Romania’s Cryptic Revolution
- Foreign Desk
Colin Woodard | December 18, 2009 Among Warsaw Bloc countries, Romania’s revolution was uniquely brutal. Twenty years later, scholars still debate whether the worst bloodshed was caused by revolutionaries fighting each other by mistake. Lead Image:
A child feeds pigeons in Victoriei Square, a hot-spot of Romania’s 1989 anti-communist revolt in Timisoara, 340 miles west of Bucharest. (Photo by Bogdan Cristel/Reuters.)
There was nothing velvet about Romania’s revolution, which broke out 20 years ago this week.
While their neighbors tossed aside hard-line regimes with little or no bloodshed, 1,104 Romanians were killed and 3,352 injured in clashes between various combinations of protestors, soldiers, secret police, and groups of shadowy figures described as “terrorists” whose identity and existence has been debated ever since. Eastern Europe’s other communist leaders had either led their country’s revolutions or had been eased into retirement; Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed in the courtyard of a rural military garrison.
And while the Romanian Revolution put an end to Europe’s last Stalinist dictatorship – complete with acute food shortages, omnipotent secret police, and a cult of personality – it replaced it with a group of men who had been a part of the regime and were not eager to see its inner workings exposed to the public, scholars, or the courts.
“You cannot live a lie, it’s not healthy,” says Zoe Petre, a historian at the University of Bucharest, who says few have been held accountable for murders and other crimes from the Ceausescu era because the guilty have remained powerful and influential. “They are afraid of the precedents and they are doing whatever they can to block any kind of criminal action.”
Twenty years on, many of the mysteries surrounding the 1989 Revolution have been solved, but scholars remain divided on whether the big truths have been revealed or remain hidden in the shadows. “What happened in Romania’s Revolution depends on who you talk to,” says Peter Siani-Davies, author of a widely respected history of the event. “I believe we know more or less what happened, but it doesn’t persuade everybody.”
Romania was different in 1989. The other countries in the Soviet’s East European empire had replaced the total terror of hard-line Stalinist regimes of the 1950s with more moderate dictatorships of one sort or another. Romanian Communists retained theirs to the bitter end.
Ceausescu built a cult of personality modeled on that of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung backed by the securitate, a secret police force believed to have Orwellian omnipresence. Convinced that Romania’s national greatness would grow in direct proportion with its population size, he had banned abortion and birth control, clogging horrific state orphanages with unwanted babies. Villages were bulldozed and their residents consolidated in shoddy housing blocks in an effort to create a “rural proletariat.”
In the 1980s — having spent millions razing much of historic Bucharest to build his 3.8 million square foot palace — Ceausescu had became obsessed with paying off his foreign debts. To do so, he slashed imports and sharply increased exports without regard to domestic needs. By 1989, Romanians were shivering in apartments and workplaces that were only heated for a few hours a day. Electricity was severely rationed, elevators and many electric appliances were banned, and people stood in long lines for pig’s feet and other low quality foodstuffs in a country with oil fields and a massive agricultural sector.
The people’s putsch
Scholars generally agree on what transpired during the first phase of the Romanian Revolution, which started in the provincial city of Timisoara, near the Hungarian and Yugoslav borders, on December 17, 1989. Residents — who watched the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall via foreign television broadcasts — took to the streets, sacked government buildings, and overwhelmed army detachments that tried to suppress them.
“It started as an uprising of normal people — students, professors, workers. It was not a conspiracy at all,” says Ms. Petre, who helped train a new generation of scholars who are probing recently opened archives. “They weren’t organized in any way before the revolution and had to organize on the spot.”
Petre says it’s also become clear that the Timisoara protestors fanned out by train, bus, and cars in an organized way to Bucharest and other Romanian cities, sparking demonstrations and deadly clashes in many of them on Dec. 21. “They knew that if Timisoara stayed isolated, sooner or later they would be crushed,” she says. “They had to spread the word.”
Ceausescu grossly misjudged the situation, calling a mass rally on Dec. 21 in front of the Communist Party Central Committee Building in Bucharest, where he addressed the nation on live television. The crowd booed him and, after the police tried to intervene, the city erupted into street fighting that raged through the night. The next morning, Ceausescu tried to address the crowds again. They threw stones and rushed the building.
Ceausescu and his wife escaped in an overloaded helicopter, lifting off from the roof of the Central Committee at 12:08 p.m. Their pilot ultimately ditched the couple and their two bodyguards on a country road, claiming they were about to be shot down. (His military superiors had switched allegiances and radioed the pilot that he was on his own.) Two presidential carjackings later, the Ceausescus reached a rural army garrison, whose officers shortly received orders to arrest them.
At 3 p.m., a group of once-prominent Communist officials gathered in the Central Committee building and announced the formation of a provisional government. Led by Ion Iliescu — a former Central Committee member — the group included men who had served as Ceausescu’s foreign ministers, armed forces minister, his official interpreter, and the commander of his police school. Backed by elements of the army, they promised free elections while espousing reform communism.
“These second echelon Communist Party leaders staged a coup d’etat during a popular revolt in the streets,” says Lavinia Stan, a Romania expert at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. “Power passed to second-echelon Communist Party leaders who presented themselves as Gorbachev-style reformers because there was no real non-Communist opposition in Romania.”
The enemy is us?
Experts remain divided on what happened after this change in power, when over 85 percent of the Revolution’s deaths occurred.
That night, fighting intensified, with pitched battles at the defense ministry, television headquarters, airports and other strategic locations in the capital. At the time, protestors and army units loyal to the new government believed they were fighting pro-regime “terrorists.”
Many researchers now believe these “terrorists” never existed. “It came down to a mess and muddle in which these forces were running around looking for enemies and they ended up shooting each other,” says Mr. Siani-Davies. “Once darkness came they started distributing guns to a lot of teenagers; teens are likely to shoot, especially if someone fires on them.”
“The evidence is overwhelming that [revolutionaries] either mistakenly or deliberately shot at one another,” says Ms. Petre. “Nobody found any evidence of the terrorists.”
Some disagree. Independent researcher Richard Andrew Hall points to substantial evidence that shadowy anti-revolutionary forces were involved in the intense fighting in the days after Ceausescu’s flight. Hall has posted research papers pointing out widespread accounts of people being injured or killed by dum-dum bullets, which are designed to shatter inside the body to maximize organ damage and are outlawed under the Geneva Conventions. Ordinary army and police units did not stock such ammo.
“Let us hope that on the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution we may be able to read serious investigations of the ballistics evidence, rather than be subjected to the false and jaded refrain [that] such things did not exist,” Mr. Hall concluded.
(Hall’s current employer — the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — has allowed him to publish his personal research, but does not permit him to give interviews.)
The National Salvation Front won the May 1990 parliamentary elections and Iliescu was elected president in a landslide. Over the following decade, former securitate officials became major businessmen and political figures and efforts to bring individuals to justice for Communist-era crimes were systematically blocked, according to the final report of an official presidential commission released in 2006.
“Secret police files are now available to ordinary Romanians, but the access came too late,” says Ms. Stan, who notes some Communist-era archives remain closed. “It’s not like in East Germany, where you had close to a million requests to see files in the first years after they were opened. In Romania the total is 30,000….People just lost interest.”