For most Americans, Romania evokes images of Black Sea beaches and mist-enshrouded Transylvanian mountains, home to the fictional Dracula. But for the Reagan administration and Congress, the second largest of Soviet-bloc nations has become a perennial test case of United States human rights policy.
Responding to Romania's liberal emigration quotas for Jews, the Nixon administration conferred ``most favored nation'' (MFN) trading status on Romania in 1975. Such nondiscriminatory trade status is enjoyed by only two other communist countries, Hungary and China.
But various human rights groups and members of Congress now say that despite 12 years of favorable trade treatment, Romanian human rights practices have actually grown worse.
Supporters of a measure that would suspend MFN for six months say the Romanian government has consistently restricted religious freedoms, especially among the nation's evangelical Christians, part of Romania's 100,000-member Protestant community.
``The Romanian government has hired high-powered law firms and public relations consultants to come and clean up their image with the American Congress,'' says Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, a co-sponsor of the measure, which is attached to a House trade bill. ``But the fact remains that things have gotten worse. Romania is one of the most egregious human rights violators in Eastern Europe.''
Congressman Wolf also points to Romania's alleged role as training ground for the Palestine Liberation Organization and other terrorist groups.
Critics of the Wolf amendment say that, by restricting Romanian exports and thus further weakening the country's already depressed economy, the US would only be hurting the very people it is trying to help. After Albania, Romania has the lowest per capita income in Europe.
American importers of Romanian oil, steel, and machinery will also be hurt if trade restrictions are levied on Romania, critics say. And, they note, US exporters of coal and agricultural products could be affected by retaliatory measures. The two countries have more than $1.4 billion in bilateral trade.
At the State Department, where one official says the question of whether to extend MFN is being looked at ``more closely than in recent years,'' the issue has stirred mixed emotions.
Department officials express concern that, overall, the human rights situation in Romania has deteriorated. But they point to specific areas of improvement which they attribute to the threat of revoking MFN.
``It's fairly clear that there's been more emigration to the US - considerably more - than there would have been without MFN,'' an administration official says. He adds that even though Romanian Protestants do not have an ``ideal situation,'' there is a more active religious life in Romania than in some other parts of Eastern Europe.
Under the terms of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, the President is authorized to waive an automatic ban on trade concessions to communist countries if he is convinced a country's policies are leading to free emigration. A decision on whether to extend the Romanian waiver for another year is expected by June 3.
Each year, the decision imposes the same dilemma, notes this offical, an expert on Romania: ``If you don't take [MFN] away people think you're bluffing; if you do take it away, you've shot the only bullet in your gun.''
Even so, the official says, the Wolf amendment could do more harm than good. Under the Jackson-Vanik provisions, the waiver is to be pegged only to emigration. Broadening the criteria to include other human rights considerations, this official notes, could be a disincentive to change in Romania - and, more important, in the Soviet Union.
``We know we can't filter out other [human rights] considerations,'' the official says, ``but we need to make it clear [to the Soviets] that as soon as they meet emigration quotas we won't change the ground rules.''
Several US senators say they will consider adding their own version of the Wolf amendment to the trade bill when it reaches the Senate floor in two weeks.
Sen. William Armstrong (R) of Colorado says: ``The Romanians have not been very good on human rights. The evidence we've seen so far doesn't seem to justify extending the MFN provisions.''