Almost Free, 1989 - 1990
UNTIL LATE DECEMBER 1989, it appeared that the Socialist Republic of Romania would enter the final decade of the century as one of the few remaining orthodox communist states. Revelling in his recent political triumphs at the Fourteenth Congress of the Romanian Communist Party (Partidul Communist Român--PCR), President Nicolae Ceausescu adamantly refused to bow to international pressure to relax his iron-fisted rule. Ceausescu cast himself as the last true defender of socialism and rejected the liberalizing reforms adopted by other Eastern European states and the Soviet Union. Instead, his regime unflinchingly continued its Stalinist policies of repression of individual liberties, forced Romanianization of ethnic minorities, destruction of the nation's architectural heritage, and adherence to failed economic policies that had reduced Romania's standard of living to Third World levels.
Despite Ceausescu's growing international isolation, Romania's state-controlled media continued to lionize the "genius of the Carpathians." The period after 1965 was termed the "golden age of Ceausescu," an era when Romania purportedly had taken great strides toward its goal of becoming a multilaterally developed socialist state by the year 2000. The international community regarded the regime's depiction of its achievements as self-serving distortions of reality. But no one could deny that Ceausescu's long rule had radically changed Romania.
When he came to power in 1965, Ceausescu inherited a political model that differed little from the Stalinist prototype imposed in 1948. Under his shrewd direction, however, new control mechanisms evolved, giving Romania the most highly centralized power structure in Eastern Europe. After his election to the newly created office of president of the republic in 1974, Ceausescu officially assumed the duties of head of state while remaining leader of the Romanian Communist Party and supreme commander of the armed forces. Also in 1974, Ceausescu engineered the abolition of the Central Committee's Standing Presidium, among whose members were some of the most influential individuals in the party. Thereafter, policy-making powers would increasingly reside in the Political Executive Committee and its Permanent Bureau, which were staffed with Ceausescu's most trusted allies.
Ceausescu tightened his control of policy making and administration through the mechanism of joint party-state councils, which had no precise counterpart in other communist regimes. The councils went a step beyond the typical Stalinist pattern of interlocking party and state directorates, in which state institutions preserved at least the appearance of autonomy. The fusion of party and state bodies enabled Ceausescu to exercise immediate control over many of the functions the Constitution had granted to the Grand National Assembly, the Council of State, the Council of Ministers, the State Planning Committee and other government entities. Five of the nine joint party-state councils that had emerged by 1989 were chaired by Ceausescu himself or by his wife, Elena.
The appointment of close family members to critical party and government positions was a tactic of power consolidation that Ceausescu employed throughout his tenure. Indeed, the extent of nepotism in his regime was unparalleled in Eastern Europe. In 1989 at least twenty-seven Ceausescu relatives held influential positions in the party and state apparatus. Elena Ceausescu was elected to the Central Committee in 1972 and immediately began amassing power in her own right. From her position as chief of the Party and State Cadres Commission, she was able to dictate organizational and personnel changes throughout the party and the government. And as head of the National Council of Science and Technology, she played a central role in setting economic goals and policy. Ceausescu's brother, Ilie, became deputy minister of national defense and chief of the Higher Political Council of the Army after an alleged military coup attempt in 1983. Ceausescu's son, Nicu, despite a playboy reputation, headed the Union of Communist Youth and was a candidate member of the Political Executive Committee. Western observers coined the term "dynastic socialism" to describe the Romanian polity.
Another control mechanism perfected by Ceausescu was "rotation," a policy applied after 1971 to bolster his personal power at the expense of political institutions. Rotation shunted officials between party and state bureaucracies and between national and local posts, thereby removing Ceausescu's potential rivals before they were able to develop their own power bases. Although rotation was clearly counterproductive to administrative efficiency and was particularly damaging to the economy, Ceausescu continued the policy with vigor. In one month in 1987, for example, he dismissed eighteen ministers from the Council of Ministers-- about one-third of the government body established by the Constitution to administer all national and local agencies.
