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Collective Farms Doomed Throughout Eastern Europe

March 18, 1991

ILEANA, Romania (AP) _ Dealing a final blow to communism by dismantling collective farms has universal appeal in Eastern Europe, but whether immediate land reform makes economic sense has become a worrisome question.

Czechoslovakia and Hungary are well ahead of Romania and Bulgaria in putting their stronger industry back into private hands, and their farm systems produce enough food.

The well-stocked food shops of Budapest and Prague would be a dream in Bucharest and Sofia, where shelves often are bare. For their part, Romanian officials say plunging into land reform might reduce already inadequate farm production and undermine the fragile democracy.

Polish agriculture never was collectivized. Farms remained small and private despite Communist rule and, ironically, many may fail as communism’s guaranteed prices and markets disappear.

At the Ileana collective farm 30 miles east of Bucharest, Carmen Iacob finds a warm coat, hat and scarf as necessary for doing the payroll as her pencil and ledgers.

Corn cobs are the only fuel available for the tile stove in the corner of her office. By early March, even the cobs were gone and the weak morning sunlight over her shoulder provided the only heat and light.

The 7,400-acre Ileana farm and others like it, the agricultural backbone of Communist Romania, have begun to crumble. The government that followed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was overthrown and executed in December 1989, is letting people reclaim their land.

Bulgaria also is moving boldly to smash the collectives. Its parliament has decided land redistribution will begin after this year’s harvest.

Mircea Pavlu, a parliamentary spokesman on land reform for Romania’s governing National Salvation Front, said: ″The land law destroys communism. From a moral point of view, the land law is part of the Romanian revolution.″

At Ileana, in fertile grain country near the Danube River, more practical matters are of immediate concern.

″Most of the people will try to work the land themselves,″ said Mrs. Iacob, whose husband drives tractors and other machinery. ″They won’t buy tractors. ... They’ll be interested in filling their own needs, and won’t think about others.″

Even with the Communist emphasis on heavy industry, Romanians stayed close to their villages.

Almost half Romania’s 23 million people still live in the countryside, a scene of dirt roads and horse carts. In the mid 1980s, 28 percent of the work force was on farms.

Under the new land law, farmers can claim up to 25 acres outright and increase that to 250 acres by leasing or buying.

Most of Ileana’s 400 farmers know where their land is, and many are eager to reclaim it.

″Everybody is on the alert,″ said the collective’s chief accountant, Alexandrina Pascu.

Ion Matei, a 52-year-old driver for a nearby farm, looks forward to working his 15 acres with his wife and son. He already has poultry, a cow, two pigs and 10 sheep on the 2 1/2 acres turned over to him last year.

Land reform rouses passion in comparatively prosperous Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

″I don’t know whether we’ll start shooting at each other, but it will be really difficult,″ said Jiri Cermak, director of the Mir (Peace) collective outside Prague.

Czechoslovaks forced to join collective farms under communism were allowed to keep legal title to their land, but it meant nothing.

More than 40 years later, only about 30 percent of those who legally own land live on it, and the rest is worked by people without legal title. The question for Czechoslovak lawmakers is how to divide up the land, machinery and other farm property.

″You could have a lot of landless people in the countryside,″ said Arpad Szabo, a government agriculture specialist. ″You have many people who have worked in the cooperatives for 30-40 years, and they have nothing.″

Hungary proposes to sidestep the question of previous ownership by offering bonds or coupons as compensation for seized land and selling the land separately.

The influential Smallholders Party threatens to quit the governing coalition over the proposal, which its parliamentary leader, Jozsef Torgyan, described as ″scandalously poor, indescribably primitive and possibily diabolically evil.″ Deputies have offered 259 amendments.

Czechoslovak farmers are looking critically at how much land is needed to make a profit. The average plot before the collectives was 12 1/2 acres, but Szabo said a farmer would need 10 times as much now.

″I’m not sure we could find a lot of people in the countryside who are prepared to start private farming,″ he said.

Cermak’s family owns about 60 acres in central Bohemia. But he said it would take up to 10 years to get a private farm going and he hopes to stay at the Mir collective.

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