Thursday, November 12, 2009

For Romanians, recent past is unfinished business
Published: Tuesday 10 November 2009

Twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, young Romanians laugh heartily at a film reminding them of the "Golden Age", as totalitarianism is commonly referred to. But the scars left by the Ceausescu dictatorship are still visible, Adrian Lungu, chief editor of EurActiv Romania writes.


Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu came to power in 1965 and ruled with an iron fist until he was shot dead in December 1989 with his wife Elena, after a parody of a trial.

The Romanian revolution was the only blood-tainted transition in Eastern Europe in 1989. One reason could be the fact that Ceausescu’s rule was more brutal than most of other Eastern Europe communist regimes. Also, unlike the other East European countries, Romania never went through de-Stalinisation.

What was most striking in Romania in the 70’s and 80’s was the personality cult, which could be compared only to that of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, but appeared even more bizarre in an European country.

Ceausescu managed to survive politically also thanks to his diplomatic skills, keeping the best relations with the West from all the Warsaw Pact countries. He pursued a relatively independent foreign policy, keeping his distances from Moscow, in a way that resembled Tito’s Yugoslavia at the time. He even got praise from Western capitals as he refused to send troops to crush the Prague spring.

Romanians are not yet near the point of closing the lid over the past, political observers point out.

Public debates on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall are not yet marked either by romantic nostalgia of the communist past or historical wisdom.

However, many traces of Ceausescu’s regime can still be seen in contemporary Romanian society.

Today’s Bucharest bears little resemblance with the 1989city that witnessed the fall of communism. For one it is very colourful, with commerce flourishing in the streets where people were queuing for milk and bread only twenty years ago.

It is also colourful as the city is preparing for the presidential election in November. Presidential candidates, which are never few in modern Romanian society, have flooded the city with banners and slogans.

But Romania’s modern political world is not communist-free.

Although twenty years have passed, most of today's politicians used to be members of the Communist Party, including some of today’s prominent presidential candidates.

Romania has never gone through “lustration” like some of the other former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. And president Traian Basescu's condemnation of the communist regime, although symbolic, did nothing to change the influence of former apparatchiks on today's society and political elite.

A recent article in French newspaper Le Monde revealed to the Western audience what Romanians only know too well: ex informers or even secret police agents are everywhere - in the Parliament, the administration and even the media.

"We have identified over 400 persons considered as responsible for torture and assassination. None of them was punished. In Romania, the condemnation of communism was only used for political reasons", historian Marius Oprea, head of the Institute for Researching the Crimes of the Communism, told the French daily.

"The unique nucleus of power burst in 1989,” says writer Ion Vianu, quoted by Deutsche Welle. “There was a nuclear explosion: that nucleus fragmented into many pieces but every one of those pieces contains strength sufficient to cause evil".

The Western press usually considers that the communist regime in Romania could only be compared in its brutality with the East German one. Terror, although discrete, had penetrated every element of society and hundreds of thousands of secret police informers are thought to have collaborated, under constrain or not. Some ten thousand people are believed to have been executed without a trial.

Behind the colourful billboards of the candidates struggling for power, Bucharest also exposes architectural scars from Communism, as the dictator destroyed entire neighbourhoods to create space for his megalomaniac visions.

Humour - a survival tool

For Romanians, the survival tool, through centuries of history, has been the sense of humour. However surprising it may appear to a foreign public, the communist period provides a good pretext for laughter. Twenty years after the fall of the communist regime through a bloody revolution, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu brought a comedy into the European cinemas inspired from communist times, which already obtained the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

"Tales from the Golden Age", the name that the state propaganda had given to the Ceausescu era, draws on popular communist era urban myths. These include mayors having to hang fruit from the trees and paint the grass before a visit from Ceausescu; a policeman trying to silently gas a pig so his hungry neighbours will not realise he has pork to eat on Christmas Day; teenagers selling bottled air ahead of inspections from the Ministry of the Environment.

The Western press used the interpretations of people from different generations to explain the success of the film. Silviu Mandache, a 72 year-old, said that it was a film "everyone should see, especially the young ones. If they don't, they risk of getting fooled by the ones who praise this period that we have been unlucky to live through," he said.

Andrei, 23, was not really surprised after watching the film: "My grandparents told me similar stories, so I laughed a lot seeing the situations on the screen," he admitted.

Mungiu said that the fall of the Wall was a symbolic moment for the Romanians as well.

“I was in my home town when it happened. But what was more important for me was that after the Berlin Wall fell, all the other communist regimes did too. We knew this was going to happen in Romania, but we had no idea how, because the system was so dominating. We’d thought that freedom equals welfare and at last we thought ‘everybody is going to have everything and the world is going to be perfect.’ So we couldn't be anything but disappointed after a few days. But anyhow, it was the greatest day of my life.”

After 35 years of personality cult with President Ceausescu, scars can also be found in people's mentalities concerning their president. With a majority of today's voters being used to such a fatherly figure, people - even unconsciously - still expect a president to rule with authority. The December elections are likely to validate again such a collective vision.

This may sound surrealistic, but in Romania, which never had its moral revolution, the past is unfinished business.

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