WASHINGTON — In its sharpest criticism of any Eastern European government since a wave of anti-Communist reform swept through the region, the Bush Administration on Thursday accused Romania's interim regime of imposing restrictions on freedom of assembly that go far beyond the needs of public order and safety.
At the same time, however, President Bush praised Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev for his handling of ethnic strife in Azerbaijan. He expressed understanding for Moscow's use of artillery to break a line of unarmed merchant ships blocking the port of Baku.
Reading from a prepared statement, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said the curbs on demonstrations, published Thursday by the ruling National Salvation Front in Romania, are a disturbing violation of "a fundamental human right" to protest government decisions.
"While we recognize that civil authorities may enact reasonable regulations to ensure public safety, these restrictions appear to go well beyond this need," Tutwiler said. She said the regulations raise doubts about the Romanian regime's promise to hold free and fair elections May 20.
Tutwiler also said the Administration is "following with concern" the reported arrest by Soviet authorities of about 50 dissidents in Azerbaijan, an incident that she said could undermine the dialogue needed to solve ethnic strife in the Soviet Union.
"We would not like to see the introduction of Soviet troops to quell violence become a means for suppressing peaceful political dialogue," she said. But she quickly added that "as of today, at this briefing," Moscow has not yet crossed the line between maintenance of order and oppression.
But Bush, answering questions before a gathering of newspaper publishers, avoided even the mild criticism of Moscow that was contained in the State Department's assessment.
Referring to Gorbachev, Bush said, "I think he has conducted himself in an extraordinarily difficult situation very well. . . . I don't think anyone is faulting him for the difficulties that he has encountered in Azerbaijan."
"You see blockades of your ports, and the man has to respond," the President added.
As he did in a press conference Wednesday, Bush expressed his hope that Gorbachev will survive the crises in Azerbaijan and other parts of the Soviet Union.
"As I look around, I think Mr. Gorbachev is really the best hope for what our interests are," Bush told the publishers.
In recent months, U.S. officials have been extremely careful to avoid criticism of the reformist regimes in the Soviet Union and its former satellites in Eastern Europe--even when the governments remain firmly in the hands of Communist Party members, as they do in the Soviet Union and East Germany.
Since the overthrow and execution a month ago of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the Administration has frequently praised the National Salvation Front, a self-appointed council of Ceausescu opponents, many of them former officials of the deposed Communist government.
However, Washington's attitude changed sharply when the front ruled that demonstrations can be held only on Sundays or after normal business hours and only in officially designated areas such as parks.
Tutwiler said the curbs apparently were published "in response to (Wednesday's) peaceful anti-NSF demonstration."
"The right of citizens to express their opinions peacefully, including the ability to march and demonstrate, is a fundamental human right," she said.