WARSAW -- More than a year after the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, four of every five enterprises in the region still are owned by the state.
It's not that governments don't want to sell them off. Indeed, politicians across the region speak of private ownership as though it were a miracle cure for all the economic ailments arising from 45 years of central planning.
The sticking point in the past year has been how to privatize in a way that is at once fair, fast and likely to revive the economy.
Elected leaders cannot afford to be perceived by voters as giving away state assets to foreigners or, worse, former Communist managers. But they also want to put enterprises into the hands of motivated owners who know what they are doing.
Poland, which prides itself as a pioneer of post-Communist change, charged out in front on privatization. It passed the first comprehensive law and set up the first Ministry of Ownership Changes. But the new head of that ministry acknowledges that Poland labored mightily to produce little.
The government focused most of its time and talent on building a bureaucratic machine that could pick qualified state-owned companies, assess their value, prepare stock offerings and then sell them off to investors. Polish law limits foreign stock ownership -- absent special permission -- to 10 percent.
The machine works, but at a snail's pace.
"I'm fully conscious that it is so far disappointing," said Janusz Lewandowski, who took office in January as Poland's second minister of ownership changes. "In one year, we sold five companies. That is five out of 8,000. It is very slow, very time-consuming. It would take 100 years to privatize Poland at the speed of 1990."
By one government estimate, Poland has $80 billion worth of property to be privatized, and just $10 billion in capital with which to buy it.
The problem of too-little domestic capital persists across Eastern Europe. Economic planners are frantically searching for ways to speed up the privatization process and fire up economies that in the past year have nose-dived into the region's worst recession since World War II.
But privatization has not proved an across-the-board bust. Selling off small shops and businesses has proved relatively easy. Poland managed in 1990 to sell about half of its small enterprises. And Czechoslovakia recently scored a smashing success in its first auction of restaurants and small stores. It plans to sell more than 100,000 small businesses this year.
But selling large Communist-style enterprises -- big factories and sprawling service monopolies that employ tens of millions of Eastern Europeans -- requires far more capital than can be martialed at a weekend auction.
Perhaps the simplest approach to selling these kinds of enterprises is being carried out in the small and relatively well-off Yugoslav republic of Slovenia.
"The best possible way is to find an active buyer, an informed buyer who will take over management," said Marko Simoneti, managing director of Slovenia's Agency for Privatization.
Slovenia, which is half the size of Belgium and has a population of 2 million, is selling nearly all of its 1,200 state-owned enterprises under a relatively unregulated and highly decentralized system of open bidding.
Unlike Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary, each of which has imposed delays or regulations on foreign buyers, there are no such restrictions in Slovenia.
Simoneti, who studied business at Cornell University, said the republic has trained about 100 appraisers who in the next two years will supervise the sale of about 400 large companies. They attended a series of seminars run by major international accounting firms.
The appraisers supervise the initial sale price and make sure that at least 15 bidders have been rounded up. The Agency for Privatization has veto power if it judges the final selling price too low or suspects a kickback between current managers and new buyers.
Simoneti said that Slovenia, with long-term business ties to Austria and Germany, expects most of the major buyers to come from those countries. He said that in most cases the purchase price "will go directly into the company" in the form of new machinery or to pay off debts.
"This is the most natural method," he argued. "It is clear to all of us that the stock offerings do not work. There is not enough money in socialist countries to buy the stock. There are no accounting standards. Stock markets take too much time."
Slovenia is offering exceptionally liberal terms to qualified buyers who have enough capital to pay for only 30 percent or 40 percent of a company.
"The objective is to start privatization immediately by introducing private control on the basis of partial ownership," Simoneti said. He said the goal is to quickly find a "motivated, active and partial owner who will immediately take care of corporate governance."
Slovenia, of course, is a small and special case. Its economy, even under Communist rule, was far more decentralized and had far greater contacts with Western business practices than Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary.
But there are a number of signals from the past year, in all three of these former East Bloc nations, that privatization works best when it is most simple.
Hungary, for instance, recently changed the rules so that a qualified investor can bypass so-called management committees of state-owned companies. Last year, these committees often stonewalled prospective buyers. Only 130 out of 2,300 salable enterprises were privatized in 1990.
It is now possible for a company to be sold with just the permission of the State Property Agency, which is promising to streamline operations. Under the new rules, hostile takeovers will be allowed.
In Poland, senior officials at the Ministry of Ownership Changes are now saying that stock offerings should be considered as only one route. They are eagerly approving management buyouts and employee-leasing deals.
They agree that it is foreign investors, with the capital to bring in new technology, who can do the most to spark economic growth.
The minister of ownership changes said there was only a "cosmetic inflow" of $10 million of foreign investment into Poland in 1990. To improve on this, Lewandowski said he will urge parliament to get rid of the regulation that limits foreign buyers to a 10 percent share of a Polish company.
In addition, a new investment law allowing "full transfer" of profits out of Poland is expected to be approved this spring.
In both Poland and Czechoslovakia, however, nagging political questions remain about the public's right to a "fair" share of state-owned enterprises. Both governments are working on schemes to give every citizen a voucher, which could be used to buy stock in one company or shares in a mutual fund that has investments in a number of companies.
"We are preparing the logistics of a voucher scheme as an unconventional means to speed up privatization," said Lewandowski.
But he acknowledged that such a scheme would be complicated and expensive to administer. Other officials in his ministry warn privately that the scheme, while sounding fair, will turn into a bureaucratic nightmare.
In Slovenia, the Agency for Privatization views voucher schemes with contempt. Simoneti said they are not only complicated and expensive to organize, but they also offer no answer to Eastern Europe's most critical management problem.
"Distribution of free stock or vouchers does not solve anything," said Simoneti. "You still end up with general ownership. You still have to find an owner who is willing and able."