Romania tightens its belt by rationing bread

Romania, like battered Poland, is putting its economic difficulties on the table - the dinner table. As of last weekend, people in the cities and towns are limited to about one pound of bread per day.

It is a measure of just how serious the food situation has become in this East-bloc nation, where the diet is based largely on bread. Even the hard-pressed Poles got through a recent bread shortage without rationing.

Western visitors to the Romanian capital of Bucharest this year have reported the kind of queues at food stores that Poles have long since come to regard as ''normal.'' Other shops are closed and have no sign of queues, since customers do not expect them to receive supplies at all.

Serious food shortages have been building up for the last few years. This year they were compounded by a poor harvest.

Until a few years ago, the country exported grain as well as oil. Now it is a net importer of oil and, after the bad harvest, is buying abroad 5 million tons of corn and large quantities of wheat, rye, and soybeans.

The lessons are clear: agriculture has been neglected while the country pursued ever-more-ambitious industrial programs.

Most of Romania's rural population is tied to the big state collective farms and is outside the rationing program. The farmers have been told, in effect, to provide most of their food themselves, from potatoes and meat to cheese and other dairy products.

But that may not be so easy as it sounds. Romania's agriculture is one of the most rigidly collectivized in the East bloc. The peasants have had little chance to develop the tiny household plots that have been a major factor in sustaining the domestic larder in other East European countries.

The rationing program was announced in Bucharest at the weekend, and almost immediately there were reports that bakers were demanding to see customers' identity cards to make sure they lived in the city.

A first official admission that agriculture was in trouble came early this year. Then President Nicolae Ceausescu gave a grudging green light for the allocation of small plots of marginal land to enterprises and workers as well as peasants. He revealed that the country had begun to eat into its reserves, including some 12,000 tons of meat.

Most of the major problems of the Polish crisis apply to Romania as well, especially some of the sociopolitical aspects, but Mr. Ceausescu is among the Soviet bloc's sternest critics of Poland's reform movement and of its independent labor union Solidarity.

His reaction has been a typical mixture of criticism of management, demands for harder work from everyone (but with no meaningful incentives), and ''no nonsense'' warnings that the Communist Party is still the only boss.

With a shrewd eye to Polish political problems, he ordered a purge of party members found using their membership to private advantage. Some 30,000 reportedly have been ousted already.

At the same time, he put still more stress on beefing up the party's leading role and strict ''democratic centralism'' to demonstrate that orthodox Soviet-style ''socialism'' is secure in Romania.

Romanians complain that this added strain on its balance of payments from importing oil and food is aggravated by high Western interest rates.

President Ceausescu recently described these as a ''new form of . . . imperialist plundering'' that had to be ended to reduce the burden on developing countries, among which Romania counts itself. At the UN General Assembly, his foreign minister, Stefan Andrei, urged a ceiling of 5 percent for such countries.

But the outlook is not entirely dark. Like Poland, Romania conceivably may have to seek rescheduling of its Western debts. But - at less than $10 billion - these are little more than one-third the Polish debt.

And the World Bank recently deemed Romania viable enough to grant it its second loan this year. Poland has been dithering over applying for membership in the World Bank throughout its crisis.

Unlike the other East Europeans, moreover, Romania's trade with the Soviet Union and West Germany (its major Western partner) is balanced.

But its general economic shortcomings and its payments problems overall are nonetheless prompting greatly increased economic ties with the Russians.

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