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Romania: The Bloody Revolution In 1989 -- 10 Years After Public Disillusion Prevails

  • Jeremy Bransten

Ten years ago this month, Romanians overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Hopes at the time were high that the future would get brighter -- after decades of repression, empty promises and increasing material hardship. But many Romanians today are disappointed in their government and new-found freedoms as they struggle through a prolonged economic crisis. In the last of five reports, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks to some of the faces behind the statistics in his look at the country today.

Bucharest, 15 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, in a sign of growing public discontent with the government, thousands of people jeered President Emil Constantinescu and other Romanian officials at a ceremony marking the country's national day.

At the same time, railway workers across Romania went on strike over low wages, crippling traffic throughout the country. At the grave of former Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, on his name-day, scores of ordinary people showed up to light candles.

The latest polls indicate support for Constantinescu at its lowest level ever and that if elections were held today, former leftist President Ion Iliescu would win handily. Romania, 10 years after the revolution and three years after the coming to power of free-market, pro-Western leaders, is suffering from collective depression.

On paper, the reasons for the country's economic problems are obvious as are the solutions. The previous administration's massive borrowing from abroad, coupled with a lack of economic reform and the continued subsidizing of unprofitable enterprises, has saddled the government with a huge burden. Romania must now cut subsidies and institute austerity measures, while repaying foreign loans.

The Constantinescu administration has begun to do just that and the immediate result has been a rise in unemployment, a contraction of wages, and the slashing of social benefits.

Economists are applauding Romania's belated attempt at reform, but the government's policies are deeply unpopular and threaten to rip apart the country's social fabric - threadbare as it already is.

Eugen Chirovici, editor-in-chief of Curierul National, a leading Romanian economic daily, says as far as economic reforms are concerned, most of the years since 1989 have been wasted. He tells RFE/RL the apparent economic recovery of 1994 to 1996 was only illusory -- bought at the cost of foreign credits, which were misused.

"Most IMF and World Bank loans - the government's main creditors - were spent on buying consumer goods, through non-transparent channels, to keep social tensions down. They were not used for growth or to set the foundations of healthy development."

In 1996, Constantinescu was elected president along with a new pro-market government, which promised rapid economic reform. But again, says Chirovici, more time was wasted.

"All these good intentions did not materialize because of political interests - and I don't mean political doctrine - but rather clientelism: political groups that succeeded in putting the brakes on these reforms."

Chirovici says it was only this year that the government of prime minister Radu Vasile -- appointed last year -- began to take steps required for a transition to a functioning market economy.

"It was known that in 1999, Romania would have to pay back a huge amount of foreign debt and that under these circumstances, it desperately needed financing from the IMF and the World Bank. And the only way of getting the new government to work which came to power after the political crisis of 1998, was a type of 'blackmail' by international financial institutions, which forced the government to accelerate reforms."

Whether the current restructuring of state enterprises, which has led to the shutdown of many businesses -- including coal mines employing thousands of people -- will lead to better times remains unclear. Constantinescu's firing of Vasile this month raised new questions about the prospects for speedy reforms. Economists say that as in other East European countries, Romania will need to wait a couple of years for the belt-tightening and privatizations to start paying off.

The question is: will ordinary Romanians have the patience to suffer once again for more promises of a brighter future?

The future, it is said, lies with the young. Romanian teenagers have only dim memories of the Communist past and the overwhelming majority are eager for their country to integrate quickly into the rest of Europe. But pessimism has infected their ranks as well.

At Bucharest's prestigious Liceul Gheorghe Lazar, many students say that if given a chance, they would leave the country. They don't believe things will change quickly and have little faith they can influence the political process. Sixteen-year-old Andrea speaks for many of her classmates:

"I want to go to another country. I'm not patriotic. I don't think I can change Romania or its situation."

For the first time this year, comprehensive and colorful textbooks are being used in classrooms -- a tangible result of recent education reforms. Teachers have been given a wide choice of materials to use. But books are expensive and parents, who must buy them for their children, have a hard time affording them. Still, history teacher Robica Mihailescu praises the change:

"1999 is the first year when teachers have a choice of manuals (textbooks). It's the first year when we have more than one variant for manuals and I think that the worst of these manuals is better than the ones we were obliged to use until last year. I want to say that all these manuals are better - better looking, better informed. They have an appropriate format."

But Mihailescu admits it's hard to be optimistic. After 23 years on the job, she has seen her salary plummet from the equivalent of $130 a month to just over $80 due to inflation and a devaluation of the national currency. With those wages, even buying a single book translates into a major expense.

Added to the financial hardships facing most Romanians is the pervasive feeling that people can only get ahead by cheating. Studies confirm widespread corruption at all levels of society. But more important is the belief that honest work gets you nowhere.

Mona, another 16-year-old student, sums it up simply:

"Rich? Maybe in something like 10 years you'll get rich. If you steal, it's easier - so everybody steals in this country."

In Romania, people have little time to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. A decade later, many feel they are worse off and that benefits such as a free press and the right to travel mean little when the stomach is hungry. Sociologist Vladimir Tismaneanu says leftist politicians, including former president Iliescu, who are preaching a return to the old days, have nothing new to offer. Their current popularity is simply the result of disillusionment with the new government. But that doesn't make it any less serious. Tismaneanu says it could undermine Romanians' faith in the entire democratic process.

"The point is that Mr. Iliescu has not done anything to achieve this popularity, so we have to look into why he has it. Basically, it's disappointment. A vote of disappointment may be expected and then if you have disappointment after disappointment, the danger is that forces which are not part of the parliamentary mainstream can take advantage of that."

If that happens, say observers, and if Romania's economic decline continues, the country risks being left behind in the race to join the European mainstream, including such organizations as the European Union and NATO. Ensuring that a new Iron Curtain, moved a few hundred kilometers to the East, does not redivide Europe from the Balkans will undoubtedly be the challenge of the next decade.