Sunday, February 17, 2002

BUCHAREST, Romania At the foot of an ash tree in Bucharest’s Botanical Gardens, three wistful souls were talking about poverty and corruption.
“I couldn’t buy pork this Christmas or for New Year’s,” said Constantin Gheorghe, a 49-year-old watchman missing several teeth. Pork is Romania’s traditional festive fare, but Mr. Gheorghe can’t afford it on a monthly salary worth $50.
“Most people cannot survive on their salaries, while some people are very rich. I don’t know if they made their money honestly,” he said.
On paper, things are getting better: The former communist country’s economy grew 5 percent last year. Inflation is expected to dip slightly this year. And last month, the European Union ended visa restrictions for Romanians, letting them travel freely in most of Western Europe.
But most Romanians still barely get by in grinding poverty and believe the only way out is by being corrupt.
It begins with parents having to give teachers gifts to make sure their children are well treated. It continues with having to pay a bribe for a driver’s license, decent hospital treatment or a seat on a crowded airliner. Romanians routinely ask each other, “What did you open the door with?” The answer: a packet of coffee, a bottle of perfume, a carton of Kent cigarettes.
Higher up the chain, the banking system has been seriously undermined by corruption. More than a half-dozen banks have folded because of political interference and questionable loans.
Some candidates for elected office pay large sums of money to get a party to nominate them. Romania Libera, an anti-government newspaper, charged Jan. 28 that 15 ministers and top government officials are undeclared company owners. Some of them reacted by saying their companies are no longer operating, and at least one said he would sell his firm.
Though Romanians grumble privately, they don’t do so too loudly or publicly, and the media have to be careful, too.
Strict libel laws make it an imprisonable offense to insult authority. Plaintiffs sue for millions of dollars, and public figures pressure newspapers to suppress unfavorable reports.
Little wonder, then, that the government has been stung by a series of anonymous e-mails sent to Western media and embassies contending that corruption extends all the way to the prime minister’s office.
After one e-mail accused Prime Minister Adrian Nastase of living far above his means, authorities dragged a suspect from his house and arrested another at his office. Both were charged with spreading false information that could damage Romania’s image abroad, a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
One suspect was freed and another had his travel restrictions lifted, but both remain under investigation, and pro-democracy groups warn that the leftist government is taking Romania back to the Stalinist 1950s.
Still, unlike in communist times, the media can uncover at least some abuses. A recent front-page story exposed a math teacher who regularly demanded gifts of food from his pupils. He complained to one pupil about the poor quality of the garlic he was given. He didn’t know that the youngster was taping the conversation.
The 13-month-old government seems preoccupied with its No. 1 goal: winning Romanian membership in NATO, and eventually in the EU.
But reality for many Romanians is grim no matter what alliances their government makes with the West. Some even seem nostalgic for Nicolae Ceausescu, the Communist dictator overthrown in 1989 (and executed with his wife that Christmas after a secret military trial during a popular revolt.)
When 15,000 protesting workers converged on the capital last November, some chanted: “Ceausescu, where are you?”
A survey by the U.N. Children’s Fund captured the sense of despair: Four in 10 young Romanians said they wanted to emigrate.
Mihaela Pantea, a 28-year-old divorcee with short blond hair, velvet pants and vivid blue eyes, is doing just that.
She is leaving the northeastern city of Iasi to work as a dancer for $900 a month in Osaka, Japan.
There’s just one drawback: She’ll have to leave her 12-year-old son with her parents.
But Miss Pantea sees little point in sticking around.
“People are corrupt, and the press is under pressure. They can only print half of the truth,” she said.
Many Romanians are afraid they won’t be able to pay their winter heating bills, which can easily eat up half a month’s pay.
As utility costs rise, some people have taken to unplugging their refrigerators in winter and putting their food on their balconies. Some have given up their telephones.
At the Gara de Nord railway station in Bucharest, in a hot, dark waiting room scented by sweaty bodies and cheap tobacco, travelers munch pork schnitzels and pickles and grumble about rising ticket prices.
Cristi Cazac, 24, carves oak tables for a living, but isn’t sure how to shape his future in a country where the tickets for his journey from the provinces to the capital cost him and his wife 1.6 million lei ($50), almost what he earns in a month.
“There is too much corruption,” he said. “But what can we do?”

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