Foreign Trade

Foreign Trade

During the postwar era, Romania used foreign trade effectively as an instrument to enhance the development of the national economy and to pursue its goal of political and economic independence. In this context, earning a foreign-trade surplus was not a primary concern until the late 1970s. The primary goal, rather, was acquisition of the modern technologies and raw materials needed to create and sustain a highly diversified industrial plant. The export program was geared to earning the required hard currency to purchase these materials and technologies. But in the 1980s, the focus of foreign trade was shifted to curtail imports and run large hard-currency surpluses to repay the debt that had accrued in the previous two decades. Enterprises that produced for export received preferential treatment in resource allocation and higher prices for their output.

Foreign trade was a state monopoly. Trade policy was established by the PCR and the government, and its implementation was the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and International Economic Cooperation. Subordinate to the ministry were special state agencies--foreign-trade organizations--that conducted all import and export transactions. In 1969 the ministry was reorganized to become essentially a coordinating agency, and within a year only three foreign-trade organizations remained under its direct control. This decentralization was short-lived, however, as the number of foreign-trade organizations was reduced from fifty-six in 1972 to forty in 1975, and all but four of these were returned to the ministry's control.

Trading Partners

Before World War II, the West accounted for more than 80 percent of Romania's foreign trade. During the postwar period up to 1959, however, nearly 90 percent of its trade involved Comecon nations. The Soviet Union was by far the most important trading partner during this period. But the PCR's insistence on autarkic development led Romania into direct confrontation with the rest of the Soviet bloc. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had envisioned an international division of labor in Comecon that would have relegated Romania to the role of supplier of foodstuffs and raw materials for the more industrially developed members, such as the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Czechoslovakia. In April 1964, however, General Secretary Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej threatened to take Romania out of Comecon unless that organization recognized the right of each member to pursue its own course of economic development.

As early as the 1950s, Gheorghiu-Dej had begun to cultivate economic relations with the West, which by 1964 accounted for nearly 40 percent of Romania's imports and almost one-third of its exports. When Ceausescu came to power in 1965, the West was supplying almost half of the machinery and technology needed to build a modern industrial base. In 1971 Romania joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the following year it won admission to the IMF and the World Bank. In 1975 Romania gained most-favored-nation trading status from the United States.

Between 1973 and 1977, Romania continued to increase its trade with the noncommunist world and initiated economic relations with the less-developed countries. In 1973 about 47.3 percent of its foreign trade involved the capitalist developed nations, with which it incurred a large trade deficit that necessitated heavy borrowing from Western banks. During this period, major obligations to the IMF (US$159.1 million) and the World Bank (US$1,502.8 million) were incurred.

To gain greater access to nonsocialist markets, Romania set up numerous joint trading companies. By 1977 twenty-one such ventures were in operation, including sixteen in Western Europe, three in Asia, and one each in North America and Africa. Romania held at least 50 percent of the start-up capital in these companies, which promoted its manufactured goods and agricultural products abroad. In 1980 Romania became the first Comecon nation to reach an agreement with the European Economic Community (EEC), with which it established a joint commission for trade and other matters.

During the 1980s, however, trade relations with the West soured. Ceausescu blamed the IMF and "unjustifiably high" interest rates charged by Western banks for his country's economic plight. For its part, the West charged Romania with unfair trade practices, resistance to needed economic reform, and human rights abuses. In 1988 the United States suspended most-favored-nation status, and the following year, the EEC declined to negotiate a new trade agreement with Romania. Meanwhile, attempts to increase trade with the less-developed countries had also met with disappointment. After peaking in 1981 at nearly 29 percent of total foreign trade, relations with these countries deteriorated, largely because the Iran-Iraq War had cut off delivery of crude oil from Iran.

Frustrated by the downturn in trade with the West and the lessdeveloped countries, Romania reluctantly returned to the Soviet fold during the 1980s. By 1986 socialist countries accounted for 53 percent of its foreign trade. But the Ceausescu regime continued to assert its independence, refusing to endorse the Comecon program that would allow enterprises to circumvent routine bureaucratic channels and establish direct business relationships with enterprises in other member countries. And he refused to cooperate in Comecon attempts to establish mutual convertibility of the currencies of the member states.

Structure of Exports and Imports

The assortment of export products changed dramatically during the postwar era. Before the war, raw materials and agricultural products accounted for nearly all export income, but in the 1970s and 1980s, the primary exports were metallurgical products, especially iron and steel; machinery, including machine tools, locomotives and rolling stock, ships, oil-field equipment, aircraft, weapons, and electronic equipment; refined oil products; chemical fertilizers; processed wood products; and agricultural commodities.

Retirement of the Foreign Debt

After 1983 Ceausescu refused to seek additional loans from the IMF or the World Bank and severely curtailed imports from hardcurrency nations while maximizing exports--to the great detriment of the standard of living. As a consequence, Romania ran balanceof -trade surpluses as large as US$2 billion per year throughout the rest of the decade. With great fanfare, Ceausescu announced the retirement of the foreign debt in April 1989, proclaiming that Romania had finally achieved full economic and political independence. Shortly thereafter, the GNA enacted legislation proposed by Ceausescu to prohibit state bodies--including banks-- from seeking foreign credits.

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