US vs. Romania: Should people be charged $20,000 to emigrate?

Romania, which is already struggling under a $10 billion debt to the West, faces a testing time in 1983 in both its economy and its relations with the United States.

At risk will be the favorable relationship this Balkan Communist state has had with Washington for many years - despite its Soviet-bloc commitment - and the most-favored-nation (MFN) tariff status for its exports to the US.

This status will almost certainly be withdrawn should the Bucharest regime hold to a plan to make emigrants reimburse the state for their education.

The regulation requires that applicants for emigration passports pay - in hard currency - the full cost of their education at a university or technical school before an exit permit is issued. This can mean a fee of $10,000 to $20, 000.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Lawrence S. Eagleburger is going to Bucharest this month in an effort to bring home to President Ceausescu the seriousness of the US reaction to the proposed tax.

The loss of MFN status would be a major setback to the drive to boost hard-currency exports, which Ceausescu has set as a top economic priority in 1983.

Romania is one of only two East European states currently receiving US tariff concessions. (MFN was withdrawn from Poland last fall after the Solidarity union was outlawed under the martial law government's program for new labor unions.)

Under American law, the president must certify to Congress each year that a recipient country is satisfactorily observing human rights, including practice of a free emigration policy.

Renewal of MFN for Romania was a sensitive issue during the Carter presidency and in the two years since Mr. Reagan took office. Last May there was strong criticism in Congress at evidence of growing infringement of human rights in Romania, including repression of the large Baptist congregation and obstacles to emigration.

Congress reluctantly accepted Romanian assurances to do better and extended MFN status provisionally for a year.

The issue was brought into sharper focus by the Nov. 1 announcement of educational taxes on would-be emigrants. Only a few weeks earlier, Romanian Foreign Ministry officials had assured visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliott Abrams that rumors of such a tax were unfounded.

There seems some doubt in Washington as to the extent the tax has been applied so far and which Romanians are liable.

A flurry of passports for some 100 Romanian Jews in November, apparently permitting them to leave without paying the tax, suggested Jews might be exempt.

Ethnic Germans, who form Romania's second-largest minority, after the Hungarians, may be, too. Some 12,000 emigrate each year under longstanding agreements with West Germany. The Germans say the new decree may be a deliberate counter to Bonn's reluctance to guarantee new German export credits amid Romania's Polish-style foreign debt problems.

Other Romanians apparently aren't faring so well.

According to an Associated Press dispatch, at least two applicants found the education levy so high they had to abandon plans to leave: A graduate of a four-year foreign language program was asked to play $13,000; a polytechnic student found five years rated at $17,000.

Other observers share West German suspicions that the plan may have been intended largely to pressure the US and other Western countries into giving more financial help, since potential emigrants would not have hard currency but would have to beg it from relatives abroad.

''Or,'' a source commented, the tax might be designed ''to persuade the emigrants' receiving countries to 'compensate' Romania for their education and training.''

The outcome of Mr. Eagleburger's visit is likely to influence other Western governments' dealings with Bucharest.

For Romania the tax may prove coun-terproductive. The country has massive Western debts, and in some ways its domestic economy is worse than Poland's.

Already it is a lean winter for Romanians. Basic foods are severely rationed. Mr. Ceausescu is demanding that farmers produce more for hard-currency export, even though at present agriculture provides some 15 percent of total exports.

No relaxation of the brake on imports and consumerism is planned. Instead Ceausescu expects to cover half of the $10 billion debt in the next two years and the rest halfway through the next five-year plan - that is, the whole amount in a matter of five or six years.

He has set a new 1983 target of 10 million tons of corn, and a total grain output of 28 million tons by 1985. That's at least 8 million tons up on 1982.

There were signs during 1982 that the Soviet economic connection was figuring larger in Mr. Ceausescu's calculations and the country's oil problems. Romania's greeting to the Kremlin leaders on the Nov. 7 anniversary was notably more in the ''party line'' than hitherto.

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