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The Curtain Rises: Eastern Europe, 1989 : ROMANIA : 'The Helmsman Who Guides' Stays His Course : Nicolae Ceausescu has nothing but scorn for his newly reformist East Bloc neighbors.

December 17, 1989|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUCHAREST, Romania — The political isolation of Romania is nearly complete.

The Communist government of Nicolae Ceausescu--the man whom sycophantic poets call the "Genius of the Carpathians" and the "Helmsman Who Guides"--is busy stockpiling foreign reserves. Romanian diplomats have been dispatched to China and other lands looking for allies outside Europe.

In the turbulent East Bloc, only Romania remains stable and silent. On the frozen streets of Bucharest, there is not a hint of rebellion, not a whisper of challenge to the 24-year rule of Ceausescu.

In case someone has thoughts of rebellion, Ceausescu made a point at the Communist Party congress in November that "internal order-keeping bodies"--already among the world's most pervasive--would be "improved."

With these steps, Romanian officials said, they are prepared to ride out this wave of change in the Communist Bloc.

History will prove Romania right and nearly everyone else wrong, said the officials, using almost precisely the same language in interview after interview. Not even the sensational defection of Romania's most famous international athlete, gymnast Nadia Comaneci, to the United States last month created a stir here.

A lively political movement, calling for greater autonomy and democratic reforms, is under way across the border in Soviet Moldavia, where residents speak Romanian and have a common cultural heritage with this country. But Romania itself remains untouched.

"You Romanians are locked in a death-like sleep," Moldavian poet Ion Druza charged during a recent Radio Free Europe broadcast from the Soviet Union. "Who turned off the light of national consciousness? Why does no one have the courage to be a victim--to oppose?"

It is a question that puzzles many foreigners who visit this ruggedly beautiful country of 23 million people. Two years ago, there were demonstrations by several thousand workers in Brazov, the industrial center 100 miles north of Bucharest in the Transylvanian Alps. But these were appeals for more heat and food, items that have been severely rationed under the recent Ceausescu economic policy aimed at retiring foreign debt and building reserves of hard currency.

In March, six elderly former senior Romanian Communist Party officials wrote an open letter challenging the continuation of Ceausescu's rule. The six, including former Romanian Ambassador to the United States Silviu Brucan, accused Ceausescu of "asking workers to freeze in their bedrooms" through his heat rationing scheme. All six were placed under house arrest by Ceausescu's pervasive state security department.

Since then, there has been not a peep from anyone remotely resembling an opposition leader in this country. The Communist Party's 14th congress in November went off like clockwork. The 3,000 delegates repeatedly rose in unison to applaud Ceausescu, general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party since 1965, during his five-hour opening speech.

Ceausescu, 71, used the occasion to take some swipes at his reformist neighbors:

"What can we say about those who are declaring now that they do not want socialism any more, that they would like to take the path to capitalism, though they used to hold high offices in this or that country? Have they ever worked for socialism? We wonder."

At the end of the party congress, Ceausescu's son Nicu, one of several dozen family members serving in the Byzantine party system, nominated his father for reelection as general secretary, terming him "the brilliant genius of the nation." After thunderous applause, the reelection vote was unanimous.

To the party faithful, the dissent-free party congress proved that the Romanian people are content with their fate here, even if it means going without basic foods and shivering in the mostly unheated apartment complexes of Bucharest.

"What they are doing now in these other countries," said Aristide Diaconesco, a senior official in the Communist Party central planning office, "we did a long, long time ago."

But diplomats, foreign businessmen and foreign journalists here give different reasons for the Romanian silence in the midst of radical changes in the East Bloc. They say Romania is a country muted by fear and repression, and by the daily struggle merely to survive. To live here, they say, is to experience of the horrors of George Orwell's "1984"--to be people under constant control and surveillance by an omniscient state security apparatus.

Under a government "agricultural modernization program," hundreds of thousands of Romanians have been forcibly moved to new homes. A senior government architect and planner, Simona Stanciulescu, said in a recent interview that the program involves about 4,371 of Romania's nearly 12,000 villages identified as not being economically viable.

However, many people in Romanian minority communities--mainly ethnic Hungarians and Germans--say the program is actually being used to break up ethnic communities and destroy their political potential. As a result, thousands have fled to neighboring Hungary.

Ceausescu himself purports to be perplexed by the flight of the Hungarian refugees. "Now that we have achieved happiness," he said, "I cannot understand why anyone would want to leave this country."

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