'Education tax' was only one of many Romanian human-rights abuses
Romania probably only has itself to blame for the United States announcement that it will lose its favored trade status June 30. Its decision to slap an ''education tax'' on would-be emigrants is but the latest in a catalog of Romanian human-rights failures.
For years, as President Nicolae Ceausescu staked out his ''Romanian interests first'' stand, he was more sensitive in his relations with the Soviet Union than with the West. He was acutely aware of the ''limits of acceptability'' in Moscow of this policy, and his quasi-independence never reached the point of ultimate provocation.
That independent stance on foreign policy won Romania special Western economic support - including American ''most-favored-nation'' (MFN) tariffs on its exports.
But Mr. Ceausescu ignored the limits for the West in his conduct of domestic policy and human affairs. Ordinary Romanians suffered the poorest living standards in the East bloc and the harshest curbs in basic civil liberties.
Since the 1975 Helsinki Accords on European cooperation, Western governments have had to weigh Romania's value as a maverick in Russia's communist world against its domestic performance.
Mr. Ceausescu has hedged on the human rights stipulated at Helsinki. Like the Soviets, he claims that human rights are better respected in his country than in a Western world of soaring unemployment, inflation, and falling standards of living.
The record shows Romanians consistently have had the fewest privileges within the bloc in terms of freedom to travel or emigrate, in normally accepted rights in labor and other social fields, and in free speech or expression through the news media.
Recent years have seen a repression of religion despite formal constitutional guarantees. Churches outside the ''national'' Orthodox Church have been hit especially hard.
The crackdown appears to be an official reaction as more people - particularly youths - turn to Protestant groups such as the Baptists, who are seen as taking a less acquiescent and accommodating position than the Orthodox Church against the regime's ever more militant atheism.
All this has been deplored by Western governments. But until President Reagan's March 4 announcement that Romania's MFN status would end June 30, no action was taken.
In the 1950s and '60s while private Poles, Hungarians, and Czechoslovaks visited the West in increasing numbers, Romanians stayed home. If passports were granted, they were rarely for husband and wife, or a family, to travel together.
A request to emigrate was an invitation for immediate demotion or loss of one's job. If permission finally was granted, an individual had to sell virtually all his property at prices fixed by the government (and in useless local currency) before the exit permit was issued.
The only improvement since Helsinki has been a slow family-by-family concession in individual reunification cases that are pressed by governments in Western countries where a spouse or other close family member already was living.
Severe constraints have always applied to any religious activity outside that recognized by the government in officially designated church buildings.
In 1981, a White House report condemned the seizure of five Protestant pastors for distributing smuggled Romanian-language Bibles. They were freed, but arrests of four Baptist ministers followed. A propaganda campaign and harassment of such groups, which the regime labels ''antisocialist'' in their activity, continues.
By strict ideological definition, communist-bloc trade unions serve to transmit party policy and decisions to the labor force. This is particularly true in Romania.
Mr. Ceausescu blames the current difficulties mostly on the superpowers and what he called in a speech March 4 their disregard of the ''norms of international relations'' and use of ''repressive economic and other kinds of sanctions'' against countries that might displease them. It was seen as an oblique reference to Washington's decision on MFN.
In 1977, a strike by underpaid, underfed miners in western Romania was crushed and its leaders jailed or spirited away to jobs far from their family homes.
Forced exile was meted out to a handful of literary dissidents and then to the leaders of a tiny ''free'' trade union group that articulated a first public demand that workers have a voice in labor affairs.
Emigration - both of Jews and from the big German minority - has roiled Ceausescu for years. He claims everyone - even a large Hungarian minority - as ''Romanians'' in a common Romanian homeland regardless of ethnic origin. Emigration is ''betrayal'' of that homeland. But the drain of brains and technical skills also comes into it.
There are some 30,000 Jews in Romania at present, and most wish to leave. But departures that once exceeded 4,000 a year have slowed to fewer than a thousand in the 1980s.
Under longstanding agreements with West Germany, 12,000 Germans should be able to leave each year. Economic conditions and cultural pressures are such that still more want to go.
It is against this background that Ceausescu's imposition of an ''education tax'' under which would-be emigrants must pay from $4,000 to $5,000 (in hard currency) for each year of higher education has prompted US action.
The withdrawal of most-favored-nation tariffs could cut in half Romanian exports to the US, which approached $400 million last year. It will mean a heavy blow to Romania, which suspended repayment on many foreign loans due last year.
The irony is that Washington's move will be felt most by ordinary people in terms of more severe austerity.