Progressive, industrious citizens give the new Romania hope for a better future

October 07, 1990|By New York Times News Service

BUCHAREST, Romania -- In the dark, dreary terrain of Romania's impoverished economy, Anda Baldau, a secretary turned shop owner, and Petru Rares, a Western-educated economist turned technocrat, are two bright spots.

While the economy continues to stumble because of the difficulties in breaking free of communism, it is people like Mrs. Baldau, who runs one of Bucharest's few private shops, and Mr. Rares, deputy director of an office to attract foreign investment, who are helping lift Romania back to its feet.

Mrs. Baldau opened her shop four years ago, in the shadow of the Army Building in Bucharest. Until the revolution in December, she was allowed to sell only a single line of goods -- hand-woven white silk tiaras and flowers for weddings.

But as soon as Nicolae Ceausescu, the Communist leader, was deposed last winter, Mrs. Baldau started selling whatever she wanted.

She has transformed her shop into what is an exotic emporium by Romanian standards. With Turkish-made jeans, Italian stockings, Chinese lipstick and Romanian-made bowling shirts, her cluttered store is to Bucharest what Christian Dior is to Paris.

"Before, you could say what you wanted to sell, and that was all you were allowed to sell," she said. "It's much better now."

From 10 a.m. until a few minutes after closing time at 6 p.m., a crowd lines up in front of Mrs. Baldau's store, which is squeezed into a row of shops on a street that hints of its pre-Communist grandeur. Her shop, the size of a modest living room, has mirrored walls, bright metal racks and three smartly dressed young sales clerks.

Mrs. Baldau, who used to be a secretary at the Foreign Trade Ministry, said she was able to obtain a license to open a private shop because of the unusual nature of her silk craft. Nowadays, business is so good, she said, that she hopes to open two more stores, "if I get the approvals."

She and her husband, Constantin, have also set up a factory to produce jogging suits, which seem to jump off the racks as fast as you can say Carl Lewis. They are best sellers even though they are ridiculously expensive by Romanian standards: about 1,250 lei, only about $10 at the black-market exchange rate but still a week's salary for the average Romanian. Her rent is 200 lei.

"It's one of the best shops in town, but the prices are exorbitant," said Luminita Zgabei, a customer. "Here it's possible to find everything. The state shops are laughable in comparison."

To stock the store with attractive, affordable goods, Mr. Baldau often disappears for weeks at a time, driving his dust-covered Ford Granada to Greece and Turkey, even to Abu Dhabi. "The hardest thing is finding good merchandise," Mrs. Baldau said. "The people here are used to things very cheap, but almost everything you buy from abroad is very expensive."

She is grateful that some Western dealers accept Romania's soft currency for their products, but she complains that the government keeps half her money when she converts her lei into dollars to import goods.

A few minutes before closing time, Mrs. Baldau was busy chatting with customers and straightening up her shop. "We never get a few minutes to relax anymore," she said. "Things are better now, but you have to work a lot harder."

Mr. Rares, the foreign investment official, is also finding that he is working much harder since last December. The 42-year-old economist sees his mission as explaining to foreign investors that Romania is not the violent hell that has been portrayed in Western media but instead a poor, earnest country eager to modernize its economy.

Among Romania's recent problems was the government's decision to summon thousands of miners to Bucharest in June to crack down on political dissent, a step that led two dozen industrialized nations to withhold economic aid from Romania.

"The image projected of us from the outside has been unfair," said the deputy director of the Office for Foreign Investment. "For me, the most wonderful thing would be for foreign investors to come in and put our inefficient industries in order."

In his office in a plush villa that was built for a king's mistress, Mr. Rares plays host to potential investors from Europe and the United States. Having served as Romania's representative to the European Community, he is one of the nation's liaisons to the West.

Mr. Rares realizes that he and his nation have a lot of homework to do before Western firms feel comfortable setting up shop here. He wants to help straighten out the mess left by Ceausescu, put the books of companies in order, create a framework for privatization and figure out which companies can survive.

He acknowledges that it will be hard to attract foreign investors when it is nearly impossible for them to decipher whether a Romanian company is profitable and what its assets are worth.

Fluent in French, English and supply-side equations, Mr. Rares did postdoctoral work at the College of Europe in Belgium. He sounds as capitalist as a Harvard Business School graduate, but he candidly declares that he was once a Communist. Had he not been a Communist, he said, he would not have the education to help his nation today.

"If you wanted to get a good education, if you wanted to step up the ladder of a profession, you had to be a member of the party," he said.

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