Romania’s elite remained in power after the communist dictator was executed. Hopes for change now centre on a new president
The Observer, Sunday 7 December 2014
Until 22 December 1989, Bucharest’s stolid Central Committee building had been an impenetrable seat of communist power for decades. Then, on that day, hundreds of ordinary Romanians armed only with stones and courage surged past troops and stormed inside.
There could be no clearer sign that the regime’s grip on its cold, hungry, deprived people had been broken. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena raced for a helicopter waiting on the roof, as bewildered as they were scared. His 25-year control of the country had been complete and paranoid. Children who presented flowers at official events had to spend days in quarantine first, portraits that only showed one of his ears were banned, and dissidents were jailed or worse.
As communist governments collapsed across Europe, Ceausescu looked set to ride out the wave of longing and discontent, fuelled by clandestine reports on change elsewhere, until a standoff with a dissident priest in western Romania triggered his downfall.
On 17 December troops fired on crowds that had gathered to stop pastor Laszlo Tokes being evicted from his home. Dozens were killed and news of the brutality whipped through Romania, sparking protests in other cities. Within a week Ceausescu had vanished from Bucharest and from power, his departure stunning a country that for so long had bent to his will. His reappearance in TV news reports three days later, as an executed convict, was almost as shocking.
“I thought, ‘Dear God, to kill someone on Christmas day!’ It doesn’t matter how bad they are, this should be a celebration of life,” said dissident poet Ana Blandiana, who spent years under surveillance. The image of Romania’s communist despot reduced to a crumpled, bloody corpse was beamed across the world, apparently a triumphant declaration of all-out revolution. A new era had begun.
Fast forward 25 years and the verdict on what happened next is, at best, mixed. Many argue that the execution of the Ceausescus was a false dawn. The show trial was organised by fellow communists, who twisted a popular uprising into little more than a palace coup and held on firmly to the levers of power.
“I am certain now that revolutions are conceived by idealists, enacted by fighters and taken advantage of by opportunists,” said Dumitru Mazilu, a dissident communist official jailed by Ceausescu for smuggling a human rights report to the UN.
Prominent at the start of the revolution, he called for senior communists to be blocked from office in Romania, but was sidelined after asking the man who went on to become president: “Who are you and what have you been doing the last five years?”
That man, Ion Iliescu, and other former communists ran the government for years and still sit in parliament. Former members of the security forces and their families have got rich from privatisation and there has been no justice for the regime’s former victims.
Romania was one of Europe’s few former Soviet bloc countries that did not pass a “lustration” law to ban senior communists from holding office in the new government.
“In the beginning it was real, the blockades, the people crushed by tanks,” said Romulus Rusan, director of the Memorial for the Victims of Communism and the Resistance and husband of Blandiana. “But there were two types of people in the revolution, those shouting ‘Down with communism’, and those only shouting ‘Down with Ceausescu’. It was the second group who created the new political order after 1989.”
Even today no Romanian other than the Ceausescus has been found guilty of even the smallest role in the communist party’s half-century reign of terror and misery.
“We have lived all these years with the illusion of liberty,” said Christina Dan, 30, a civil servant. “They were not our leaders, they were communists who the day after the revolution were not communists.” Dan braved sleet to join a national day parade this month, carrying a sign saying “Romanians are beautiful” for other visitors to hold and photograph. “We started this project to show we have beautiful people about, to trust each other. Because from the last revolution, there was a bad experience,” Dan said.
She is one of dozens of young Romanians roused to anger and political action over the last two years in what veterans like Rusan hope will be a “revolution reborn”.
On 22 December, 25 years after the “revolution”, Romania will swear in a new president. Supporters believe he can finally deliver the profound changes promised a quarter of a century ago. Klaus Iohannis is a political outsider who stunned the country by winning an election many voters assumed was all but delivered to his rival, prime minister Victor Ponta.
