US-Romania ties under fire due to Bucharest's rights record

It's business as usual with Romania. Before United States Secretary of State George Shultz visited Bucharest last December, US officials had predicted ``a watershed meeting.'' They said the secretary of state would warn Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu that he must improve his country's human rights record, generally regarded as one of the worst in Eastern Europe, or risk losing his country's preferential trade status.

But the meeting changed little, say Romanian and Western diplomats interviewed here. The Romanians insist they will not alter their policies. The Westerners also foresee no dramatic shift.

``No ultimatum was delivered,'' says one Western diplomat. Although the diplomats interviewed here said Mr. Shultz told Mr. Ceausescu that Congress might take action if he did not improve his human rights record, they added that the Reagan administration favors a continuation of most-favored nation (MFN) status to Romania.

``It was not a special visit,'' one Romanian official insisted. ``We have a long-standing relationship with the United States; Shultz was not the first secretary of state to visit here.''

Indeed, from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, US presidents have sent their secretaries of state to Bucharest to show support for the way Ceausescu has taken actions that displease the Soviet Union, such as maintaining relations with Israel and participating in the 1982 Los Angeles Olympics despite a Soviet-bloc boycott. In 1975, the US rewarded Romania with MFN status, which allows it the lowest applicable tariffs. Last year, Romania benefited by exporting more than $1 billion worth of goods to the United States.

Human rights figured in that decision. To obtain the preferred tariff treatment, Romania agreed to allow more emigration of Jews to Israel, Germans to West Germany, and others to the US.

As US concerns about emigration have lessened, members of Congress have made religious freedom the key test for extending MFN. Observers say this shift is due to former US Ambassador David Funderburk, an evangelical Baptist.

While in Bucharest, Mr. Funderburk worked closely with American evangelical Christians and human rights groups concerned about religious restrictions in Romania. The Ceausescu government permits religious activity only for 14 faiths. According to reports released by independent groups such as the Helsinki Watch Committee, even ``legal'' faiths face persecution, including the confiscation and recycling of Bibles into toilet paper and the arrest of clergymen. Convinced that the Reagan administration was not sufficiently protesting such abuses, Funderburk resigned last May and gave an angry press conference in Washington.

``A regime that turns Bibles into toilet paper, that bulldozes churches,'' he said, ``does not deserve most-favored nation status.''

Funderburk's public outburst revealed disillusionment among many US foreign policy analysts that, contrary to original hopes, Romania had not relaxed controls at home. And doubts began to surface about whether Romania differed with the Soviets on issues crucial to the Kremlin.

``After 20 years of close cooperation with Romania, what have you [the US] achieved?'' asked dissident mathematician Mihai Botez. ``Instead of promoting an economy which works or socialism with a human face, you have helped legitimize a corrupt communism regime which has ruined our country.''

Western diplomats disagree. With or without Western recognition, they argue, the continuance of a communist regime is inevitable in Romania. Rather than shrinking from this, they say, it is better to try to nudge Romania in a more acceptable direction. Publicly embarrassing the Romanians will only stiffen Romanian resistance, they argue.

Funderburk's focus on religion also is widely criticized. Some 70 percent of Romanians belong to the Romanian Orthodox Church. But because the church traditionally has been a creature of the state, Western and Romanian diplomats say religion cannot become a true force of opposition, as it is in Poland. Romanian officials add that MFN was tied to emigration, not religion; they say that the US cannot set new preconditions every time renewal comes up.

``Our policy towards religion will not change,'' Minister of Religion Ioan Cumpanas says. ``We will listen to your specific requests, but policy is policy.''

Too much pressure might hurt those it was supposed to help. ``By tying religion to politics, some Americans put us in a delicate position,'' says Vasili Talpos, general secretary of the Baptist Union here.

What the US can do, Western diplomats say, is use its leverage to secure Romanian support among East-bloc nations on some foreign policy issues. It also can obtain limited victories in human rights.

``This year there will be four students in the Baptist seminary instead of only one as in years past,'' said one diplomat. ``They could use 150, but it's an improvement.''

Without MFN, Western diplomats worry that no such improvements would occur. The Romanians feed this fear.

``If you don't like things now, just take away most-favored nation status,'' said a Romanian official. ``Whatever you have now, you won't have then.''

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