Prime Minister of Romania, Victor Ponta, in an Exclusive Interview with The Oslo Times
Victor Ponta, since his appointment as the Prime Minister of Romania has been able to bring the derailed Romanian economy back on track. Besides its progressive economic growth rate and despite the fact that the nation is part of the European Union, the nation and Ponta’s government have also been under media fire for human rights abuses, and minority rights issues.
Prabalta Rijal, Chief International Correspondent of The Oslo Times International News Network in an exclusive interview with PM Ponta brought up these very points and a variety of other related issues. Excerpts:
Firstly, I would like to start with a question we always ask our guests, what does Human Rights mean to you?
I share the same vision on human rights as the international standard, so my understanding of human rights goes the same way as our accepted definitions, at international and European level. As Prime Minister of a country which is an EU and NATO member, I am proud of our values, which make us stronger in an ever more complicated geopolitical environment.
Your government has been accused of not supporting organizations involved in the rescue and support of victims of trafficking, by various media sources, as well as information in the United States Embassy. In fact a report published in their website states that the Government of Romania has for a fifth consecutive time not provided funding to NGOs offering assistance to victims of trafficking and forced labor and also does not offer specialized shelter services in Bucharest for adults and children. Why has the government of Romania stopped funding such organizations?
My Government is a keen supporter of human rights, and we have all the willingness to further progress, including in terms of funding. However, this has to be done while being aware of the most pressing needs in society: everyone wants a bigger budget in Romania. We’ve had the budget 2015 debate recently and we tried to accommodate as many key sectors as possible, ranging from education, health, to investments and the fight against corruption. We will better coordinate in the future in the anti-trafficking field, while I think it‘s important to understand that the State cannot do everything, even though there is a lot of willingness on our side, particularly since we are aware of the seriousness of the phenomenon under discussion.
Over 16% of Romania’s population is aged over 65, according to the 2011 census and by 2050 their number is expected to grow even more. What kind of steps has the government taken on improving the lives of the old aged people in the country?
We have managed a lot, firstly by making right the wrongs of the previous government, who took radical austerity measures. We reinstated pensions at pre-austerity levels in 2012, when we came into power, and we have kept raising them on an annual basis to cover inflation; the latest rise is of 5%. Social policy is one of my priorities, not only as a social-democrat but also as a citizen conscious of the needs of our society.
A very vulnerable group in Romania are retired farmers who receive a monthly pension that is less than the subsistence level, that was set in 2014 by the National Statistics Institute, what kind of efforts has the government made to improve the situation of such impoverished groups in Romania?
What we did is increase the “guaranteed minimum pension” from 350 to 400 lei, in the next budget. We will strive to do more in the months to come, we are well aware of the situation of the farmers.
According to the Emerging Europe Monitor, Romania is expected to witness a 3.4 percent GDP growth in 2015, this clearly shows that the steps taken by the government is improving the economic state of the country. What kinds of problems have you faced as the PM, while implementing new laws that are beneficial for overall development of the country?
Indeed, we have made progress in terms of economic growth. We took a series of measures meant to boost investment and entrepreneurship. In terms of problems faced, I would say policy making is sometimes less effective due to political games. It’s not easy to have a policy debate, particularly in electoral years, like 2012. The government and the opposition starts bikering on key issues ranging from the opportunity of certain measures, up to the exact funding for a particular policy. But we had the courage to promote a series of reforms, touching both big employers and entrepreneurs.
How has trade with China affected the Romanian economy?
We are positive in a future increase of trade with China, we will start exporting more, particularly in terms of products meant to help China‘s food security needs. We are also looking at large infrastructure projects, while being aware that EU competition rules have to be respected.
Romania has a small minority group of Hungarians living in Romania, and Hungary is home to a small group of Romanians. However, the Romanian population in Hungary have been facing difficulties with Hungary inclining more and more towards becoming an Anti-Semitic state. What reasons, do you think, are behind this? And, has this affected Romania’s ties with Hungary?
We are indeed concerned with the policies of Viktor Orban, both at the European Union level and in regards to our bilateral issues. On the latter he has not been as vocal as in the past years, particularly if we recall the issue of passports for Hungarians in neighboring countries; we are also paying attention to European interests, particularly energy geopolitics, since Budapest is working closer and closer with Moscow.
The Gypsies in Romania have faced extreme hatred from extreme right groups who wanted to protect themselves from the so-called Gypsy danger. What kinds of measures has your government taken to protect ethnic minorities like the Gypsies, from being subjected to violence and deep rooted hatred?
We decided that what works best is a combination of soft and hard measures: education – particularly anti-discrimination – and law enforcement. We need to help people better understand tolerance, while everyone should know the law is not negotiable, we are all citizens of the same country, we should respect each other. Roma integration is important for us, particularly as social-democrats.
Still on the Gypsies, According to reports, 1,500 Roma Gypsies who live in a sprawling, fetid encampment on a landfill site outside Romania’s second-largest city Cluj-Napoca, have claimed that 2 years ago, they were given a two days notice to move out of their home. Why, is this community still being treated like aliens in their own country? Why is the government not paying heed to their basic rights as human beings?
A government can come up with policy measures that help with community integration. I fully support and respect decent treatment, while in cases like these ones, local communities together with the checks and balances provided by the justice system need to have their say. As highlighted before: education is key, for both ordinary citizens and local authorities.
According to Freedom house, media freedom in Romania has weakened in practice due to financial insecurity and overriding political and business interests. What kind of steps has your government taken to strengthen the media situation in the country?
We have been reticent to act in this field because this could have been interpreted as a political step, and strike back against government, no matter the good intentions. Particularly in electoral years, the Romanian political class has the “talent” of presenting apocalyptical scenarios, so it’s hard to open an honest debate on any major topic, including media funding. The media have to find a good business model, we can participate in this debate, as a third party.
On June 2013, the Government of Romania made an amendment to the new constitution. The new law pronounced ‘marriage as a union between a man and a woman alone’. Why have such discriminatory laws been passed?
The Constitution has not been amended, you need a Constitutional majority for that. What I can say is that, while I am personally a progressive we live in a pretty conservative country. We are orthodox and quite conservative although we are open minded, as the election of a President from within a national and religious minority shows.
Can and should a country’s law interfere with its citizens personal affairs?
I believe legislation serves only one purpose: to improve the people‘s lives. I do not favor meddling into personal affairs. People are different and I think we should respect diversity. However, as Prime Minister my mission is to govern efficiently and not to centralize initiatives from MPs with different opinions. Sometimes, the Government is caught off guard by parliamentary initiatives that tend to polarize; we are not always happy of the outcome, but freedom of speech and initiative are part of our democratic game.
Stability and growth are my major achievements. I believe I could have done more if there would have been a better cooperation in between the Palaces, the Government, and the Presidential ones. But, unfortunately, that was not possible with former President Basescu, I am confident Klaus Lohannis will be a different kind of President, in terms of cooperation philosophy.
What message do you have for our readers?
Come to Romania, visit us, invest from all points of view in our common future! I believe there is great potential for partnership in between our two countries.
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