Monday, December 14, 2009

FT: Who won the Romanian revolution?

I first saw George on the night Savu went to Bucharest to save Romania’s revolution. We met in the Hotel Continental, 12 storeys of stolid architecture that towered over the old Austro-Hungarian streets of Timisoara, in the western corner of the country. 

Under communism, the Continental had been the haunt of the elite. Nearly a month after the Christmas day execution of Nicolae Ceausescu, it was little changed. An ectoplasmic glass decoration covered the rear wall of the foyer. Dark curtains sheltered from the light a penumbra of black marketeers. A row of clocks claimed to mark the time in Mexico City, Warsaw, Beijing, Moscow, Belgrade, London. Most had long since stopped.

It was only later that I appreciated why the lift did not open at the top floor: a sallow-faced agent of Ceausescu’s Securitate secret police still manned a listening post there. When, one night, I shadowed the US television anchor Ted Koppel as he literally put his foot in the door to accost this man, half a dozen pimply soldiers raced up the 12 floors to intervene. Such was the opaque state of politics in Timisoara a month after a few hundred demonstrators took to its streets to launch the last and bloodiest of eastern Europe’s 1989 revolutions.

George Ardelean was one of the early few to shout “Jos comunismul” (down with communism) on December 16, the day the uprising began. He worked as an engineer at a state tyre factory. But the downcast eyes, the traditional default stance of Romanians before foreigners and authority, were not for him.

Romanians take to the streets on the day Ceausescu fled, December 22 1989
The first I knew of him was a month after his street heroics, when he burst into the Continental, barging past the money-changers and Securitate types. “You must see Savu,” he shouted. “You must come.” Along with Bill McPherson, a Washington Post literary critic who had driven over from Yugoslavia the previous day, I was the only remaining representative of the “mass media” in Timisoara. We scrambled after George, and were off through the fog to the station – to catch Savu before the 11.54pm to Bucharest pulled out.

Ioan Savu was a stocky man with intense eyes and a touching fondness for political dialectic. As whistles blew and smoke swirled, he clambered into his carriage with his family and told us his story. One of the leaders of the Timisoara uprising, he had spent four days on the run, from December 17, when soldiers and secret police opened fire on the crowds. Those were the days rumours swirled in the west that 1,000, then 10,000, then 60,000 people had been killed in Timisoara. As it was, only 100 were killed. But it was still a terrible massacre. The authorities hosed down the blood and swept the streets in a bid to airbrush the past.

Only on December 22, when the Ceausescus fled Bucharest after being booed in public, could Savu emerge from hiding. He was off to see Ion Iliescu, the country’s acting president and a former member of the nomenclatura (party elite), to air his concerns that the revolution was losing its way: “I am going to Bucharest to fight for a real democracy.” The train lurched into life, we jumped off and Savu began his doomed quest for a revolution that would defy history and remain faithful to its ideals.
. . .
The revolutions of 1989 were wonderfully clear-cut at the time. This was surely the most stirring narrative in late 20th-century Europe. decades of division and fears of apocalyptic war were over. The bankruptcy of communism, literal and moral, had been exposed. Tyrants had been ousted, oligarchies overthrown. Citizens argued over liberty and licence. Euphoria ruled.

In the west, even as we celebrated the triumph of the capitalist democratic way, we could marvel at this victory of the popular will. The west had played its part in the undermining of Soviet resolve, in particular by equipping the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan, but the final collapse of European communism owed little to the west. Indeed, until the last minute most western officials thought the Soviet bloc could endure for years. It was not the hour of the statesman. It was the hour of people like George.

This has been the year of the great anniversary – 70 years since the start of the second world war, 60 years since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, 30 years since the Iranian revolution, 20 years since Tiananmen Square. But one in particular has stood out this year: the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has been something of an escape from the shadow of economic crisis. Some might say there has been a surfeit of reminiscing. Stelian Tanase, one of Romania’s best-known novelists, argues that the west is wallowing in the anniversary of the fall of the wall primarily to assuage our guilt over the years when we lived in freedom and our brothers to the east in chains. That may be a little cynical. But the west has indulged in recalling that brief moment when the clock stood at zero and a hopeful new world seemed at hand.

