Romania cold-shoulders Soviet-style reform

Nicolae Ceausescu is a stubborn man. The Romanian leader, isolated internationally, faced with a deteriorating economy, challenged by worker and student riots, insisted at a conference this week that little would change. Aside from giving workers a wage hike he said he would continue to pursue old-style Stalinist central-planning policies.

The message would seem an embarrassment to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who wants his allies to reform, and the Reagan administration which long has courted Mr. Ceausescu.

Worst off are the Romanians themselves. According to exiles here in Paris, thermostats here are set at 44 degrees F. and only 40-watt light bulbs are available. Workers wear coats, hats, and gloves in their offices. Butchers have only enough meat to open their shops one or two days a week. In some regions potatoes and bread are rationed.

``At least it's hot in Africa. In Romania people are starving and it's cold,'' says exiled Romanian writer Paul Goma. Long-suffering Romanians are fed up.

Last month up to 20,000 demonstrators rampaged in the industrial city of Brasov. According to independent reports, workers at the Red Flag Truck and Tractor Co. in Brasov revolted after being told their pay would be retroactively cut for not meeting their productions schedule.''

Romanian police counterattacked. Romanian exiles say hundreds were arrested and Brasov now resembles a city under siege. Troops patrol the main streets.

But the protests reportedly won't end. In one well-documented instance, the exiles say students in Timisoara and Arad revolted earlier this month in support of the Brasov workers.

Signs of dissent are even emerging within the leadership. After the Brasov riots, four local party chiefs were ousted from the party because of their criticism, says Mihnea Berindei, head of the Romanian Human Rights League.

In a display of defiance, Romania's former ambassador to the United States, Silviu Brucan, publicly compared Romania to Poland in 1980, the year Solidarity exploded.

This week's National Conference was postponed for one week, officially to allow ``better preparation.'' Unofficially, it was to make sure no outbursts marred the meeting. And Mr. Brucan complied with an order to retract his statement. By the time the 3,000 delegates met this week, Ceausescu was assured a warm applause.

Most observers say that, for now, Ceausescu probably can ride out the problems, largely thanks to the feared Securiate (secret police). Telephones are bugged, mail opened, and even typewriters must be registered. ``The fear is so great,'' says Mr. Berindei, ``It takes us weeks to hear reports of strikes, weeks to hear when someone is arrested.''

Opposition in Romania remains weak and disorganized. Compared with Poland's strong, independent Roman Catholic Church, Romania's Orthodox Church passively evades confrontation. And Romania remains a peasant culture with no tradition of political participation. Occupied by the Turks, squeezed between the Slavic Russian giant and the Teutonic German might, the ordinary Romanian has learned, in the words of a Western diplomat posted in Bucharest, ``to keep his head down in order to survive.''

Only the Soviet Union likely could change this dreary status quo. Mr. Gorbachev certainly doesn't get along with Ceausescu. The Soviet leader's visit to Bucharest last May was chilly - and the Soviet press has taken the unprecedented action of reporting Brasov riots.

But observers say a Soviet intervention might provoke a nationalist backlash inside Romania. It clearly would run against Gorbachev's stated aim of giving his allies leeway to run their own affairs. ``I don't think they can intervene at the moment they are espousing glasnost,'' says Antonia Constantinescu, editor of Lupta, a Romanian exile magazine published in Paris. ``Tanks and glasnost don't go together.''

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