Why winter mud in Romania is a bright sign for economy

Mud. For most of a ten-day stay, it was all over this city, a whirl of thick, slimey, gooey, dirty, and dark mud. It overwhelmed any grass. It slithered over the potholed streets. It reached up to cover the sides of buses.

And it was welcome.

Why? Because the mud meant mild weather, little frozen ground -- and no winter collapse of the economy. For this reason, the mud also suggested that Nicolae Ceausescu's repressive regime and disastrous economic ambitions will slog by unstopped by a sudden snowy cold spell last week, popular resistance from the 22 million Romanians, or the Soviet Big Brother.

Last winter's record-breaking low temperatures, combined with a fuel shortage, produced epic horror stories. Families huddled all night around the stove after radiators broke down. Officials in gloves and long underwear working under dim low-watt light bulbs. Workers trudging miles to work after private vehicles were banned for three months from the roads.

This winter's forecast, political as much as meteorological, was equally chilling. Fearful of another season of shortages, President Ceausescu militarized the electric power stations last autumn, dismissing the deputy prime minister in charge of the energy sector and the ministers for electic power and mining for ``great shortcomings.''

Western analysts began speculating about the effects of another freeze. ``There is little doubt that another harsh winter could push Romania to the brink of an explosive crisis,'' reported PlanEcon, a Washington-based research institute specializing in East European economic affairs. ``It's got all the elements of an explosion: economic despair, a maniacal leader, and political repression,'' said Jeri Laber from her New York headquarters at the Helsinki Watch Committee.

By Western standards, conditions are shocking. Sporadic heating and lighting cuts are reported. Sugar, flour, and cooking oil all are rationed and meat is nearly impossible to find. At night, Bucharest is under a brownout: Streetlights are dimmed and restaurants close at 9 p.m., letting an eery dark reminiscent of wartime fall over the city. A stroller risks a muddy misstep.

By Romanian standards, however, a mild December and January melted the most dangerous suffering. Buildings are heated, although no higher than 64 degrees. Apartments are lighted, although with light bulbs no stronger than 60 watts. Stalls at the Uniri market were full of carrots, potatos, and apples; yet a delivery of oranges and fresh greens is met by a mad rush of eager buyers.

These conditions are good enough to give the government confidence it can get through the worst. In a joint interview, Emil Luca and Gheorghe Plavita, directors of the Ministry of Electric Power, said that 30 days of coal supply were in stock, enough to keep the country relatively warm through the expected February cold spell. They said that the Army units at the mines had not been needed yet because, in Mr. Plavita's words, ``There had been no crisis like last year.''

Thanks to the winter respite, Ceausescu seems injected with new-found energy. In the summer, there were persistant rumors that he was fatally ill. There were also rumors of a power struggle. Photographs of him in the press were air-brushed so amateurishly that diplomats speculated somebody was trying to embarass him. In one, he sported tennis shoes and a tuxedo.

But he appeared vigorous at his 68th-birthday celebration Jan. 26. For the celebration, his well-known personality cult was shifted into highest gear. A full house packed the unheated Scala Cinema to see a special celebratory film on him entitled ``Crown of Laurel.''

The President's message, in the film and at his birthday party speech, was more draconian than glorious. He called on his people to work harder, produce more, and export rather than consume. ``After last winter you would have expected him to ease up,'' comments one Western diplomat. ``Instead, he's radicalized.''

At all costs, Ceausescu insists on paying off his foreign debt. Since 1982, he has cut it from about $12 billion to a present $6 billion. Plans are to eliminate it completely by 1987. To achieve this, the best products are exported: While Romanians queue in front of empty butcher shops, American soldiers in West Germany eat Romanian meat. At all costs, too, Ceausescu continues to promote a massive program of industrialization. In a country with limited mineral deposits, he has built huge steel and aluminum plants. And in a country where annual oil production has fallen to around 11 million tons, he has built a petrochemical industry with an annual capacity of 30 million tons.

Nationalism motivates these policies and gives them a certain popularity. Officials explain the goal as independence from both Western bankers and Soviet soldiers. Romanians like to point out that, unlike elsewhere in the East bloc, no Soviet troops are stationed on their soil. They are proud of building their own automobiles and jet planes.

But critics say the country's economic policies make little sense. Dissident mathematician and economist Mihai Botez points out that cutting electricity in homes at irregular intervals saves much less money in reduced energy consumption than it costs in ruined refrigerated food. Since industrial consumption amounts to 93 percent of total usage, Mr. Botez and Western diplomats say that all the drastic energy-saving measures imposed on the population -- the 60-watt bulb and the 64-degree heating -- gain little for the country.

``The economy is out of control,'' says Botez. ``By the time the debt is paid off, there may be nothing left to invest in.''

Why don't Romanians listen to this fervent call? After all, nationalism doesn't keep them warm or well fed. Western diplomats find an answer in history: Occupied by the Turks, squeezed by the Slavic Russian giant and the Teutonic German might, the Romanian has learned, in the words of one, ``to keep his head down in order to survive.'' The diplomats add that Romania is a peasant culture with no recent history of political participation or resistance.

Botez points to a simpler reason: fear. In his view, the Ceausescu regime has avoided a Polish-type uprising by brutalizing its opponents into submission. A policeman or soldier stands at almost every corner of Bucharest. All typewriters must be registered with the police. Another regulation stipulates that all citizens must report contact with foreigners, and Botez says a new decree, yet unpublished, orders factory managers to dismiss any worker breaking this rule.

Many Romanians don't pay attention. They often greet visitors in fluent French, an offspring of their admiration as Latins for France. Some offer generous invitations to visit their apartments. At the same time, most avoid any prolonged contact, often explaining openly that ``it is dangerous.''

Only the Soviet Union could change this dreary status quo. Western analysts speculate that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev might be embarrassed enough by Romania's economic failure to press for change. Analysts also speculate that by fulfilling his obsession to reduce the debt and keep the country's overbuilt petrochemical industry running, Ceausescu will force Romania to cooperate more closely with the Soviets, who are major oil suppliers.

At least for now, this appears unlikely to happen. Although official statistics show that Soviet oil deliveries have picked up, Romania continues to buy most of its oil on the spot market, and Soviet diplomats tell their Western counterparts that Gorbachev has no intention of stepping in. They say Gorbachev can't afford to give the Romanians too much economic help.

The Soviets won't put political pressure on Ceausescu, either. According to Soviet diplomats, such pressure would only strengthen the Romanian leader by provoking a nationalist backlash. In any case, the diplomats ask, why should they touch a leader who keeps strict communist discipline at home?

For all these reasons, economic reform looks unlikely until Ceausescu leaves the scene. Then Romanians say the scenario becomes cloudy. His wife Elena or his son Nicu could take over, the military could intervene, or another party man, like former Foreign Minister Stefan Andrei, might assume power. If the new leader reformed the economy at least a bit -- for example, allowing private agricultural plots -- this country of fertile land and talented technicians might again prosper.

In the meantime, though, the scene promises to be as bleak as the weather. And the weather is worsening. Last week, the first large snow this winter fell on the city. Private cars were banned until further notice -- most probably March. The ban officially was made for safety reasons, but many suspect the government wants to export the saved gasoline.

Everyone walked to work. Stores opened as usual. The lights remained on. The heating, too. Thousands of soldiers were deployed to shovel snow off the streets. It turned into a normal day: The Romanians prepared to plod on, grumbling in private, keeping silent in public -- and waiting for the white cold to melt into a swirl of welcome, if ugly, mud.

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