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Protests over austerity cuts, corruption continue across Romania

Bogdan Cristel / Reuters

A demonstrator holds a bone with the word "Resignation" on it during a protest against the government in central Bucharest on Jan. 18, 2012. Protesters demanded the resignation of President Traian Basescu.

Protests continued for a sixth day across Romania, as hundreds gathered in the capital city Bucharest and in about 40 other cities, calling for President Traian Basescu’s resignation and denouncing the government’s austerity measures and systemic corruption.

As night fell Tuesday, about 200 anti-government protesters gathered in downtown Bucharest, yelling slogans such as "Resignation!" and "Down with Basescu!" Officials reported the number rose to about 1,000 protesters by the end of the day.

Protesters have raged for several days over austerity cuts, falling living standards and widespread corruption. Gathered in freezing temperatures, they chanted "Freedom!,” holding banners reading "Hunger and poverty have gripped Romania!"

Some protesters waved Romanian flags with the center cut out, reminiscent of the 1989 anti-communist protests.

Live video from the protests in Bucharest's University Square.

Romania is one of the newest and poorest European Union members, but the country is not part of the Eurozone. Romania's economy shrunk more than 7 percent in 2009, and the country needed an International Monetary Fund bail-out to pay its public sector wages. To qualify for another installment of the IMF loan, Romania agreed to implement new austerity measures, including a 25 percent cut in public wages.

The cuts were characterized as “brutal and unthinkable in a West European country” by Andreas Treichl, the president of Austria's Erste Group, the largest foreign investor in the Romanian banking sector.

Officials said about 13,000 protesters hit the streets across the country since Friday. Police said they fined 247 people Monday, and 36 were charged with illegally carrying knives, vandalism or disturbing public order during Monday's protests in Bucharest and other Romanian cities.

The French publication Le Monde noted that, while the number of protesters is relatively modest, their actions represent a “shock” in a country where civil society seemed struck with apathy.

“It was an outburst,” Romanian freelance journalist Vlad Ursulean told msnbc.com. “The cynicism disappeared.”

Ursulean covered the protests in Bucharest on Sunday, watching closely as riot police clashed with protesters. Riot police used tear gas and batons against the demonstrators, some of whom hurled rocks at the police. At least 59 people were injured in the clashes, officials said.

While authorities said violence only erupted when soccer hooligans infiltrated the protests, Ursulean said the crowd of protesters was diverse and the soccer fans made up a small part of it. One of the protesters told the riot police he wouldn’t be in the street if he could afford to feed his daughter, Ursulean reported.

Prime Minister Emil Boc said on Monday the violence was “unacceptable.”

“Each citizen who protests and is unhappy concerns me,” he added on Tuesday.

Protests were sparked last week, when Raed Arafat – a high-ranking health ministry official – resigned in opposition to government plans to privatize the country’s medical emergency system. But the anti-regime sentiment grew quickly among the protesters, and demonstrations spread.   

The prime minister said Tuesday that Arafat, a naturalized Palestinian, will return to his job, in what was seen as a step to defuse the public anger at the government. But protests continued in spite of this development, hinting at “a deep-seated expression of the population’s frustration,” political science professor Lavinia Stan told msnbc.com.

“The protests have taken a life of their own,” Stan said. If they continue and remain peaceful, they could pose a serious problem to President Basescu and the government, she said. Local and parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place later this fall.

Opposition parties tried to capitalize on the protests, demanding early elections, but protests remain apolitical for now. A protest march led by the opposition is now scheduled for Thursday.

“Everything seems a lot like the Occupy movement in its early stages,” Chris Williamson, a Peace Corps volunteer who’s been living in Romania for almost two years, told msnbc.com.

“There are a lot of people who are angry about different problems, but there isn't a set goal or plan for anything.”

An IMF mission coming to Romania to review the country’s loan deal is still on schedule for Jan.25.