THE 1989 ROMANIAN REVOLUTION AS GEOPOLITICAL PARLOR GAME: BRANDSTATTER’S “CHECKMATE” DOCUMENTARY AND THE LATEST WAVE IN A SEA OF REVISIONISM, Part Five
Posted by romanianrevolutionofdecember1989 on September 25, 2010
THE 1989 ROMANIAN REVOLUTION AS GEOPOLITICAL PARLOR GAME: BRANDSTATTER’S “CHECKMATE” DOCUMENTARY AND THE LATEST WAVE IN A SEA OF REVISIONISM
By Richard Andrew Hall
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Part 5: Opportunity Lost
–“Now, three months after the revolution, everyone is with the people and the Army…So then who was shooting?…The idea that only the Army fired in December is being advanced with great skill…” (Major Mihai Floca, “Armata Poporului,” 14 March 1990).
Many Romanians and foreign observers will tell you the great “secret,” the most prized and protected issue in post-Ceausescu Romania, is who among the appartchiks who assumed power under the banner of the “National Salvation Front” knew one another before the December 1989 events, what were the dimensions and plans of this conspiracy, when was the “Front” formed, and what were their relations with the Soviet Union, etc. Nonsense. By comparison to the issue of the identity of the “terrorists,” the former are lightly guarded. The question of the “terrorists” is THE issue of the Revolution precisely because it has far more weighty criminal and moral repercussions and implications associated with it.
There are, perhaps, few sadder stories of historical revisionism in modern times than that of the Romanian Revolution of December 1989. This is, of course, not because of the magnitude of the event or the number of lives lost (1,104)—unspeakably painful for their loved ones and for the citizens of the country, but a minor total in the scheme of the world’s great historical tragedies. Instead, it is because rarely have the victims and prisoners of a former political system played such an unwitting, zealous, and unfortunate role in serving, assimilating, and perpetuating a revisionist falsehood. In the case of the Romanian Revolution, this revisionist falsehood, it must be admitted, is undeniably seductive, popular, and deeply-embedded in the Romanian popular consciousness and the country’s observers abroad.
The beginning of the burial of the truth about the “terrorists” of December can be dated to 17 February 1990, when General Victor Atanasie Stanculescu replaced General Militaru as Defense Minister. Significantly, the same former Securitate and USLA personnel who are bitterly critical of Stanculescu’s actions during the days of the Revolution praise him for his actions later, particularly after assuming this post. For example, former USLA officer turned author, Teodor Filip (not to be confused with the aforementioned Filip Teodorescu), writes: “On the first day he was appointed, Stanculescu convened all USLA personnel (at least those engaged in ordinary missions) and addressed them with words of encouragment (Filip 1998, p. 109; for his criticism of Stanculescu during the Revolution, see, for example, p. 148).” Indeed, such a revelation—and likely the source of Filip’s claim—came from Gheorghe Ardeleanu, Commander of the USLA at the time of the December events, who told the former Securitate’s journalistic mouthpiece in “Europa,” Angela Bacescu:
“As is known, General Stanculescu came to the helm of the Defense Ministry, and upon this occasion, I addressed him, in the name of USLA personnel and their grieving families, thanks, recognition for all he had done to honor the memory of those who had fallen, by declaring them heroes post mortem and promoting them. In the first day after being named to the post, General Stanculescu came to our unit and before the entire group, addressed them with words of encouragement, and promised then, and he delivered on it, that the situation of those who had fallen on duty would quickly be resolved in the spirit of truth and human dignity.” (from a 1991 interview, in Bacescu 1994, p. 123).
It was Stanculescu’s public presentation of the former Securitate and in particular the USLA that was perhaps most appreciated. In the days after the appointment, while many domestic and foreign observers were scrutinizing Stanculescu’s revelations on the bureaucratic makeup and membership of the Securitate—the first hard numbers, however flawed, to be released by the Front up until that time—Stanculescu was making critical, if generally unnoticed, revisionist statements about the USLA’s role in the December events. (At the time, at least one foreign observer picked up on the suspicious nature of Stanculescu’s revisionism and interpreted it as an attempt to rehabilitate the Securitate (Strudza, pp. 33-34). The Securitate’s official institutional successor, the Romanian Information Service, SRI was unveiled in late March 1990.) In his comments to the press, Stanculescu not only denied that the USLA had been responsible for the “terrorist actions,” but that they had any role in the repression in Timisoara and Bucharest during the week preceding Ceausescu’s fall (ROMPRES 8 March 1990 in FBIS 15 March 1990).
