Both the Soviet and the U. S. governments have recently indicated a growing exasperation with the megalomaniacal policies of Romania's president, Nicolae Ceausescu. If the two superpowers were both to turn their criticisms into concrete actions, they might defeat Ceausescu at his game of playing off the United States and the Soviet Union against each other and, in the process, help lessen the misery of the Romanian people. Congress has an opportunity right now as it begins its annual review of Romania's most favored nation trade status.
For some years now Romania has taken independent foreign policy positions that depart from those of the Warsaw Pact, while maintaining the most closed and repressive society in Eastern Europe. Its maverick foreign policy has lured the United States into an unsavory courtship of Romania, one that has continued despite egregious human rights offenses. On the other hand, Romania's ability to keep its population under firm control had won support in Brezhnev's U.S.S.R. despite its refusal to go along with such Soviet policies as the nonrecognition of Israel, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the participation of Warsaw Pact countries in joint military maneuvers.
Mikhail Gorbachev made a break with previous Soviet attitudes during his recent visit to Romania. Demonstrating glasnost in action, he touched on many of Romania's most delicate problems -- economic hardships, nepotism, the repression of minority rights -- and refused to accept the Potemkin village of domestic tranquillity that President Ceausescu had erected in his honor. ''Even if you tell me that everything is all right in the country . . . I wouldn't believe you. There are problems,'' Gorbachev told a group of Romanians shortly after his arrival.
Gorbachev's criticisms of Romania came just a few weeks after the U.S. House of Representatives had approved an amendment to the trade bill that would suspend Romania's MFN trade benefits for a six-month period pending an improvement in its deplorable human rights record. The Senate has yet to take action. President Reagan, voicing concern about human rights violations, nevertheless went ahead and approved the extension of MFN to Romania for another year. The State Department apparently persists in the fantasy that Romania can be weaned away from its communist allies.
Three policies, all Ceausescu-created, have resulted in making Romania one of the poorest and most oppressed countries in Europe: the creation of a highly sophisticated police state that exercises total control over a terrorized population; the decision to use most of Romania's resources to pay off its huge international debt, thereby impoverishing the Romanian people; and the escalation of a Ceausescu "cult of personality" unrivaled since the days of Joseph Stalin.
There is no trust in Romania, where it is generally assumed that as much as one third of the population is working directly or indirectly for the secret police. Everyone is aware of an unpublished Decree, No. 408, which requires Romanian citizens to report to the police within 24 hours any conversation with a foreigner. Romanians cannot meet in groups, circulate writings, or even discuss with others their thoughts, suspicions and hopes. There can be no underground press in a country where the use of duplicating machines is tightly restricted and citizens are obliged each year to register with the police the type face of their typewriters. Ethnic minorities in Romania, especially the 2 1/2 million Hungarians in Transylvania, suffer from cultural as well as political repression.
In addition, Romanian citizens must tolerate unbelievable economic hardships. Severe shortages have led to worthless currency that is giving way to a system of barter. Drastic cutbacks on heat and electric power have caused suffering and many deaths. Romania, once the "breadbasket" of Europe, is paying the price for Ceausescu's unsuccessful efforts at breakneck industrialization. Among Ceausescu's other extreme policies is his determination to double the birthrate; to this end he has ordered compulsory monthly gynecological examinations for women of childbearing age in order to prevent unauthorized abortions. At the same time, elderly people who have "outlived their usefulness" are being moved out of the cities and denied medical and social services. While the people suffer, however, the president is razing large portions of historic Bucharest to build a $1.2 billion civic center that will be another of his personal monuments.
Ceausescu, who is intent on perpetuating his family's reign, indulges himself in all the luxuries and privileges of royalty. "Glory to the great Ceausescu" read signs along country roads outside of Bucharest. A large wing of the Museum of National History in Bucharest is devoted exclusively to a Ceausescu-inspired iconography -- portraits and tapestries glorifying the president and his wife -- while another floor displays photographs of Ceausescu with every world leader he has ever met.
It would be a great mistake if the United States government were to seize upon hints of a Gorbachev-Ceausescu rift to further its own "friendship" with Romania. Instead, we should outmatch the Soviet leader's reproaches to Romania by suspending Romania's MFN status until it improves its human rights practices. Ceausescu's policies have proved offensive even to his Soviet allies. He should certainly be no friend of ours.
The writer is executive director of Helsinki Watch, a nongovernmental organization that monitors compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.