Twenty years ago this week Romania’s hated dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife Elena were executed, bringing to an end a series of revolutions in 1989 in which the nations of the Eastern bloc repudiated their communist past. But unlike its neighbors, the transition to democracy in Romania was violent.
Political Contrasts with the Neighbors
“Unlike the 1989 revolutions in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, which some historians have called ‘revolutions arranged by political elites,’ the revolution in Romania was a popular uprising,” according to Daniel Nelson, the author of six books on the region. And it was sparked by a Hungarian Protestant pastor in the western Romanian city of Timisoara.
“The army began by being unsure of its role, but eventually decided it had to join the people against the Securitate, the secret police,” Nelson said. “And the army literally battled the Securitate in the center of Bucharest,” he recounts.
“The Romanian experience was the most exciting and most dangerous part of this miraculous year of 1989,” recalls German journalist Matthias Rueb of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. And it took more than 10 days until it was finally clear that the New Salvation Front was in power. “The Romanian regime was the most Stalinist – the most surreal – regime you can imagine,” Rueb said, “and if you entered Romania from Hungary, you really entered a strange world.”
“It was the North Korea of Europe,” Rueb explains, “so remote and so brutal and so devastating for the people living there.”
Unresolved Controversy over the Historical Record
Rueb says that some of the actual events of December 1989 remain shrouded in mystery. “It was a popular uprising, and at the same time it was a coup from inside the regime.” There was a show trial, followed by the “extra-judicial killing” of the President and his wife. “I think to this day it’s not clear whether the old regime and Ion Iliescu and Petre Roman and others who were in the Salvation Front after the execution of the Ceaucescus, and whether part of the old regime just staged the fighting, or it was really remnants of the Securitate that really fought for the old regime in order to bring down the Salvation Front.”
“I think it really tarnished the legacy of Romanian democracy,” Rueb says. Romanian journalist and political commentator Andrei Brizianu agrees. Today a professor at the Catholic University of America, Brezianu was the senior editor of VOA’s Romanian Service in December 1989. “Romanians had no information from their own media about the turmoil that led up to the toppling of the Ceaucescus on Christmas Eve,” he recalls.
“After that, the slogan was, ‘Today Timisoara, tomorrow Bucharest and the whole country. Astazi Timisoar, maine in toata tara.’ In Romanian, it rhymes, as in poetry,” Brezianu notes. “That connection would not have been possible,” Brezianu adds, “without VOA and the other international broadcasters.”
The Romanian Dictator
But in the West, Nelson recalls, many people did not initially regard Nicolae Ceaucescu as a brutal dictator, largely because in 1968 he had broken ranks with Moscow over the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
“However, by the 1980’s he was reviled by the population, not only because of his behavior and his personality and the cult that included his wife and his family but also because he was destroying cultural artifacts throughout the country – churches, synagogues, neighborhoods, and villages – with the crazy goal of modernizing Romania,” Nelson explains.
According to Nelson, the only close comparisons are with the North Korean dictator and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. “However, I’ve often said – when people ask me about Ceaucescu – he didn’t kill as many as Pol Pot did, but he made a lot of people want to die because their lives were so miserable,” Nelson adds.
Progress toward Democracy
Andrei Brezianu says he agrees with historians who compare the Romanian experience in 1989 with the French Revolution of 1789 and with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 – in its drama. But in a political sense, Romania continues to lag far behind its neighbors. “Democracy is not a huge success in the case of Romania,” he says.
“In 20 years, other countries in the former Soviet bloc have made huge progress, and there is no comparison to be made with Poland, Hungary, the eastern part of Germany, or even Bulgaria,” Brezianu notes. There is corruption, he says, fuelled by special interests, greed, and money. “According to polls, most Romanians are disappointed. That’s the sad truth.”
Nonetheless, today Romania is a member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and of the European Union. On Monday, Romanian President Traian Besescu was sworn in for a second term, vowing to carry out reforms. But his run-off election on 6 December was marred by accusations of fraud from his challenger’s Social Democratic Party.