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Austerity Measures : Romania: A New Winter of Despair

Times Staff Writer

Towering near the center of this old Balkan capital is a triumphal arch, illuminated by floodlights at night, with an inscription in tall letters hailing President Nicolae Ceausescu’s 20 years in power as a “golden age” for Romania.

But the streets of Bucharest--a city of 2 million people--tell a different story these days, one of gloom and hardship, of nearly universal shortages and fear of the coming winter.

Last winter, the worst in 30 years, gas and electricity supplies failed or were cut off for days at a time as temperatures plunged to minus 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the city. To save energy, street lighting was switched off over most of the country, the use of private cars was banned for three months and indoor electric heaters were prohibited.

Heaters at a Premium

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“For the Romanians, having an electric heater was like having cocaine,” said a Western ambassador who spent the winter huddled by one of his own. “If the authorities found one in an apartment, they would cut off power to the whole building.”

For some Romanians, the winter’s most vivid memory was of frost on their apartment walls. Without disclosing any figures, Romanian officials have acknowledged that there were many deaths from the cold, especially among infants and the elderly.

With this grueling experience still fresh in mind, Romanians are preparing to face their third hard winter in a row with palpable anxiety and a sense of despair under Europe’s most severe economic austerity program since the end of World War II.

Almost everything is in short supply as Ceausescu’s regime--in its determination to pay off a comparatively modest foreign debt that now stands at about $6 billion--sells food to the Soviet Union and fuel to the United States, and imports as little in the way of necessities as it can.

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Sugar, Flour Rationed

Sugar, flour, cooking oil are rationed, and in some parts of the country, so is bread. In Bucharest, lines begin forming outside meat stores as early as 4 a.m. for wiry chickens and chunks of fatty pork that few Westerners would tolerate.

For reasons no one quite understands, and the official press has not explained, tomatoes and onions had largely disappeared from stores by mid-October this year. The supply of eggs has been erratic at best.

Even cabbage, which Romanians traditionally pickle by the barrel for winter, has been hard to find in vegetable stores. By mid-October, when it should have been plentiful, cabbage could be found in Bucharest only at a few farmers’ markets, where people lined up to fill their car trunks.

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“Things just disappear from the stores with no explanation,” one European envoy said. “The other day I went shopping with my wife, and there were no tomatoes anywhere. No onions. No cabbage. The lines for gasoline can last two or three days.”

By day, the city that once proudly called itself the “Paris of the East” still radiates a certain faded charm. Shady parks and elegant turn-of-the century villas, embraced in gnarled wisteria vines, preserve a romantic Balkan ambiance left from bourgeois times. By night, however, Bucharest is plunged into gloom.

To conserve energy, street lights are turned on only along a few major avenues in the center of the city, leaving Bucharest as a whole the darkest capital in Europe. Provincial cities, like Brasov, to the north in Transylvania, are even darker. Many stores are so dimly lit--in keeping with a general limit of one 40-watt bulb per room--that it is often hard to tell whether they are open in the evening without peering hard through the windows to watch for moving shadows.

Military Runs Plants

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To guard against a repetition of last winter’s outages, Ceausescu took the dramatic step last month of putting electric generating plants under military supervision, evidently in the hope that this will improve maintenance and reliability.

Western analysts, however, believe the country’s electrical system suffers less from poor management than from shortages of coal and possibly oil. Also, with the Danube River running at a 20-year low, Romania is unable to generate 20% to 30% of its 4,500 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity.

The size of New York and Pennsylvania combined, with a population of 23 million, Romania has traditionally been one of the poorest countries in Europe--the only one that still calls itself a developing country.

Romanian officials, who take offense at Western news reports emphasizing its problems, insist that the hardships are only temporary and should not obscure the great strides Romania has made under 20 years of Ceausescu’s rule, from a backward peasant land to a relatively modern, semi-industrial society.

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Western economists, however, tend to regard Romania’s current hardships as a deep, self-inflicted wound whose social and economic effects may linger for decades.

Broke Olympic Boycott

When Ceausescu came to power in 1965, he set out to industrialize Romania as a way of ensuring a measure of economic and political independence within the Soviet bloc. Twenty years later, it is a point of pride among Romanians that no foreign troops are based on their soil, and that they alone among the seven Warsaw Pact countries defied Moscow’s boycott and took part in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Beneath this symbolism, however, and in contrast with its long-term strategy, Romania now finds itself increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union.

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As Western analysts see it, a combination of uncoordinated borrowing and a fixation with Stalinist economic dogma led the Ceausescu regime to greatly overemphasize resource-hungry heavy industry, to the neglect of agriculture and the consumer economy.

By 1981, Romania found itself saddled with a $12-billion debt to the West and an unparalleled collection of industrial white elephants whose appetite for raw materials far exceeded Romania’s own resources. Among them:

--Although it has no bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is obtained, and is desperately short of electric power, Romania built an aluminum industry that now consumes 4% of its electricity, part of which it must import from the Soviet Union.

--Self-sufficient in oil until the mid-1970s, Romania now imports half its petroleum from the Middle East and the Soviet Union to feed an overgrown refining industry that is still only running at half capacity.

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--At a time when world markets are glutted with steel, Romania has the capacity to produce a ton of steel a year for every man, woman and child. To obtain raw materials, it has joined other East Bloc countries to help the Soviet Union build a huge new iron ore concentration plant at Krivoy Rog in the southern Ukraine.

Growth Stopped in ’77

Until 1977, Romania maintained one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, averaging almost 13% a year. The bottom fell out of Ceausescu’s industrialization program in 1981, when Western creditors, nervous about Poland’s threatened bankruptcy and Romania’s mounting debt, cut off credits and forced a rescheduling of the debt.

