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24th Jul 2021

Political crises in Romania and Bulgaria amid third wave

  • Both Bulgaria and Romania have been hit hard by the pandemic's third wave. The current political crisis in both countries is not helping to fight the virus (Photo: General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations Romania)

As healthcare systems throughout the south-eastern region of Europe near their limits in coping with a wave of Covid-19 cases, the political and governmental crisis in Romania and Bulgaria could hold dramatic consequences.

On Wednesday (14 April), Romania's prime minister Florin Citu sacked the country's health minister in a move that could spell the end of an already-fragile governing coalition.

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Vlad Voiculescu saw his tenure as health minister come to an end after a series of incidents drew criticism over his handling of the pandemic.

Just one day before his sacking, three Coronavirus patients died at a hospital in Romania after its oxygen supply malfunctioned.

In late January another tragedy struck, as a fire broke out on a Covid-19 ward in Bucharest's Matei Bals hospital, killing 12 people.

Prime minister Citu, of the National Liberal Party (PNL), justified his decision as a move to reinsure trust in state institutions.

"The fight against Covid-19 has stretched the state's resources to the maximum, especially in the health care system. In order to succeed, trust in state institutions is necessary", the PM said in a statement.

Others from Citu's PNL party had questioned Voiculescu's ability to continue running the health ministry - specifically citing how the minister changed quarantine criteria without informing the prime minister, and blundered into conflicts over Covid vaccination logistics, ministerial orders and careless hospital evacuations.

PNL has been governing together with the reformist USR-PLUS party, which Voiculescu is part of, plus the ethnic Hungarian Party UDMR, since the start of this year. The three parties rule with only a slim parliamentary majority.

If any of them were to pull out, the coalition would collapse.

After seeing their minister removed, USR-PLUS said that it no longer supported Citu, asking for PNL to appointment someone else as prime minister, and threatened that otherwise they would leave the governing coalition.

Many hoped that Voiculescu, a 37-year old economist, and second-time health minister, would help reform the ailing Romania healthcare system, plagued by decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Members of his USR-PLUS party believe his firing had more to do with his reformist agenda, rather than a series of slips and blunders. His supporters say this was a political backlash as Voiculescu was in the process of replacing heads of the health insurance agencies, which control billions of euros in healthcare funds.

Romania has the EU's worst and most under-financed healthcare system, according to Euro Health Consumer Index and Eurostat.

The country has reported over one million Covid-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, with doctors repeatedly warning that there are not enough ICU beds left for those hardest hit by the virus.

Bulgaria's Borissov resigns

In Bulgaria, politics might also complicate the ongoing pandemic response. Three-time prime-minister Boyko Borissov resigned.

Even though his GERB party came first in the 4 April election, with 24.2 percent of the vote, Borissov did not have sufficient parliamentary backing to go for another term. The 61-year old former firefighter and ex-mayor of Sofia has been leading the Bulgarian government since 2009.

The ongoing anti-corruption protests that shook Borissov's cabinet, with demonstrators accusing him of protecting oligarchs and interfering in the judicial system, also helped anti-establishment parties make significant gains during the election, leading to a fragmented parliament.

Bulgaria, the EU's poorest member, has also been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic - pushing the health system to the brink, but also the welfare net.

According to the EU agency, European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions, Bulgaria ranked last in the EU in terms of support for businesses and employees affected by the pandemic.

Author bio

Cristian Gherasim is a freelance journalist contributing to EUobserver, Euronews, EU Reporter, Katoikos, Von Mises Institute, and bne IntelliNews, with a particular focus on European and regional affairs.

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