Romanians say things were better under Ceausescu
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Wed Dec 22 06:40:45 MST 1999
NY Times, December 22, 1999
Romania Sees Promise of Prosperity Slip Away
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
BRASOV, Romania, Dec. 19 -- Ten years ago, the Romanians rose up to win
back their freedom from Communist rule and the grinding dictatorship of a
personality cult. But the prosperity that also vanished under Nicolae
Ceausescu seems only to grow more remote.
This often-overlooked country of 22 million, bigger than most of its
Eastern European neighbors, is going through harder times than most of
them. The average wage has slipped, to $80 a month, and one-third of the
population lives on less than $2 a day.
At dawn in Bucharest, the capital, groups of children emerge from the
sewers to beg just as they do in the capital of Angola. While Poland,
Hungary, the Czech Republic and even tiny Estonia are a jump away from
joining the European Union, Romania lingers with the underachievers,
awaiting a later round.
Mihai-Cristian Grigore, 32, a citizen of this industrial city in the
Carpathian Mountains, knows Western-style reorganization from the sharp
end. A high school dropout, he was a machinist in a factory in the 1989
revolution. That could have been a job for life. But in 1990, Mr. Grigore
recalled, "our boss bought it from the state, dismissed everybody and hired
his own family."
The next job lasted five years and ended with a layoff. Six months later,
he found work at a screw factory where his mother spent her career. But it
was shrinking, and he was laid off again.
Now Mr. Grigore and his wife live on $29 a month from temporary welfare,
help from relatives and what his wife makes selling fruit on the street.
"I'm trying all I can to improve my life," Mr. Grigore said. "But this is
the way we live now. If I could go overseas, I would."
Romanians are bitter. Last month, in a poll that stunned the government, 61
percent said that life was better under Mr. Ceausescu and his prominent
wife, Elena, who were so hated that they were tried and shot on Christmas
Day in 1989.
Life then was lousy. Apartments were heated less than four hours a day.
Food shortages were so bad that people lined up for hours and literally
fought one another over rare supplies of chicken parts with almost no meat,
and television was two evening hours simply glorifying the governing couple.
But the unemployed remember that everyone had jobs under Mr. Ceausescu,
despite his North Korean-style tyranny. A visitor constantly hears this
refrain: "Then we had money, but there was nothing to buy. Now the shops
are full, but we have no money."
Neither the government nor President Emil Constantinescu, elected in 1997
with great hopes for change because it was the first peaceful transfer of
power in Romanian history, is planning a nationwide celebration of the 10th
anniversary of the revolution on Wednesday. They fear that any spark could
set off rioting.
The government itself, a fragile, bickering multiparty coalition, is in
turmoil, accused of corruption and bungling the economy. In what a local
political commentator called "a typical Romanian circus," Mr.
Constantinescu dismissed Prime Minister Radu Vasile on Dec. 14, after most
of his cabinet had resigned. Mr. Vasile was defiant, saying the president
had no such power, then succumbed.
He was replaced by Mugur Isarescu, an economist who had run the central
bank since 1991 and is in no political party. Mr. Isarescu is highly
regarded. He was reported to have taken the job reluctantly and to have
asked Parliament to guarantee him his old job back after the elections next
Violent strikes reminiscent of the dictator's waning days have returned,
and some marchers have taken to carrying Mr. Ceausescu's picture. On Nov. 1
here, angry workers from the Roman truck factory invaded and vandalized a
Their plant, which once supplied much of the Soviet bloc, has shrunk, to
9,100 workers from 21,000 in 1990. The Tractorul tractor plant has done the
same, and feels stabbed by both East and West. The NATO blockade of
Yugoslavia hurt sales just as the Soviet collapse did.
By some lights, the truck factory is where the 1989 revolution began. In
1987, workers furious at working on Sundays for no pay cut the electricity
and marched on the building, where they found a groaning buffet table set
out for a Communist party fete.
