Romania, which has the lowest standard of living in the East bloc, may well be the next East European country to push its regime toward internal change. This is suggested by party and state chief Nicolae Ceausescu's sudden admission that two decades of neglecting agriculture have produced a serious social-economic imbalance that is having alarming effects on consumers.
The pressures surfaced more than two years ago in reports of serious disturbances in the Jiu coal mining valley in western Romania.
Although the Burcharest government dismissed most of the reports as virtual inventions by the Western press, local grievances and unrest were strong enough to prompt disciplinary action against supposed ringleaders. More goods were delivered to the area, but it was said later that the increased lasted only a short time.
Late last year, President Ceausescu himself admitted serious shortcomings in supplies of consumer goods generally.
His Feb. 20 admission that industrialization had been carried too far is strong indication that the region is facing a more serious economic situation than had previously been acknowledged.
Both public dissatisfaction and official concern undoubtedly have been fueled by the Polish crisis.
From the start Romania has been uneasy about developments in Poland, especially the formation of the new labor unions. It soon joined the chorus from other Warsaw Pact states that blamed continuation of the crisis on alleged Western interference and gave full play to fears expressed by Polish leaders themselves that "anti-socialist" elements were active in Solidarity.
In line with Romanian orthodoxy, neither the union movement nor its leader, Lech Walesa, was ever mentioned by name.Similarly, the question of a five-day workweek has been ignored. That is understandable, since Romania was not able to keep its promise to cut its own workweek to 46 hours by the end of 1980, and that failure endangers its proposal to cut back to 44 hours by 1983.
The collectivization of the 1950s was as harsh in Romania as anywhere else in the bloc. The methods used left a lingering mark; and subsequent disregard for rural conditions, the gap between investments for agriculture and those for industry, and the limits on even their tiny personal holdings offered the peasant employees of the big state farms no incentives to work harder to raise production.
Over the years, some attention to consumer needs brought a relative degree of domestic calm to most East European states. But in Romania, there has been no visible impact on consumerism to compare with the streams of privately owned automobiles seen out at weekends in neighboring Hungary or even in Bulgaria.
After Mr. Ceausescu came to power in 1965, he committed Romania to progressively more ambitious industrial targets. For years the country's industrial growth rate has been about 12 percent, easily the highest in the communist camp.
To secure the needed technology, Romania traded with the capitalist world more than any other Comecon country. The figure was approximately 50 percent at the close of the 1970s; compared with Poland and Hungary, about 35 percent; and Russia, about 30.
Mr. Ceausescu himself has just disclosed how much all this has cost agriculture and the consumer. Reportedly he blamed bad administration as well for agricultural failure, and that must be seen as an admission of personal responsibility, since his is the final word in every field of policy.
For the consumer, there have been only slow, meager concessions to easier living and none of the social "liberalization" other East Europeans.
East Germany in 1953, Poland and Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland again in 1970, 1976, and now at the start of the '80s, have all experienced painful pressures from below for change. Each effort was eventually defeated, but each left a legcy or reform.