In the Stalinist tradition, Ceausescu exploited a ruthlessly efficient secret police, the Department of State Security (Departmenatal Securitatii Statului--Securitate) and intelligence service to abort challenges to his authority. Relative to the country's population, these services were the largest in Eastern Europe. And they were perhaps the most effective, judging by the relatively few documented acts of public dissent in Romania as compared with other communist states. Ceausescu generously funded the secret services and gave them carte blanche to preempt threats to his regime. In direct violation of rights guaranteed by the Constitution, Securitate agents maintained surveillance on private citizens, monitoring their contacts with foreigners, screening their mail, tapping their telephones, breaking into their homes and offices, and arresting and interrogating those suspected of disloyalty to the regime. Prominent dissidents suffered more severe forms of harassment, including physical violence and imprisonment.
In addition to the feared Securitate, Ceausescu directly controlled a force of some 20,000 special security troops, whose primary mission was to defend party installations and communications facilities. Heavily indoctrinated in Ceausescu's version of Marxism, these soldiers, in effect, served as a "palace guard." Moreover, as chairman of the Defense Council from its inception in 1969, Ceausescu could rein in the regular armed forces and minimize the threat of a military coup. Further diminishing the military as a potential rival to his authority, Ceausescu developed a unique military doctrine that deprofessionalized the regular armed forces and stressed mass participation in a "War of the Entire People."
As Ceausescu consolidated his power, he was able to pursue his own agenda in economic and foreign policy. For the most part, he continued the classic Stalinist development strategy of his predecessor and mentor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. The goal of that strategy was economic autarky, which was to be attained through the socialization of assets, the rapid development of heavy industry, the transfer of underemployed rural labor to new manufacturing jobs in urban centers, and the development and exploitation of the nation's extensive natural resources.
Romania's progress along the path of "socialist construction" was acknowledged in 1965 when the country's name was changed from the Romanian People's Republic to the Socialist Republic of Romania. The nationalization of industrial, financial, and transportation assets had been largely accomplished by 1950, and some 90 percent of the farmland had been collectivized by 1962. Whereas industry had produced only about one-third of national income on the eve of World War II, it accounted for almost three-fifths in 1965. Industrial output had risen by 650 percent since 1950. This dramatic growth had been achieved by channeling the lion's share of investment capital to heavy industry while neglecting light industry and agriculture. Industrialization had unleashed a massive migration from the countryside to the cities, creating the urban proletariat that, according to Marxist theory, was essential for attaining socialism and, ultimately, communism.
During the first twelve years of Ceausescu's rule, exceptionally high levels of capital accumulation and investment produced one of the most dynamic economic growth rates in the world. The metallurgical, machine-building, and petrochemical industries, which Ceausescu believed were essential for securing economic independence, showed the most dramatic development. Ceausescu mobilized the necessary human and material resources to undertake massive public works projects across the country. He resumed construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal, abandoned by Gheorghiu-Dej in the mid-1950s. Finally opened to traffic in 1984, the canal was the costliest civil-engineering project in Romanian history. Meanwhile, agriculture continued to receive fewer resources than its importance to the economy warranted. The exodus of peasants from the countryside to better-paying urban jobs continued unabated, leaving an aged and increasingly poorly qualified labor force to produce the nation's food.
After 1976 the economy began to falter as Romania failed to make the difficult transition from extensive to intensive development. Although the highly centralized command system had served the country well in the bootstrap industrialization effort, it was poorly suited for managing an increasingly complex and diversified economy. The regime's Stalinist gigantomania had produced sprawling steel and petrochemical plants with capacities far exceeding domestic supplies of raw materials and energy. To repay the West for the technological and financial assistance it had provided in building the plants, Ceausescu had counted on increased export revenues. But even as the facilities were being built, world market prices for steel and refined oil products collapsed, making repayment of the loans difficult and painful. A combination of negative factors (a devastating earthquake in 1977, a prolonged and severe drought, high interest rates charged by Western creditors, and rising prices for imported crude oil) plunged Romania into a financial crisis.
During the 1980s, Romania's economic problems multiplied. A worsening labor shortage hindered growth, and worker dissatisfaction reached unprecedented levels. A persistent shortage of consumer goods made monetary incentives increasingly meaningless. Wage reforms penalizing individual workers for the failure of their factories to meet production targets proved counterproductive and in fact spurred the traditionally docile labor force to stage strikes and demonstrations. Largely because of labor's demoralization, Romania ranked last among the European members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in per capita gross national product, and its agriculture ranked twentieth in Europe in terms of output per hectare.
