Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu's  government was overthrown in a December 1989 military coup, and he and his wife were executed
Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu's government was overthrown in a December 1989 military coup, and he and his wife were executed

Twenty years ago this month, Romania became the last Eastern Bloc nation to win its independence.  But unlike its neighbors who were involved in the Revolutions of 1989 – Poland, Hungary, East Germany, the former Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria – Romania’s path from dictatorship to democracy was bloody.

“The match was lit in Timisoara, where there were huge demonstrations around efforts to muzzle a Hungarian Protestant minister, but it quickly spread across the country,” said Jim Rosapepe, a former U.S. Ambassador to Romania.
“On 22 December in Bucharest, Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu decided to deliver a public speech to demonstrate his power.   When crowds chanted against him, he decided to take off in a helicopter.  The secret services and the military switched sides, and three days later he was executed,” Rosapepe recounted.

Broadcast journalist Sheilah Kast, who had reported on the collapse of communism from both Moscow and Tbilisi, joined her diplomat-husband at post in Bucharest from1998 to 2001.  “I was not in Romania as a journalist,” she said, “so it let me play a more personal role and get to know Romania and make friends with it, and essentially fall in love with it – which I did.”

Together Kast and Rosapepe have written a book about their experiences in Romania, Dracula is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy.
Rosapepe suggests that part of the disenchantment in Central and Eastern Europe with economic progress is connected to the worldwide recession.  “Expectations were very high and people are disappointed when there is a let-down.  I think that’s normal,” he said.
“But when you put together their incredible foreign language skills, their high educational level, and extraordinarily good engineering skills, and still relatively low costs, Romanians are in a very strong position economically for the next couple of decades,” Rosapepe predicts.

Ethnic Issues

“Romania is one of the most successful multi-cultural nations around,” said Rosapepe.  He attributes that partly to its history as part of three empires – the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman.  “Very few people in America are aware that Romania has one of the largest ethnic minorities in Europe – the Hungarians – because they’re not killing one another.  They have arguments about education, street signs, and jobs, but they argue about them by writing letters of the editor, running for office, or debating in parliament.”

But the situation for the Roma, or Gypsies, which represent the poorest minority group in Europe, is quite different.  “There is a deplorable attitude among mainstream Romanians toward most Roma,” Kast said.  “It struck us as analogous to what African-Americans might have experienced in the Mississippi Delta of the South in the 1920s.  Problems are being addressed, but they have a long way to go.”

Kast recalls NATO’s response to the ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia troubled many ordinary Romanians, especially during the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia to protect the Kosovar Albanians.  Rosapepe said he often quoted President Clinton’s explanation during that period, “What was going on in Yugoslavia was not a precedent for what would happen in Romania, but what was happening in Romania, which was democracy, was a precedent for what Serbians wanted and what we wanted for Serbia.”
Romanian Politics Today

On 6 December, a run-off presidential election was held between the former foreign minister Mircea Geoana Roman and the incumbent President Traian Basescu. Although most exit polls favored Geoana in the runoff, the authorities declared Basescu the narrow victor.  Geoana asked the Constitutional Court to annul the election results because of opposition claims of widespread vote fraud, but on Monday the court ruled that Mr. Basescu had won a second term. 

But that may not be the most important point, Rosapepe suggests. “Twenty years after the fall of communism, there are fiercely contested elections taking place about who is going to run the country, and the fact that there are problems in the elections or they are close elections means that they have become remarkably normal in a short period of time.”

Sheilah Kast currently hosts her own daily magazine show on Maryland Public Radio and as well as a weekly newsmaker cable TV show. Jim Rosapepe currently heads an investment firm active in the United States and Europe.

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