Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who leaves Monday night on a 10-day European trip that will include stops in Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, said he believes his visits will show that the United States acknowledges and supports the individual "identities and aspirations" of the countries of Eastern Europe.
"The United States and its allies have always insisted that the division of Europe is artificial, unnatural and illegitimate," Shultz said at a news conference as he prepared for his trip.
Romania and Hungary are members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact, while Yugoslavia is an independent communist state that pursues a policy of nonalignment.
"The peoples of the eastern half of the continent did not choose to be cut off from the peoples of the West," Shultz added. "If there are to be more constructive East-West relations, they too must share in its benefits . . .
"I think it is helpful to us, and I hope to them, to hear from the United States what our view is of East-West relations and on arms-control matters and matters across the board . . . . This is an opportunity for me to do it. I've wanted to do it for some time, and this is the first real chance that I've had."
State Department officials, elaborating on Shultz's remarks, cautioned that they should not be interpreted as an attempt, in the wake of last month's Geneva summit, to sow dissension in the Soviet bloc or to encourage Eastern European governments to assert independence from Moscow.
Instead, the officials said, Shultz's trip is intended as a low-key reaffirmation of the Reagan administration's contention that it does not recognize the Soviet Union's hegemony over Eastern Europe as permanent. It also wants to avoid dealing with the area as a monolithic entity and instead base its relations with each Eastern European nation on that country's domestic and foreign policies, the officials said.
Administration officials tend to divide the Eastern European countries into two rough categories. Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia, which are sometimes referred to as the "good communists," either pursue relatively flexible domestic economic and social policies or have shown some independence in foreign affairs.
By contrast, the "bad communists" -- Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Bulgaria -- have governments that maintain repressive internal control and follow Moscow's lead with unswerving loyalty.
Two years ago, Vice President Bush, speaking in Vienna, created a stir by making these distinctions and singling out Hungary and Romania for praise. The incident caused the Hungarian government to distance itself from Bush's remarks by running an editorial in its official Communist Party newspaper referring to "strange statements by important members of the U.S. administration."
The most potentially sensitive of Shultz's stops will be Romania, where President Nicolae Ceausescu's government follows a relatively independent foreign policy. Internally, though, the Ceausescu regime's repressive rule has caused rising anger in Congress, particularly because of persecution of Christian groups and restrictions on emigration of Jews and others.
Some congressional critics, especially conservatives allied with U.S. Christian organizations, have accused the State Department of being "an apologist" for Romania. Shultz is expected to warn Romanian officials that unless the religious persecution and other human-rights abuses are curbed, the administration probably will be unable to prevent Congress from revoking the most-favored-nation status that allows Romania trade benefits.
These benefits, which have given Romania a healthy surplus in its trade with the United States, are especially important to the Ceausescu government, which is grappling with an economic crisis that has saddled the Balkan country with the worst privation since immediately after World War II.
As a result, the United States and other western governments have been concerned that the 67-year-old strongman's grip on power might be loosening and that Romania could undergo governmental changes that could alter its policy of keeping open lines to the West.
By contrast, the regime headed by Janos Kadar in Hungary, following a combination of innovative economic policies and relatively moderate internal controls, has emerged as an increasingly important channel for East-West trade and diplomatic exchanges. At his news conference, Shultz singled Hungary out, saying:
"As a person interested in economic development, I'd like to see it at first hand. I've had a number of visits from prominent Hungarians . . . . But it's one thing to talk to somebody here; it's another thing to go to that person's country and get a feeling for what they're doing. So I think it'll be an interesting experience."