During the 1980s, Ceausescu's top economic priority was the quickest possible repayment of the foreign debt. His regime took draconian measures to reduce imports and maximize export earnings. Food rationing was reimposed for the first time since the early postwar years, so that agricultural products could be exported for foreign currency. Electricity, heat, gasoline, and numerous other consumer products also were strictly rationed. The Western media began publishing reports of widespread malnutrition and suffering caused by these measures. But the regime's commitment to its policies remained unshaken, and in early 1989 Ceausescu announced that the debt burden had finally been eliminated. Blaming "usurious" Western financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, for many of his country's economic difficulties, Ceausescu proposed, and the Grand National Assembly enacted, legislation banning any agency of the Romanian government from seeking or obtaining foreign credits.
Ceausescu's obsessive drive to retire the foreign debt at virtually any cost was consistent with a centuries-old theme of Romanian history--a longing for national independence and economic self-sufficiency. Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the Romanian lands from earliest history were vulnerable to marauding tribes. Over the centuries, the region was dominated by powerful neighbors, including the Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires. These and other foreign powers plundered the natural wealth of the Romanian lands and held the native population in abject poverty. Although a Walachian prince, Michael the Brave, fought a war of national liberation against the Ottoman Empire in the late sixteenth century and, for a short time, united the three Romanian states of Walachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania, it was not until the late nineteenth century that an independent, unified Romania finally emerged. But for decades after gaining independence, Romanians remained second-class citizens in their own country. Outside interests continued to control much of the nation's industry and agriculture, and non-Romanian ethnic groups dominated commerce.
Throughout the twentieth century, Romania's leaders repeatedly exploited the nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments that the long history of foreign domination had instilled in their countrymen. During the 1930s, these sentiments gave rise to the violently anti- Semitic and anticommunist Iron Guard, the largest fascist movement in the Balkans. The Guard promoted the establishment of a pro-German military dictatorship led by General Ion Antonescu, who brought Romania into World War II on the side of the Axis Powers. But his dream of regaining the territories of Bukovina and Bessarabia, annexed by the Soviet Union in the first year of the war, was not to be realized. Indeed, by joining Hitler's forces and attacking the Soviet Union, Antonescu sealed Romania's tragic postwar fate. Occupied by the victorious Red Army, Romania in 1948 suffered a communist takeover and was forced to pay heavy reparations to the Soviet Union.
During the first decade of communist rule, Romania quietly complied with Moscow's foreign policy requirements and joined the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Treaty Organization (Warsaw Pact) and Comecon. Bucharest curried favor with Moscow by strongly endorsing the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, hoping to be rewarded with the removal of Soviet forces from Romanian territory. After Moscow withdrew its troops in 1958, however, Gheorghiu-Dej was emboldened to set an increasingly independent foreign policy. Tensions over Romania's economic development strategy and relationship to Comecon soon emerged. Gheorghiu-Dej's determination to industrialize his country outraged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had intended to relegate Romania to the role of supplier of agricultural products and raw materials to the industrialized members of Comecon. To lessen dependence on Comecon, Gheorghiu-Dej established economic relations with noncommunist states and contracted with Western firms to build industrial plants in Romania. During the Sino-Soviet dispute, he supported the Chinese position on the equality of communist states and audaciously offered to mediate the disagreement. And in the famous "April Declaration" of 1964, Gheorghiu-Dej asserted the right of all nations to develop policies in accordance with their own interests and domestic requirements.
Accepting the April Declaration as the guiding principle of his foreign policy, Ceausescu further distanced Romania from the Soviet bloc. He defied Moscow by establishing diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1967 and by maintaining relations with Israel after the June 1967 War. He denounced the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and thereafter refused to permit Warsaw Pact military maneuvers on Romanian territory. And he brought Romania into such international organizations as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the IMF, and the World Bank. In the early 1970s, Romania claimed the status of a developing nation, thereby gaining trade concessions from the West and fostering relations with the Third World. Championing the "new economic order," Romania gained observer status at the conferences of the Nonaligned Movement.
