 billion euro ($26 billion) bailout loan last year from the International Monetary Fund and other lenders, and the IMF is demanding strong action now to trim Romania‘s national debt. His two-party coalition government, which does not hold an absolute majority in the parliament, is further hampered by the need to find consensus on how best to turn around the economy.

Romania‘s turmoil is just one part of Europe’s season of economic discontent. Widespread anti-government, anti-austerity protests also have erupted in France, Britain, Greece, Spain and other nations as governments struggle to balance budgets at a time of lingering economic weakness.

Thousands of public sector workers demonstrated Monday in Slovenia, another Balkan nation, in an open-ended strike to protest plans to freeze their salaries for two years. Last week, an estimated 1 million people marched in France against plans to raise the retirement age to 62.

And austerity-fueled protests continue to roil Greece, which only avoided bankruptcy in May because of a 110 billion euro ($140 billion) rescue package from the IMF and European countries.

Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest, the capital, several times last week in protest, but the government was most shocked when 6,000 police angry over a 25 percent wage cut marched Friday to the presidential palace and threw eggs at it. Some shouted, “Get out, you miserable dog!”

On Monday, Interior Minister Vasile Blaga said the protesting officers had staged an illegal action and “forgot the oath they swore” when they earned their badges. Mr. Blaga, a close ally of the president, resigned, calling the move “one of honor.”

Traian Igas, a little-known lawmaker from the Democratic Liberals, the dominant government party, was to be sworn in Monday evening as his replacement.

Crin Antonescu of the opposition Liberal Party, meanwhile, called on Prime Minister Emil Boc to resign along with Mr. Blaga.

Mr. Blaga, Romania‘s top police chief and the head of its anti-riot police all held an emergency meeting with Mr. Basescu on Monday. There was no immediate word on the substance of the talks.

The Romanian president previously dismissed his police protection, saying Friday’s protest had undermined state authority. Mr. Boc followed suit. Both now are relying instead on security paid for by the presidential budget, one of the few areas of government not cut.

More anti-austerity protests, organized by two large trade unions, are expected Tuesday in the capital. Thousands of medical workers, employees of Romania‘s national railway and others are expected to march.

Romania‘s main opposition, the leftist Social Democratic Party, appears happy now to be out of power as economic hardship hurts the popularity of the ruling Democratic Liberals — and may even be using its traditional influence with labor unions to foment unrest.

Bucharest Mayor Sorin Oprescu, who does not belong to any party but is a Basescu critic, insisted Friday’s “spontaneous” march by police was legal and organizers could not be fined because there was no violence.

Amid the uproar there were lighter moments. Television cameras captured the president driving himself to work, puffing on a cigarette and speaking on his mobile phone in his Dacia Logan, a boxy, no-frills Romanian-manufactured car. Stuck in traffic like any regular commuter, Mr. Basescu joked with reporters.

It is rare for Romanian television to show the president smoking, and it is against the law to be on a phone while driving — although the rule is widely ignored by Romanians of all stripes.

Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed to this report from Vienna, Austria.