BUCHAREST, AUG. 14 -- The government of Romanian leader Nicolai Ceaucescu is coming under scrutiny -- domestically as well as internationally -- as it copes with severe food shortages resulting from an economic crisis and lingering questions about its human rights record.
After six years of economic austerity, Romanians accustomed to shortages of meat and vegetables are finding market shelves bare even of essentials.
Romania's clouded economic and human rights situations have intensified a debate between Bucharest and Washington about whether and how U.S. economic ties should influence the course Ceaucescu has chosen for his country.
A primary human rights concern, diplomats say, are charges that some Romanian dissidents have disappeared, and permission for Romanians to emigrate remains at levels unsatisfactory to the West. Another question under review involves a longstanding dispute between Bucharest and neighboring Hungary over the treatment of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania.
Domestically, there are reports of bread rationing in the provinces, and random checks of markets here during the past week showed shelves empty of all produce except peppers and dried eggplant.
Because of a cutback in imports from the West, factories are running short of spare parts and tools, according to Bucharest-based western economists. They said the result is unfilled orders and production of shoddier products.
The Reagan administration renewed Romania's most-favored-nation trade status this summer, permitting Romanian goods to enter the American market at tariff rates as low as for any other country trading with the United States. This has meant sales of up to $400 million for Romania annually.
In defending the renewal, Assistant Secretary of State Rozanne L. Ridgway told a congressional committee last month that the favored-nation status gives the Reagan administration leverage in bringing about improvements in Romania's human rights situation, particularly in easing Romanian emigration.
But some in Congress want to suspend Romania's trade status until substantial progress is seen on various human rights issues, such as conditions for Hungarian and other national minorities and emigration.
The U.S. attempts to influence the situation amount to a "very unpleasant interference in the domestic affairs" of Romania, Deputy Foreign Minister Mihail Mihu said in an interview. "What would happen if we took responsibility for the situation of minorities in the U.S., where we see many reports from Soviet television that there are problems?"
Western and Romanian officials agree that dropping Romania's favored trade status would have a severe effect on the country's economy. Not only trade but "relations would also suffer," said an aide to Mihu.
The debate is expected to come to a head this fall when Congress considers an omnibus trade bill with attached resolutions on Romania. So far, however, the discussion has had no apparent effect on Communist Party leader Ceaucescu's economic and political policies.
Mihu conceded that his country's six-year-old austerity program has "not been a flower garden" but stressed that it has achieved its overall objective of reducing a $10 billion debt to the West. Since 1981, the debt has dropped to $5.5 billion, Mihu said, with repayment of $1 billion so far this year.
Various western sources say, though, that the policies achieving the repayment have caused the obvious economic deterioration here.
In the first five years of this decade, imports of British goods dropped 55 percent and U.S., French and West German imports fell 40 percent.
Even aspirin, traditionally imported from the West, now sells at a black-market rate equivalent to $1 per tablet.
At the same time, Romania is steadily increasing its trade with the Soviet Union, swapping Romanian food for Soviet oil without exchanging hard currency. Last year, Romania's exports of food to the Soviet Union jumped 23 percent over 1985. A quarter of all the meat Moscow bought from abroad in 1986 came from Romania, according to official Soviet sources.
As a result, Romania's population of 22 million is short of meat, fruit and vegetables, western sources said. On the streets of Bucharest, men and women foraging in garbage cans and begging are now a familiar sight, they said.
While food lines long have been common here, currently "there are none," a Romanian said, "because there is nothing to stand in line for."
Six years of food shortages are beginning to take their toll on the health of the population, diplomats said. Reports are circulating of cholera and hepatitis outbreaks and -- another evidence of malnutrition -- complaints of brittle bones.
On the emigration front, an estimated 15,000 Romanians were allowed to leave last year for the United States, West Germany and Israel, the three most popular western destinations. The number represented a drop from the year before.
Despite a U.S.-Romanian agreement linking Romania's trade status with an increase in permissions to emigrate, less than 2,000 Romanians were allowed to leave for the United States in 1986, down from a peak of more than 4,000 in the early 1980s.
The dispute with Hungary over the treatment of an estimated 2 million ethnic Hungarians intensified this spring. Hungarians in Bucharest and elsewhere in Romania charged Ceaucescu's government with discrimination and forced assimilation.
Romanian officials dismissed the charges, saying that Hungarians and other ethnic minorities are allowed special language training and cultural facilities.
The officials, on the issue of emigration, said Romania objects to the use of rates of immigration as a measure for the human-rights standing of any country.