The West enthusiastically welcomed Romania's emergence as the maverick of the Warsaw Pact and rewarded Ceausescu's independent course with the credits and technology needed to modernize the country's economy. Prominent Western political figures, including Richard Nixon and Charles de Gaulle, made symbolic trips to Bucharest and paid homage to Ceausescu as an international statesman. When the United States granted most-favored-nation trading status in 1975, the noncommunist world accounted for well over half of Romania's foreign trade. To enhance his growing international status, Ceausescu made highly publicized visits to China, Western Europe, the United States, and numerous Third World nations. By 1976 he had visited more than thirty less-developed countries to promote Romanian exports and to secure new sources of raw materials. As a result of these efforts, in 1980 less-developed countries accounted for one-quarter of Romania's foreign trade.
In the late 1970s, with the onset of Romania's economic difficulties, particularly its foreign-debt crisis, relations with the West began to deteriorate rapidly. Throughout the following decade, Ceausescu's trade policies and domestic programs exhausted the reserves of good will he had built through his defiance of Moscow. Accusing the West of economic imperialism, he slashed imports from the advanced capitalist countries, while selling Romanian goods on their markets at dumping prices.
It was the regime's human rights record, however, that most damaged relations with the West. As early as the mid-1970s, the United States, West Germany, and Israel protested Romania's increasingly restrictive emigration policies. The regime attempted to stem the outflow of productive citizens through various forms of intimidation. Applicants were routinely demoted to menial jobs or fired; some were called to active military duty or assigned to public works details; others were interrogated and subjected to surveillance by the Securitate. Concerned for the fate of the large number of ethnic Germans who wanted to leave Romania, West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt travelled to Bucharest and negotiated a program to purchase emigration papers for them. Over the 1978-88 period, West Germany "repatriated" some 11,000 persons annually, paying the equivalent of several thousand United States dollars for each exit visa.
Ceausescu's restrictive emigration policies seemingly conflicted with another of his primary goals--assimilation of ethnic groups into a homogeneous, Romanianized population. The tactics used to achieve that goal grew progressively harsher during the 1980s and further tarnished Romania's international image. The regime's attempts to assimilate the Transylvanian Hungarian community--with nearly 2 million members, the largest national minority in non-Soviet Europe--were particularly controversial and inflamed relations with Budapest. The "Hymn to Romania" propaganda campaign, launched in 1976, glorified the historical contributions of ethnic Romanians in unifying and liberating the nation. Hungarian and German place-names were Romanianized, and history books were revised to ignore key minority figures or to portray them as Romanians. Publishing in minority languages was severely curtailed, and television and radio broadcasts in Hungarian and German were suspended. Educational opportunities for minority students desiring instruction in their native languages were reduced, and Hungarians seeking employment in their ancestral communities encountered hiring discrimination that forced them to leave those communities and settle among ethnic Romanians.
Potentially the greatest threat to the Hungarian community, however, was Ceausescu's program to "systematize" the countryside. Conceived in the early 1970s--ostensibly to gain productive farmland by eliminating "nonviable" villages--systematization threatened to destroy half of the country's 13,000 villages, including many ancient ethnic Hungarian and German settlements.
Ceausescu's assimilation campaign forced large numbers of ethnic Hungarians to flee their homeland, triggering large anti-Ceausescu demonstrations in Budapest. In retaliation, Ceausescu closed the Hungarian consulate in Cluj-Napoca, the cultural center of the Hungarian community in Transylvania. In early 1989, Hungary filed an official complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, accusing Romania of gross violations of basic human rights. The Swedish representative to the commission cosponsored a resolution with five other Western nations calling for an investigation of Hungary's allegations against the Ceausescu regime. Earlier in the year, Romania's international reputation had been badly damaged by its conduct at the Vienna Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Failing in its attempt to delete human rights provisions from the conference's final document, the Romanian delegation declared it was not bound by the agreement. This action was condemned not only by Western delegations but also by delegations from some Warsaw Pact states.
