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Friday, 24 December, 1999, 21:35 GMT
10 Christmases later, Romania still waits

Bucharest bookstall There is no more censorship, but books are hard to afford

By Silvia Radan

On Christmas Day 1989, Romania executed its dictator and his wife, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, and declared itself a democratic country.

The whole nation was singing and crying and celebrating.

Dreams and hopes were starting to build up again. Not for long, though.

Ten years have passed and Romania is celebrating the anniversary of its revolution with yet another change of the government, with little hope that the new one will tackle the country's economic problems any more effectively than the last.

Goods, but no money

In our one decade of freedom little has been achieved.

Man at table Tables are still sparse for many
Shops are full of nice things, which are too expensive for the majority of the population.

When I was growing up in Romania in the 1980s, I had a friend whose mother worked in buffet used by Communist Party officials.

One day, she obtained a small consignment of Pepsi Cola - something unheard of, even in a Party establishment - and I pestered her until she agreed to sell me some bottles.

I made the mistake of carrying the Pepsi home in a string bag, and I was stopped by every passer-by, asking me where on earth I had obtained such a thing.

Now of course Pepsi is on sale everywhere. You can have one with your Big Mac. But even a humble McDonald's - that Western symbol of cheap and cheerful food - is not affordable for most people.

Free lunch

In the mid-1990s I worked for a daily national paper, Romania Libera. From those days I remember my colleagues, staff reporters, hunting out any press conferences held by the PDSR, the government party of then President Ion Iliescu.

This wasn't so much because we were hungry for the latest on government policy, but because they would offer hot meals free of charge.

Man with melons A man tries to make some money by selling melons from his garden
Nothing has changed since. Most journalists almost live on the food and drink offered at receptions and press conferences. They are scarcely paid, so they can hardly afford to buy themselves lunch, although they work long days.

Under communism, their salary wasn't big either, but whenever they went somewhere to make a report their bags would be filled with food, drink or other goods.

The bribery was almost pointless though, as nothing negative was allowed to appear in the newspaper, except, of course, for news about the West.

Grow your own

Potatoes in a back yard Many Romanians survive on what they can grow in their gardens
Teachers, doctors and office workers are not doing any better.

Their salary hardly pays for their daily food, so they have to find some extra earnings.

The most popular option is getting a patch of land in the country, where they can grow vegetables - some for sale and some for their own kitchens.

Rubbish bin For some Romanians rubbish bins are a source of food
If they work for a private company they are able to buy a few Christmas presents, but anyone in a state job can hardly afford a Christmas tree.

People often live on "thin soup" and can't manage to pay their household bills. The only way of surviving is by borrowing money, but paying the debts back means borrowing even more money. People searching the rubbish bins is a common sight and the number of beggars is increasing alarmingly.

Closing down

In 1989, I watched the events of the revolution unfold on television at my parents' flat in Tirgu Jiu, one of Romania's main mining areas.

Miners were one of working class elites, and militant too. They protested under Communism, and protested in the 1990s, bringing down the first post-Communist government in 1991.

Crane in Mangalia Most heavy industry in Romania is standing idle
But now the good times are fast running out for the miners. They - and workers in the petroleum industry - can still count on a much better salary than any doctor - over $200 a month, while the average wage is only $80 a month.

But the government is threatening to close down all the unprofitable state enterprises. My parents - working in the mines administration - had jobs for life, like any Romanian, but now they are taking early retirement before they are made redundant.

Get rich quick

Still, not all Romanians are poor. People who were in the ruling Communist apparatus and had a better grasp of what was happening than the enthusiastic masses, bought a substantial amount of dollars in early 1990.

In those days, the exchange rate was only 7 lei to the dollar. That seems unbelievable now, when one dollar buys 18,000 lei.

Car in Bucharest People who moved fast in 1990 got the money - but they are a small minority
Those in the know made their main investments in housing, cars, electronics and banking. Soon, they became the Romanian financial elite and started controlling the media and political life.

These sharks are the ones who really profited from the revolution. They switched overnight from convinced communists to promoters of democracy.

Foreign investors and a few hard-working businessmen have created another layer of wealth. Unfortunately it's too thin to make any real difference. Since 1990 the old state factories have been closing down, but very few private businesses have started up.

Ten years ago, Romanians sung and cried and celebrated, but today most people see no reason for two of those activities as they see how little things can change in a decade.

Silvia Radan is a Romanian journalist and photographer.
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