BUCHAREST, ROMANIA, DEC. 14 -- Romania's year-old government, besieged by protests and demonstrations, will bring to trial Communists accused of political crimes during the 24-year rule of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, according to Prime Minister Petre Roman.
His comments came during a wide-ranging interview on the eve of the first anniversary of the revolution that overthrew Ceausescu.
The new trials, a major policy shift for the government, which is led by ex-Communists, seem intended to quell mounting popular protests over the National Salvation Front government's free-market reforms and unanswered questions surrounding the front's sudden ascent to power during last year's revolution.
"From the point of view of the psychology of the people, the trials are important," Roman said Thursday. "The people want to know, they want justice -- and they are right."
Roman spoke amid speculation that large street demonstrations in the week ahead could force government concessions to militant trade unions unhappy about falling living standards.
Last month, the government hastily postponed for six months scheduled price increases on basic food items after demonstrations by tens of thousands in Bucharest and the Transylvanian industrial city of Brasov. Increases in rent and fuel prices also have been postponed indefinitely.
Negotiations between the prime minister and the national union of truck drivers this week defused union demands for the government's resignation. Although many groups -- students, doctors, air traffic controllers and workers at the national airline Tarom -- are still threatening strikes, the negotiations also seemed to dampen the possibility of a general strike that observers believe could topple the government.
But tonight, several thousand workers took to the streets in the western city of Timisoara, cradle of last year's revolution. Workers from the city's five largest factories joined student demonstrators to protest falling living standards. They accused the National Salvation Front of taking power in a planned coup masterminded by longtime Communists.
It was the workers' decision to join budding protests in Timisoara last December that turned the balance in the revolution. They have not joined a political protest since then.
The government will be watching events in Timisoara closely.
The country's last large street demonstrations occurred Nov. 15, when at least 60,000 people marched in Bucharest to protest price increases; another 10,000 people marched in Brasov.
Many demonstrators expressed solidarity with a new movement for democracy known as the Civic Alliance, an umbrella group that includes such opposition groups as the Timisoara Society, the Anti-Totalitarian Democratic Forum and 22, a newspaper named after the day in December when Ceausescu and wife Elena were forced by angry crowds to flee by helicopter from Bucharest's Communist Party Central Committee building.
The Civic Alliance's first general meeting drew more than 800 people today, including prominent citizens of Bucharest.
Within days of the Nov. 15 protests, the government pulled back on the price increases, which were part of its bid to gain support from the International Monetary Fund.
The government also is threatened by a growing clamor in the independent press for a thorough airing of allegations that the front's participation in the December revolution was a carefully orchestrated plan by career Communists to take over what had started as an anti-Communist popular uprising.
Opposition groups and Western governments also want an investigation into the government's involvement in the brutal beating of anti-government demonstrators in Bucharest last June by coal miners brought in from the Jiu Valley.
Popular discontent has widened a rift in the front between younger members, such as the 44-year-old Roman, and holdovers from the Ceausescu regime, some of whom have positioned themselves around President Ion Iliescu.
After the November street protests, the front postponed its first party congress by one month. Roman said the congress would "sweep out" the front's left wing.
Roman, a former party member and engineering professor, said Thursday that Communists who committed crimes during the Ceausescu years should be rooted out "like a mafia. They were a mafia."
Previously, the front had insisted that any political trials be narrowly focused only on crimes committed during the December revolution. But last month, the minister for reform -- a newly created post -- dismissed the trials of Ceausescu's top aides and son Nicu as mere "show trials" and called for a more rigorous and far-reaching approach, a "trial of communism."
A spokesman for Roman said the list of those likely to be prosecuted in new trials includes members of the executive committee of the Communist Central Committee as well as regional party secretaries.
The popular frustration here seems less political than economic. Romanians, like many others in post-Communist Eastern Europe, seem to want Western-style prosperity without the hardships that will be necessary to achieve it.
"Work habits this year in Romania were really weak," Roman said.
But even anger over price increases, Western diplomats say, is tempered by widespread recognition that neither the small opposition nor the union movement is capable of running the country.
Ironically, the National Salvation Front government may have helped foster the present discontent by raising expectations during its election campaign in May.
The front's candidates promised to protect workers and small-scale farmers from what it said were the ravages of capitalism. They promised that Romania would find a middle way of development, between communism and capitalism.
Instead, living standards and industrial production are falling and social protection laws are bottled up in the inexperienced and slow-moving parliament. In the cities, life has improved greatly since Ceausescu's fall but is still not as comfortable as some expected.
"I am furious; I have a 5-year-old child and I can find nothing to put on her feet," said one Bucharest office worker.