Treatment of ethnic minorities was only one of numerous sources of friction between Romania and the rest of the Warsaw Pact during the late 1980s. Despite his country's growing economic vulnerability, Ceausescu continued to defy Soviet-backed Comecon initiatives to integrate further the economies of the member states. He rejected the efforts of President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union to create supranational manufacturing enterprises and research and development centers, and he opposed mutual convertibility of the national currencies of the member states. Adamantly rejecting economic decentralization and privatization, Ceausescu became Comecon's most outspoken critic of Gorbachev's perestroika campaign. Despite Ceausescu's polemics, however, Romania's economy became increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union, which provided all the natural gas, more than half the crude oil, and much of the electricity, iron ore, coking coal, and other raw materials that Romania imported after the mid-1980s. The Romanians gained access to these materials by participating in numerous ventures to develop Soviet natural resources. Moreover, Moscow transferred an ever larger volume of manufacturing technology and know-how to Romanian industry, including state-of-the-art steel-casting and aircraft-manufacturing technologies.
In the late 1980s, Romania's growing reliance on the Soviet Union as a source of raw materials and technology, as well as a market for noncompetitive manufactured goods, placed Ceausescu in a delicate position. Estranged from the West, Romania could ill afford to antagonize its most important trading partner. Nevertheless, the defiant Ceausescu did not moderate his criticism of Gorbachev's dramatic reforms. Indeed, the Romanian president had cause for concern, as the peoples of Eastern Europe responded to Gorbachev's cues and demanded liberalization. From the Baltic to the Balkans, in 1989 hardline communist regimes gave way to a new generation of politicians willing to accommodate their populations' desires for democracy and market economies.
Ceausescu would not willingly yield to the forces of historic change sweeping Eastern Europe. His faith in the massive control structure so carefully erected over the previous quarter century remained unshaken. Indeed, the regime had stifled the scattered voices of dissent and had prevented the emergence of a grass-roots political movement analogous to Poland's Solidarity or Czechoslovakia's Civic Forum. Following his November 1989 reelection for another five-year term as general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, there appeared to be no serious internal threat to Ceausescu's continued totalitarian rule.
The agent who would galvanize the nation's discontent and hatred for the Ceausescu regime suddenly appeared in December 1989, in the person of László Tökés, a young Hungarian pastor in Timisoara. Tökés had been persecuted for months by the Securitate for his sermons criticizing the lack of freedom in Romania. When his congregation physically intervened to prevent the government from evicting the popular pastor, hundreds of other Timisoara residents took to the streets to express their solidarity with the congregation. Inspired by the democratic changes that had occurred elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the swelling crowds defied government orders to disperse and began calling for the end of the Ceausescu regime.
Believing he could abort the Timisoara rebellion, Ceausescu ordered the use of deadly force. At a December 17 meeting of the Political Executive Committee, he furiously charged that the uprising had been instigated by Hungarian agents supported by the Soviet Union and the United States. Repeating his order to fire on the demonstrators, Ceausescu departed for a scheduled three-day visit to Tehran. During his absence, the protest in Timisoara exploded in violence. Although Minister of National Defense Vasile Milea had not obeyed the initial order to use deadly force, by the afternoon of December 17, Securitate forces opened fire, killing and wounding scores of demonstrators. But the rebellion could not be contained by intimidation, and the protestors' bravery won increasing numbers of soldiers to their side.
Word of the Timisoara uprising spread to the rest of the country, thanks in large part to foreign radio broadcasts. When Ceausescu returned from Iran on December 20, accounts of heavy loss of life in Timisoara had already incited protests in Bucharest. At a televised proregime rally the next day, Ceausescu addressed a large crowd of supporters assembled in front of the Central Committee headquarters building. As he spoke, a few brave students began unfurling anti-Ceausescu banners and chanting revolutionary slogans. Dumbfounded by the crowd's rumblings, the aged ruler yielded the microphone to his wife as the television broadcast was interrupted. The once unassailable Ceausescu regime suddenly appeared vulnerable. As the crowd sang "Romanians Awake," shots rang out. The revolt had claimed its first martyrs in Bucharest.
