BRASOV, Romania -- December's darknesscrept quickly over the Transylvanian Alps last week, shrouding this central Romanian city well before the final whistle blew for the day shift at the Red Flag truck plant.
But as the workers trudged toward their chilly, dimly lit flats, the lights along Boulevard Georghiu-Dej and other main thoroughfares were brighter than usual, and there was more food in the shops.
The workers' protests that swept Brasov last month had -- for now, at least -- produced some results.
There was still no meat in the shops, of course, beyond some frozen turkeys. A Red Flag worker laughed at such a suggestion with the crack, 'This is Romania.'
And for most of the country's 23 million citizens, December brought nothing more than another winter of discontent.
Long lines in front of sparsely stocked shops. Rations. Two hours of TV a day. Damp, chilly apartments, only one 40-watt bulb permitted per flat. Three and -hour school days. Negotiating darkened streets with a flashlight -- if one is fortunate enough to possess batteries.
'If we had meat, we would be almost as well off as during the war,' goes the Romanian joke.
A failed harvest, combined with more severe energy cutbacks, could make it the bitterest winter since World War II for Romania, according to interviews with government and party officials, Western diplomats, workers and residents of Brasov and Bucharest, the capital 100 miles to the south.
Like the rest of Eastern Europe, Romania -- under the tight control of President Nicolae Ceausescu -- is in turmoil over how to salvage its mismanaged economy.
In Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland, the communist governments have decreed drastic price hikes. The result was a round of buying sprees last month that temporarily cleared shelves of some basic foodstuffs and other coveted goods such as refrigerators or color TVs.
Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria are still groping for a policy to pull their economies out of the doldrums.
But as a result of the recent events in Brasov, the Romanian Communist Party could also be faced with its greatest political challenge as it gathers for an important three-day party conference opening Monday.
A month ago, 10,000 workers angry over the food and energy shortages, as well as pay cuts and threatened layoffs, stormed Communist Party headquarters and city hall in Brasov, a bustling industrial and mountain resort center of 300,000.
They set fires, looted stores, and marched through the streets shouting, 'Death to Ceausescu,' and singing the patriotic song, 'Romanians Awake.'
'It was a fantastic fire,' recalled one resident who watched it from his home four miles away. 'I hear they burned a portrait of our beloved leader,' he added with a smile.
The tone of the demonstration was unprecedented in the Warsaw Pact's most rigidly governed state. Although reports have filtered out of spontaneous strikes in the past year in Bucharest and at least three other major cities, all were purely food and wage protests.
'This was unparalleled,' said a Western diplomat. 'Brasov is considered really different because it had political overtones.'
As with the other protests, party leaders quickly restored the pay cuts. More food appeared on store shelves within 48 hours. Lighting was restored to some streets darkened for years by the energy cutbacks, according to residents who talked with the first Western correspondents to visit the city since the protests.
But 60 to 70 of the 200 people rounded up for questioning after the protest remain unaccounted for, the sources said.
'We don't expect to see them again,' said one plant worker.
On Dec. 2, in the first official acknowledgement of trouble at the plant, Brasov officials announced they had fired the management and transferred the protest leaders to 'other places.'
Nevertheless, the worker said, the protesters considered themselves successful.
'We know we can do it again,' he said quietly.
That is what worries the Communist Party.
In an unusually frank interview, a veteran party member and former ambassador to the United States and United Nations, Silviu Brucan, warned the party leadership to avoid mass repression and to confront the legitimate needs of the people.
His call to reassess the country's long-standing policy of high industrial production at the expense of basic consumer needs is believed to have a measure of support among some party officials who privately oppose the autocratic policies of Ceausescu.
The extent of such support may be determined at this week's conference, the mid-session point between the party's important party congresses every five years.
If the economic situation is critical in the rest of Eastern Europe, it can be described as abysmal in Romania, which has one of the lowest living standards on the continent.
For the last several years, Ceausescu's policy has been to put the bulk of national resources into paying off a $12 billion foreign debt. The money was borrowed in the 1970s for costly and ill-timed investments, such as steel production just as the world market for steel was collapsing.
