Economic Structure and Dynamics

Economic Structure and Dynamics

But even after Romania had gained independence, foreign interests continued to dominate the economy. Large tracts of the best grain-growing areas were controlled by absentee landlords, who exported the grain and took the profits out of the country. Outsiders controlled most of the few industries, and non-Romanian ethnic groups--particularly Germans, Hungarians, and Jews-- dominated domestic trade and finance. The centuries of outside control of the economy engendered in the Romanian people an extreme xenophobia and longing for self-sufficiency--sentiments that would be exploited repeatedly by the nation's leaders throughout the twentieth century.

On the eve of World War II, agriculture and forestry produced more than half of the national income. Reflecting the country's limited economic development, about 90 percent of export income in 1939 was derived from raw materials and semifinished goods, namely grain, timber, animal products, and petroleum. The most advanced industry at that time, oil extraction and refining, was controlled by Nazi Germany for the duration of the war and suffered severe bombing damage.

For several years following the war, the devastated economy was burdened with reparation payments to the Soviet Union, which already by 1946 had expropriated more than one-third of the country's industrial and financial enterprises. By mid-1948 the Soviets had collected reparations in excess of US$1.7 billion. They continued to demand such payments until 1954, severely retarding economic recovery.

After the installation of a Soviet-styled communist regime, Romania's economic evolution would faithfully follow the Stalinist pattern. Adopting a centrally planned economy under the firm control of the PCR, the country pursued the extensive economic development strategy adopted by the other communist regimes of Eastern Europe but with an unparalleled obsession with economic independence. The development program assigned top priority to the industrial sector, imposed a policy of forced saving and consumer sacrifice to achieve a high capital accumulation rate, and necessitated a major movement of labor from the countryside into industrial jobs in newly created urban centers. The first step on this path was nationalization of industrial, financial, and transportation assets. Initiated in June 1948, that process was nearly completed by 1950. The socialization of agriculture proceeded at a much slower pace, but by 1962 it was about 90 percent completed.

Beginning in 1951, Romania put into practice the Soviet system of central planning based on five-year development cycles. Such a system enabled the leadership to target sectors for rapid development and mobilize the necessary manpower and material resources. The leadership was intent on building a heavy industrial base and therefore gave highest priority to the machinery, metallurgical, petroleum refining, electric power, and chemical industries.

Shortly after Nicolae Ceausescu came to power in 1965, PCR leaders reevaluated the development strategy and concluded that Romania would be unable to sustain the rapid rate of economic growth it had achieved since the early 1950s unless its industry could be streamlined and modernized. They argued that the time had come to assume an intensive development strategy, for which the term "multilateral development" was coined. This process required access to the latest technology and know-how, for which Ceausescu turned to the West.

Economic growth during the first twenty-seven years of communist rule was impressive. Industrial output increased an average 12.9 percent per year between 1950 and 1977, owing to an exceptionally high level of capital accumulation and investment, which grew an average 13 percent annually during this period. But with the concentration of resources in heavy (the so-called Group A) industries, other sectors suffered, particularly agriculture, services, and the consumer-goods (Group B) industries.

After 1976 the economy took a sharp downturn. A severe earthquake struck the country the following year, causing heavy damage to industrial and transportation facilities. Ceausescu's vision of multilateral development had made little headway, as the bureaucracy was unable to steer the economy onto a course of intensive development, which would have necessitated major improvements in efficiency and labor productivity. The population was demanding production of more consumer goods, and an incipient labor shortage was hindering economic growth. By 1981 the country was in a financial crisis, unable to pay Western institutions even the interest on the debt of more than US$10 billion accumulated during the preceding decade. Obsessed with repaying this debt as soon as possible, Ceausescu imposed an austerity program to curtail imports drastically, while exporting as much as possible to earn hard currencies. Rationing of basic foodstuffs, gasoline, electricity, and other consumer products was in effect throughout the 1980s, bringing the Romanian people the lowest standard of living in Europe with the possible exception of Albania. In April 1989, Ceausescu announced that the foreign debt had been retired, and he promised a rapid improvement in living conditions. Most foreign observers, however, doubted that he could fulfill this pledge.

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