This is of course in part a media confection allowing reporters to relive their glory days and editors to republish the great pictures and footage of our time. And yet if excess it is, it is forgivable. We need to be reminded of recent heroism. And bravery was abundant in Leipzig, Berlin, Bucharest and Prague, where people defied not just the police but also the weight of history. The crackdowns in Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Gdansk in 1980 had shown how the old order reacted under threat. It is easy to forget that the dominant event in 1989 before the fall of the wall was the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Only at the end of that extraordinary year could we appreciate that – bar Ceausescu – eastern Europe’s leaders had concluded that the lesson of Beijing was that it could not be repeated. Someone had to be the first to shake the keys in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, someone had to see if the East German border guards really would put down their muzzles if you made for the wall. In Romania, someone had to dare to hold a vigil and sing hymns outside a Hungarian Calvinist church where a charismatic priest, László Tokés, had been put under house arrest.

Even now, Tokés is nearly overcome with emotion when he recalls hearing a small crowd singing in the street. Fearing the magnetism of this tall, brooding figure, the Securitate waged a relentless campaign of intimidation. Then the demonstrators came. “First they were my parishioners [from Romania’s Hungarian minority]. Then came Romanian Baptists, students, workers,” Tokés says. He is now a bishop and member of the European Parliament. Still that distinctive, gravelly voice that inspired his congregation nearly chokes at the memory. He jumps to his feet and gesticulates as he recalls hearing the haunting sound of the banned hymn “Desteapta-te, romane!” (“Wake up Romanian!”) floating up to his first-floor office. “I addressed the crowds 20, 30 times. They shouted to me to say something. I quoted from the Bible. Sometimes I said, ‘Go home my brothers and sisters. You are in danger.’ I could never have imagined this would become the start of a national uprising.”

The following day, after the demonstrators had stormed the local party headquarters, security forces opened fire on the crowds. The touch-paper had been lit.
. . .

There is a less sentimental reason for the commemorations. a decade is too brief a lapse for fair reflection. But after 20 years, patterns are set: by 1999 the Iranian Revolution had clearly soured, but it was not so clear 10 years before. And only now, nearly 20 years after the release of Nelson Mandela, is the shape of the new order in South Africa starting to emerge. Much the same can be said of eastern Europe. Enough time has now passed for a judicious perspective.

It is, of course, a region transformed. The once grey streets of capitals sparkle with light. Governments rise and fall. Millions each year head west to work or holiday. Yet there have been many setbacks and disappointments, too. Western leaders’ claims of a new world order were swiftly exposed as hubris when Yugoslavia was disembowelled in its agonising civil war. In every country, allegations of corruption have tarnished the privatisations of giant state enterprises, and some from the old order have grown very rich very fast. It is now possible to appreciate how much the narrative of this past 20 years is one of continuity as much as of change.

Stelian Tanase knows as much about the vileness of the old order as any Romanian who did not work within it. Under Ceausescu, he was one of the few writers to challenge the system. He was followed, his house bugged, his writings banned and his conversations recorded. Eight years ago, he obtained his Securitate files and discovered that, for years, his best friend had informed on him. Now, from his rambling villa in northern Bucharest – and on his weekly television show – he is a gadfly of the new order.

Before I can pose my opening question, he pre-empts me. “The best question to ask is who won the revolution: for Romania, the winner is the former nomenclatura. They lost the revolution but won the power. The former promoters of communism simply became the promoters of capitalism.” He reaches for a copy of the Romanian edition of Forbes’ Rich List, which details the country’s richest people. “Eighty-five per cent of the first 100 are former nomenclatura.”

Tanase was one of the first to address the crowd in Bucharest from the balcony of the Central Committee building on the freezing day the Ceausescus fled. Was it not, I venture, inevitable that the old guard would outwit the idealists, the poets and writers who briefly lent their name to the revolutionary cause? I suspect journalists covering the aftermath of the revolution may have been too judgmental in our denunciations of Iliescu. Romania was so battered by the years of Ceausescu that reformed communists were probably the only people capable of steering the transition.

Tanase snorts. “Life means compromises but you have to defend your value system. What kind of compromise should you make with the devil? We have a façade of full constitutional democracy, of constitutionalism, parties, free speech … but it’s only a façade. Behind the walls the old mafia clans are still going.” The Securitate, for example, was “in the best position to explain how capitalism works – and to take advantage of it”.

