The Archive of the Romanian Revolution of December 1989

A Catch-22 December 1989, Groundhog-Day Production. Presenting the Personal Research & Scholarship of Richard Andrew Hall, Ph.D.

20 decembrie 1989: Timisoara, Poporul si Dictatorul

Posted by romanianrevolutionofdecember1989 on December 19, 2009

Poporul

si Dictatorul

An excerpt from

A chapter from my Ph.D. Dissertation at Indiana University: Richard Andrew Hall, Rewriting the Revolution: Authoritarian Regime-State Relations and the Triumph of Securitate Revisionism in Post-Ceausescu Romania (defended 16 December 1996). This is the original chapter as it appeared then and thus has not been revised in any form.

20 December 1989: The Protesters Conquer Timisoara

Nicolae Ceausescu returned from Iran on the afternoon of Wednesday, 20 December. Several hours later, he took to the airwaves to denounce the “terrorist actions” in Timisoara “organized and unleashed in close connection with reactionary, imperialist, irredentist, chauvinist circles, and foreign espionage services in various foreign countries.”[14] Yet at the very moment Ceausescu was announcing to a national television audience that a “state of emergency” had been declared in Timis county, control of Timisoara was rapidly slipping away from the regime. On the morning of 20 December, Army units had begun a withdrawal from Timisoara. As soldiers disappeared from the streets, reports suggest that the remaining Securitate and Militia men either followed their lead or were overwhelmed by the crowds.[15] By evening, as many as 100,000 people–almost a third of Timisoara’s population–had reportedly taken to the center of town in triumph. What had motivated such a sudden reversal of fortunes? Had Timisoara been abandoned to the protesters?

Prevented from taking to the streets on 18 December, resistance had moved to the factories. Ad hoc strike committees were formed at some of Timisoara’s most important plants on the Monday and Tuesday. Ironically, the regime’s totalitarian reflexes appear to have contributed to the development of these strikes. In a sense “unwilling to leave well enough alone,” on Monday morning party officials had been dispatched to various factories in order to clarify what had not happened in the town the night before. Adelina Elena of the Electrobanat factory (ELBA for short) suggests that prior to the arrival of the party official at her factory, many workers indeed did not fully realize the scope of the violence on the previous night.[16] According to Elena, the presentation of the party official was so absurd that it provoked a reaction entirely opposite to what the regime wished. The party official had argued that

…hooligans, fascists, and corrupt and retrograde elements had devastated Timisoara. We also learned about Laszlo Tokes, a religious fanatic who incited vagabonds to attack, steal, and set things on fire. They also attracted children into these actions. All were drunk, including the children and the women; they had gotten drunk with the liquor which had been stolen from the supermarkets which had been broken into. They attacked the county [party] building, but not to be worried: all of them had been captured. All of them.[17]

This was the reason, they were told, for why a “state of emergency” was now in effect (unofficially declared at this point) and all gatherings of more than three people had been banned. The workers were warned about “rumor-mongering.” Upon returning to their workplaces, Elena claims that workers were left with a lingering question: “Where had so many ‘fascists,’ ‘hooligans,’ and ‘drunks’ of all ages in Timisoara come from so suddenly?”

The following morning of Tuesday, 19 December, the mostly female workforce of the ELBA plant walked off the job. The regime’s response was to send 200 soldiers to the plant to “persuade” the women to return to work. Once again, the effect was the opposite of what was intended. The women began by chanting “We will not work under arms!” and ended up chanting “Down with Ceausescu!” A panicked mayor, Petre Mot, and county party secretary, Radu Balan, rushed to the scene. Unable to disperse the angry crowd, Balan began frantically scribbling in a notebook the requests of some of the women: “We want heat…We want chocolate for our children…socks, underwear, cocoa, and cotton.”[18] Army General Stefan Guse was summoned to rescue Mot and Balan and himself ended up being cornered by the women. Only when clashes ensued outside the plant–claiming several lives in what appears to have been an intentional diversion–were the officials able to take advantage of the chaos and escape.

Back at party headquarters, General Guse was reportedly chided and ridiculed for “having been frightened by a bunch of women,” but the ELBA episode apparently left a lasting impression upon the Army recruits and perhaps even some of their commanders. After the incident, regime forces evacuated the area around the ELBA plant and the employees took to the streets. As of the afternoon of 19 December, gunfire tapered off and later ceased completely. Army recruits had confronted not vandals or foreign terrorists in the dead of night, but a determined workforce of women who were expressing basic frustration at the absurd humiliations of everyday life in the late Ceausescu era–complaints which were hardly foreign to the army recruits themselves.

By the morning of Wednesday, 20 December, a general strike prevailed throughout Timisoara and only the bread factories were in operation.[19] A demonstration in solidarity with those who had lost relatives in the violence of the preceding days–and were now demanding the return of their dead–drew columns of workers to the city center. Army units allowed citizens to proceed unhindered. This was the first clear indication of support by the Army rank and file for the demonstrators’ cause. Soldiers reportedly refused to carry out their orders and some even joined in the demonstration.[20] The slogan “The Army is with us” resounded throughout the center of Timisoara. Soon after, the Army began to withdraw to barracks.