A former teacher and provincial mayor from an ethnic minority group, his second-round victory was due in part to Romanians abroad, who queued for hours at embassies but were still blocked from voting by arcane and apparently obstructive rules. Some of the enraged diaspora flew home to vote but, more importantly, their plight fired up thousands at home to take to the streets.
“Down with Ponta! Down with communism!” read banners at protests, even though Ponta, at 42, is too young to have held office in the communist government. But protesters see him as part of a regime that protected and promoted the old ruling class.
“With those who got rich, you see a network of connections into the communist elite and the security service,” said Laura Stefan, an expert on justice and corruption at a Bucharest thinktank, The Expert Forum. “In Romania there was no attempt to hold anyone to account for many years. We have a saying: ‘The head that looks down won’t be cut off’.”
The Ceausescus’ killing showcased a disregard for the rule of law that continued for many years. When change came, in part under pressure from the European Union, it was focused on tackling corruption in the post-communist era. “If there are so many victims yet to find justice, there is no rule of law,” says General Dan Voinea, prosecutor at the Ceausescus’ trial, who later forged an unexpected career seeking justice for more than 1,000 people killed in the “revolution”.
He is unrepentant about his role in what he insists was rough but real justice for a dictator with blood on his hands, and managed to secure the convictions of a handful of leaders for ordering troops to fire on protesters and other crimes during the revolution.
As time passes, victims and perpetrators of crimes dating to the 1950s are dying. The hopes of those who wanted to see someone pay for the death of a parent, the torture of a spouse or other mistreatment were raised when the European court in Strasbourg ruled that there was no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.
But the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and Memory of the Romanian Exile, which is meant to be spearheading efforts to hold historical abusers to account, has not got far. A list of nearly 170 potential targets for prosecution, published in 2007, has so far produced no convictions. A single trial finally began this autumn, but is proceeding at a glacial pace. “Nobody was ever convicted,” says the institute head, Cosmin Budeanca. “A few cases are open in front of prosecutors, but we need political will for something to happen.”
A political appointee himself, critics say Budeanca is happy to drag his feet. He insists he is boxed in by lack of resources and intransigence from government officials unenthusiastic about revisiting the past. “Politicians’ resumés start from the 1990s, because what came before was not comfortable to present to the population,” he says.
There are no prosecutors who specialise in crimes against humanity, he says, and there is a staff of only 36 to fight the bureaucracy. The justice ministry archives are out of bounds and interior ministry and former security service archives restricted.
“It’s never too late for the truth to come out,” analyst Stefan insists. “Failure to deal with the recent past has a lot of relevance for how we are as a society today.”
One aspect is a growing nostalgia for Ceausescu’s rule, including among Romanians who were spared rationing, propaganda and political controls. More than a third of teenagers born and raised after 1989 think life was better under communism than it is today, a 2011 survey by the Soros foundation found. A quarter of them never had a single class on the era at school.
“Romanian society and, most of all, the young generation is forgetting about the evils of communism,” research co-ordinator Ovidiu Voicu told a Romanian newspaper when the research was published. “It is from this point that we begin the debate on including the history of communism in the education system, and try to find an answer to the question of how to avoid repeating past mistakes.”
The deprivations included government-controlled neighbourhood central heating systems that kept whole blocks of flats at less than 10 degrees during frigid winters, and queues for food at department stores that started around 2am, even though people had no idea what they were waiting to buy.
“I always feel I have to have a fridge full of food, my wife and I argue about it. I think it’s because ours was always empty when I was a child,” said Budeanca. For years, Stefan gagged at the thought of shrimps, because of the crackers they were fed as children, made in North Korea from the ground-up shells of crustaceans.
“Communism’s great victory was the creation of a people without a memory,” warns a plaque at the memorial institute set up by Blandiana and Rusan. That grim achievement still apparently haunts the country, long after communism was banished.
But the protesters who helped to propel Iohannis to power on the back of his promises of change say they will not allow another revolution to be stolen.
“They roused five million people to vote,” said George Epurescu, a physics lecturer and president of protest group Romania Without Them. “That is a dangerous weapon, because they got their votes but have also awakened these people.”