Tanase agrees with the historian Timothy Garton Ash that the new eastern European societies can only truly succeed if they confront their past. Romania has released only a fraction of the Securitate files, compounding the impression that many in the establishment have something to hide. Why has Romania not had a truth and reconciliation commission on the lines of post-apartheid South Africa, I ask. Might it ever? It is time rather than the commission, which wound down a decade ago, that will heal the wounds. Anniversaries in South Africa are still political touchstones rather than a time for a hard look at the road travelled so far. But at least a version of the “truth” was unearthed, enabling a new nation to start to emerge.

“Romania,” Tanase says, “doesn’t have the courage to look at its past.” He is right, and it matters. The countries in eastern Europe that have looked at their pasts have made the transition to democracy more successfully. The others, including Romania, are subject to a continuing drip of innuendo from the old files, poisoning the present and further shrouding the past. But it is also a reminder of the ambiguities of the old days – and the collusion, conniving and compromises that many made to survive.

Tanase did challenge his friend over his treachery. “He said he wanted to protect me,” Tanase says with a belly laugh. “Good answer.”
. . .
Timisoara, and indeed the Hotel Continental, in 2009 mirror the dramatic changes that two decades have brought to Romania. Unsurprisingly given its history, the country had a more faltering start than most of its fellow former members of the eastern bloc. Between escaping the yoke of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in the late 19th century and the postwar dawn of communism, it had enjoyed only brief periods of quasi-democracy. At times, in particular under its priapic king Carol II, it bordered on Ruritanian farce. The baleful influence of Ceausescu, who led from 1964 to 1989 after succeeding Moscow’s post-1945 point-man, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, stifled independence of thought. Ion Iliescu, the former apparatchik who led Romania from the revolution until 1997, was instinctively wary of market and democratic reforms.

Businessman Mircea Chirila in a street now named after the first day of the demonstrations, December 16. He too is ex-Securitate

Now, however, Romania is a member of the European Union and Nato. Up until the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, it enjoyed a nearly decade-long economic boom. If you stand on the steps of the Opera, the concert hall that dominates Timisoara’s main square (where scores of demonstrators were shot dead), you can see the branches of half a dozen western banks, including the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was offering double-digit interest rates. McDonald’s has taken over the ground floor of an old Austro-Hungarian mansion, still pockmarked by bullet holes. In the foyer of the Continental, the ectoplasm has gone, as have the clocks. The top floor is now the Galaxy Night Club. The telephones work, as do the taps.

There are still, however, shady corners of the hotel populated by chain-smoking men of indeterminate occupation. It was in one of these that a jolly former Securitate colonel, with the ample belly common among police veterans around the world, did his best to put a positive gloss on the history and metamorphosis of the Securitate. Mircea Chirila served in the Securitate from 1974 through the years when Ceausescu’s regime was becoming more and more repressive; the Securitate was infamous even by the standards of the eastern bloc. Now 58, Chirila was first an intelligence officer in the anti-terrorist unit and then spent a few years in the anti-irredentist unit – code for keeping an eye on the Hungarian minority. In a fortuitous transfer, he had left Timisoara, his home town, before the uprising. And like most of his colleagues, he glided to the successor agency, the SRI, in 1990, until his retirement last year as a general.

His long, grey leather coat marks him out immediately. But he affects a jovial persona. The past is the past, he argues, and the Securitate’s bleak image is a caricature.

Is it difficult to be known as a former securist, I ask. He smiles winningly and declares he is proud of his past. “I am not a dissident. I’m what many people in Romania were in this period, a person who conformed to what exactly the law for this period was.” He plays down the achievements of the Securitate’s supposedly vast network of snitches. “We had many informers but not great information.” Unsurprisingly, he defends the decision not to publish the archives. “There are people who didn’t even know they were informers.” On one point I certainly agree with him: “I hear of many dissidents now. Before 1989, there were very few and now there are very many.”

Is it fair that former Securitate officers are becoming big businessmen? It is, he contends, a natural trend. “It is a biological evolution.”
. . .
Chirila now runs a detective agency and a “public interest” foundation, called, without irony, “Sine Ira” (“without prejudice”). He was discussing these plans when I was hailed from behind. It was George, rushing through the foyer once again, just as he had 20 years before. It was our first encounter since the early 1990s. His exuberance waned – but only a little – when he identified my companion.

It was later that night after many recollections that George asked me if I could ever guess who was in charge of the Julius Mall.

