Romanian socialites once called Bucharest the ``Paris of the Balkans.'' Today, the capital of Romania presents a very different image.
``Darkness at dusk'' will be the rule this winter. Because of a domestic energy shortage, this will be the third year of unlit streets and home lighting dimmed to something resembling a wartime blackout.
To make matters worse, stores -- especially food shops -- are sadly depleted of essential goods. Taxis seem nonexistent, television broadcasts only a couple of hours a day, and restaurants and places of entertainment close early.
``Even with the longer summer days, everything still shuts down around 9 o'clock, except at the foreigners' hotels,'' this summer's visitors report.
Indeed, far from having a Parisian air, the economic situation in Bucharest is reminiscent of that in Berlin during the first years after World War II.
In the devastated German capital, the cigarette was king. It was the main currency. Germans survived by parting with cherished possessions for the occupiers' cigarettes, which were then bartered in the countryside for food.
So it is in Bucharest today. Packs of cigarettes are a unit of exchange for the ordinary essentials of life.
``No one seems to smoke them,'' says a Romanian friend. ``They're traded from hand to hand, with the `rate' getting higher all the time.''
In addition, bribery has become a virtual necessity -- for poorly paid workers as well as Romanians who live more comfortably.
``The only way I can get the basic things I need,'' says another acquaintance, ``is to bribe -- whether it is the butcher to be sure of some meat or to see a doctor at short notice.''
This situation has mostly been caused by an industrialization program that has always been far beyond the country's capabilities and which President Nicolae Ceausescu refuses to modify, despite glaringly evident failures.
For example, although Romania still produces a considerable amount of oil, the population must accept severe restrictions on heating and transport. Almost all Romanian output (about 11 million tons annually) and another 12 million tons yearly from the Middle East is swallowed up by a giant refining industry for export.
And yet this costly industry works at little more than 60 percent to 65 percent of its capacity, which has meant years of serious losses for the economy as a whole.
In turn, the money-losing export of oil has forced Romania to draw closer to the Soviet Union. Some five years ago, for the first time, the country began to import Soviet oil. But since the Soviet terms were stiffer than those bargained with the other East Europeans, this increased the drain on Romanian resources. Most of the Soviet oil has to be paid for in hard currency or in hard-currency goods (products that Romania might -- if quality standards were improved -- sell in the West for hard currency itself).
Furthermore, food exports to the Soviet Union are increasing while those to the West are declining.
This economic situation is rapidly eroding Romania's political options for quasi-independent behavior within the alliance. The new Kremlin leadership has made it plain that there will be less Soviet ``toleration'' of waywardness in Bucharest. Indeed, there is less criticism of Soviet foreign policy from Romania, and accommodation to the Soviets has become evident in Mr. Ceausescu's attitudes toward the Warsaw Pact.
The current five-year plan sets forth less trade with the communist allies and a modest proportionate increase in trade with Western and third-world countries.
But there is to be even greater involvement in Soviet development of new sources of energy and raw materials and in nuclear energy. Romania will participate in several major mining projects, in development of Siberian natural-gas and oil fields, and in the laying of a natural-gas pipeline to Eastern Europe. Romania's traditionally profitable oil-drilling equipment sectors, which have previously been earning hard currency, are being oriented toward these new Soviet extraction needs.
All this adds up to a general weakening of Romania's economic position, which many experts see as self-inflicted wounds caused by Ceausescu's refusal to modify his economic strategy.
There have been signs of uneasiness within top party echelons and of cautious suggestions by economists of a need for reform. But Ceausescu has always reacted brusquely to any possibly emergent pressures for change by demanding more, not less, centralism.
With similar obstinacy he ignores Western criticism of his human rights record. This only compounds his difficulties with the United States and the European Community countries, the potential sources for the technology that could make his industries competitive and less dependent on the Soviet market.
Harassment of religous communities continues, sources say. Although dissidents may emigrate, and not come back, the country's meager opportunities for ordinary individuals to travel to the West have been further curtailed. Monitoring agencies report a big drop in the number of Romanian academics or experts allowed to attend Western seminars.
Finally, the absence of normal economic incentives increasingly alienates ordinary Romanians.
The current plan calls for growth rates far beyond the failed performances of the past five years. The economists' initial draft was more modest, but the final program was revised upward and bore the unmistakable Ceausescu imprint of further industrialization at the expense of the already weak consumer sector.
Romania has Eastern Europe's poorest living standards, and is its most ubiquitous and repressive police regime. No opposition ``lobbying'' is possible.
But regular visitors to Bucharest have begun to note one change that is significant in the Romanian context.
``For the first time,'' a Western official reports after a visit last month, ``I encountered open grumbling. Shop personnel, hotel staff, drivers, all sorts of people, openly critical of the way the country is run.
``They don't worry any more talking about it with strangers or foreigners -- they just let their hair down.''
Criticism is confined to the situation under discussion, however. The ``system,'' and its leader, are circumspectly left out of such complaints.
The writer has regularly reported on Romania since his first visit more than 30 years ago.