Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Romanian President Nicolae Ceaucescu agreed today to establish a system of consultations on human rights issues.
Shultz, apparently trying to avoid the impression that the Reagan administration is using Romania's lucrative trade with the United States to pressure Ceaucescu, said afterward that "we have set up some procedures that we hope will resolve the problem," but he refused to elaborate.
However, a senior U.S. official later told reporters that the two had agreed to regular discussions on two levels "about the whole broad range of rights issues." The official said the discussions would be conducted in Washington between State Department counselor Edward J. Derwinski and the Romanian Embassy, and in Bucharest between Foreign Minister Ilie Vaduva and U.S. Ambassador Roger Kirk.
"I think we will see, instead of infrequent discussions, a sustained effort in Washington and Bucharest to meet these problems head on and see if they can be resolved," the official said.
Romania has depended on exports to the United States to earn billions of dollars to pay its huge western foreign debt, Ceaucescu's chief economic priority. In return, U.S. administrations have granted Romania most-favored-nation trade status for the last 10 years to encourage Romania to continue foreign policies relatively independent of the Soviet Union.
During the past year, however, the Reagan administration has come under growing pressure from critics of Romania's repressive internal rule. In particular, many members of Congress, angered by persecution of some religious groups such as evangelistic movements of Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists, have mounted a drive to revoke Romania's most-favored-nation benefits.
Despite administration efforts to play down the issue publicly, human rights was the principal topic during Shultz's three hours of talks with Ceaucescu. Their private meeting consumed half of the six hours that Shultz spent here following his arrival from Berlin and his departure for Budapest, Hungary.
The senior official said that at Shultz's insistence, "bilateral issues," a code term for the human rights dispute, were the first item on the agenda. The official said Shultz spoke "frankly and directly" and "made the point that there is a direct relationship between our bilateral relations and views on Capitol Hill."
"It was made clear to President Ceaucescu that he does have problems on the Hill," the official said.
Shultz also gave Ceaucescu a letter from President Reagan and presented Vaduva with a letter from Rep. Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), minority leader of the House, who has met the foreign minister at international parliamentary meetings.
Shultz refused to divulge the contents of "private messages." But the senior official said Michel's letter had been written at Shultz's request after the secretary learned he knew Vaduva. The official added that the Michel letter was intended to reinforce to the Romanians the mood in Congress about human rights conditions here.
In brief public remarks before the meeting, Ceaucescu, reflecting his government's annoyance at U.S. criticism, said, "The relationship between the United States and Romania is good, but it could be better."
When Shultz remarked that he hoped the bright sunshine here would be "a good sign" for the relationship, Ceaucescu replied by referring to a spate of articles about Romania's rights record in the U.S. news media.
"Maybe some of it will shine on the press. I hope the press won't publish unrealistic things about Romania," he said.
At a news conference after the meeting, Shultz referred to Ceaucescu's remark and added: "I think the president Ceaucescu said it well. Relations could be better. My purpose in coming here was to pay my respects for the areas where we agree, but it was also to discuss some of the reasons why it isn't better and to see if some things can be done about it."
The senior official said that in the private talks, "there was no argument or rancor. Ceaucescu understood that he was being given a factual assessment of the mood and situation in the United States."
The official added that Ceaucescu had stated his position "in a positive way," noting that Romania historically has been a Christian country and that the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant groups are officially recognized and sanctioned by the government. He also pointed to Romania's record in allowing emigration of its Jewish citizens