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EUROPE: FIVE YEARS LATER : Vaslui, Romania : Hammer and Cycle of Desperation : Mistrust, manipulation and defeatism thwart the quest for a better life after the ravages of communism.


VASLUI, Romania — In a paneled office high above the whining lathes and deafening compressors of the Moldova Mechanical Enterprise, Director Gigi Tiplea oscillates nervously in his swivel chair and narrows his eyes with suspicion.

He is discomfited by questions about the shrinking staff and flagging output of the cavernous workshops that sprawl across hundreds of acres, a dehumanizing monument to Eastern Europe's Communist-era obsession with development on a Gargantuan scale.

"Why do you need to know such details?" he demands of a reporter who has come to gauge the course of change in this proletarian bastion after Eastern Europe's bloodiest overthrow of a Communist regime five years ago.

Tiplea grudgingly discloses that 4,000 workers have been laid off from his failing enterprise, still Vaslui's biggest employer, and that most of the remaining 2,000 would also have to go if he was forced to live within a budget.

When the talk turns to plans for the future and prospects for foreign investment, the director explodes into a fit of paranoia.

"Don't think we don't know what security service you work for!" Tiplea suddenly bellows at his visitor, whipping open a drawer and brandishing a letter.

The single-page missive in poor English, purported to be from a trading company in Nigeria, might indeed have been a crude provocation from what remains of Romania's once-omnipotent Securitate secret police. The months-old letter seems to be enticing the factory boss to take part in some sort of scam.

But what it had to do with a discussion of how Vaslui has deteriorated from an industrial stronghold to the depths of despair was unclear to the journalist, and indeed to Tiplea himself.

Accusation is a skillful evasion technique, in the doctrine of former Communists, even if all that is being avoided is a discussion of the cruelties of fate. Fear of change, suspicion of foreigners and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge failings are reactions as natural as breathing for those who learned the skills of survival behind the Iron Curtain.

Despite having thrown off hard-line communism five years ago, millions of workers and managers in the region--people like Tiplea--remain locked in a time warp, indoctrinated in the adversarial politics of a bygone era and seemingly incapable of learning another way.

In places such as Vaslui, where the quest for a better life after the ravages of communism has gone horribly wrong, people remain stuck in a rut of mistrust, manipulation and defeatism that sabotages every inclination toward reform.

Unemployment here is officially 37% and in reality much higher, as most surviving factories have no product orders and have sent their employees on indefinite leave.

Many of the 80,000 people who lived in Vaslui five years ago have fled abroad or to other areas of Romania, leaving the dark, decaying workers' apartment blocks half-empty.

The entire town, built up from nothing a quarter of a century ago on the parched plains of Moldova, has the look of having been used up and discarded. Broken windows and unlit corridors give even working factories an abandoned appearance. Street lights and traffic signals were long ago turned off to save electricity. Gas prices of about $1 a gallon might be considered a bargain elsewhere in Europe, but in Vaslui most cars have been garaged or left in yards for children to play in. Streets are empty but for pedestrians and groaning buses.

The most depressed town in the poorest region of arguably the most devastated country of the former East Bloc, Vaslui typifies the tragedy of Stalinist experiments that toyed with a society's natural order.

The late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu created dozens of towns like this one in the late 1960s and 1970s when he herded farmers into cities to work in factories in a fevered quest for mass industrialization. Vaslui was transformed in a few short months of 1970 from a sleepy village of woodworkers into a monolithic company town, complete with shabby, prefabricated high-rises thrown up in haste for the workers forcibly moved out of the fields and forests.

"The idea was that each county would be raised to a high level of development by the location of a major industry in its central town," explains Pompiliu Sirghe, local liaison with the national Ministry of Labor and one of many political survivors from the apparatus built by Ceausescu.

The overnight buildup succeeded in providing a subsistence living for Vaslui laborers, but only so long as the closed circle of the Moscow-led Comecon trading alliance assured a market for even the shoddiest goods.

The Vaslui cog in the pre-revolutionary wheel of East Bloc industry produced mostly extraction and ventilation equipment for mining--a sector of the economy that has fallen on particularly bad times and taken its provincial suppliers down with it.

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