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Hunger, Hardship Bring Glum Holidays to E. Europe

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A hand-lettered poster plastered across the facade of the Polytechnical Institute here sarcastically dismisses a rare improvement in Romania’s food supply: “Now the world is wonderful--we have crackers!”

The message that newly liberated people have not been satisfied with crumbs of success is being heard across Eastern Europe, where the euphoria of last year’s revolutions has given way to disappointment and despair.

The gains of democracy in Romania and elsewhere, so far, have been mostly intangible. East Europeans can speak their minds, march in protest, strike for higher wages and worship in peace.

But weary of trusting in brighter tomorrows amid the harsh realities that persist today, they disregard those rights as small comfort in the absence of the higher living standards they expected by now.

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The chronic shortages, rising prices and the unfamiliar threat of being jobless are the things that weigh most heavily in judging the value of the freedoms they have won.

From Poland to Bulgaria, the mood this Christmas is one of resentment. Nowhere is the bitterness more palpable than in this city, which rose up against repression a year ago.

Living conditions throughout Romania are appalling, with shelves in state-subsidized grocery stores empty of everything except cereals, canned vegetables, Vietnamese shrimp chips and boxes of the crackers that have become the butt of jokes.

Meat, bread and dairy stores have relatively steady supplies, but Romanians, worried that those goods may also disappear, line up for hours each day to stock up.

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Some concede that the handful of new private ventures offering previously unobtainable “luxury goods"--from cans of Pepsi to fur coats--is a sign that the economic transition is in motion. More, however, accuse the Bucharest government of allowing a few to get rich at the expense of the many who cannot afford two hours’ wages for a bar of chocolate or a month’s pay for a warm winter coat.

“I want to cry when I think how difficult it is to find anything to feed my children or to give them for Christmas,” says Margareta Spaiuk, verging on tears as her son Ioan, 9, nibbles a cracker.

Like many Romanians of average income, Spaiuk objects to the government’s recent efforts at price reform, which have allowed producers to set the cost of all but non-essential food items at whatever the market will bear.

“The government said it would help poor people with this price liberalization, but it has done nothing for us,” insists the nurse and mother of three, whose income was boosted by 25% to help defray higher prices.

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“Nothing has changed since the revolution,” she says, overlooking the very freedom to say so.

It was only a year ago that women like Spaiuk were forced to submit to pregnancy tests at their factories each month to ensure their compliance with state edicts to bear children for a greater Romania. Strikes and public gatherings were strictly forbidden, and contact with foreigners was punishable by jail. Heat was cut to private homes so that precious electricity could be spent on production.

While the long-suffering peoples of Eastern Europe have few blessings to count this winter, their refusal to admit some progress has been made suggests they are poorly prepared for the additional hardships that lie ahead.

Four decades of Communist economics broke down more than the relationships between costs and prices, supply and demand. Workers’ ability to relate initiative to income was destroyed in the process, leaving them stunned and angered by government efforts now to make them more responsible for their own welfare.

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Since Bucharest invoked price reforms Nov. 1 and warned Romanians they would have to work harder to buy what they need, the nation has been buffeted by strikes and demonstrations, further damaging industrial output, which had fallen by as much as 30% at midyear.

The Bucharest leadership’s sink-or-swim introduction of market economics has alienated consumers and threatened unrest of the type that toppled Bulgarian leaders last month.

As residents of perhaps the most devastated of East European countries, Bulgarians suffer daily electricity and heating cuts, chronic shortages of even the most basic foods and a steady industrial decline that portends darker days ahead.

“The saddest fact is that Bulgarians truly believe they will never starve, that someone will come forward to take care of them,” said an official of the Socialist government that was forced to step down. “They’ve never before been expected to think and do for themselves.”

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Measures to stabilize the economy are stalled there and elsewhere by a general misconception that embracing democracy is tantamount to achieving reform.

“There are a lot of people who are saying, ‘OK, we’ve had our revolution, where’s our prosperity?’ ” observed a Western diplomat in Sofia. “They seem to have expected to go from the Balkans to West Germany, in terms of living conditions, in one step.”

Even in the relatively affluent states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, citizens have shown themselves to be unprepared for unemployment, price increases and occasional injustices that occur as the transition to capitalism moves along in fits and starts.

When the Hungarian government attempted to raise gasoline prices in October to cover the soaring cost of imports, citizens reacted hysterically, joining taxi and truck drivers in a blockade of roads and border crossings that paralyzed the country for three days. The government was forced to restore subsidies, continuing what has long been a drain on the indebted economy.

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Czechoslovaks have objected to their government’s privatization plan because, they say, only black-marketeers and robber barons have money to bid for shops and services being sold at auction. Many cling to the socialist concept that workers should own the enterprises in reward for their labor.

Czechoslovak families are already feeling the pinch of food price increases of 25% and gasoline and transport charges that have doubled, dulling the glow of their “Velvet Revolution” that enraptured the nation a year ago.

In Poland, declining living standards have been breeding political infighting, like the acrimonious battle between Solidarity colleagues Lech Walesa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki in last month’s first-round presidential vote. Nearly a million Poles are out of work, and real incomes have fallen 30% this year.

Even East Germans, bankrolled by wealthy brothers in the West, are faced with serious economic dislocation. Crumbling industries are being shut out by more efficient Western competitors, and as much as half the working population eventually may be unemployed.

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Few East Europeans seem to see a connection between their own actions and the prospects for progress.

“We definitely need a second revolution,” contends Julian Man, 23, a chemistry student who has boycotted classes in strike-torn Timisoara since early December. “We know the transition will be difficult, but this government is not capable of resolving the problems.”

Dan Martin, another participant in the student and worker strikes involving hundreds of thousands across Romania, calls on the West to isolate President Ion Iliescu to hasten his downfall.

“We want something to happen,” he says, “because it can’t get any worse.”

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It is the rare resident of this troubled region who concedes that times are better now than under dictatorship, even if only marginally so.

“One has to admit there have been some results,” says Gaspar Miklos Tamas, a member of Hungary’s Parliament who emigrated from Romania in 1978. “For one thing, there is freedom, which, unfortunately, no one in Eastern Europe seems very happy about anymore.”


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