Romania's Still-Obdurate Leader. US FOREIGN POLICY. International cooperation needed to curb Ceausescu's penchant for bulldozing villages

BY all accounts, Nicolae Ceausescu is a tyrant. The Romanian President is bulldozing villages and resettling people in ``agro-industrial centers.'' He is destroying the nation's economy and cultures. He is terrorizing his people, turning citizen against citizen.

Western governments, and even some East-bloc allies, are becoming more vocal about these abuses. But ultimately, other nations have little individual leverage, say United States officials.

Last year, Romania renounced the tariff privileges it had under its ``most favored nation'' status with the US, citing foreign efforts to dictate internal human rights policies. Since then, abuses have escalated and the US government is turning up the heat.

President Ceausescu's latest action - harassment of six former top officials who wrote him a letter blasting him on human rights and the economy - has elicited the loudest US protest to date. Several of the letter's signers were interrogated by the police.

In a statement last week, the US warned of ``direct consequences'' for US-Romanian relations if the critics suffer any more. Washington also put off plans to schedule working-level talks on matters of mutual concern (family reunification, trade, information exchange). US officials are reluctant to outline possible further actions, but, one official says, if any of the letter-signers are jailed, Washington will retaliate. ``This is a litmus test,'' the official says. ``Our goal is to get relations turned around.''

On Capitol Hill, there's talk of economic sanctions. One proposal would ban US imports of Romanian meat. Economically, this would have little impact. In 1988, Romanian food exports to the US, mainly preserved pork and wine, were worth only $13 million. But, says a congressional source, it would be an important symbol: Meat is virtually unavailable in Romania; people are fortunate to have milk and bread.

For now, Congress is holding off on sanctions. One concern is that such a move could cause a backlash inside the country. Another concern is that a bill favoring limited sanctions could quickly open the way for bigger and bigger sanctions, making it harder for the US to maintain any sort of constructive dialogue with Romania. And in general, sanctions have little real impact unless countries work together.

The European Community is getting more vocal, too. It has suspended economic talks with Romania. France temporarily recalled its ambassador. Belgium, Britain, and the Netherlands have also spoken out.

In the East bloc, Hungary co-sponsored a move for a UN human rights investigation in Romania. The Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and East Germany declined to vote against the move.

``If there was ever a combination of East-West pressure on Romania, it could have an impact,'' says Janet Fleischman, program coordinator for Helsinki Watch, a human rights organization. ``There are signs that at different points, when faced with great international pressure [Ceausescu] has backpedaled.''

Ceausescu may appear to be a lost cause, but, says the US official, ``we can't afford to write him off. There are 25 million lives at stake.'' Furthermore, the US is anticipating the post-Ceausescu era. ``We don't know if the people we're dialoguing with will be in charge someday, but we have to keep the dialogue going.''

Nelu Podan, a Romanian human rights activist who recently emigrated to the US, speaks of the importance of continued pressure on Ceausescu.

``He understands only one language - his own - and that is hard language,'' Mr. Podan says. ``It's very important,'' Podan continues, ``for Western people to support Romanian people in prayer and on radio. It will help others to raise their voices.''

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