Sunday, January 17, 2010

Romania 1989-A Violent Christmas

As the revolutionary year of 1989 approached its final month, the Communist regimes in the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe had fallen one after the other. But, in one country the government was still in firm control, mainly due to the omnipresent security police, the Securitate. But, by the end of the year, a revolution had taken place and the regime had fallen.

For two dozen years, Romania had been the domain of its despotic ruler Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. It was the most oppressively ruled Eastern European country except Albania under Hoxha and the most independent of the USSR in the Warsaw Pact. Initially his regime gained popularity in the West due to the refusal to severe diplomatic ties with Israel after the Six Days War and for opposing the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by the Warsaw Pact. But, especially in the latter years of his rule, Ceausescu turned into a dangerous megalomaniac. He acted not as the leader of a “developed socialist experiment” but as an African tribal prince, attributing all achievements of his nation (both real and fabricated) to his personal genius. The sycophantic media lauded him as Romania’s “Great Conductor”, “Herald” and “Polyvalent Genius” among other things. As if it was not enough, Ceausescu was elevated to the level of a saint and a living, secular god.

These flamboyant terms could not deceive the Romanian public. Infant mortality was high and medication was scarce. While food was scarce at home, Romania exported food and other produce to pay the staggering debts. The government had razed more than a score of villages to build grandiose “agro industrial complexes” in the countryside, mainly in Transylvania where ethnic Hungarians resided.

Ceausescu regime was characteristic for its nepotism. Nicolae, Elena and their family members occupied important positions in the government and the Communist Party. It was as if Ceausescu was going one step further than Stalin, advocating “socialism in one family” instead of “socialism in one country.”

While he was idolized by his state media, Ceausescu was an outcast for many foreign leaders. In early 1989, when Sweden brought up a motion against Romania’s treatment of ethnic Hungarians at the UN Human Rights Commission, it prompted the first ever quarrel between two Warsaw Pact countries at the UN. Hungary vehemently opposed Romania in support of the Magyars across the border and even the USSR abstained from voting. Ironically it was the “Hungarian question” which started the chain reaction of the revolution.

The events started in the small town of Timisoara on the 16th of December when the government attempted to evict a dissident Hungarian Reformist pastor, Laszlo Tokes. His parishioners gathered around his residence to protect him. Later, as others joined in, the gathering turned into an anti-government protest and the initial cause was largely forgotten. Protest marches, riots and strikes spread in the region.

Romanians in other regions were largely ignorant of the upheaval until Ceausescu’s speech on the national television on the 20th. Back from Iran from what was to be his last official trip, he accused foreign elements for the events in Timisoara. On the next day, a rally was called in Bucharest. From the balcony of the Communist Party Central Committee building, he spoke to a crowd exceeding 100,000. The vast majority of the gathering resented Ceausescu but he totally misunderstood the people. When a commotion rose in a section of the crowd and Ceausescu lost control of them. Although the live telecast on television was stopped, the nation had already witnessed glimpses of the unprecedented event. Meanwhile in the capital itself, a riot developed and the Securitate and other loyalist forces began shooting at the crowd. But the popular movement spread like wild fire. The Ceausescus fled Bucharest and were later captured and executed on Christmas day after a show trial.

Fighting continued for a few more days between the Ceausescu loyalists and the new regime of National Salvation Front led by Ion Iliescu. But by the end of the year Iliescu was firmly in control. It was not the return of democracy to Romania in a true sense as Iliescu also was extremely authoritative and undemocratic. But the hated Ceausescu and his even more hated wife was no more, ending up as two of the thousands of casualties in the only violent revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989. It reminds what John F. Kennedy said once: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

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