A POLITICAL earthquake is rumbling through Eastern Europe. Stalinist leaders are toppled like dominoes, each succumbing to domestic unrest while Moscow looks on. So far only Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's 71 year-old dictator, has escaped this fate. Why are there no mass protests in Bucharest calling for his downfall? The answer is simple: Mr. Ceausescu has been preparing for this kind of political disaster for over 20 years.
The Romanian dictator realized long ago that a political chain of command existed in the Soviet bloc, and that he would have to establish autonomy from Moscow. This meant defending himself from two dangers: first that the Soviets would try to intervene militarily, and second that the Soviets would disavow socialism and undercut him politically.
The USSR's military channels of influence are restricted. No Red Army troops have been stationed in the Balkan country since 1958. Ceausescu built up his nation's defenses to such an extent that Romania can offer strong resistance to an invasion from any quarter.
Ceausescu also curtailed Soviet influence by distancing himself from Moscow's schemes to integrate Romania's economy into the Eastern bloc. While the USSR is Romania's biggest trading partner, Moscow's ability to force Ceausescu's regime into economic reforms is very limited.
The Kremlin also doesn't have any friends within the Romanian Communist Party. Ceausescu rooted out any Moscow sympathizers by making Romanian nationalism the litmus test of party loyalty.
Finally, Ceausescu severed the ideological umbilical cord connecting Bucharest and Moscow. Ceausescu realized that every Stalinist regime requires its own Stalinist anchor.
It was too risky to rely on Stalin's legacy alone. The whole edifice could collapse if, at some time, a Soviet leader repudiated Stalinism as Khrushchev had tried to do in 1956.
For now, Ceausescu is prepared to ride out the political shock waves resulting from Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. This is feasible because Ceausescu's despotism is home-grown. His rigid central planning keeps the economy in a straitjacket, while he stocks the leading political posts with relatives and cronies. His extensive police empire keeps the people cowed, and his personality cult rivals Stalin's.
Symbolically, Ceausescu has skillfully exploited Romania's deep nationalism and its historical weakness for paternalistic dictators.
While Mr. Gorbachev's leverage with Bucharest remains limited, the West's ability to encourage change is nonexistent. Ceausescu labored for years to win most-favored-nation trading status from the US in 1975. Yet just last year he was willing to forsake it when the State Department dared to link its renewal to improvement in Romania's abysmal human rights record.
Perhaps the best hope for change in Romania is Ceausescu's advanced age and poor health. While Ceausescu has lined up his wife and son as his political heirs, neither will sit comfortably, or for long, in a throne designed specifically for one man.
In the short run, Ceausescu's grip on power appears firm. Not only was he unanimously reelected at the recent Communist Party congress, but the tyrant vehemently denied the possibility of reforms. Sending a signal to reformist Hungary, Ceausescu even sealed the border with his Warsaw Pact neighbor.
For all his despotism, Nicolae Ceausescu is a shrewd and farsighted politician. Events in Eastern Europe may have caught the West unprepared, but Romania's present stability indicates that Ceausescu has been ready for this upheaval for quite some time.