Keeping ties with Eastern Europe

Once again President Reagan has decided - correctly, in my view - to renew most-favored-nation trade status for Romania and Hungary for the coming year. The principal criterion for a decision is whether these two Eastern European countries have permitted their citizens to emigrate to other countries.

Although no Eastern European government permits freedom of emigration, the Romanians reluctantly allow a sizable number of people to depart every year - Jews to Israel, so-called Saxons to the Federal Republic of Germany, and others to the United States, Canada, and other destinations. By contrast, few people want to emigrate from Hungary, and they usually encounter few problems with their applications.

Many Romanians want to leave because they see their future in bleak terms not only for themselves but also for their children. Those who do not join the Communist Party are discriminated against in their careers. As consumers, Romanians face unusually severe difficulties. This past winter they experienced sharp electricity restrictions and power limitations (thermostats around 59 degrees F.) in both homes and offices. Queues for milk, bread, meat, and staples are commonplace. Butter, vegetable oil, and gasoline are rationed.

The overall economic system appears worse than three years ago, and prospects for early improvement are dim. Western bankers are more hardhearted about Eastern European debts after their experience with Poland in 1981. As a sign of its good intentions, the Romanian leadership has made reduction of its foreign debt its first priority - at the expense of the consumer.

The Hungarian Communist leadership, fortunately, has followed a different economic policy that has thus far provided sufficient food and material rewards for the people. Without significant natural resources in their small country, Hungarians are confronting difficult international economic conditions with some anxiety for their future welfare.

In its relations with the Soviet Union and the United States, Romania treads warily. Whatever its innermost desires, it knows its relations with the Soviet Union are paramount because its national security requires the maintenance of a peaceful common border with the Soviets and prudent political ties.

Hence Romania cannot afford to offend Moscow at random. But in pursuit of its objective of protecting its nationhood, it keeps a series of lifelines to the West and takes calculated risks. For example, it continues to obstruct Moscow's plans to integrate the Eastern European economies under Soviet leadership. It sets limits on its cooperation in Warsaw Pact military exercises. Recently, it opted to participate in the Los Angeles Olympics this summer despite the boycott by the Soviet Union and other communist states.

Hungary pursues a different policy. It tries to abide by the principles of the Helsinki Final Act in its relations with the West and remains loyal to its Soviet ally. Meanwhile, it claims the freedom to follow a nondoctrinaire socialist economic policy at home, which has thus provided its people with sufficient food and material rewards. Both Romania and Hungary need access to the US market for their exports for which nondiscriminatory tariff treatment is essential. They both need a steady trading relationship with the US and the West in general in order to raise the standard of living of their peoples.

As part of its strategy for dealing with the Soviet bloc, the US should expand relations with Romania and Hungary. The US administration should periodically signify its willingness to have normal ties with all Moscow's allies - in trade, educational, and cultural exchanges and in scientific and agricultural research activities. It is in our interest to develop mutually beneficial relationships with all those in Eastern Europe who will join us in this endeavor. Therefore the Congress in a bipartisan spirit should also renew most-favored-nation trade status for Romania and Hungary for another year.

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