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Romania's Stumble

NEWLY elected Romanian president Ion Iliescu's decision to disperse protesters and restore order in Bucharest by bringing in head-busting miners was a major mistake. Another way to handle demonstrators in University Square could have been found, and Mr. Iliescu's advisers told him so. Six dead and 500 injured is not an auspicious start for Romania's new ``democracy.'' The official rationale that students, intellectuals, gypsies, and urbanites represented a ``fascist'' uprising is the kind of phony propaganda more typical of old dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, one would hope, than of a man who just received 80 percent of the popular vote.

Still, the fact that neither the army or the police would help Iliescu clear the square last week can't be ignored. It raises some obvious questions about authority in Bucharest. Who wields power?

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Iliescu's decision to bring in miners seems to have been a panicked one. They took matters far beyond their mandate. Iliescu now needs to backtrack and restore his image at home and abroad. But does he see this? Opposition leaders are still being chased and arrested, with the blessing of the Romanian parliament. Opposition newspapers are stifled. The echo of Iliescu's praise for the miners is still reverberating.

Democracy is as democracy does. Iliescu needs to reassure his people and his neighbors in Europe and the world by taking democratic actions in coming weeks. Some of the miners, for example, ought to be prosecuted for excessive force. The arrested students and intellectuals ought to be released, including badly beaten student leader Marian Munteanu.

Beyond that, it's high time, if not past time, that the many-tentacled Securitate, Mr. Ceausescu's secret police force, be investigated and purged. Why the hold-up? A good faith clearing of the decks would send a clear signal of democratic intent to Romanians.

Efforts for dialogue between the ruling National Salvation Front and opposition groups need to be stepped up. Iliescu ought to consider giving a national speech or statement that begins a reconciliation process.

Romania does not have much democratic tradition. It has had Ceausescu. Unlike Bulgaria, it has no history of Party reform. Politically it is miles from the kind of mature dissent that informed the velvet revolution in Prague.

For now, the fledgling regime of Iliescu deserves a cautious benefit of the doubt. It's unrealistic to expect the country would change overnight. Stability in the Balkans is at issue. But a far closer watch is now warranted before aid and trade can be forthcoming.

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