In 1982, an angered Ceausescu vowed not only to restore the country’s credit rating but to pay off the entire $12-billion debt by 1990, making Romania, along with tiny, isolationist Albania, one of the world’s few debt-free countries.

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Three years later, having squeezed the economy for exports, slashed imports to the bone and rejected advice from the International Monetary Fund on economic reforms, Ceausescu has traveled halfway to his goal--but at a social price that few if any Western governments could sustain.

“This makes the bankers happy, but there has been a human cost that will take decades to work through the economy,” one Western specialist in Bucharest says with undisguised bitterness. “The leadership doesn’t give a damn about the people, and the people themselves are quite passive.”

Trade Surplus With U.S.

Romania’s leading source of dollars is a lopsided trade surplus with the United States, made possible by Washington’s annual renewal of most-favored-nation trading status. Human rights activists, calling attention to Romania’s ruthless suppression of dissent, have urged the revocation of its favored status.

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But the Ceausescu government continues to comply with the only human rights criterion in the U.S. trade law by allowing a steady stream of emigration.

The linkage between Romania’s domestic shortages and its foreign exports seems especially clear and direct in the case of fuel.

While oil-burning electric plants outside Bucharest cut power to the capital’s suburbs for as long as seven hours a day, and drivers push their cars from block to block in mile-long lines for a tankful of gas a month, Romanian exports to the United States--most of it in the form of refined petroleum products--rose 163% between 1982 and the end of 1984, from $370.7 million to $973.6 million. Exports have continued to grow this year.

In the same period, Romania’s imports from the United States grew only 10% to $246 million last year and showed a downturn in the first five months of 1985, leaving a huge dollar surplus for paying off the debt.

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Food Sent to Russia

Romania’s food exports are a more closely guarded affair, but there is evidence that large amounts of beef, pork and poultry go to the Soviet Union to pay for raw materials.

Last summer, for example, Western diplomats were shown an ultramodern poultry farm producing chickens far more robust than any seen in the markets of Bucharest. Farm managers explained that the chickens were destined for the Soviet Union and that several more such farms were being built for the same purpose.

So far, the Romanian public has accepted its lot with an equanimity many Westerners regard as astonishing. A European businessman in Bucharest notes disparagingly that the Romanians seem to be guided by a local saying, “Don’t say anything, and don’t do anything either.”

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“They just adapt and adapt and adapt,” he said.

Passive as they seem, Romanians do show signs of anxiety. Those with cars make forays into the countryside to buy hundred-pound sacks of potatoes from farmers, risking police checks for illicit traffic in food. Some city mothers are sending small children to spend the winter with self-sufficient relatives in the countryside.

Firewood Is Scarce

Other city families have installed pot-bellied stoves in their small apartments as insurance against gas and power failures this winter. Firewood is scarce, however, because Romania’s environmental laws prohibit cutting trees for this purpose unless three trees are planted for every one that is felled.

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“The only word I can think of to describe my friends’ frame of mind right now is angst, " said a foreign businessman living in Bucharest.

As an example, he cited one middle-class husband and wife, a doctor and an engineer, with enough money to buy Eastern Europe’s most important new status symbol, a video cassette player.

“Money is no problem for them, but food is. From morning to night, their lives revolve around food. It’s practically all they talk about. Where we’re going to get eggs, where to buy meat, what store has chicken. They don’t hoard food. They eat what they have right away, and the diet is very poor: pickled cabbage, bottled tomatoes, bottled eggplant with tomato paste, fatty sausage, fatty pork. It’s high in starch and fat, low in vitamins.”

Unreality in Media

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In the midst of scarcity and uncertainty, the official state media projects an air of unreality. There is little public discussion of the shortages, possibly because Ceausescu has suggested that Romanians were eating too much in the first place.

With rare exceptions, television is broadcast only two hours a day, another energy-saving measure. It begins each evening with an 8 p.m. news program that focuses on the activities of Ceausescu, his wife and deputy premier, Elena, and their son, Nicu, the minister of youth.

The only program invariably broadcast in color follows the news, and consists of 20 to 30 minutes of tributes to Ceausescu. On one typical evening, opera singers, actors and poets appeared in formal attire on a flower-decked stage to read patriotic verse and sing songs of praise to the diminutive, 67-year-old leader, whose larger-than-life portrait loomed above the performers. One song was titled, “Ceausescu, Heroism--Romania, Communism.”

Primitive Propaganda

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Many Romanians regard this propaganda as stupefyingly primitive, and also a little frightening. They conclude that either Ceausescu is not informed about the plight of his people, or worse, that he is and chooses to ignore it.

The reputed efficiency of the Securitate, the secret police, tends to discourage public expression of dissent. But in the company of friends and family, and even foreign visitors, Romanians seem increasingly willing to express anger at the regime coupled with despair at their own passivity.

“Those Poles--always struggling for their liberty, always fighting,” a young professional woman said wistfully about Poland’s outlawed trade union, Solidarity. “I don’t think such a thing is possible in Romania.”

More important perhaps than anger and despair are signs that after three years of national sacrifice and nothing tangible to show for it, even the faithful may be losing faith in the social system.

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Talking about his country’s future recently with a foreign friend, a middle-aged government official turned first to the past. One achievement of Communist rule, he said, has been to eliminate the extremes of poverty Romania once suffered. “This cannot be denied,” the official said. “But now I think this same social system may be holding us back.”

He paused to search for a metaphor, and went on: “Sheep are such stupid animals. If the leader walks off a cliff, the whole flock will follow. I hope the Romanian people are not like that.”


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