Saturday

30th Apr 2016

Feature

What happens when a currency collapses? Ask Bulgaria

  • The Communist lev was replaced in 1989, but its successor crashed seven years later (Photo: Ian)

Fifteen years ago, both Bulgaria and Romania went through rampant inflation linked to a financial crisis. Bucharest narrowly avoided the collapse, but Sofia was less fortunate and experienced a meltdown of the sort Greece is currently trying to prevent.

"Those were very bad times. Every day my salary was worth less and less, and there were fewer things I could buy with it," says Krassimira Komneva from the Sofia-based Most Foundation, an employment and education outfit.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Back in 1996, Komneva was doing office work in a construction company. She recalls how the salary was late when the currency collapsed. "When I received it one month later, it was worth much less than expected. We all hurried to buy food, bread, oil. The prices were just crazy," she recalls.

According to the International Institute of Finance, inflation in Bulgaria hit 174.4 percent in 1996 and a record of 1,077.5 percent the next year. Its curency, the lev, went from 500 per US dollar in late 1996 to 2,200 per US dollar in February 1997.

Food shortages and a harsh winter drove people to despair, with mass rallies ultimately forcing out the post-Communist government largely blamed for the disastrous policies that led to the currency collapse.

"For the average people, it was just terrible. Nobody really understood what happened, the only thing we could see was that it all ended in disaster," says Komneva.

The central bank was subsequently stripped of its powers as the country entered in a "currency board" agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international lenders in July 1997, with the lev being pegged to the German D-Mark. Aimed at lowering inflation, boosting national reserves and restoring market confidence in the country, the currency board nevertheless seriously dented Bulgaria's sovereignty.

Romania only narrowly avoided a similar fate in the same period.

According to former President Emil Constantinescu, elected to power in November 1996 as the first non-Communist leader of the country, the country's national reserves when he took over had just 600 million US dollars, compared to current levels of €20 billion. At the same time, Romania had taken up some 5 billion US dollars in loans, which had to be paid back during his mandate.

"All of this led the IMF to suggest Romania should declare default on its debt. The second day after Parliament had confirmed my mandate, I received international envoys who told me this and gave it to me in writing," Constantinescu said in a 2006 interview with Gardianul newspaper.

Like Bulgaria, Romania was struggling with failing banks - both state and private-owned. Taxpayers' money was poured into the ailing state giants to help save them after they had lent billions to former regime protegees and their respective companies.

Meanwhile, most so-called private banks were in fact pyramidal schemes "designed to steal the money from regular citizens, set up by the mafia of the former Securitate (Communist secret police)" Constantinescu recalled.

Inflation peaked at 150 percent in 1997 and Romania had to seek an IMF loan of 500 million US dollars. It also had to privatise and profoundly restructure its state enterprises. But it avoided the embarrassment of having its central bank replaced with a currency board.

Not everyone was miserable during those years in Romania. To 41-year old trader Paul Marian, those were lucrative times in Bucharest. He remembers people flocking to his exchange office to get rid of the quickly depreciating lei and turn them into more stable D-Marks, US dollars or Swiss francs.

"I made good money in those years, the exchange office was working well. Everybody was just crazy about buying foreign currency," Marian recalls.

A cap on 500 US dollars was put in place for each citizen and later on, "when things got crazy", traders were banned from selling or buying foreign currency at more than five percent above or below the central bank exchange rate, he says.

That put an end to the big profits earned by exchange offices which had mushroomed in every Romanian town.

Investigation

VW will not publish emissions cheat report

Volkswagen said it would keep its preliminary report into the emissions scandal secret because publishing it would “present an unacceptable risk” to the firm.

News in Brief

  1. Netherlands funds €1.3mn Russian media project
  2. Fake euros network dismantled in Bulgaria
  3. Inflation negative in eurozone in April
  4. EU economy registers 0.5% growth in first quarter
  5. Eurovision says No to Kosovo, Palestine, IS flags
  6. EU to decide on future of tobacco agreement 'soon'
  7. Russia blames Sweden for frosty relations
  8. UN chief warns of 'growing xenophobia' in Europe

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Roundtable of IndustrialistsDigitising European Industry
  2. Counter BalanceParliament Gets Tough on Control EU Bank's Funds
  3. ICRCSyria: Aleppo on the Brink of Humanitarian Disaster
  4. CESIWorld Day For Health and Safety at Work: Public Sector Workers in The Focus
  5. EFABasque Peace Process-Arnaldo Otegi Visits the European Parliament
  6. EscardioChina Pays Price of Western Lifestyle With Soaring Childhood Obesity
  7. Centre Maurits CoppetiersThe Existence of a State is a Question of Fact, Not a Question of Law
  8. Martens CentreJoin Us at The Event: Prospects For EU Enlargement After 2019
  9. ICRCSyria: Aid for Over 120,000 People Arrives in Besieged Town Near Homs
  10. Counter BalanceHighway to Hell: European Money Fuelling Controversial Infrastructure Projects
  11. EPSUResponds To Reported €300 Million McDonald’s Tax Bill in France
  12. Access NowAcademics and Privacy Groups Ask Obama to Reject Anti-encryption Law

Latest News

  1. EU fiscal rules, migrants and Belgium's trick
  2. EU should call out Bangladesh on workers' rights
  3. Kosovo: Living in a ghetto on the EU fringe
  4. War crimes law poisons Serbia accession talks
  5. Italy and Austria try to calm tensions on Alpine pass
  6. French MPs call to lift Russia sanctions
  7. EU sides with embattled Greek PM in bailout talks
  8. Former EU commissioners to testify in emissions probe