On the morning of December 22, Ceausescu again appeared on the balcony of the Central Committee headquarters and tried to address the crowds milling below. Seeing that the situation was now out of his control and that the army was joining the protesters, Ceausescu and his wife boarded a helicopter and fled the capital, never to return. They were captured several hours later at Cîmpulung, about 100 kilometers northwest of Bucharest. The desperate fugitives' attempts to bribe their captors failed, and for three days they were hauled about in an armored personnel carrier. Meanwhile, confused battles among various military and Securitate factions raged in the streets. Fighting was especially heavy near the Bucharest television station, which had become the nerve center of the revolt. The media's grossly exaggerated casualty figures (some reports indicated as many as 70,000 deaths; the actual toll was slightly more than 1,000 killed) convinced citizens that Romania faced a protracted, bloody civil war, the outcome of which could not be predicted. Against this ominous backdrop, a hastily convened military tribunal tried Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu for "crimes against the people" and sentenced them to death by firing squad. On Christmas Day, a jubilant Romania celebrated news of the Ceausescus' executions and sang long-banned traditional carols.
In the tumultuous hours following the Ceausescus' flight from Bucharest, the power vacuum was filled by one Ion Iliescu, a former Central Committee secretary and deputy member of the Political Executive Committee who had fallen into disfavor with Ceausescu. Iliescu took charge of organizing a provisional ruling group, which called itself the National Salvation Front (NSF).
As the fighting subsided after Ceausescu's death, the NSF proceeded to garner public support through several astute policy decisions. Food exports were suspended, and warehouses of prime meats and other foodstuffs were opened to the long-deprived citizenry. Ceausescu's energy restrictions on households were lifted, whereas wasteful industrial users were subjected to mandatory conservation. The despised systematization program was halted. Abortions were legalized. And the feared Securitate was placed under military control.
Despite the early popular decisions taken by the NSF, in mid- January, thousands of protesters again took to the streets of Bucharest, demanding that Securitate criminals and Ceausescu's associates be brought to justice. President Iliescu and his designated prime minister, Petre Roman, placated the crowds with the promise (subsequently revoked) that the PCR would be outlawed. To defuse charges that the NSF had "stolen the revolution" from the people, a Provisional Council of National Unity was formed, ostensibly to give voice to a broader spectrum of political views. The council pledged that free and open elections would be held in April (subsequently postponed until May) and that the NSF would not participate. By late January, however, the NSF announced that it would form a party and would field a slate of candidates.
During the following weeks, the NSF consolidated its control of the political infrastructure it had inherited largely intact from the deposed regime. Supported by entrenched apparatchiks in the media, the postal service, municipal administrations, police departments, and industrial and farm managements, the NSF was assured of a landslide victory.
More than eighty political parties (many of them single-issue extremist groups) competed in the spring elections. The NSF- dominated media accorded these exotic groups the same limited coverage as the reemergent "historical" parties (the National Peasant Party, the National Liberal Party, and the Social Democratic Party). The historical parties, which had been banned for some four decades, lacked the resources and political savvy to wage effective campaigns. The parties failed to harness the public frustration manifested in frequent spontaneous anti-NSF rallies, some of which involved tens of thousands of disgruntled citizens. The NSF ensured that the opposition parties would not be able to deliver their message to the voters. Opposition candidates were prevented from campaigning in the workplace; the postal system intercepted opposition literature; and NSF propagandists in the media grossly misrepresented the platforms and personal backgrounds of opposition candidates.
The May elections gave the NSF a resounding victory. Presidential candidate Iliescu won more than 85 percent of the popular vote. NSF candidates for the new bicameral legislature collected 92 of 119 seats in the Senate and 263 of 396 seats in the Assembly of Deputies. International observers generally agreed that despite some tampering and intimidation by the NSF, the outcome of the elections reflected the majority will. The abuses of the electoral process, however, had been committed long before the ballots were cast. The National Peasant Party alone reported that during the campaign police had stood by as thugs assaulted party members, killing at least two persons and sending 113 others to hospitals.