We’ll leave the first of these allegations alone for the moment. As for the second, it can only be called Orwellian, a true whopper among lies, that could only stand if the newspapers of the previous two months were disposed of and memories of those papers and the events purged from minds. In the same daily, “Libertatea,” to which Stanculescu related this new understanding of the USLA’s actions in December (26 and 28 February 1990), between 27 January and 15 February, transcripts of regime communications, including USLA communications, from the afternoon of 21 December and then again from the morning of 22 December, had been published under the headline “Dintre sute de…catarge! [From hundreds of “masts!” (the radio identification for USLA officers conducting surveillance)].* Although rather conveniently missing from the transcripts is the key period in the early hours of 22 December when regime forces opened gunfire in University Square, killing 48 and wounding 604 (684 people were also arrested), these truncated transcripts nevertheless reveal USLA involvement in the repression in Bucharest. According to the transcript, upon the orders of Securitate Director General Vlad, the USLA launched tear gas grenades at demonstrators. They also show USLA “intervention units” claiming to have “restored order” and one USLA member communicating in reference to protesters, “These hooligans must be annihilated at once. They are not determined. They must be taken quickly. The rest are hesitating.”
The USLA had already been trying to “correct” the memories of citizens, prior to Stanculescu’s “clarification” of their role. When a participant in the demonstrations at Piata Romana in central Bucharest related on 12 January 1990 in “Libertatea” the role of the USLA in beating demonstrators there on the 21st and later the presence of the USLA among the gunmen who killed demonstrators in University Square in the early hours of 22 December, USLA chief Ardeleanu rushed to issue a public denial in the paper several days later. Particularly in Timisoara, the presence of the USLA among the forces of repression has been detailed by so many sources—including former USLA who participated—that there is not much point in seeking to prove Stanculescu’s contention false. Indeed, even elsewhere, beyond eyewitness/demonstrator contentions, the presence of USLA among repressive forces in the week of 16-22 December has occasionally been accidentally acknowledged by Securitate officials, essentially speaking to their sympathizers. The Securitate chief for Sibiu County, Theodor Petrisor, wrote in April 1991:
“On Monday, 18 December 1989, upon the order of the [Militia’s] Inspector General, I activated the antiterrorist intervention group. This group had been reorganized in September 1989 and was made up of Securitate officers who were involved in informational-operational services…Militia officers and officers from the joint units of the inspectorate. I’ll note that the existence of this group was to intervene in order to neutralize terrorist activities, not for other street actions. In the command chain, the coordination of the group’s activity was the responsibility of the special unit for antiterrorist warfare (U.S.L.A.) in Bucharest. [Emphasis added]” (Theodor Petrisor, “Revolutia din decembrie 1989 in Sibiu County (I),” “Europa” no. 22 (April 1991), p. 8).
None of this should come as a great surprise, since the USLA—employing their tell-tale A.B.I. armored vehicles, which they alone among regime forces possessed—participated in the repression of protesting workers in Brasov on 15 November 1987 (see “Jurnalul National,” 14 November 2004; the former USLA officer Marian Romanescu in Dan Badea, “USLA, Bula Moise, teroristii si ‘Fratii Musulmani’,” “Expres” (2-8 July 1991), p. 8), and since there was a juridical basis to their key role in combatting civil unrest, as confirmed by Interior Ministry Order 02600 (July 1988). Indeed, as recently as January 1990, in the first—and soon to be, almost last—trial to sentence those accused of participating in the repression before 22 December, one of the defendants was an USLA officer (Burian), charged with having opened fire on demonstrators on 21 December in the western city of Cugir.
Stanculescu’s “revelations” essentially opened up the floodgates of revisionism, some of it accidental and the result of the confusion Stanculescu’s comments had sewn, some of it very clearly motivated. Horia Alexandrescu, former editor of the primary Romanian sports’ daily during the Ceausescu era, and later editor of “Curierul National” and “Cronica Romana” among other dailies, wrote in March 1990 as editor of “Tineretul Liber” a multi-part series extolling the work of the USLA before December 1989, and arguing not only that they had not been the post-22 December “terrorists,” but that they had not played a role in the repression of demonstrators between 16 and 22 December. Clearly, the most unexpected journalist to run to the defense of the USLA was Petre Mihai Bacanu of the daily “Romania Libera,” who had been imprisoned earlier in 1989 for attempting to publish an underground newspaper and who arrived emaciated and haggard at television in the hours following Ceausescu’s flight, direct from Securitate custody.
