Must read: Time Magazine about Romania, in 1988

Monday, Sep. 05, 1988

Where Glasnost Is Still a Dirty Word

On a sweltering summer afternoon, 200 people are gathered around a delivery van parked on a dusty side street in downtown Bucharest. The vehicle's doors swing open, and all 200 seem to surge forward at once. As six blue-uniformed militiamen armed with automatic weapons struggle to hold back the crowd, a salesclerk begins parceling out portions of a coveted commodity: frozen 1-lb. chunks of chicken gizzards, heads and feet. In minutes the meager supply is exhausted, and fistfights erupt among disappointed customers. Moments later the van drives off, and the throng disperses.
Under Nicolae Ceausescu, 70, Rumanians have long been subjected to one of the world's most repressive and eccentric regimes, a situation that is worsening as Ceausescu imposes ever greater privations on his people while indulging his wild-eyed ambitions. A reckless export drive has stripped grocery shelves of staples, making Rumania the only country in Europe where hunger is widespread and malnutrition on the rise. As beggars panhandle on Bucharest's crumbling sidewalks, welding torches glow night and day at the site of a monumental government complex, part of a multibillion-dollar "modernization" program that has already flattened almost half the capital's centuries-old historic district. In the meantime, Ceausescu feeds his ego with the only officially sanctioned personality cult in the East bloc. Says a Western diplomat in Bucharest: "The situation before was terrible, but now it is surrealistic. Ceausescu is going around the bend, and he is taking his country with him."
Rumania's backward march toward poverty and even tighter dictatorship contrasts sharply with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign for glasnost and perestroika. Ceausescu openly derides Moscow's notions of reform while terrorizing his countrymen with the pervasive Securitate, perhaps the bloc's most feared secret police. Rumania has also provoked an unprecedentedly bitter dispute within the normally cohesive Warsaw Pact, prompting charges from the Hungarian leadership that the Ceausescu regime is systematically discriminating against ethnic Hungarians living inside its borders.
Rumania's troubles broke into the open last November, when a riot by 10,000 workers and residents in the industrial city of Brasov touched off a chain of smaller work stoppages and protests across the country. "For the first time in memory," says an experienced political observer in the Transylvanian city of Cluj, "there are signs that this crazy leadership is losing its grip."
The most visible source of discontent is a food shortage resulting from Ceausescu's unconventional economic policies. Having wheedled $10 billion in loans from Western creditors, the Rumanian leader frittered away most of the funds in the 1970s on such grandiose projects as a little used $2 billion shipping canal that provides a shortcut between the inland Danube port of Cernavoda and the Black Sea. Then, in 1981, Ceausescu decreed that the debt was to be paid back in full at a breakneck pace, a goal that may be achieved by the target date of 1990. To do it, he ordered exports of virtually everything that could be sold abroad, including food. The debt has shrunk to less than $4.5 billion, but at the price of much hardship; even paltry official rations, which include a pint of cooking oil and between 1 lb. and 2 lbs. of meat per person per month, are often not available. A typical dinner consists of boiled cabbage and onions.
Disastrous central-planning directives compound the misery. The electricity allocation for a one-room apartment is barely sufficient to boil two kettles of water a day. Most of the power supply is soaked up by dilapidated industrial plants, except when assembly lines are shut down for weeks at a time for lack of raw materials and Western spare parts. In 1986 the regime instituted a seven-day workweek in factories and imposed pay cuts of up to 30% on workers who failed to meet production quotas.
Hardship is aggravated by a bizarre "redevelopment" scheme that is leveling large tracts of land. For the past five years, wrecker's balls and bulldozers have been tearing down central Bucharest, displacing more than 40,000 residents and demolishing historic monuments and churches. In their place, crews are building a Mussolini-modern civic center and government palace, marble-clad apartment blocks for senior cadres and broad boulevards. Similar projects have ripped out the centers of provincial towns.
Late last year Ceausescu revived an 18-year-old blueprint to reshape the countryside, which is home to nearly 50% of Rumania's 23 million inhabitants. The scheme, reminiscent of Mao Zedong's disastrous attempt to crowd China's peasants into huge farm communes, calls for razing up to 8,000 of the country's 13,000 villages and replacing them with 500 concrete-block "agro- industrial centers" by the year 2000. If carried through, the scheme would all but eradicate folk culture, which is rooted in village life, and evict thousands of families from their homes. Ceausescu claims that the policy will increase agricultural efficiency and open more land to farming; Western analysts suggest the real objective is the elimination of cultural and social differences between urban and rural communities.
Hungarian officials have denounced the village-razing plan as a threat to the cultural identity of 2 million ethnic Hungarians living in the northwestern Transylvanian region of Rumania. Since January Budapest has given sanctuary to more than 12,000 ethnic Hungarian refugees from Rumania. Last week Hungarian Politburo Member Imre Pozsgay said that the "incomprehensible and idiotic political program" of Rumania's leaders "is an injury to European civilization, a crime against humanity." Afterward, Ceausescu extended an apparent olive branch in the form of a proposal for bilateral talks, and Hungarian Prime Minister Karoly Grosz agreed to meet him on Sunday in the Western Rumanian town of Arad.
Hungary has not been alone in denouncing the Rumanian regime. This month West Germany moved to step up a controversial policy of paying Bucharest up to $4,400 per exit visa to secure the emigration of most of the 220,000 ethnic Germans living in Rumania. In June U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz testified in congressional hearings that Rumania had "possibly the worst" human rights record in the East bloc. The following month, angered by mounting calls in the U.S. Congress for withdrawal of trade concessions for Rumania that are tied to human rights performance, Ceausescu unilaterally ended Rumania's most-favored-nation status with the U.S. That move will cost his country some $250 million annually.
All the while, the Ceausescu personality cult is rolling in overdrive. "Court" poets pen tributes to the dictator, borrowing religious images to hail him as the "Chosen One." The two hours of daily television broadcasts are packed with clips of the diminutive, gray-haired Ceausescu meeting foreign visitors, or of children's choruses singing hymns of praise to their leader. The press is filled with laudatory articles and airbrushed photographs of Ceausescu's latest factory visits.
No amount of official adulation, however, can paper over the slow erosion of Ceausescu's 23-year grip on power. Says a young woman who participated in the Brasov demonstrations: "We have nothing to feed our children. What is there to lose?" More ominous for Ceausescu, discontent is on the rise in the ranks of the Securitate, whose agents are expressing more hostility to the regime as they find their prerogatives, such as special access to Western goods and better food, reduced. "Terror of the Securitate is what keeps this regime in power," says a Western diplomat. "If Ceausescu loses control of that, he's finished."
The dictator's increasingly frail appearance and the unconfirmed rumors that he is terminally ill with cancer are leading some Rumanians to predict that natural causes will soon end his reign. Potential successors are already jockeying for position. One of the most frequently mentioned is Constantin Olteanu, a Politburo member and former army general who serves as Central Committee secretary in charge of propaganda. Two other names crop up: Ceausescu's imperious wife Elena, 71, who sits on the policymaking seven- member permanent bureau of the Politburo, and son Nicu, said to be 38, who last November was promoted to become the first party secretary of the Transylvanian region of Sibiu. Thus, even when Ceausescu is gone, the dynasty may linger on.