One of the most bizarre, cultlike and destructive regimes of the Soviet era came to a gory end on Christmas Day 1989 when Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed--shot in the back lot of a squalid barrack.

Since then, the West has done little but watch as post-communist Romania stagnated, mired in appalling poverty and systemic corruption. This inaction was possible because, unlike some of its Balkan neighbors, Romania remained basically stable--no civil war or genocide to trigger international concern.

Last week, Romania performed what amounts to a miracle in its part of the world: It survived a constitutional crisis, salvaged democracy, got an impressive new prime minister, and presented the United States and Western Europe with another chance to do some good.

This time, let's take that chance--and soon. In Bosnia and Kosovo, America and its allies waited to intervene until violence claimed so many lives that Western politicians could rely on public support for action. In the case of Romania, we must not wait. A society can hold on only so long in the grip of misery and isolation. We have the opportunity to offer money and support while there is still a democracy to protect and stability to preserve.

The new prime minister, named last weekend, is the perfect candidate to manage Western aid: Mugur Isarescu, head of the Romanian National Bank since 1990. Isarescu, 50, a former professor of economics, has single-handedly rebuilt the credibility of the central bank, kept it and himself out of partisan politics, and used its resources to create the building blocks of a market economy while supporting Romanian culture and arts.

To young, well-trained Romanians, the urbane and articulate Isarescu is a model; without his integrity and expertise at the monetary helm, the country would have defaulted long ago. He has friends abroad as well. "This guy," a senior U.S. diplomat once said to me, "knows how to play in the major leagues."

The fact that he is in office at all is a credit to Romania's political resiliency. Earlier this month, Romanian President Emil Constantinescu, confronting mounting popular anger over crime, corruption and deteriorating living standards, fired Prime Minister Radu Vasile. But someone apparently forgot to tell Constantinescu that presidents are not allowed to fire prime ministers under the Romanian constitution; Vasile refused to step down. The opposition walked out of parliament.

But the situation never descended into violence: The crisis was defused--with Vasile agreeing to return to a leadership post with the Peasant Party--when Constantinescu named the respected, politically neutral Isarescu prime minister.

Romanians recognized the contrast with the events of a decade earlier--when the Ceausescus were killed and many citizens would have been delighted to have pulled the trigger. After a quarter-century of vicious rule, the Ceausescus' legacy was a depleted country of bulldozed churches and monstrous government buildings, food lines in a land that was once productive, an impoverished populace cowed by powerful secret police. Life was so grim that one of my Romanian friends once told me it "made us not care if we lived or died."

Yet last month, a startling public opinion poll showed that a majority of Romanians believe that "life was better under Ceausescu" and two-thirds think that the country today is "headed in the wrong direction." One tangible benefit of life under the dictator had been the guarantee of a job. That's gone. Living standards are falling, unemployment is rampant and a third of the population lives in poverty. "After a decade of post-communism," an acquaintance in the Carpathian mountain city of Brasov told me, "we have only post-communism."

The outside world has extended few helping hands. The United States gives some direct assistance--$55.4 million this year--but it is far from enough. Romania has not been invited to join NATO. It has been invited to discuss potential future membership in the European Union, but has been given little assistance to make that entry a realistic possibility. Foreign investment is almost nonexistent--Western CEOs send their money to Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, almost anywhere but Romania.

This is understandable--those countries so far have been a better bet. During their less-repressive experience under communism, Poles developed an autonomous civil society and Hungarians a thriving alternative economy. Romanians never had that chance.

What that means is that Romania's climb from dictatorship and state socialism has been longer and steeper than that of any other country in Europe's eastern half. It is wrong to dwell on how Romanians have "failed" to meet NATO or EU criteria; gauged by the sheer amount of social, political and economic change accomplished, Romanians have done more, not less, than, say, Czechs.

"We died to get rid of communism, began to build a market economy despite being poor and maintained social peace in a country with many minorities," a Iasi University professor said to me, in a bitter assessment of the support that has flowed to countries with fewer problems than Romania. "We transfer power through elections and get the international community's stamp of approval. We supported NATO actions against Serbia at great cost to our own economy. Yet, getting into NATO was a beauty contest, so Prague won. Isn't there something wrong with this picture?"

America and its allies should take the ascension of Isarescu as an opportunity to make the picture brighter.

American policy makers are fond of the bromide "Democracies don't fight democracies." In other words, we presume that by building democratic institutions and market economies we'll ensure peace.

But a fundamental lesson of the bloody Balkans of the 1990s is that democracy is security-dependent. If we define the term broadly to encompass internal and external, physical and psychological, economic and political security, a different truth emerges: The secure become democrats, and the secure don't fight the secure.

Our role should be to enhance Romania's security. And it is important that we act now, when the stakes are higher than ever. The last unbloodied Yugoslav republic, Montenegro, threatens to erupt, even as ethnic violence continues in Kosovo. And Russia's increased bellicosity in Chechnya means that Romania's social peace and political tolerance should be cherished.

Here are some initiatives worth considering: A public and unequivocal endorsement of Romania's entry into NATO in the next round. Strong diplomatic signals of support via high-level visits to Bucharest--say, by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or Defense Secretary William Cohen. An invitation to Isarescu to visit Washington. And, possibly, the establishment of a "Romania 2000 Fund," jump-started by a sizable U.S. contribution of perhaps $100 million.

Helping Romania need not imply military involvement or vast sums. But it does mean refusing to wait until intolerant demagogues emerge or a paroxysm of violence engulfs the country. Then it would be too late. Then, Nicolae and Elena would surely smile from their graves.

Daniel Nelson, author of several books about Romania, is a senior consultant at Global Concepts, an international consulting firm in Alexandria.