In his March-April 1990 series on the events of 21-22 December in Bucharest, Bacanu vigorously sought to make clear for his audience, on two occasions during a multi-part series, that the USLA had not been responsible for the repression of demonstrators at Bucharest’s University Square on the night of 21-22 December. In fact, he clarified that “we have incontrovertible proof that the USLA officers had only one mission, to defend the American Embassy and the El Al Israel Airlines ticket office” (17 March 1990). To say that this was confusing to the researcher is an understatement, particularly as the “Libertatea” transcripts had clearly shown USLA officers discussing that their mission was to “block” the access of demonstrators to these locations (i.e. fearing that they would seek refuge there.) Moreover, despite claims to the contrary of civilian and military eyewitnesses in the Army daily, “Armata Poporului” in January and later in the Military Prosecutor’s report released on 4 June 1990 (discussed Hall, 1997, pp. 219-224), Bacanu declared, “We must clarify that the USLA detachments did not fire a single shot, nor arrest a single person among the columns of demonstrators” (16 March 1990).
Significantly, almost four years later, based on what he claimed was “new” information from Army soldiers who had been in the square that bloody “longest night of the year,” in an example of professional integrity, Bacanu admitted that he had been duped:
“Very many officers talk about these ‘civilians’ in long raincoats and sheepskin coats, who arrested demonstrators from within the crowd and then beat them brutally…No one has been interested until now in these dozens of ‘civilians’ with hats who shot through the pockets of their clothes…For a time we gave credence to the claims of the USLA troops that they were not present in University Square. We have now entered into the possession of information which shows that 20 USLA officers, under the command of Colonel Florin Bejan, were located…among the demonstrators” (28 December 1993, p. 10)
USLA Commander Gheorghe Ardeleanu admitted in passing in court testimony that USLA personnel operated in civilian clothes on this evening (Stefanescu 1994, p. 288). At the very least, it is clear that uniformed USLA personnel participated in the repression. An official at the National Theater—located next to the Hotel Intercontinental in University Square—claims USLA troops beat demonstrators and policed the building to see if any were hiding there (Vasile Neagoe, “Expres” 30 March-5 April 1990, p. 6). According to the Military Prosecutor’s 4 June 1990 charges: “The witness [Spiru Radet] specified that one of the soldiers from the USLA troops, who had a machine gun in his hand, fired warning shots and then shot at the demonstrators. At that point, the witness was wounded in the hand by bullets and transported to Coltea Hospital” (in Bunea 1994, p. 88).
In April 1990, two important articles would appear in the opposition weekly, “Zig-Zag.” One was by Gheorghe Ionescu Olbojan, who sought to accredit the idea that 40 corpses transported from Timisoara to Bucharest for cremation were not civilian demonstrators, but members of those Army “special forces,” the DIA unit. As Marius Mioc has noted, this was a clear effort to muddy the understanding of the Timisoara uprising (Mioc 2000). The other article was by Angela Bacescu, who wrote that the USLA anti-terrorist troops had no responsibility for repression and bloodshed before or after 22 December; instead, they were victims of those events, cynically targeted to leave Romania defenseless. Bacescu would transfer to the Ceausescu nostalgic weekly “Romania Mare” in the fall of 1990, and then the former Securitate’s favored mouthpiece, “Europa,” where she has stayed ever since. Ion Cristoiu, editor of “Zig-Zag” at the time was later asked if Bacescu had infiltrated his opposition weekly. Cristoiu responded that Bacescu came with a lot of documents and no need for money, but that it was important that the former Securitate’s side of the story be told.** Olbojan would admit openly and in detail from 1993 onward that he had been a Securitate officer (for a discussion of all this, see Hall 1999; 2002a).
It was these articles, as I suggested in the last segment of this series, that set off writers in the Army press, with the intentions and ties of both Bacescu and Olbojan being questioned. Elsewhere, Octavian Andronic of “Libertatea” finally published on 10 May, a letter he had received from unnamed Army officers who had written in response to Andronic’s seemingly anomalous article in early January devoted to the bravery of the USLA in defusing bombs in the 1980s. The authors expressed dismay over Andronic’s article and wondered about his motivations in trying to burnish the image of the unit that was still considered at that time the source of the “terrorists.” It was only four months later, when Andronic’s views had been “vindicated” by the change in the official history of the USLA’s actions in December that he published that letter.
