Analysis – Romania’s unfinished revolution

epa08085021 Romanian activist woman Nicoleta Giurcanu, 44, who was 14 years old back in 1989, is overwhelmed by emotions sitting near a '30' shaped flowers wreath during an official commemoration ceremony dedicated to those who died during the 1989 popular uprising, marking the 30-th anniversary, in downtown Bucharest, Romania, 21 December 2019. Romanians pay their respect to the activists, who in 1989 took to the streets in the civil unrest that toppled Eastern Europe's most repressive communist regime. More than 1,100 people were killed across Romania during clashes between demonstrators and forces loyal to then dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. EPA-EFE/ROBERT GHEMENT

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It was December 21 1989, and the wave of change that had swept across communist eastern Europe was crashing through Romania, where Nicolae Ceausescu had held an iron grip for 25 years.

By the late 1980s, Ceaușescu had transformed Romania into a police state. Institutions and organizations, even the Communist Party itself, had been eviscerated and had become mere instruments for carrying out his will. The Securitate had become the chief prop of his rule. Physical hardship and moral despair overwhelmed the society. Yet the Ceaușescu dictatorship, which had come to seem unassailable, was overthrown in the course of a single week in 1989.

The uprising that led to Ceaușescu’s downfall began with minor incidents in the Transylvanian city of Timişoara starting on December 16. The following day Ceaușescu ordered his security forces to fire on antigovernment demonstrators there. The demonstrations spread to Bucharest, and on December 22 the Romanian army went over to the demonstrators’ side. That same day Ceaușescu and his wife fled the capital in a helicopter but were captured and taken into custody by the armed forces. On December 25 the couple was hurriedly tried and convicted by a special military tribunal on charges of mass murder and other crimes. They were executed that day. No formal dissolution of the Communist Party took place; it simply melted away.

The Romanian “revolution” of 1989 appears to have been a combination of spontaneous uprising by the general populace and conspiracy against Ceaușescu organized by reform communists and disaffected elements of the Securitate and army. A loose coalition of groups opposed to Ceaușescu quickly formed the National Salvation Front (NSF) to lead the country through the transition from communism to democracy, but, by the spring of 1990, fundamental differences had arisen within this group over the direction and pace of change. Those who favoured the removal of all former communists from positions of authority and the rapid introduction of a free-market economy left the NSF. Those who remained—the majority of them former communists—transformed the NSF into a political party that showed little enthusiasm for Western economic practices.

The Financial Times carries Teodor Maries memories on how the dead and wounded lay around him after the soldiers opened fire.  When the shooting started, “I saw people literally fall like bowling pins around me,” he recalled. The next day, “hundreds of thousands of people gathered again, watching as the Ceausescus were spirited away in a helicopter. The crowd was shouting one thing: ‘Li-ber-ta-the! Freedom’!” Mr Maries said.

Thirteen people were killed in the Bucharest neighbourhood where Mr Maries was involved in protests, among 1,000 killed that week across Romania. The identity of who ordered troops to open fire on protesters, most of whom were killed after the Ceausescus fled — they faced trial and were executed within days — has remained unresolved in the intervening three decades.

“Probably one of the biggest problems of the last 30 years is the fact that the revolution file was not finalised.” Ludovic Orban, Romania’s Prime Minister

But a trial against five former Communist officials alleged to have ordered the shooting, including Ion Iliescu, who dominated Romania’s post-revolution politics for 15 years, is now offering the country a belated reckoning with the past.

Like its neighbours that shook off communism in 1989, Romania has evolved into a democracy and strengthened ties with the west, joining the EU and Nato. But its transition was always incomplete. A cadre of senior Communist officials remained in power, building patronage networks and cementing ties to the security services. Early attempts to bar former high level communists from leading positions were unsuccessful.

Proponents of accountability for the events of 1989 and the aftermath say it will be hard for Romania to progress towards full democratic consolidation until a verified record of what happened is established. “This is the starting point of modern Romania,” Swiss historian Oliver Jens Schmitt, an expert on the country’s history, said. “You cannot build democracy on the basis of fog.”

Read more on Financial Times article Scars of Romania’s revolution still to heal after 30 years”

Additional research Britanica

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