Eastern Europe's Odd Man Out

WHEN Olympic gymnastics star Nadia Comaneci fled her native Romania recently, she must have reasoned there was no early prospect that Romania's widespread police surveillance or travel bans will be lifted. Nor much prospect of Romania's embracing the same relaxation and reform that has swept the other communist lands of Eastern Europe. That seems a reasonable assessment.

Romania is an exception to the current communist trend. Its regime is hard-line. Its president, Nicolae Ceausescu, wants no part of perestroika or glasnost. Besides presenting himself as a leading exponent of Marxist orthodoxy in the communist world, he has fostered an extraordinary personality cult around himself, bordering upon the religious. At the same time, he is persecuting traditional religious groups, and has given the state control over senior religious appointments, religious publications, and church budgets.

Romania's economy is in poor shape. Per capita income is among the lowest in Eastern Europe. Agricultural productivity is low, in large part because workers are forced into collective farms, with no opportunity for private initiative. Now many of the country's 13,000 villages are to be razed under a rural ``systemization'' plan, and replaced by concrete apartment blocks in which the populace can be more closely controlled.

The regime uses police-state measures to keep its people quiescent and to keep them inside the country. Even so, as in the case of Miss Comaneci, there is a steady flight of Romanians across the guarded borders, seeking a better life elsewhere.

Can Mr. Ceausescu keep the lid on indefinitely? Given the extraordinary pace of change in the rest of Eastern Europe, few could guarantee that. But what does seem clear is that the Ceausescu regime will be readier than its fellow communist regimes to use force in a bid to maintain power.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the repressive character of the regime than its attitude toward the churches.

An extensive new report on religion in Romania concludes that ``few current leaders show such contempt for religion'' as Ceausescu. The report was undertaken by the Puebla Institute, a lay Roman Catholic human rights group based in Washington.

The organization finds that several religious groups are banned outright in Romania, while the others are strictly regulated by the government. The Communist Party subjects all appointments of bishops and other high clergy to state approval. All pastoral letters and other church publications are subjected to censorship.

The Puebla Institute report says the regime has outlawed all teaching of religion in schools. The secret police, said to involve some 25 per cent of the population in its network of informers, infiltrates every level of church life.

The report notes that during the first decades of their rule, the Romanian communists imprisoned more than 2 million people and killed 200,000, including an estimated 17 Orthodox bishops and 63 priests. The death toll among Catholic clergy was even higher. More than 1,400 out of 3,331 priests were killed in less than five years.

The Puebla report also finds that in Romania there has been a ``deification of Ceausescu himself'' that is ``more comparable to the emperor-worship of decadent Rome than to dialectical materialism.'' Ceausescu's personality cult ``far surpasses that of Stalin and other Soviet-bloc leaders,'' it says. ``To Christians its most offensive feature is the use of imagery appropriate not even to the greatest of saints, but only to God.''

According to the Institute the state-controlled media has called the dictator part of a ``Romanian Trinity.'' He is also ``the chosen one,'' the ``sacred word,'' and ``our creed told in Romanian.'' His dead mother deserves ``eternal hymns of praise'' for giving birth to ``a light, an ideal, a myth'' whose ``pure icon will never vanish.''

This self-depiction is hardly an image of a man who will easily surrender power.

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