Nor was the damage wrought by Bacescu and Olbojan in the pages of “Zig-Zag” over yet. In June, in an article that would be republished almost verbatim in “Romania Mare” two months later, Bacescu wrote “The Truth about Sibiu” suggesting that there were only “imaginary terrorists” in Nicu Ceausescu’s town and declaring that all those Secruitate and Militia people arrested were innocent and unjust victims (no. 15, 19-26 June 1990, p. 8). Meanwhile, in July (no. 19, 17-23 July 1990, p. 13), Olbojan would continue his push to turn the DIA into the villians of December, describing the unit as: “‘The special forces’ of the Defense Ministry troops [who] were used in diversion operations last December to create the impression that Interior Ministry forces were putting up resistance to the revolutionary wave sweeping Timisoara, Bucharest, [and] Sibiu.” In other words, the notion of a “fictitious war with fictitious terrorists,” whose victims were the Securitate and Militia.
AND NOW, WITH YOUR PERMISSION DEAR FRIENDS…BACK TO THE “TERRORISTS”
Let us ask: if this was a “fictitious war with fictitious terrorists,” “a staged war,” what would be evidence of it, and what information would falsify it? The “staged war” theory suggests that in reality there existed no “terrorists,” but just unfounded (if perhaps understandable) suspicion and fear, confusion, and insufficient, poor, or inappropriate military training. This resulted in Army units, other forces, and civilians firing haphazardly at “phantoms,” at each other and at civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or it suggests that there were “terrorists” but they were acting upon the orders of those who had seized power—Iliescu and his friends—or whose actions were known or understood by those officials, but allowed to continue because they were seen as legitimating their seizure of power. As we have seen, in the latter scenario, very frequently these “friendly terrorists” are identified as Soviet or other foreign “tourists”/agents, and or the Army’s DIA unit.
In either scenario, one must explain why, either intentionally or accidentally, during the events, the Securitate—primarily from the USLA anti-terrorist unit—was suspected and publicly accused of being the “terrorists” and responsible directly and indirectly for the death of 942 people and wounding of 2245. It is difficult to “prove” the first scenario, because it is essentially the process of proving a negative. It is possible to infirm it, however. If people who would have been in the position to know, to have access to such information, claim that there were no actual terrorists, then we have to take such an allegation seriously—although we also have to examine their credibility and if they might have some institutional or personal agenda. It should be pointed out, however, that if this or that Army officer or soldier speculates post-facto that because they found no terrorists, that therefore there were none and that they had intentionally been sent on a wild-goose chase designed to create military confrontations and victims to legitimate the seizure of power, this cannot be interpreted as confirmation of the thesis: since it is speculation, conflates personal experience with collective experience, and runs into the problem of proving a negative.
In the scenario alleging that there were terrorists but that they were intentionally serving those who seized power, we must have people from the institution, group, or unit, and/or would have been in a position to have knowledge of that information, make the allegations. To have someone from a different institution or political perspective make this allegation, does not necessarily invalidate it, but it is clear that the credibility of the allegation is substantially enhanced if it comes from one’s associates. Thus, the Army officer who suspects the Securitate of having been the “terrorists” is not as convincing as the Securitate officer who alleges the same thing—and therefore is at the very least taking an implicit risk by breaking ranks with his colleagues. Similarly, in the scenario where the DIA are thought to be the “terrorists,” one needs admissions from current or former members of the unit, or at least from senior Army officials who would have been in the position to know, in order for the scenario to be credible.
It is important to emphasize—particularly in the case of the historiography of the Romanian Revolution—that all “revelations” are not equal. This point has simply been lost on many analysts of the December 1989 events. “Revelations” in which an individual blames an institution of which he was not a member are less credible because 1) it is less likely that the individual would have access to knowledge about the actions of those he accuses, 2) the risk he incurs by such revelations is far less than if he were a member of that institution—in which case he violates a written or unwritten code of loyalty to the organization, and perhaps more important, to his colleagues. “Revelations” that damage one’s institution or impugn one’s colleagues are, as we know, far more dangerous to the individual who makes them, if that institution is based on secrecy. In the Romanian context, it is clear that the institution most strongly based on secrecy—and with the capability and record of enforcing its maintenance—was the Securitate. To suggest that such laws of silence were—and, in particular, still are—stronger among those in the Communist Party, the military, or the nomenklatura as a whole is an extraordinary proposition.