The NSF campaign had successfully submerged the communist roots of its leadership while extolling Romanian nationhood and the Romanian Orthodox Church. The NSF had exploited long-simmering interethnic tensions to gain votes. In March these tensions had led to violence in the town of Tîrgu Mures, the capital of the former Hungarian Autonomous Region. The celebration of the Hungarian national holiday by the town's Hungarian residents enraged a radical Romanian nationalist organization known as Vatra Românéasca (Romanian Cradle). Reminiscent of the fascist Iron Guard, Vatr Românéasca orchestrated brutal assaults on innocent Hungarians. For hours, the police ignored the violence, which claimed eight deaths and more than 300 severe injuries. The NSF sided with Vatr Românéasca in blaming the violence on Hungarian revanchists. When National Liberal and Social Democratic politicians condemned the attacks, Vatra Românéasca thugs ransacked the headquarters of these opposition parties.
The NSF's reaction to the clashes in Tîrgu Mures was an ominous sign that the Ceausescu policy of forced Romanianization had survived the "revolution." In subsequent months, the number of ethnic Hungarian refuges fleeing Transylvania reached unprecedented levels. But Hungarians were not the only ethnic group seeking to emigrate; reportedly, half of the approximately 200,000 ethnic Germans residing in Romania at the beginning of 1990 had already departed by September, as had untold thousands of Gypsies.
Soon after his lopsided election victory, President Iliescu ordered the removal of several hundred anti-NSF demonstrators who had occupied Bucharest's Victory Square since April 22. On June 13, a force of about 1,500 police and military cadres moved against the peaceful demonstrators, arresting many of them. But as the arrests proceeded, the ranks of the protesters were replenished, and outraged mobs attacked the Bucharest police inspectorate, the Ministry of Interior, the television station, and the offices of the Romanian Intelligence Service (the successor of the Securitate).
Perhaps recalling the army's role in deposing his predecessor, Iliescu did not rely on the military to contain the demonstrations. His national defense minister, Victor Stanculescu, had made it clear that he wanted to keep politics out of the army and the army out of politics. Iliescu appealed to the coal miners of the Jiu Valley to come to Bucharest, as they had done in January, to restore order and save the democratically elected government from "neofascist" elements. Within one day of his appeal, some 10,000 club-wielding miners arrived in Bucharest aboard 27 specially commissioned railroad cars. During a two-day binge of violence, the vigilantes killed an estimated 21 persons and severely injured 650 others. Immediately upon arriving in Bucharest, the miners headed for the offices of the two main opposition parties, which they ransacked. They also attacked the homes of opposition party leaders and assaulted anyone they suspected of being sympathetic to the opposition. Having dispersed the demonstrators, the miners received Iliescu's warm thanks and returned to the Jiu Valley.
The international community universally condemned the Iliescu government's use of violence to suppress dissent. The European Community postponed signing a trade and economic cooperation agreement with Romania. The United States government withheld all nonhumanitarian aid and boycotted the June 25 inauguration of President Iliescu. Bucharest somewhat rehabilitated its international standing by supporting the boycott against Iraq following that country's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The European Community heads of state, meeting in Rome in December 1990, voted to extend emergency food and medical aid to Romania and to consider compensating Bucharest for the economic hardship caused by its support of sanctions against Iraq. The United States government supported this assistance but continued to withhold most-favored-nation trading status in light of Bucharest's unsatisfactory pace of democratization and suspect human rights record.
The international community and many Romanian citizens believed that the chief perpetrator of human rights abuses during the Ceausescu era, the infamous Securitate, continued to operate, even though it officially had been disbanded in early 1990. In February, some 3,000 army officers, cadets, and conscripts demonstrated in Bucharest to protest the presence of more than 6,000 Securitate officers in their midst. But the government responded to such protests with only token prosecution of former Securitate agents known to have committed crimes before and during the revolt. As of late December 1990, no independent commissions had investigated securitate abuses. Moreover, the NSF had established the Romanian Intelligence Service, which employed many former Securitate members. And following the June demonstrations, when Iliescu found he could not rely on the army to rescue his government, a gendarmerie reminiscent of Ceausescu's Patriotic Guards was created.
