Romania's Communist government, eager to preserve a lucrative trade connection with the United States, is hoping that a visit here Sunday by Secretary of State George P. Shultz will ease growing tension between the two countries over Romania's human rights record, government officials here say.
Romania has depended on exports to the United States during the past several years to earn billions of dollars to pay its western foreign debt, the key economic priority of President Nicolae Ceaucescu. U.S. administrations, in turn, have granted Romania most-favored-nation status for the last 10 years as a way of encouraging its relatively independent foreign policy.
During the past year, however, the Reagan administration has come under increasing pressure from critics of Romania's repressive internal policies. While the administration has continued to support most-favored-nation status for Romania, Congress has considered suspending it on human rights grounds.
Romanian officials say they plan to stress the "mutual benefits" of strong Romanian-U.S. economic ties during Shultz's visit, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in nearly four years. The Romanians say, however, that Ceaucescu's government will make no concessions on issues of religious freedom, treatment of ethnic minorities or other human rights issues to satisfy Washington.
"You can't use most-favored-nation status anytime you want something from Romania," said a senior Foreign Ministry official who asked not to be identified. "These criticisms are fake issues."
The first stop on an Eastern European tour by Shultz that also includes Hungary and Yugoslavia, Romania has become the most difficult test of the U.S. policy of "differentiation," meant to encourage pluralism in the Soviet Bloc by strengthening U.S. ties with those countries that show a measure of independence from Moscow.
Romania long has been the only member of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact to defy the Kremlin on key foreign policy issues. Critical of Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, Romania broke a Soviet Bloc boycott last year to send athletes to the Los Angeles Olympics.
More recently, Ceaucescu departed from the official Soviet line by saying that the U.S.-Soviet summit in Geneva had not made sufficient progress.
Such postures have been coupled with domestic policies that critics describe as the most repressive in Eastern Europe. While other Soviet Bloc nations have introduced reforms to liberalize their economies and cultural life, Romania has held to a strict Stalinist model of central control, and Ceaucescu has created a personalistic rule that admits no hint of pluralism.
U.S. critics have focused on alleged government persecution of some religious groups, particularly evangelistic movements of Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists. Clergymen from these groups have been reported imprisoned and churches have been bulldozed.
Romanian officials react angrily to such reports and suggest that no easing of internal policies is possible under Ceaucescu.
"One thing is that some religious groups complain. But another thing is to connect that to religious freedom in Romania," the official said. "If you come here you will see people in the churches praying. It's not a question of whether a Baptist is happy or unhappy."
"I can show you a thousand examples of worse violations of human rights in the United States," the official added. "You have priests imprisoned in the United States, and churches demolished."
Romanian officials point out that they have made regular and sometimes subtle efforts to maintain good relations with Washington without modifying internal policies. Diplomats here say Romania regularly fails to appear for U.N. votes condemning the United States or Israel, in contrast to the invariable support for such resolutions by other Soviet Bloc nations.
In deference to a U.S. law linking the yearly granting of most-favored-nation status to emigration policies, Romania also has allowed members of its Jewish and ethnic German population to leave the country with relative ease.
Bucharest's stake in such policies has grown significantly in the last three years as Ceaucescu has pursued a policy of paying off Romania's foreign debt to the West at an accelerated pace. After running a trade deficit with the United States betwen 1976 and 1981 amounting to about $1 billion, Romania has used its U.S. trade connection since 1982 to accumulate huge surpluses that have played a major role in its debt repayments.
Jon Chioveanu, the chief for U.S. trade in the Romanian Foreign Trade Ministry, said Romania's trade surplus with the United States surpassed $700 million last year and had reached $500 million in the first 10 months of 1985.