IT is that time of year when President Reagan must decide whether to renew most-favored-nation status for Romania and Hungary for another 12 months. If he should decide in favor, Congress will have two months in which to agree or disagree. According to the Trade Expansion Act of 1975, which includes the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment, the main basis for a decision is whether the communist governments of these two Eastern European countries have allowed their citizens to emigrate to other countries. In this respect, both countries have met the requirements. Although there are thousands more Romanians who wish to emigrate, the Romanian record has been quite good thus far.
This year, however, the chief criterion in the Congress for extending most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status to Romania will probably not be freer emigration but the free exercise of religion in Romania and the Romanian treatment of its Hungarian minority. Certain Christian organizations in the United States have mounted a campaign attempting to show that Romania does not deserve MFN status, on grounds Romanian authorities mistreat and abuse the members of several small Christian denominations. These are notably Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, and Pentecostalists, numbering less than 3 percent of Romania's Christian population of 23 million, 70 percent of whom nominally belong to the Romanian Eastern Orthodox Church.
Is US withdrawal of MFN status the right answer to Romanian behavior toward the small Christian denominations? What would it achieve?
Similarly, Hungarian-American groups contend that MFN should not be granted because Romania practices extensive discrimination against the Hungarian minority, which makes up 7 to 9 percent of the total population. In the fields of education, publications, cultural activities, and employment opportunities, Hungarian-Romanians face increasing discrimination, greater than 10 or 20 years ago, and the trend is moving against them.
Would the President's decision to withdraw MFN status alter the Romanian government's policies toward Hungarian-Romanians? Conflicts between Romanians and Hungarians related to the western Romanian area of Transylvania have been common for hundreds of years, and there have been three transfers of territory in the last 70 years. It seems doubtful that the threat of any one-time American action could change government policies and popular attitudes in such a deeply felt situation.
The leverage of extending or withdrawing MFN status is definitely a useful tool in the exercise of US policy toward Bucharest. It must be credited with achieving a significant easing of Romanian emigration restrictions during the past 10 years, when thousands of Romanian Jews and ethnic Germans have been able to move to Israel and West Germany, respectively.
If MFN status did not apply, some 30 percent of Romanian exports to the United States (about $800 million worth last year) would be subject to higher tariffs. The potential loss of $250 million in exports must be a significant consideration in Romanian policy. But it would be a grievous mistake to regard MFN as an all-powerful weapon.
The threat of withdrawing MFN should be used with utmost prudence. In my view, the Romanians must be given a reasonable amount of time to alter their policies in regard to the Christian denominations and the Hungarian minority. If we do not allow them time, we will be faced with carrying out our threat with, very probably, minimum influence over Romanian policy in the future.
Certainly, we should always be conscious of the particular interests of groups of our citizens. At the same time, we should understand that we cannot hope to change the political evolution of the Eastern European countries in any fundamental way in the short term. Therefore, we must not yield to the temptation of setting short deadlines and ultimatums when we should be pursuing our long-term objectives.
The United States should steadfastly continue, as before, to make clear its position on issues such as emigration, human rights, religious freedom, and the treatment of minorities. The US should keep constant pressure on Romanian authorities to calculate most carefully where their broad future interests lie.
If the Romanian authorities show understanding for the strong feelings in the United States and in Congress on these issues and initiate action to meet our concerns, President Reagan and the Congress should agree to extend most-favored-nation status for another 12 months.
Nicholas G. Andrews was US deputy chief of mission in Warsaw from July 1979 to July 1981.