The NSF's unwillingness to purge former Securitate agents and other close associates of Ceausescu confirmed many Romanians' suspicions that their revolution had been highjacked by a neocommunist cabal. By October, the growing perception that the NSF had exploited the spontaneous uprising in Timisoara to disguise a palace coup gave rise to an umbrella opposition group demanding the government's resignation. Known as Civic Alliance, the loose coalition of intellectuals, monarchists, labor activists, and various other interest groups claimed a membership of nearly one million. In mid-November, Civic Alliance organized the largest nationwide demonstrations since Ceausescu's overthrow. Some 100,000 persons in Bucharest and tens of thousands in Brasov marched to protest the continued presence of communists in the government and to express outrage over sharp price increases for consumer goods. The demonstrations forced the government to postpone the second phase of its price-adjustment program (initiated largely to satisfy IMF requirements for economic assistance).
Despite the government's concessions on price hikes, however, Civic Alliance, student groups, and labor union leaders continued to organize antigovernment demonstrations and strikes throughout the country. Teamsters, airline workers, teachers, medical personnel, and factory workers joined student-led protests, which became increasingly disruptive. Civic Alliance and the major opposition parties in parliament called for a government of national unity, new elections, and a referendum on the country's future form of government. Some members of Civic Alliance called for the restoration of King Michael to the that throne he had been forced to abdicate in 1947. Living in exile near Geneva, Michael declared himself willing and able to serve Romania as a stabilizing force during its transition to democracy.
The political ferment threatening to bring down the Iliescu government in late 1990 was fired by Romania's unmitigated economic misery and a pervasive sense that life would only get worse. The NSF government had inherited a decrepit economy struggling with an obsolete capital stock, underdeveloped transport system, severe energy and raw materials shortages, demoralized labor force, declining exports, and a desperate need for Western financial and technical assistance.
The economic decline accelerated during 1990, and as winter approached, Romanians faced many of the same hardships they had known during the worst years of the Ceausescu regime. Preliminary estimates indicated a decrease in GNP of between 15 percent and 20 percent, a 20-percent decline in labor productivity, and a 43- percent reduction in exports. Declining fuel and electricity production was particularly worrisome because of reductions in Soviet deliveries and the shortage of hard currency needed to purchase energy elsewhere. Furthermore, Romania's support of United Nations sanctions against Baghdad during the Persian Gulf crisis cut off that important source of crude oil. Before the sanctions were imposed, Iraq had been delivering oil to repay its US$ 1.5 billion debt to Bucharest.
The NSF's early attempts to win support by raising personal consumption levels resulted in the rapid depletion of inventories and generated a large trade deficit. Its decision to raise wages and shorten the work week caused severe inflation and lowered labor discipline. The rise in personal incomes badly outstripped the availability of consumer goods, so that anything of potential barter or resale value was instantly bought up as soon as it appeared on the store shelves.
The government addressed Romania's daunting economic problems with a tentative and ineffective reform program, fearing that citizens would not tolerate the sacrifices that a "shock-therapy" approach would require. Peasants on cooperative and state farms were granted slightly larger plots, and prices at farmers' markets were officially decontrolled. To encourage creation of small businesses, especially in the service sector, private individuals were given the legal right to employ as many as twenty persons. In addition, an agency was set up to administer the privatization of state assets.
As Romania's economic deterioration accelerated, Prime Minister Roman assumed greater personal control of reform efforts. In October he addressed a special session of parliament and requested exceptional powers to implement a more radical reform program. In addition to the aforementioned price hikes on various consumer goods and services, which were supposed to be cushioned by compensatory payments to the nonworking population, Roman's plan called for replacing the leu in 1991 with a new monetary unit at the rate of ten to one to absorb some of the surplus lei in circulation. The new currency gradually would be made convertible, thereby attracting foreign investment. Roman indicated that the government would also remove surplus money from circulation by allowing private citizens to buy land, state-owned housing, and stocks and bonds.
In late 1990, Roman's reform program appeared to have almost no chance of succeeding. Public outrage had thwarted the attempt to establish more realistic prices. The government had failed to overcome bureaucratic inertia on the part of anti-reform officials and managers fearful of losing their special privileges. More importantly, the government's loss of legitimacy with the people and the threat of a potentially violent "second revolution" left Romania's future course in grave doubt.
|Country Studies main page | Romania Country Studies main page|