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Commentary: Romania’s Forced March

  • January 20th, 2007
  • Posted by 7thmin

romania-1989-resize.jpgRomania began its forced march towards democratisation and prosperity after the traumatic episode of the Ceausescu dictatorship – and execution of the dictator himself on Christmas Day 1989.

Lee Duffield reflects on the events of that time as a curtain-raiser to dramatic change.

Based in Northern Europe, I spent Christmas Day that year fairly unwillingly trying to get into Romania, to find out about the insurrection there, with its street fighting and alleged massacres, and on the day, the death by firing squad of the former President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena.

The country had become notorious for its arbitrary, capricious and economically stultifying government, nominally a communist state, but locked into a personality cult, Ceausescu disturbing the world with his projects and antics: a drive to force small farmers into urban settlements; clearance of historic areas of the capital for jerry-built new housing, or the brobdingnagian presidential palace; forced shortages of heating oil in Winter, and any number of consumer goods, in an ill-conceived drive for exports; and the social scandals, like the degrading orphanages, filled because of poverty and a bizarre drive to ban contraception and populate the country.

People suffered, from the cold, neglect by a cruel state, humiliation on the international stage.

Correspondents from the West could hear about these things; I ran a large file, at the time working for Australia ABC, but could not get in to work there in any effective way, until the day of the great revolt.

I managed to get aboard the first train in a restored rail service from Budapest; several journalists had made it earlier, driving up from Sofia, the BBC in particular setting up headquarters in a small hotel.

A few were killed; one evidently shot in error by a panicky young soldier, another who died when a plane went down.

Thanks to the then relatively new technology of satellite up-link vans the outside world could see there was some kind of insurrection in progress, with rebellious crowds in the snow-filled streets, elements of the army evidently supporting them, security police opening fire, anti-regime vigilantes holding strategic points of the capital.

There were lurid stories of wholesale murder; a figure was circulated of 40 000 killed in Timosoara, and similar outrages reported elsewhere in the provinces.

These came mostly from the news agencies of communist states then in the throes of desperate reform, especially Russian or Hungarian; the only ones fully represented there up to that time.

Western reporters on arrival could count the dead bodies with bullet holes in them and speak with the survivors; the numbers obviously had been exaggerated, but the fact of a brief terror was stark enough.

From the moment of Ceasescu’s death the resistance put up by his supporters in the Securitate, the security police, quickly died down.

The question remained: what was really going on?

In that week, Christmas through to New Year’s Day, Journalists heard of the formation of a National Salvation Front, members of which had appeared on television as the TV building itself was under concentrated fire.

The first representative of this body to come and see them, gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel, was a man plainly unbalanced; he’d been so badly frightened he assured us he was still being personally targeted and so was driving about the city in a tank.

This “media conference” would be indicative.

To reporters struggling to make sense of their surroundings Romania was to appear as a “land of lies”, or at any rate of dangerous fantasy; so many informants were unfamiliar the distinctly Western habit of establishing plain facts.

On the contrary, I have looked back on it as an introduction to an exotic form of public consciousness, where events and truths might be constructed to fit the needs of the moment, the general story being run by the powers of the day.

Being in public life was to workshop a drama, much more than to trade in information.

It was not so much that people were by nature unforthcoming in public with simple truth; they were unfortunately just not in the habit of it.

Hence publication of those florid accounts of large-scale massacre, for consumption of the public and the outside world, as generals and apparatchiks moved behind the scenes to isolate, blame and dispose of the dictator.

It did transpire quickly enough that by contrast with the democratic unraveling of the other communist states up to that time, (the tragedy of Yugoslavia yet to occur), the dispatch of Ceasescu was something of a coup d’etat.

Members of the old regime, reformed, or others who’d been recently off-side with that regime, appeared in the ranks of an interim government, formed by the Front.

Some were known to have been in close contact with their Soviet opposite numbers, others in contact with the Americans.

It was an arcane business, a kind of world of spies.

Intellectuals and democrats of various stripes who had taken to assembling in the Bucharest University Square saw the trend and raised the alarm, but they did not have the levers of power.

There were level-headed and practical people who would try to explain what was going on. For instance a student about to finish his medical degree came forward to help out as an interpreter. His teacher, a doctor, showed me how the shootings that week were done by professionals, Securitate, the injuries being to the backbone or head; he could only ask us to pass on thanks to the public outside sending parcels of medical supplies to his hospital.

It was not the time for such people at that place; their time would come

Fast forward.

The National Salvation Front sought, and got, international legitimacy by promising elections for 1990, which under international observation it won.

Perfect democracy was far away, the economy was ill, but it was a beginning for the movement to radical change.

Senior officials of the then European Community who started visiting the democratising states of Eastern Europe in 1990 were astounded to be met with demands by the freshly elected governments for full membership.

The mass social movements of 1989 had been aimed not only at turning out the old Soviet-backed governments, but also at joining the West – which meant joining Western Europe, the EC.

That had not been expected; to most it had hardly been thought of.

However there was already some precedent for it: arrangements for the reunification of Germany had been set up expressly within the structure of an expanded European Community, as opposed to a new Germany potentially exercising hegemonic power in Central Europe.

Europe in any event was looking to change and enlarge its form; it was 1992; time to consolidate the single market, bring in the single currency, remove the internal borders – time for an expanding European Union.

Affiliating with the European Community had gone together previously with an economic renaissance for poorer regions, and countries of Western Europe: Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

Except for Ireland it introduced them, or re-introduced them to democratic government.

Romania still has its criminals and corrupt politicians, its poverty and confusion, but it is now sharing that same kind of positive expectation with the rest of the new generation of member countries; a fate most hard to imagine for it less that twenty years ago.

Picture: Lee Duffield at University Square Bucharest, 1989