Romania Enters the Outside World : Bucharest: Old nationalism and old religion help shape a new society. Romanians blend conscience and consumerism for global kinship.

Petru Popescu, a Bucharest native who lives in Los Angeles, wrote "The Last Wave," a film, and is the author of "Amazon Beaming," to be published by Viking; he is working on a book about Romania

The changes in Eastern Europe have been declared a motive power for the world, strong enough to pull us all from one century to the next. Within that pull, Romania plays a privileged part, providing the bang of a denouement, pointing the future direction for all citadels of the old order: freedom soon, or the bad guys will hang. The Romanian warning is being nervously decoded in such places as Beijing, Vietnam, Indonesia, several Arab countries, Africa, Cuba--wherever tyranny, homemade or imposed, lives.

As we watch the eruptions, we must focus on Eastern Europe's most numerous revolutionaries, the young. In the final analysis, they, not the intellectuals and party reformers, prevailed. The Romanian kids, most of them born after Nicolae Ceausescu came to power, defeated the regime with no information about the Free World other than from the Voice of America or smuggled emigre publications like the Romanian-language Universul, written in Los Angeles. So the kids did it--but with what in their hearts?

The heritage they work from includes very old ingredients. Nationalism is one. The other is religion. How to appreciate such old values when they are put in a glorious fresh light by a popular movement? We know religion's and nationalism's excesses. What do we do with them when they are part of a healthy renovation? Applaud? Be cautious? The best attitude may be to look at all the elements behind their aspirations.

From the beginning of Eastern Europe's coagulation into states, nationalism was both strong and allied with religion. The Vatican ruled spiritually and politically in countries where it claimed a majority of the faithful. Elsewhere, the Eastern Orthodox Church developed as an inner, grass-roots resistance perceived as the true "soul of the people." Russia's attitude about church and nationalism in Eastern Europe was uneven and contradictory, but always identified both forces as major concerns.

When Turks and Austrians occupied most of Eastern Europe, Russia campaigned for pan-Slavism among those Slavic neighbors occupied by Austria-Hungary, and pan-Christianity among those ruled by the Turks. After 1917, Moscow tried to seduce all neighbors into a Marxist model--international--that would benefit the Soviets.

During four decades of iron-curtain isolation, the Soviet satellites were steadily denationalized. So were Russia's inner minorities, the peoples now so vocal about reacquiring independence and ethnic wholeness across old boundaries--Romanians uniting with Moldavians, Azerbaijanis with their brothers across the Iranian border. Despite Soviet inconsistency in the signals sent to neighbors, nationalism itself survived. So did religion.

Now, for reasons of political influence and social relevance, the Vatican is active in Eastern Europe. Since the Soviets' social messianism has lost credibility, Moscow, too, looks to the same region for its own survival and for some risk-free experimentation. The local patchwork of nationalities is so confused that throwing the borders open might be the easiest way to assuage flare-ups.

In a united Europe or in an Eastern Europe with borders downgraded to mere checkpoints, that experiment could finally be tried.

The youngest citizens in those countries are concerned with other things. Despite the reverence they have for national history, and for churches that provided shelters and tribunes, they want to live in the present.

They are naturally excited to have a legal Christmas at last; under Ceausescu, to declare oneself a practicing Christian--or to define oneself as Romanian along unorthodox lines--was a punishable crime. Now young Romanians can enrich their new identities with a sense of what was and what may be.

I think the peril of super-nationalism or religious fanaticism is small. The young know that the Ceausescu cult demanded suicidal obedience, nationalism against the interest of the nation, and that Romania became like a medieval monastic order, closing ranks against danger from the outside.

For today's Romanians, that outside-- meaning the world as a common conscience--is not seen as a danger but as a liberating experience. Church life, formed historically on monkhood, missionary work and abstinence from leisure, is not what young Romanians have in mind. If the re-formed nostalgia parties propose anything like that as a political model, it will be rejected. So will nationalism in the name of retrenchment to a sacred stronghold. What the Romanian revolution blew open for the world to see was retrenchment gone mad. A young Romanian interviewed on the streets of Bucharest put it succinctly: "I want to listen to American music and see American movies."

American music. American movies. In Bucharest, those forms don't seem inane, made for profit or phony. They seem healthy--and morally right.

Without fear of demystifying a fresh set of heroes, let's say it: Consumerism is what these youngsters are pursuing. For them, it means more than a richer diet or rock music. It means traveling, knowing other nations and sympathizing with analogous problems, sharing high-tech advancement and information in all forms. How fervently nationalistic or narrowly religious can they be when their urgencies are planetary problems like environment, overpopulation or genetic engineering? Such issues only give them a more confident sense of power and purpose.

All that should inspirit the performance of a new team like Ion Iliescu's in Bucharest. Iliescu was a minister of youth during the late '60s, only to be booted out and forced into inner exile by Ceausescu after reportedly criticizing policy.

Romania is pivotal, emerging out of communism's collapse with unexpected, though painfully earned advantages.

The reward for years of malnutrition and literal darkness is that the foreign debt has been paid. Romania, not being Catholic, owes little to the Vatican, while it has nothing to thank the Soviets for beyond an announced intention to be a better neighbor in the future.

Far more critical for rebuilding Romania's dignity, for giving her a sense of importance--therefore not free to fall back into bad habits--is world attention, the attention a once-obscure country now commands in terms of moral courage and political lesson. Heads of state, academics, authors like Eugene Ionesco (few before last Christmas remembered that he was Romanian), media celebrities and simple citizens stare at Romania with curiosity and good will.

France only started to feel responsible to the world when her revolution (complete with its beheadings) was taken so seriously. In today's Europe and after such a start, Romania has the obligation not to disappoint us.

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