What's Next?

Ten years after communism died, Romanians still await better times

31 October 1999

By Alison Mutler
Associated Press

TIMISOARA, Romania - As Christmas drew near in 1989, there was no food to be had for days at the Continental Hotel. But when communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed on Christmas Day, waiters magically appeared bearing platters of pork and bottles of champagne.

Ten years after communism collapsed in eastern Europe, there is food of some kind on most everyone's plates. But unemployment, inflation, rising crime and the yawning gap between rich and poor are the unpalatable underbelly of a free market and democracy.

"Under communism, things were certain," Simion Barbos, an unemployed crane operator, said. "You could count on something and plan ahead. Rent was low. We had food, vacations twice a year. Now, we are thinking about the children's future. There is a big gap between our salaries and prices. I am living on my savings and the pile is getting smaller."

Frustration and bitter disappointment haunt many in this city of 300,000 people about 250 miles northwest of Romania's capital, Bucharest.

It was here, where early Baroque architecture serves as a reminder of an Austrian past, that Romanians first rose up against Ceausescu on Dec. 16, 1989. It was the only bloody uprising during the collapse of European communism.

The Timisoara violence triggered a nationwide revolt that left 1,000 dead. At the end, Ceausescu became the only Soviet bloc leader to face a firing squad when he and his wife, Elena, were executed nine days later.

Neither the post-Ceausescu government of reformed communists nor the current five-party coalition has lived up to the expectations that soared so high when tyranny collapsed.

"We were happy communism fell," said Barbos, 50. "But those that came after didn't know how to manage (the economy). Both governments were the same, but now it is even worse. We thought - we hoped - things would be better."

Like many in this city, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Barbos speaks German, a skill that enables him to obtain short-term work in Germany, from where he sends home $530 a month. He hasn't worked since May.

He'd rather work in Romania to be closer to his wife, who suffers from hepatitis, and his two teen-age children. But he'd earn only $89 a month here and says "it's not worth it."

The people of Timisoara are known as serious citizens who believe in saving money and investing in their homes.

Under communism, they suffered the same repression and deprivation as most of the 23 million Romanians. They would hoard food in times of uncertainty - only to produce it on special days, such as when they watched televised images of Ceausescu and his wife lying dead in a pool of blood.

Now, entrepreneurs in Timisoara grumble again about excessive centralization that stifles local initiative.

The national government has blocked permission for a border crossing with neighboring Hungary, which would improve trade, business analyst Nicolae Taran said. He said entrepreneurs must obtain 18 separate official approvals to open a business, a requirement that discourages domestic and foreign investment.

"Romania is like a ship without a compass," Taran said as he sipped a cappuccino in a jazz club. "After 10 years, there is confusion and depression."

Cronyism and patronage flourish. To get a decent job, a loan to buy a house, better medical treatment, or even to pay taxes without standing in line for days, often requires a bribe and a special contact.

The underground economy, in which goods and services are provided illegally and without paying taxes, accounts officially for more than one-third of the total economy.

Many Romanians yearn for the old days as memories of the worst of the communist era fade. Opinion polls consistently say Romanians want a more authoritarian government that would impose laws and crack down on corruption.

"We need an iron fist," Barbos' wife, Georgeta, said. "We have laws but they are not respected. We need a tough dictatorship to stop corruption."

The media are free of communist censorship but beholden to the business interests of new media bosses. Freedom of travel means little without money or visas from western countries reluctant to admit Romanians and other eastern Europeans for fear they will stay and work illegally.

"It is regrettable that people want Ceausescu back," said Harald Zimmerman, 38, who said he joined the street protests in Timisoara in 1989. "It shows the directionless of the people and their lack of hope for the future."