At the time, observers were tempted to interpret this decision as evidence that the military chain of command was disintegrating and mid-level officers were taking matters into their own hands. Moreover, the withdrawal was viewed as an unequivocal sign of support for the demonstrators’ cause. Army Major Viorel Oancea, who on 22 December was to become the first Army officer in Timisoara to declare publicly his allegiance to the Revolution, nevertheless denies the idea of a spontaneous retreat: “Evidently, it was an order, the army was not in a position to be taking independent decisions…Probably General Guse or Ion Coman [took this decision]…”[21] The Army’s high command was undoubtedly concerned about its ability to maintain its institutional coherence under these circumstances and the only way to prevent a further breakdown in control was to take the soldiers off the streets.[22] Regardless of how it was intended, however, the townspeople of Timisoara nevertheless interpreted the action of retiring troops to barracks as support for their cause.

Reports suggest that while the Army’s retreat was in progress, uniformed Securitate and Militia personnel also disappeared from the streets. Whether this was part of a coordinated retreat by regime forces or was precipitated by the Army’s withdrawal is unknown. During the afternoon of 20 December, negotiations began between the “Action Committee of the Romanian Democratic Front (FDR)” (which was an outgrowth of the various strike committees set up over the previous two days) and two representatives of the regime, Prime Minister Constantin Dascalescu and fellow CPEx member Emil Bobu. At the time, such actions by senior government representatives seemed to suggest that a rift was developing in the upper reaches of the regime’s hierarchy and that some politicians might be abandoning ship. Army General Victor Stanculescu, maintains, however, that Dascalescu and Bobu had been dispatched to Timisoara on Ceausescu’s direct orders.[23] Likewise, Rady argues that they were “acting on the president’s instructions and…only playing for time.”[24]

The talks dragged on for hours and Dascalescu and Bobu made only vague promises, claiming that the demonstrators’ major demands had to await Ceausescu’s return to the country. According to Rady, such stalling tactics had been employed during the Brasov events of November 1987: negotiations had been conducted with representatives of the protesters, but once the regime had reestablished control their recent negotiating partners were promptly arrested.[25] Ceausescu’s announcement of a “state of emergency” clearly indicated that he had not ceded control of Timisoara to the demonstrators.[26] It thus seems that the disappearance of uniformed Securitate and Militia men had been designed to defuse the tense climate and to lend credibility to the effort of the regime’s negotiating team. Once the demonstrators had left the streets for good, these officers were likely to reappear.

The suggestion that the regime was merely attempting to reestablish control by other means is strengthened by the case of Ioan (Dorel) Curutiu. Puspoki has argued that the Securitate infiltrated several officers (at least one man and one woman) into the leadership of the demonstrators with the aim of compromising and manipulating the other leaders.[27] Curutiu was one of the FDR representatives who negotiated with Dascalescu and Bobu.[28] Curutiu’s comments since the events have been highly questionable.[29] But it is where Curutiu landed after the events which truly raises suspicions: in 1990 he turned up in the Interior Ministry’s “department of service and armament” with the rank of major.[30]

[14].. Quoted in Rady, Romania in Turmoil, 97.

[15].. Budapest Domestic Service, 2115 GMT 20 December 1989, in FBIS-EEU-89-244, 21 December 1989.

[16].. Adelina Elena, “Martor ocular. Fata in Fata,” Orizont, 6 January 1990, 5.

[17].. Ibid.

[18].. Ibid.

[19].. Rady, Romania in Turmoil, 96.

[20].. Ibid.; Nestor Rates, Romania: The Entangled Revolution (New York: Praeger, 1991), 33-34.

[21].. Major Viorel Oancea, interview by Tudorel Urian, “Frica, din nou pe strazi [Fear on the streets once again],” Cuvintul, no. 4 (14 February 1990), 5, 11.

[22].. Other factors have also been suggested as having hastened the withdrawal: such as the threat of the strike committee at the “Solvent” petrochemical works to blow up the plant if the Army did not withdraw immediately. See Rady, Romania in Turmoil, 96-97.

[23].. General Victor Atanasie Stanculescu, interview by Ioan Buduca, Cuvintul, no. 8-9 (29 March 1990), 9.

[24].. Rady, Romania in Turmoil, 97.

[25].. Ibid.

[26].. Ibid., 97-98.

[27].. F. Puspoki, “Piramida Umbrelor (III),” Orizont, no. 11 (16 March 1990), 4.

[28].. Radu Ciobotea, “Incredibil. La Timisoara–Militia inarma revolutionarii [Incredible. In Timisoara–the Militia was arming the revolutionaries],” Flacara, no. 33 (14 August 1991), 4-5.

[29].. He claims that on the afternoon of 20 December he was appointed “commander of the FDR’s revolutionary guards;” that the Militia sent a letter of recognition to the FDR; and that on 22 December the Militia supplied the revolutionaries with machine-guns and walkie-talkies.

[30].. Ibid.

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