A joke told by a Romanian sums up the many frustrations that a visitor to this Soviet Bloc country feels when trying to get a few straight answers. Here, the search for truth is often like running an obstacle course of contradictions.
As the story goes, a Romanian borrowed a pot from a friend and returned it with a crack in it. The friend, furious, decided to sue. At the trial, the Romanian addressed the court, figuring his statement would clarify everything.
"Gentlemen," he began, "there are three points I'd like to make about the pot in question. First, I never in fact received it. Second, when I got it, there was already a crack in it. And third, when I returned it, the pot had no crack."
Getting to the bottom of anything in Romania can be a tortuous, treacherous process. The problems start with finding someone nonofficial to talk to.
Access to Romanians by visiting western correspondents is inhibited by a 1972 decree that obliges people here to report to police all contacts with foreigners within 24 hours. There is a pervasive fear that all such contacts are being observed or monitored by the securitate, Romania's massive corps of security police.
Another decree prohibits foreigners from staying overnight in the homes of Romanian citizens who are not close relatives.
Moreover, according to a U.S. Department of State human rights report last year, Romania initiated a tax equivalent to 20 percent of an average monthly salary on phone bills that show more than one call to places outside the country.
The measure appeared intended to discourage calls to friends and relatives abroad.
Interviews with diplomats, foreign students and a handful of Romanians during a recent week-long stay in this country produced a keen impression of intimidation, oppression and official deceit.
Stories exposing the repressive national climate are easy to come by here in the capital.
A European diplomat told of an elderly Romanian woman who was warned by police to stop greeting him in the park where they both regularly walked.
A student recounted a case of a Romanian couple who were evicted from their Bucharest apartment by the building's housing committee for giving their daughter permission to marry a foreigner. A foreign resident said his Romanian friends frequently refer to the danger of being packed off to forced labor crews on the Danube-Black Sea canal project.
Unlike Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which have some form of underground press, Romania appears to have no independently printed works circulating in defiance of government censorship. In April, the government issued a decree requiring people to register all typewriters with the police. The new rule was clearly meant to inhibit the possible start of underground publications.
Under such conditions, western officials say, it is little wonder that many people in this nation of 22 million want to emigrate to the West. But the government does not recognize the right of a citizen to leave, except for family reunification. Those who apply to emigrate are regarded as traitors and often are deprived of jobs or places in schools, evicted from their homes and stripped of household goods without compensation.
Some have been jailed as a result of publicly protesting a denial to emigrate or the lengthy bureaucratic delays involved. To avoid these hassles, an unknown number of Romanians have tried to swim across the Danube to Yugoslavia, an avenue to the West.
Romanian officials dismiss this police state portrait of their country as an exaggerated western cliche and defend their stringent rules on national security on economic grounds.
When they choose to, Romanian authorities can come across to foreign guests as the most hospitable in the Soviet Bloc. But as a couple of American reporters found during official interviews recently, the surface graciousness is sometimes undercut by blatant evasions and revealing glimpses of the harsh reality that lies beneath public statements.
Titus Costache, for instance, the director of the Lupeni mine, Romania's largest coal mining operation, denied in an interview that any strike had taken place at his enterprise in 1977, though western reports from there at the time told of 35,000 miners stopping work, demonstrating in the street and backing a petition to President Nicolae Ceausescu complaining of inadequate food and consumer goods, cramped and shoddy housing, inadequate pension provisions and penalties for failure to fulfill production requirements.
Costache acknowledged only that some miners' union meetings that year had turned a bit heated because miners were upset that work standards had been set too high on some new West German equipment and, as a result, wages tied to fulfillment of the standards suffered.
As a measure of Romania's regard for workers' rights, Lupeni mine union president Aurel Anghelus, asked if the current miners' contract contains the right to strike, said: "I can't understand the need for a right to strike if all conditions are fulfilled." But what if they aren't? "Such a situation," replied the union official, "is inconceivable."
Sometimes, the evasive statements of Romanian officials get exposed by one of their own colleagues. Constantin Stanca, the ministry official responsible for trade with other socialist countries, stated in an interview that Romania is not seeking any new pricing arrangement with the Soviets to buy oil after years of costly independence from Soviet-subsidized prices. On the same day, Romanian Prime Minister Constantin Dascalescu was in Berlin delivering a speech that called for closer cooperation with the Soviets in fuel and raw material fields.
Officials in the Transylvanian capital Cluj, when asked to arrange a meeting with an "average" family, produced Theodor Marton. He turned out to be a locomotive repair specialist who earns a salary twice the national average, has been a devoted party member for 30 years and enjoys the uncommon privilege of periodic trips to the West.
Marton's son Doru, 15, hinted during the interview at some ruffles behind the idyllic family image his father was presenting. The boy said that there were some father-son arguments about certain aspects of Communist Party life. Asked to elaborate, Doru lapsed into an awkward silence, and the father promptly switched the subject.
In the city of Tirgu Mures, a talk with a Roman Catholic priest in the presence of Communist officials showed the self-censorship required to survive in the system, even in church. Take, for instance, the treatment given Pope John Paul II's strong defense of individual freedoms sounded during his stirring June pilgrimage to Poland.
Polish priests have repeatedly incorporated references to the papal message in their own sermons since the summer. But Father Ferenc Lestyan, who is chief pastor for 36,000 Catholics in Tirgu Mures, said he had not attempted to quote the pope in church.
Details of the papal trip, he said, had not been reported in the state-controlled Romanian press, suggesting that he wasn't to report them either. Fortunately, he noted, people in his parish were able to learn of the pope's statements from foreign radio broadcasts.
The 70-year-old white-haired priest acknowledged that some parishioners had approached him privately to discuss what the pope had preached. What impressed them the most? "The statements on peace and human rights," replied the clergyman cautiously.
Economic strains compound the difficulties of daily life in Romania. With one of the lowest per capita incomes in Eastern Europe, Romanians are being squeezed further by a national policy that puts a priority on exports in order to earn hard currency to pay off a $10 billion debt to the West. Key economic indicators show a modest improvement in production this year, but the increased output isn't reaching Romania's home market.
Long shopping lines are a common sight in Romania. The lines of autos waiting to buy gas at service stations can stretch for blocks. Milk, cheese and butter are in short supply; so are edible cuts of meat.
If something is available, it usually can be bought most easily not with the Romanian currency, the leu, or even with western currency which is illegal for Romanians to have, but with Kent cigarettes. For reasons buried in the past, Kents--specifically, Kent 100 soft packs--are a kind of Romanian status symbol that can procure scarce goods, appointments with busy doctors and official favors.
To save dwindling energy supplies before winter, authorities advised Romanians this month to brace for a new round of power cutbacks and restrictions. Newspapers pointed to a return to the austerity measures decreed last winter when the government ordered regular cutoffs of electric power, heat, warm water and other services.
"No question things have gotten worse in the past few years," remarked the wife of a Bucharest academic. "People now have more doubts about Ceausescu's plans. The effect is that all social groups are united in their sadness about the situation."
To improve productivity, the minimum wage, once regarded as every employe's right, was scrapped Sept. 1. A worker's pay now depends on how well his factory measures up to production targets and on his individual performance. Also introduced this year was a plan encouraging workers to invest money in their own enterprises through the purchase of factory bonds.
The declared aim of the program is to boost productivity by giving workers a greater financial interest in the success of their factories. The bonds pay between 5 and 8 percent interest depending on specific factory performance.
While participation in the program was said to be voluntary, trade union officials at Bucharest's "23 August" plant, the largest machine-building operation in Romania, reported that 80 percent of the workforce had bought bonds so far, a figure which they said held in other city enterprises.