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What Price Liberty? What Price Shoes? : Romania: Two years after Ceausescu, the people feel shortchanged by inept ‘reform.’

<i> Peter Gross is a Romanian-born professor of journalism at California State University, Chico, where he conducts a program for visiting journalists from Romania. </i>

It was not a call for democracy, nor even a symptom of democratic tendencies, that sent Romania’s miners rioting in Bucharest Wednesday, crashing Parliament, forcing Prime Minister Petre Roman to resign and calling for President Ion Iliescu to do the same. It was a spasmodic response to the consequences of a failing economy only half-heartedly reoriented to a free-market system.

With 200%-plus inflation, the gap between income and the cost of food and (scarce) consumer goods frightens Romanians, who were guaranteed at least basic subsistence under communism. The average 8,000-10,000 lei monthly salary ($30 to $40) does not go far when a pair of shoes cost 2,500 to 3,000 lei.

What the miners want is a guarantee of cheap, plentiful food. They share the general population’s attitude, which has only slightly changed since the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu: “We want our cradle-to-grave security back, and to live as well as they do in the West, but don’t expect us to work much.”

This crisis may be a catalyst for either a return to some form of authoritarianism or for commitment to meaningful democratization. On Thursday, Iliescu said that he would form a new, coalition government, but what that might achieve is problematic. At the same time, the military announced it is ready to use lethal force to quell further unrest. Given the vacuum of political leadership in the country, and the absence of a constitution, the establishment of a Latin American-style military dictatorship is not implausible, even if it is not highly probable.

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The recently formed Civic Alliance Party headed by Nicolae Manolescu (who arrived in Washington for a visit on Wednesday) may provide a viable alternative to the growing nationalist-fascist movement, the impotent traditional parties and Iliescu’s National Salvation Front. The latter is daily losing voters, but not to the democratic opposition. Many have shifted to the right, but many more seem to be in the growing segment of the population that is “withdrawing from political life,” according to Pavel Campeanu, who conducts polls for the liberal Group for Social Dialogue.

For the Civic Alliance to be effective, it has to learn how to address ordinary Romanians, their real and imaginary concerns, fears and suspicions. This is a tall order for a party led by intellectuals.

Nothing better describes the workers’ attitude toward intellectuals than the miners’ chants in June, 1990, as they beat up anti-Communist demonstrators: “We work, and do not think.” Yet there is a love-hate relationship between ordinary citizens and intellectuals that does not preclude the wish, heard on both sides, for a Romanian Vaclav Havel to lead the country. Realistically, a Boris Yeltsin would be far more effective.

The impediments to democratic evolution and a brighter future are numerous. Among the most formidable:

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-- the presence of a still-functioning Securitate (Ceausescu’s secret service);

-- the durability of the old nomenklatura, intent on retaining their privileged positions, they being the only ones with the wherewithal to participate in a free-market economy;

-- constant disinformation, spread by a predominantly polemical mass media;

-- the persistence of popular habits and attitudes deleterious to democratic processes, and the people’s reluctance to come to terms with the fascism and communism in the country’s past.

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The National Salvation Front has sent mixed signals since it took over leadership in December, 1989, taking contradictory actions and purposefully manipulating sociopolitical, ethnic and economic issues. The effect has been to exacerbate the Romanian tendency for fatalism, chauvinistic nationalism and psychological masochism. Notwithstanding the miners’ actions, the danger to Romania lies in the people’s uninhibited resignation to what appears to them a fate they cannot control, and in their talk of “strong leadership,” a euphemism for another form of dictatorship. Their whining, breast-beating, pathological pessimism and martyr complex may lead to their darkest visions of the future becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Short of group psychotherapy for most of this nation of 23 million, what is needed is an increase in communication and information that in time may change the mentalities.

A civil society has been slowly emerging, even if the political society has been slow to provide leadership. If chaos can be averted, there is some hope for the liberal, democratic opposition to continue and build upon its teetering progress.

For now, Romanians face the approach of winter with a bleak conviction born of the summer’s disastrous floods: that natural catastrophes are easier to cope with than the surreal abnormalcy of the post-Ceaucescu era, with its confusion of vague democratic notions, leftover communism and Byzantine behavior--and miners periodically descending on the capital.

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