The mall chain is one of the great corporate successes of Romania. The business started in the north-east and has since opened malls across the country. Timisoara’s is a temple of consumerism to vie with anything on offer in the west. Its boss, Gheorghe Atudoraie, ticks off an array of grand statistics: 16,000 square metres of space in the new second wing that opened last month, 60 ATMs, a vast underground car-park, 468,000 visitors in its first few weeks. He speaks with the polish of a veteran manager. He also dresses the part: blazer, blue shirt and tie. The only time the 63-year-old pauses is when I touch on the past – his past. He was a major in the Securitate in Timisoara on the night of the crackdown. A few months later, he went on trial in Timisoara with 20 others, charged with complicity in genocide, or assisting in genocide. The event had the flavour of a show trial, as did the handful of other trials of Securitate and Ceausescu’s inner circle in 1990. After serving a prison sentence, the Supreme Court acquitted him seven years later and he went on to work in the SRI. But he was an important cog in Ceausescu’s secret police.

“Sometimes it’s important to change your life,” he says. People unfairly “put a stamp” on the record of former Securitate officers, he says. “Romanians find it very hard that a security policeman can become a teacher or a businessman. It’s not fair. I was not part of the oppressive system. It’s not right that I was stigmatised for the worst of other people in the 1950s and 1960s. I was not born when the Securitate arrested people at midnight.” His sense of history is studiously vague. He was born when communism was coming to Romania.
Atudoraie and others will keep a low profile as next week’s anniversary commemorations unfold. They will be overshadowed anyway by the fallout of last weekend’s bitterly contested presidential elections, narrowly won by the incumbent, Traian Basescu, and the impact of the worst recession since the end of communism. His face tenses when I ask about the trial, and he says he would rather not discuss it. After a brief account of the impact of the downturn, he hands me a corporate brochure and a Julius Mall umbrella and mug and the interview ends.
. . .
When I later describe the Securitate officers’ milquetoast account of their past to Lazslo Tokés, the once-hounded priest gives a hollow laugh. Twenty years on, he is appalled by the flourishing of former Securitate officers and also by the laisser-faire stance of his fellow countrymen. For many of them, the outspoken priest agitating ceaselessly for the rights of his fellow ethnic Hungarians has become an irritant rather than an icon. “Romania is coping with its past with a bad conscience,” he says. “I still consider the revolution was the work of providence but it is another question how it continued. It was hijacked. Yes, the free market and democracy have been introduced. But the actors are mainly the old ones. Former communists put the wind and force of the true revolution to move their own ship.”

A little after midnight on a chill winter’s night, inevitably shrouded in fog, my friend George takes a more sanguine or at least less sardonic view of the onset of capitalism. He even accepts that secret policemen, too, suffered in the past. “Everyone was under the system. They had the same shit as us.” He is number 39 on the official list of revolutionaries. This gives him 12 first-class rail tickets a year, a hectare of land and free public transport. He also has a monthly grant of 1,862 lei (£400) if his salary falls below a certain level. “Is it better when you own everything and share nothing or own nothing and share a little? Everything they told us in the old days about the changes capitalism would bring was true. What they didn’t tell us was that capitalists can manage it better than the old guard.”
. . .
George had a surprise guest he wanted me to meet. I would have recognised the intense eyes and stocky build anywhere. The last time I had seen Savu was when he headed off on the night train to Bucharest. His mission ended in disappointment. Iliescu never saw him. Instead he was fobbed off on minor officials. Since then, the one-time revolutionary leader who energised the workers in his detergent factory into revolt and addressed the crowds at a time of great peril has retired from public life. He is worried by the headlong lurch into materialism. “At that time we knew what we did not want, but we did not know what we wanted,” he says. “The rush up the ladder leads nowhere. The rush for profit leads to minimising other things that matter more than money.”

We were walking past the former Central Committee building. Once the bastion of the old guard, it was stormed by the protesters, recaptured by the security forces and then taken over again by Savu and his like. One night, Bill McPherson, the Washington Post writer, and I were all but co-opted on to a revolutionary council in one of its gloomy chambers. Now it is lit up like a civic building anywhere in the west.

Is it not the case that Romania has become just another country, I ask.

“In the beginning, everyone thought everything from outside was good. Now people realise we also had some good things. We have struggled … but we did make history in our way.”

Alec Russell is the FT’s world news editor

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