Romania's Choice

ROMANIANS appear to have made their choice - and it's much different from that of most East Europeans, who have roundly rejected any leader tainted by past communist allegiance. But Romania has long had its own political and cultural traditions and even its own brand of Marxism under Nicolae Ceausescu. Thanks to the dictator's self-glorifying policies, the country's poverty and despair are also uniquely ingrained. In this week's election - the first in 53 years that warrants the description ``free'' - Romanians showed an overwhelming preference for retaining interim leader Ion Iliescu. Once a top aide to Ceausescu, he parted ways with the former leader in the late '70s. But has Mr. Iliescu genuinely parted ways with the communist system? That's the question opponents of his National Salvation Front government have asked.

Their answer is ``no.'' They point out that the bureaucratic structure cemented in place through four decades of totalitarian rule has barely been chipped at. They see the old strong-arm tactics still being used to silence dissent. And they assert that not only Iliescu, but many other prominent members of the front, are inheritors of Ceausescu.

Most average Romanians, however, judging from exit polls, felt that only Iliescu and the National Front offered the hope of ``stability.'' Despite dramatic protests in Bucharest's University Square, many people are simply grateful that there is now some meat to be had at the end of the long line at the grocer's. The interim government has also done some liberalizing, from freeing the press to allowing foreign ownership of joint ventures.

Iliescu says he envisions a social democracy in Romania, along the lines of Sweden, by the end of the decade. That will take an extraordinary commitment to reform. Politically, the thuggery that surfaced among National Front supporters in the run-up to this election will have to be eradicated and a diversity of opinion welcomed. Economically, the system of ownership and production needs top-to-bottom overhaul.

Ties to the West - such as as enhanced trade status with the US - will be crucial, but Iliescu will have to do more than talk reform to prove himself worthy.

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