When a group of Romanians issued a public appeal last week for greater respect of human rights in their country it seemed at first glance that the spirit of dissent so noticeable elsewhere in Eastern Europe was being expressed there, too. But that impression is misleading.
Of the original signers - there were perhaps 13, according to knowledgeable Western diplomats in Bucharest - all but two or three have been issued passports to leave the country or already have done so, which is what they wanted in the first place and why they signed the letter.
The only prominent figure among the protestors and the organizer of the appeal was a gifted writer named Paul Goma, whose books have been published in France and West Germany. On Tuesday, he met for 90 minutes with Romanian Deputy Prime Minister Cornel Burtica, who is also a top Communist Party official, and was told that some of his previously banned works might now be published. He was also given to believe that he need not fear arrest or forced exile.
For all Goma's reputed talent, his name on a letter along with those of a few people who have been trying to get out of Romania for years (several are ethnic Germans) hardly qualifies as a major dissident movement. The situation in Romania cannot reasonably be compared to the events recently in Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany or the Soviet Union.
The conventional wisdom about Romania in the West is that its relatively independent line in foreign policy is matched by a thoroughly repressive internal stance that makes its actions in the international arena seem less threatening to the Kremlin. There is some truth and much over-simplification in that observation.
If Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu were the pure Stalinist that he is often portrayed as being, he long since could have done away with Goma. The writer has been in trouble on and off since 1956. He spent a couple of years in jail, published a novel called "Ostinato" abroad but went on working as an editor of a literary weekly until 1972 when he received permission to live in the West for a year with the understanding that he would not return.
"I came back because they wanted me to stay abroad," Goma told an American visitor last summer. Barred from further work, he was not otherwise punished despite his contacts with foreigners. "They are silencing me efficiently and non-violently," he complained to the interviewer.
The point is not to suggest that the Romanian regime is liberal - which it is not - but that it deals with recalcitrant intellectuals and other discontended people in a peculiarly Romanian way, marked by flexibility and pragmatism as much as repression.
Several years ago, for example, a leading Romanian theatrical director staged a production that was easily recognizable as criticism of the Soviets. After a few performances, the play was closed and the director severely reprimanded. He found it difficult thereafter to get work in Romania but he was free, indeed encouraged, to travel and work in Western Europe and the United States.
The same sort of approach exists on emigration questions. Travel abroad for ordinary Romanians as well as permanent exit visas are tightly controlled. The regime was nonetheless willing to accept conditions on trade benefits from the United States that contained provisions on Jewish emigration - the same ones that the Kremlin angrily denounced as interference in its internal affairs.
Ceausescu's warning to Romanians not to go too far remains in force, which is probably the message he wished to convey.
In assessing the future prospects of dissent in Romania, it is worth noting some points that distinguish the country from Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany: Romania has no Soviet troops on its soil; it is neither as Western in history nor geographical setting as those states, and its people, who were among the poorest in Europe before World War II, are better off materially than ever before.
All of those distinctions, Western specialists in Bucharest say, are important ones.