Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nicolae Ceausescu is gone – but his ghost still haunts Romania

Roger Boyes in Bucharest

For almost exactly 20 years the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu — “Genius of the Carpathians”, “Titan among Titans” — has occupied a modest grave in Ghencea cemetery in Bucharest. There is a simple cross marked with his name and a red star and, yesterday at least, a photograph of the executed leader and his executed wife Elena.

The grave is modest and rarely visited — except on the anniversary of his death, Christmas Day, and on his birthday, January 26 — but it understates Ceausescu’s enduring influence on the rhythm and sentiment of the country.

According to a poll by the independent Bureau of Social Research last month, half the respondents said that Romania is worse off now than before 1989, 40 per cent said that their lives had become more difficult and 56 per cent said that, under communism, ordinary people were treated with more respect.

Ceausescu’s name is on everyone’s lips, in the buses and in the cafés. If you were not one of those persecuted by him, then life under him was seemingly more secure than today.

True, there were mad rules on when to use light bulbs, a draconian ban on abortion, a grovelling press and food shortages but many older people in the countryside still mention the Genius of the Carpathians in their prayers.

Romania is one of the most corrupt countries in the EU, according to Transparency International, an anti-corruption body. Unemployment is more than 7 per cent and rising; there has been stalemate over the formation of a new government since a no-confidence vote in October. These are not the problems of a socialist dictatorship.

The visible traces of his megalomania remain. There is the extraordinary House of the People, now the Palace of Parliament — the second-largest official building in the world after the Pentagon — and the unfinished House of Radio, now crumbling. Great chunks of the historic centre of Bucharest were smashed to make way for his House of the People and yet, despite his Pharaonic urges, the building looks rather handsome. It is laughed at and admired in equal measure.

Romania cannot quite make up its mind about the man, and little wonder, since many of his sycophantic party loyalists and once-faithful Securitate agents found ways of transplanting their political influence into wealth. One report has suggested that 85 of the nation’s 100 wealthiest figures have communist backgrounds. Closer study however, shows this not to be the case, and Romania is rightfully proud of the number of millionaires under the age of 35 — therefore free of any suspicion of having been Ceausescu lackeys.

Although the Securitate, with their leather jackets and Western chewing gum, were among the most sinister of communist Eastern Europe’s secret police, they were nowhere near as thick on the ground as the East German Stasi. The problem with the Securitate was not their sheer numbers but their direct subordination to Ceausescu, their responsiveness to his whims, their casual cruelty. There are, of course, flourishing survivors, notably Dan Voiculescu, a media mogul and leading light in the country’s Conservative Party, who has now conceded that he was a secret police informer on economic affairs.

The central problem bothering Romanians two decades after the revolution is the yawning gap between rich and poor. In the recent presidential battle between Traian Basescu, of the Centre Right, and Mircea Geoana, on the Centre Left, the two men tackled this question in very personal ways.

Mr Basescu, who was narrowly confirmed in office as President, insisted that he would use his second term to pursue the truth about the 1989 revolution — code for digging into and embarrassing wherever possible the old communist networks who have enriched themselves. Mr Geoana talked up development of civil society and the need to turn away from the blind pursuit of money.

The old communist sage Silviu Brucan, one of the conspirators who helped to lever Ceausescu out of power, said shortly after the revolution: “Romanians will need 20 years to learn what democracy is all about.” The 20 years are up, and Romanians are still learning.

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