Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Romania Marks 20 Years Since Anti-Communist Revolt

TIMISOARA, Romania (AP) -- To the strains of strings playing Christmas carols, Romanians paid homage Wednesday to the fighters who took to the streets of this Transylvanian city 20 years ago, sparking the revolution that swept Eastern Europe's most repressive dictator from power.

It was here that residents flocked to the defense of an ethnic Hungarian dissident pastor who was being threatened with forced relocation, leading to rapidly escalating confrontations with police.

The next day, police, army and secret service units began firing at protesters, the start of six days of fighting that subsequently spilled over to Bucharest and led to the toppling of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

More than 1,000 people were killed in the sole violent upheaval of the revolutions that swept communist from power across Eastern Europe 20 years ago. Of those, 118 were killed in Timisoara.

Timisoara mayor Gheorghe Ciuhandru told a gathering of veteran revolutionaries that the city near Romania's western border with Hungary and Serbia should be proud the uprising began here.

''To those who were born free, I say that things were changed in this revolution. We have freedom of expression, freedom of movement and the right to private property.''

However, he said that 20 years after Ceausescu was toppled and executed, Romania is marred by ''lies, manipulation, hatred ... and widespread poverty,'' referring to a deep recession and a bitterly disputed presidential election.

Musicians from the local opera performed a mixture of Christmas carols and popular Romanian music in a short concert attended by ex-President Emil Constantinescu, in office from 1996 to 2000.

''I am here for those who fought and died for the ideals that changed lives in Romania and wrote a page of heroism in Romania's history,'' said Constantinescu. ''In Timisoara there was a complete revolution and I will remain faithful to these principles for the rest of my life.''

The revolt began on Dec. 16, 1989, when authorities tried to forcibly move ethnic Hungarian pastor Laszlo Toekes to a remote rural parish. Supporters gathered outside his house and soon the site was teeming with protesters.

Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed after a summary trial on Christmas Day. His brutal reign was underpinned by the notorious Securitate who had an army of an estimated 700,000 informers -- about 1 in 20 Romanians -- to stifle dissent during 25 years of harsh rule.

Toward the end of the Ceausescu era, ordinary Romanians suffered through harsh rationing in which even bananas and oranges became a luxury, as the dictator tried to pay off the country's foreign debt.

Today, Romania is still drowning in debt -- with foreign obligations of almost 78 billion euros ($113 billion).

Although it joined the European Union in 2007, the nation remains deeply troubled, plagued by corruption, mired in deep recession, and paralyzed by political infighting.

The Constitutional Court confirmed the re-election of President Traian Basescu on Wednesday after a delay over opposition allegations that the Dec. 6 election was rigged.

The Social Democratic Party claimed they had evidence of ballot-stuffing, multiple voting and widespread vote-buying, and asked for new elections to be held.

Basescu won by a razor-thin margin to ex-foreign minister Mircea Geoana. Geoana conceded defeat on Monday but vowed to continue to investigate the alleged fraud.

''My objective is to be a better president than I was,'' Basescu said Wednesday in a nod to bitter political feuds of recent years. ''My principal aim is for every Romanian to feel that the president is his president, however he voted.''

The court decision brought some stability to Romania, which has been without a proper government since Oct. 13 when the Cabinet was dismissed by Parliament in a no-confidence vote.

Amid the uncertainty, a delegation from the International Monetary Fund and theEuropean Commission

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Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed to this report. arrived in Romania this week to discuss a euro1.5 billion ($2.2 billion) loan to the country that has been frozen following the political crisis.

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