Poverty sours Romanian anniversary

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INFLATION, a currency tumbling in value, political unrest and desperate problems with health care are injecting a sour note into Romania's celebration this week of the fourth anniversary of the revolution that toppled the Ceausescu dictatorship. By most measures of social stability, economic reform and democratic progress, the gap appears to be widening between Romania and other former Communist countries, notably the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

Adrian Nastase, a leader of the ruling Social Democracy Party of Romania, referred to 'the state of material and moral humiliation of several million Romanians' in a speech last month marking the 75th anniversary of Transylvania's incorporation into Romania. A former culture minister, Andrei Plesu, told President Ion Iliescu in an open letter: 'Almost everyone wonders what is the real benefit of the December 1989 revolution? Who are the winners . . ? It looks bad. What we see at the top of the political scene is disappointing, and often more than that.'

The state of Romania's currency, the leu ('lion'), symbolises the crisis. This year it has fallen from about 450 to almost 1,100 to the dollar. On the black market it is quoted at about 1,800. While currencies such as the Yugoslav dinar and Ukrainian karbovanets are in worse shape, Romanians are not impressed. 'The lion is losing its fur,' goes one newly coined joke.

The left-leaning government of Nicolae Vacaroiu, the Prime Minister, survived a no-confidence vote in parliament by 236 votes to 223 last Friday, but the new year will bring no respite. Tens of thousands of trade unionists and students have marched on the streets this month in protest at annual inflation of 250 per cent and an unemployment rate nearing 10 per cent.

Mr Vacaroiu, who took office after elections in September 1992, says he is proud that he has kept living standards at 60-65 per cent of their level in October 1990. But even by east European standards Romania's living standards were grim in 1990, having been cut to the bone under Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, who were executed on Christmas Day, 1989. 'One year after the installation of the Vacaroiu government, the promised reform has not started. There is no political will for recovery. The results are anarchy, unprecedented corruption and uncertainty,' the opposition Democratic Convention said in a statement.

Squalor and malnutrition are so rife that Romania has the worst incidence of tuberculosis in Europe: 92.7 per 100,000 people in the first three months of 1993. Romania's infant mortality rate reached 23.4 deaths per 1,000 newborns in 1992, the worst figure in Europe except for Albania.

About one in 12 of Romania's 22.8 million people are believed to carry the hepatitis B virus. Western government agencies and charities have supplied at least 400,000 anti- hepatitis vaccination units to Romania, but medical officials estimate that another 750,000 are needed to keep the vaccination programme going.

(Photograph omitted)