What is significant in the case of the Romanian Revolution is that we have not just one, but several “whistleblowers” who worked in the former Securitate, and in two cases served in the USLA, who have admitted that components of the USLA were the hub of the December 1989 “terrorist” actions. The effort these individuals have gone to in order to mask their identities, the fear of retribution from the former Securitate they have expressed in their revelations, the lengths to which other former Securitate officials have gone to in order to publicly identify these “whistleblowers,” and the vitriol with which these former Securitate officials have attempted to discredit these whistleblowers and their claims, sharply differentiate these revelations from the ocean of accusations by other former regime members who have spoken or written on the topic. These circumstances also attest to their credibility: why do they fear to speak? Why do their former colleagues make such efforts to find out who they are and publicly identify them? Why the obsession of their former colleagues with silencing these “whistleblowers?”
It is precisely the admissions that exist and the gaping gaps in opposing accounts that lead me to conclude that the 1) terrorists existed, 2) they were primarily from the Securitate, and that 3) the core source within the Securitate was the USLA/USLAC.
Those who deny that there were terrorists or that their key component was members of the Securitate’s “Special Unit for Antiterrorist Warfare (USLA)” fighting to prevent the collapse of the Ceausescu regime have yet to confront or respond to the following four critical questions:
1) If there were no terrorists, why do there exist people who have come forward to declare their existence?
2) Why are the only people to declare that the terrorists came from their institution or unit those from the Securitate/Militia, and specifically the USLA?”
3) Why have former Securitate members made such efforts to discover the sources of these allegations, write with such vitriol against them, and threaten them?
4) Why has nobody from the Army come forward to state that the terrorists were from their particular unit? (Particularly significant considering that the “law of silence” in the Securitate/Militia was inevitably far more deeply-embedded and enforced that in the Army.)
* USLA’s chief of operations Alexandru Cristescu admitted elsewhere that those posted at observation points had sniper rifles (pusca cu luneta) and live ammunition (see “Lumea Libera,” 18 March 1995, p. 21). It is also very important to specify, given the events of the next several days in the area of the Central Committee (CC) building and the allegations since, that both Securitate Director Vlad (“Dimineata,” 25 November 1996) and senior communist party official Silviu Curticeanu (“Jurnalul National,” November 2004) have admitted that on 21 December, the Securitate installed gunfire simulators in the area. Demonstrators who investigated the Romarta bloc in the following days, found several of them (“Expres,” 7-13 January 1992, p. 10).
**Although Cristoiu’s motives remain unclear, like so many in the post-Ceausescu media, he has displayed a “laissez-faire” attitude toward the former Securitate: publishing anything that comes his way, whether it be blatant revisionist falsehoods such as those of Bacescu or Olbojan, or documents incriminating the Securitate, such as the text of Order 2600 in “Expres” 1991, or a host of documents on the December events in 1993 in “Evenimentul Zilei.” The former Securitate have been somewhat serendipitous beneficiaries of the—perhaps inevitable given the situation at the time—mercenary and sensationalist temptations confronting those working in the post-Ceausescu media.
“Armata Poporului,” 1990.
Bacescu, A. 1994. Din Nou in Calea Navalirilor Barbare [In the Path of Barbaric Invasions Again] (Cluj-Napoca: Zalmoxis).
Bunea, M. 1994. Praf in Ochi. Procesul celor 24-1-2 [Dust in the Eyes. The Trial of the 24+1+2] (Bucharest: Editura Scripta).
“Dimineata (online),” 1996.
Filip, T. 1999. Secretele USLA [Secrets of the USLA] (Craiova: Editura Obiectiv).
Hall, R. A., 1999, “The Uses of Absurdity: The Staged War Theory and the Romanian Revolution of December 1989,” in “East European Politics and Societies,” Vol. 13, no.3, pp. 501-542.
Hall, R. A., 2002, “Part 1: The Many Zig-Zags of Gheorghe Ionescu Olbojan,” “The Securitate Roots of a Modern Romanian Fairy Tale: The Press, the Former Securitate, and the Historiography of December 1989,” Radio Free Europe “East European Perspectives,” Vol. 4, no 7.
“Jurnalul National (online),” 2004.
“Lumea Libera,” (New York), 1995.
Mioc, M., 2000. “Ion Cristoiu, virful de lance al campaniei de falsificare a istoriei revolutiei” at http://www.timisoara.com/newmioc/51.htm.
“Romania Libera,” 1990, 1993.
Stefanescu, P. 1994, Istoria Serviciilor Secrete Romanesti [The History of the Romanian Secret Services], (Bucharest: Editura Divers Press).
Sturdza, M. 1990, “How Dead is Ceausescu’s Secret Police Force?” in Radio Free Europe’s “Report on Eastern Europe,” Vol. 1, No. 15, (13 April).
“Tineretul Liber,” 1990.