Power is also sluiced off from hugely innefficient energy plants to manufacture goods for hard currency to pay back Western loans.
Energy and resources also go for construction projects. At night in downtown Bucharest, the surrealistic glow of tall arc lights - punctuated by sparks flying from welders' torches -- illuminates the steel frames of new buildings sprouting like mushrooms in the city center.
But elsehwre, darkness falls. A November decree sliced public electrical consumption another 20 percent. A two-room flat gets only enough to keep a refrigerator running for eight days a month.
'The recent degree on energy is actually asking the workers to commit suicide by freezing in their bedroom,' declared Brucan, a former editor of the leading Communist Party daily, Scinteia, and head of Romanian television.
'If we were in a Third World country, you could understand it,' said one Western analyst. 'But this used to be First World.'
Romanians, traditionally good-humored, joke that when their kids are asked to draw a pig in school, they draw only the head, feet and tail, because the rest goes for export.
The joke is close to reality. The meat counter of a Bucharest supermarket recently offered only pig's feet, grayish liver sausages, and breaded fish. There are no potatoes to be had in the capital or in Brasov, and there are lines for cabbage and decent apples.
Shoppers do not blanch at the prospect of a two- or three-hour queue for meat -- or even the hint of it.
One Brasov woman was asked why she was waiting in line.
'We understand they may have bones,' she said.
In the two-room flat of one worker, the heat came from four burners flaring brightly on a gas stove in the darkened kitchen.
As the man carefully sipped coffee brought by a foreign guest - Romanians normally must settle for an ersatz product of indeterminate origin dubbed 'henna' for its peculiar color -- he drew a sketch of life in Romania.
He was one of the 3 million peasants forcibly moved off the farms in the 1970s as part of a rapid, Western-financed industrialization.The Communist Party promised well-paid jobs, nice flats and plenty of food.
The promises were kept -- for a time. But by end of the 1970s, the consequences of massive over-borrowing, combined with an agricultural policy that killed the incentive for farmers to produce -- a process repeated with devastating similarity in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia -- had caused an economic crackup.
The first food shortages surfaced in 1977, the first energy cutbacks two years later. Since then, Romanians say, every year has been worse than the previous one. This year, the potato, corn and sunflower crops failed.
Now, the Brasov workers have been told the truck plant is cutting back operations because the export market to Cuba, Malaysia, East Germany and China has dried up. Cuba said Soviet trucks were better.
'They were pampered, courted by the party, because to a certain extent they were the elite of the working class,' said a party member who requested anonymity. 'And all of a sudden they were faced with such a bleak, gloomy prospect. This is what brought on their desperation.'
The material deprivations are exacerbated by political ones. Typewriters must be registered. Romanians must report contacts with foreigners within 24 hours. Only foreigners who are close relatives can stay with a Romanian family.
The secret police, the Securitate, is regarded as the most pervasive in Eastern Europe. Romanians commonly believe any time five of them are gathered, one is an informer.
Some of the hundreds of presidential decrees, if rigorously enforced, would rival Orwell's '1984.' One outlawed the playing of bridge after a Romanian championship team defected while playing in a bridge tournament in Paris in 1973.
The aspirations of the Brasov man are simple, shared by millions of other Romanians who are fiercely patriotic and would not leave their country even if they could.
'I would like some videos, some cassettes,' he said. 'I like music, and would love to travel. I am yearning to go to Egypt.' He smiled. 'Maybe in 10 years.'
Romanian officials expect to pay off most of the external debt by the end of next year. But officials do not plan to decrease the pace of industrialization.
'Romania is determined to modernize its economy and obtain a high rate of growth,' said Sergiu Contineanu, deputy general manager of the Romanian Bank for Foreign Trade. 'By 1989 or 1990, maybe we will be able to judge the situation differently.'
Meanwhile, Romanians make do as best they can. A helpful clerk, waiting on a Western visitor, recently took nearly two hours to rectify a previous worker's mistake in a car-rental agreement.
'I am sorry -- for us,' she said.
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