IF Eastern Europe is a wagon train rolling toward reform, Romania is bringing up the rear. It may even be headed in the other direction. Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu remains a Stalinist anachronism in the age of Gorbachev. The self-styled Titan of Romanian Thought today sounds faintly comic, promoting a cult of personality while reviling the political change of his neighbors.
``They're not going to ease him out,'' says a State Department official of Mr. Ceausescu.
He is not alone. The Soviet Union may be going the way of glasnost, but across the globe a scattering of Marxist nations remain hard-line. Call them orphans of perestroika.
In Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, officials warily eye their reformist neighbors, though these two nations are not as stubbornly old-fashioned as Romania.
In Cuba, Fidel Castro dispensed with the traditional Latin American abrazo when Soviet leader Gorbachev left after a visit this spring. Gorbachev ``got a handshake instead of a kiss,'' jokes one Washington analyst. At the end of a visit to Albania on Saturday, Cuban Foreign Minister Isidoro Malmierca said the two countries agreed that the defense of socialism was ``possible through applying the formulas of socialism and trying to make it stronger ... but not by applying capitalist recipes.''
In North Korea, totalitarian President Kim Il Sung, the world's longest-ruling communist leader, shows no sign of softening. ``Imagine a country run by a hundred Erich Honeckers,'' says a Pentagon official, referring to East Germany's recently deposed party leader.
The old US vision of a Soviet master pulling the strings of puppet regimes around the world was never completely realistic. Now the world has turned upside down. The leader of the Soviet bloc is concentrating on internal reforms. Some followers are hurtling toward new political systems - but some are not.
Romania has long been the contrarian of the Warsaw Pact. It refused to participate in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and remained friendly with China after the Sino-Soviet split.
Communist Party chief Ceausescu has recently reiterated that Romania will be ruled by one party, and that party will be his. ``He's saying, `I'm going to be left an island of security in a sea of chaos,''' says a State Department official who follows East Europe.
Czechoslovakian officials sound less rigid. But they remember 1968's Prague Spring and are taking no chances with too much freedom of expression. A number of well-known dissidents have been detained in recent months.
Bulgarian leaders have been similarly nervous about political activists. Bulgaria has been one of the most loyal of Soviet allies. Yet, Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's hard-line leader for 35 years, resigned suddenly last Friday. He was replaced by Petar Mladenov, the former foreign minister, who is seen as more open to reform.
For the third world, change in the Warsaw Pact is more distant thunder. But some Soviet allies clearly preferred the old USSR to the new, and longstanding ties have been strained.
During Gorbachev's spring visit to Havana, Fidel Castro said pointedly that ``if a socialist country wants to build capitalism we must respect their right.'' Gorbachev, in turn, did not forgive substantial chunks of Cuba's debt.
Cuba was an instrument of Leonid Brezhnev's foreign policy of active intervention in third-world wars. That is out of fashion in Moscow now - as the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan has discovered. The USSR can also ill afford the $4 billion to $6 billion a year it has pumped into the Cuban economy. Castro has put forward reforms, but they stress the Che Guevarist disposition for moral, not economic, incentives.
Despite the strains, and after some inevitable financial readjustment, the USSR will continue relations with a country it still sees as a fellow. Cuba ``continues to hold a special position in the Soviet psyche,'' says Ilya Prizel, Soviet studies expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
That could pose problems for the Soviets in another Latin American country - Nicaragua. Support for the Sandinista government is important to Cuba. But Gorbachev seems to have no desire to let Nicaragua undercut warming relations with the US.
Some third-world Marxist states have found themselves largely cast adrift by their one-time role model. Hard-line Ethiopia has been told the Soviets are tired of pouring weapons into its wars and that peace may be best.
The communist regime in Afghanistan is struggling for its life against the mujahideen resistance, now that Soviet troops have left. Still, on a recent visit to Moscow, Afghan leader Najibullah was greeted with pledges of support.
Of all the once and present hard-line communist states in the world, few can lay claim to being more doctrinaire than the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, much less Gorbachev. North Korea is one: The country has been headed since its 1948 inception by Kim Il Sung, a Stalin trainee.
North Korea has not been a close ally of the USSR since the mid-1960s, but the two nations have remained mostly friendly. The North Korean regime's problem is that perestroika (restructuring) has meant renewed relations between rival South Korea and many East bloc nations.
There has been no sign of political or economic change along Soviet lines in North Korea, US officials say. They worry that fear of further isolation might make Mr. Kim do something rash. ``This is a strange country,'' says one US official.
Albania is the only nation more intransigent. This small, secretive country has viewed all superpowers with near paranoid suspicion. In recent years Albania has been somewhat more open to Western Europe. But there has been no move to decentralize its economy. Perestroika has been scorned. Communist Party leader Ramiz Alia said earlier this year that reforms in the USSR and Eastern Europe were spreading ``moral degeneracy.''