They rioted. For two years afterward, the factory floor was full of
security police officers in workers' clothes.
The spies are gone. Hard times are not. A union president, Gabor Fanica,
said his members spent 90 percent of their salaries on food.
"There's no possibility to buy new clothes or keep up your apartment, to
allow yourself to make phone calls, let alone to go away on vacation," Mr.
Fanica said. The laid-off go to soup kitchens or move in with rural
relatives and eat what they grow.
Aged pensioners have it worse.
"My mother's pension amounts to 7 pizzas a month," said Mircea Irimie, 58,
a retired railway engineer in the western city of Timisoara. "Who can live
"These beautiful buildings?" he added, waving at the town's Orthodox
cathedral with an odd German roof. "They're all a facade, my friend.
Romania used to export wheat to the world. Now it exports only prostitutes."
Economists and politicians cite many reasons for the agony.
Until the 1960's, Romania was almost entirely agrarian, unlike East Germany
or Czechoslovakia. As collective farming ends and property seized under
Communism is restored, peasants are receiving small plots rather than
shares in big farms. Vegetable farming thrives. But mechanized wheat
Under Mr. Ceausescu, any business spirit was throttled by a Stalinist
system more severe than any East European regime outside Albania.
Before Communism fell, said Silviu Brucan, a once-ardent Communist
economist and former ambassador to the United States who became
disillusioned with Mr. Ceausescu and joined the ruling council that
replaced him, there was a "potential middle class in training for
capitalism" -- people who owned homes, cars, saw Western movies, vacationed
abroad, perhaps even did some private business.
In Czechoslovakia, Mr. Brucan said, that was 30 percent of the population,
in Hungary 20 percent and in Poland 15 percent. In Romania, it was less
than 5 percent.
"Even a peasant who wanted to slaughter his pig before Christmas had to ask
permission of the local militia," Mr. Brucan said, "because the number of
pigs raised was an important indicator," measured by state planners, to
trumpet Communism's achievements.
Mr. Ceausescu's megalomaniacal industrial projects distorted the economy.
Romania built mills to produce more steel than France and refineries for 35
million tons of crude oil a year, while the country pumped 7 million. Now
they lie rusting.
By contrast, even by 1989, almost no Romanian owned a computer. Typewriters
were treated the way guns were. Each had to be registered with the police.
Since then, in the lines beckoning to foreign investors, Romania waves from
"If you were a German car manufacturer, where would you invest, Hungary or
Romania?" asked Martin Taylor, director of the European Emerging Markets
group for Baring Asset Management in London. "In Hungary, you get high
literacy, a seven-year tax break, no tariffs and very clear commercial law.
"In Romania, you have corruption, lower literacy, law that makes it hard to
prove ownership, tariffs, poor infrastructure, and it's further away.
Besides, you'd want a domestic market, and 10 million rich Hungarians will
buy more cars than 20 million poor Romanians."
Ion Iliescu, the former Communist who was president from 1990 to 1996 and
is leading in preliminary polls for the vote next year, argues that the
economy nosedived from 1990 to 1993, but that he turned it around by
gradually cutting subsidies and government contracts.
The current government's shock therapy sent it spinning down again, Mr.
His opponents say that he ran up deficits that would have meant bankruptcy
and that their cost-cutting and privatization will save the country.
"It's the old story," said Petre Roman, an early post-Communist prime
minister who became first deputy premier and foreign minister in the
cabinet shuffle last week. "Those who do the reform lose the sympathy of
Besides, some Romanians note, only amnesiacs could think that life was
better in 1989.
Alexandru Ioan Pop, head of the union in the Brasov tractor plant, sat in a
well-stocked bakery with a foreign reporter and drew the comparison.
"They sold pastry here before the revolution too," Mr. Pop said. "But then
there were only two refrigerators and three kinds of pastry, and the
Securitate would have arrested us in five minutes. In 1989, I wasn't even
allowed to stand in the street and shout, 'All I eat is pigs' feet!' "
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