Twenty five years ago this week the people of Romania got a very welcome Christmas present. After a token trial, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed by firing squad at a secret military location.
The Communist dictator’s fall was astonishingly swift. Only four days before he had been standing on a balcony overlooking Palace Square in Bucharest telling a huge crowd how lucky they were to have him. The appearance was supposed to quell the unrest in the western city of Timisoara; people were protesting at years of scarcity and oppression overseen by the megalomaniacal couple. It didn’t work. The audience listened in silence.
Then the unimaginable happened. They began booing and jeering and chanting “Timisoara! Timisoara!” The look of disbelief on Ceausescu’s face as he flapped his hands in a hopeless attempt to quiet them was one of the defining moments in the collapse of European communism. The cynical officials and military commanders who shored up the regime recognised an unstoppable force when they saw one. Apart from some diehards of the Securitate secret police, everyone knew the couple were finished. The end was squalid and badly done. But the revolution was magnificent.
I was there as one of the Telegraph team covering the uprising. It was an exhilarating time. “Vox Populi! — Vox Dei!” said the slogans painted on walls above pools of guttering candles, marking the places where protesters had been shot down by the Securitate.
It seemed to be only the truth. The people had spoken and evil had been put to flight. The iniquities of Ceausescu’s 24-year reign were soon revealed to the world. Eager locals showed us the orphanages where emaciated children were chained to iron bedsteads, crammed into rooms reeking of faeces and urine.
Even children with parents lived miserable lives. Romania’s child mortality rate was the highest in Europe, a result of the leader’s obsessive austerity programme to wipe out foreign debt. Much of the country’s agricultural and industrial production was exported.
There were shortages of food, medicines and fuel. Travel in and out of the country was strictly controlled. Criticism was ruthlessly repressed and the people suffered in silence. Now and again a dissident voice was heard from inside the party, but most of the ruling elite colluded with the cult of personality the mousey couple built up via rigidly controlled state media,
Ceausescu was a perfect example of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting effects of power. He had started out as an apparent reformer who impressed the West with his willingness to stand up to Moscow. By the end he had awarded himself the titles of “Conducator” (Leader) and “Genius of the Carpathians”. His monstrous vanity was demonstrated in projects like the People’s Palace, a vast, shoddy edifice built to rival the great monuments of Europe.
Despite their imperial pretensions the former cobbler and his consort lived fairly modestly. One snowy day the rebels gave us a tour of their Bucharest residence. It was a bourgeois villa, with John Lewis style fittings, more Solihull than Schönbrunn. The revolutionaries seemed to think it unimaginably luxurious. By their standards, it was. The day before a university professor with an international reputation invited me to his apartment. It had four small rooms, furnished with a few sticks of cheap furniture. He proudly brought out a prized possession, a dusty bottle of Johnnie Walker purchased on a rare officially sanctioned trip abroad. We sat in the freezing parlour and toasted the Ceausescus’ demise.
For a few heady months Romania revelled in its freedom. Bucharest was filled with rallies and marches and new political parties sprang up overnight. We journalists were accosted by ordinary people who wanted to taste the unknown experience of talking openly to a foreigner. Most had never seen one until now.
The revolution seemed a fitting end to the annus mirabilis that was 1989 — a year when, one by one, the communist bastions of Eastern and Central Europe crumbled and fell. When the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signalled his unwillingness to offer military support to Eastern bloc satellites, the collapse was quick and surprisingly bloodless. First Poland, then Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia fell out of Moscow’s orbit. For decades that world had been in the grip of a Cold War which, if it hotted up, could bring nuclear annihilation. Now it seemed to be standing on the brink of a new era of progress. Ideological enmity was vanishing. Henceforth everyone would go forward under the banners of democracy, enlightened capitalism and respect for human rights.
Of course it didn’t quite work out like that. In Romania, the overthrow of Ceausescu soon began to look less like a revolution and more like a palace coup. The organisers reinvented themselves as the National Salvation Front, which won elections five months later. The new rulers were mostly former communists and members of the old regime in new, democratic clothing. When, in June 1990, students rose up to protest they were beaten up by miners brought in by the authorities on special trains from the Jiu valley.
But there was no going back to the old days. Former communists or not, successive governments looked West not East, applying for membership of the EU in 1993 — and joining in 2007. Freedom and capitalism did not bring instant prosperity. During the Nineties millions of Romanians moved abroad to America and western Europe. The millennium brought a surge in the country’s fortunes. For a few years it enjoyed impressive growth rates and was briefly the “tiger” of Eastern European economies. But the recession hit hard. Huge borrowing to counter a 2009 budget deficit, and a housing bubble that burst, made it the IMF’s biggest debtor for a while. It has also been plagued by corruption and political feuding.
Today, the events of the revolution seem to belong to a distant past. The anniversary has been a subdued affair and official commemorations will be confined to a few concerts and small rallies in University Square, the scene of some of the crucial demonstrations. Romania’s 20 million people are more interested in the present.
They have recently voted in a new president. In November, Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of the western town of Sibiu, beat Victor Ponta, the prime minister, a skilful political infighter, in a surprise victory. Iohannis, a liberal from the country’s ethnic German population, won by a comfortable margin on a high turnout, helped by the votes of the Romanian diaspora. At the swearing-in ceremony yesterday he promised a crackdown on corruption and a strengthening of the rule of law. The office carries the necessary powers for him to deliver — notably the appointment of the senior judiciary.
Above all, the president is the public face of the nation. It seemed to many in Romania that 25 years after the revolution, the country was at last getting a leader who represented the ideals that the men and women who took to streets to brave the Securitate snipers were demanding.
The depressing aftermath of the Arab Spring has made us sceptical about popular uprisings. The Romanian story and the examples of modern Eastern and Central Europe are a reminder that, given the right cultural and political underpinnings, they can have reasonably happy endings.