Will Romania Erupt?

Granting most-favored-nation trading status is one step the US could take to support current reforms and forestall further upheaval

DEC. 22 will mark the first anniversary of the Romanian uprising that toppled communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Instead of a festive spirit, mounting fears of a neo-communist coup dominate political discussions among Romanians in that beleaguered land and in the United States. Romania's revolution was the only one in Eastern Europe last year with casualties. More than 1,000 persons were slain, most of them by the dreaded Securitate, or secret police, and many more were wounded. When justice was meted out to the hated Ceausescu, it happened, ironically, on Christmas day. This year's Christmas may prove even less pacific.

The country is walking a political and economic tightrope.

First, the present ruling party, the so-called Front for National Salvation (FSN), is accused by the major opposition parties of being insufficiently democratic, perhaps even crypto-communist. The erstwhile Communist Party has vanished, and it is difficult to imagine its resurgence given the depth of popular disgust it generated.

The FSN became, by default, the home of the majority of communist refugees. But a case could be made that without the bureaucratic skills of at least some of the onetime communists, the government and economy would be even more inefficient.

Any former Securitate agents among them, however, are a special cause of alarm. They could quickly surface under populist banners to make a bid for power in any political or economic crisis.

Second, the Romanian economy is in a precarious position. The land may have plenteous natural resources such as petroleum, natural gas, timber, and arable soil. Romania is also the only former Soviet satellite with no foreign debt, thanks, ironically, to another of Ceausescu's megalomaniacal obsessions. But this country of 23 million persons is poor and mismanaged even by ``socialist'' standards.

Romania has a huge petroleum refining industry far in excess of its needs, a gigantic, obsolete steel industry that imports its coal from mines in Virginia across the Atlantic, and construction projects of pharaonic proportions despite an acute housing crisis.

Yet the FSN has undertaken the most sweeping measures in Eastern Europe, outside of Poland, to lead the country down the road to economic reform. The government of Prime Minister Petru Roman realizes that, in the absence of free-market incentives, the economy can only go one way - down.

So far in 1990, the gross national product has dropped at least 15 percent. Foreign exchange reserves amounting to more than $1.5 billion have been virtually exhausted in an attempt to bring in consumer goods and some relief to a population starved in every way. The local currency, the leu, has been deeply devalued twice since January. At a rate of 35 per US dollar, it is no more than half way toward a sustainable free-market rate. Both courage and desperation, it seems, motivated the government's decision on Nov. 1 to implement a price liberalization package as sweeping as any in Eastern Europe.

POPULAR demonstrations in Bucharest are again gathering steam. This time, unlike the ruthlessly suppressed student protests in June, the protesters seem to be drawn from a cross-section of Romanian society. The cause is a quintessentially populist one: three-fold price increases that, in the short-term, threaten to squeeze what's left of the meager incomes of ordinary working Romanians.

What should the US do to help forestall the hijacking of this unrest by anti-democratic forces bent on a second, perhaps much bloodier Romanian ``revolution''? Unfortunately, not much official help has been forthcoming to date, save for $44 million in humanitarian aid. The specter of coal miners transported into Bucharest in June to beat anybody who looked like an intellectual still haunts US officials.

But six months have elapsed since that outrage, and so far the government has not panicked and attempted to quash the current protests. Romanians also enjoy an exuberantly free press. The FSN's progress in forging a genuine respect for democracy and human rights appears satisfactory.

Nothing would be more constructive at this juncture than a declaration by the Bush administration that it intends to grant Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status to Romania. Although it would hardly affect the volume of Romanian exports over the next year or so, MFN status would clearly elevate our political relations with Romania's struggling would-be democratic government to a normal level. It would also create a positive incentive for broadening Romania's burgeoning democratic pluralism, since this privilege could be withdrawn at will by the US government.

Most important, granting MFN status to Romania precisely on the eve of the anniversary of last year's uprising would ratify the progress of the FSN before an increasingly restless, volatile population. It would send a clear signal to prospective leaders of a coup such as Defense Minister Gen. Victor Stanculescu - the last cabinet holdover from Ceausescu's nomenklatura - whose political intentions have been the subject of intense speculation in the country's usually well-informed rumor mill.

The message would be that any reversal or disruption by the hard-core left of Romania's slow but steady movement toward a free-market economy would have grave results. What the US freely gives it can easily take back. That would leave Romania and her precarious economy just this side of the modern world.

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