As spring arrives, the only visible sign of change in Romania's economic crisis is the lifting of last winter's ban on the use of private cars. Although a government communiqu'e earlier this year said the crisis was over, there has in fact been no shortening of the lines outside shops, no improvement in supplies, no easing of the nation's lack of lighting and heating.
Even the Poles, with their violent political upheavals, consumer shortages, and never-ending cycle of price increases, have not had to endure the drastic austerities imposed on Romanians since last year.
In Poland, the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski still encounters resistance, both open and underground.
That nothing similar has happened in Romania can be ascribed to the fact that Nicolae Ceausescu's regime exercises a tighter, more repressive grip on public opinion and action than any of its East European allies.
A long-brewing energy crisis, largely generated by Bucharest's overambitious refining projects, assumed disaster proportions.
And the past winter has been the harshest that most ordinary Romanians can remember.
``There is no water, no heating or gas in most apartments, no question of bath, and no cooking,'' said a Western diplomat at the height of the crisis. As late as mid-January, the communist leadership ordered additional energy-saving measures. Romanians with spades and pickaxes were ordered out to replace diesel-run snowplows.
Street lamps and even traffic lights were switched off as winter started. At home, Romanians lived with single-lamp, low-watt lighting, if they had electricity at all. They wore topcoats indoors, since there was no communal heating and electric heaters were forbidden.
Only one illustrated weekly, Flacara, ventured to give a picture of things as they were.
The magazine said townspeople waited for hours in the open in freezing temperatures for a wheelbarrow of wood or coal, only to be disappionted. People trudged five miles or more to and from work because of canceled or curtailed public transport.
The main Communist Party press was full of demands on the workers for yet harder efforts. Yet in some instances workers' pay already had been reduced by cutbacks in working hours ``to save energy.''
Poor living conditions continue, despite an official communiqu'e, published on Feb. 1 in the Communist Party newspaper Scinteia, which announced that the economy had turned the corner.
Results through 1984, it claimed, were the best in the five-year plan which ends this year. The improvement would reverse four years of decline.
Industry, it said, slightly exceeded its growth target in production of marketable goods. Agriculture had done still better, producing Romania's best-ever grain output.
But the fine print revealed that the nation failed to meet the plan in half of 50 specific branches listed, from mining to building materials. Coal alone was more than 28 percent below target. Most areas of agriculture were far short of the boost in grain production.
And consumers, who had suffered a year of chronic shortages in every aspect of living standards, now learned that cuts would extend even to the upturn in real wages initially promised under the government's present plan.
Still, the past year's austerities, if official claims are to be believed, brought a foreign-trade surplus of more than $3 billion and permitted repayment of some of the country's enormous foreign debt. Precisely how much was not disclosed.