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Romania: The Bloody Revolution In 1989 : Communist, Ion Iliescu, Tells His Story

  • Jeremy Bransten

Ion Iliescu played a pivotal and controversial role in Romania's 1989 revolution. Once a member of Nicolae Ceausescu's inner circle, he was demoted in the 1980s. While he played no role in the suppression of the uprising in Timisoara, by the time unrest spread to Bucharest, Iliescu had come to the fore. Within hours, he took control of the revolution -- some say he hijacked it -- and he ruled Romania as president until 1996, surrounded by former Ceausescu aides. Critics accuse him of abusing his power and failing to carry out true reforms. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten spoke to Iliescu, now head of the opposition Social Democrats, in a wide-ranging interview at his Bucharest party headquarters.

Bucharest, 15 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iliescu was asked what he was doing when the uprising broke out in Timisoara in mid-December 1989 and whether events took him by surprise:

"It was not a surprise for anybody. Because all the people expected these changes. The general dissatisfaction and the general revolt were a general characterization of the climate in the country. But there was no possibility of expressing it in a concrete manner. Timisoara was of course a heroic interference of the population in this process and many people decided to take part, despite measures taken by Ceausescu to suppress this movement.

"I was at that time the director of a printing house for technical books. And we had some relations with a printing enterprise in Timisoara. And immediately, we received information that something was happening in Timisoara on the 16th and the 17th. And then it was a great mistake of Ceausescu to convoke this great meeting of the population in Bucharest. He considered he would receive the support of the population against this movement in Timisoara. But this meeting became the starting point of the national revolution to eliminate Ceausescu."

Iliescu was asked how he came to take control of the revolution after it reached Bucharest. He says he was known in Romania as a reformist, because of his opposition to Ceausescu's extreme policies:

"I was known in the country, because from '71 I had some public positions against some aspects of the policy of Ceausescu. I was with him on a visit to Asian countries in '71, in June, and we had, even during this visit, some contradictory dialogues concerning the situation mainly in North Korea. He was impressed by this model -- the North Korean model -- and the manner in which Kim Il Sung succeeded in introducing overall control over society.

"He was preoccupied by this because of course he had his merits, in '68, opposing the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact and it was a moment of heroic opposition, I think, of Romania. And Ceausescu received the overall support of the population of Romania. But afterwards he was preoccupied that the Soviets would promote some measures inside the country to overthrow him. And it was his preoccupation. In '71, he saw in the [North] Korean model, a possible model for him to introduce the same control in the country. And we had some discussion about this matter. I asked him: What are the elements which could inspire any confidence in such a system, in such a model, which is an anti-human model of organizing the state and the state's relations with society?

"Afterwards, I was thrown out of my political position, from the leadership of the country. I was sent to Timisoara for three and a half years, after to Iasi, in another extremity of the country. And towards the end, he decided to expel me from any political activity and for five years worked in a national council for hotel management and the last six years in this printing house."

Despite the fact that Iliescu and his associates expected a revolution to occur, was he surprised by the speed of the actual uprising in Timisoara?

"I did expect, as many others did, that something [would] happen. But we did not have the possibility to act directly to attain some changes. But it was clear for me that only such a popular movement will put Romania on a course for change, as happened in many other countries. So, during the days of the Timisoara movement, I was prepared from a psychological point of view, I would say."

Iliescu was asked to remember in detail how events developed over the next few days in December 1989:

"And then on the 21st, when this meeting was convoked, I was working in the publishing house. These groups of people who followed me were all the time at my side -- they followed me all the time -- day and night. And on the 22nd, even until 11 o'clock, they were at my side. At 11, they disappeared. At 12, Ceausescu left the television, and some friends told me that the crowds at the television were growing and that people were coming there. And I also left for the television. From this moment, all these events developed."

Iliescu describes how, out of the initial chaos of the revolution, he began to formulate an organizational plan:

"I was in this studio of the television, addressing the country. There was a permanent presence of different people expressing their enthusiasm with this movement, which was taking place in our country. Some hours of general enthusiasm, of general solidarity of general hope for better things and so on... But I felt that something had to be put in order because such enthusiasm and general sentiment of liberation can lead to general anarchy and dissolution of the country. I proposed to think something up and I appealed to all the people to take part in this -- I didn't realize even how it would happen -- to meet in the Central Committee. It was in the center of Bucharest. But thousands of people were there. It was not possible even to discuss something.

"A group of about 20 of us did meet in a room to draft a sort of proclamation to the country and to propose some things. When we started to discuss this proclamation, it was already after 6:00 in the afternoon, some shooting was provoked by somebody. We didn't know what had happened and who was provoking it, but a panic began and a military confrontation started in the dark of the evening of the 22nd.

"So, it was the start of the revolution, with violence and these difficulties. In spite of this, we did finalize to the end our proclamation, we left the Central Committee for the headquarters."

Iliescu details the provisions of his proclamation to the country, as well as the birth of the National Salvation Front:

"We went to the Ministry of the Army to discuss with the leadership of the army what had happened and how to introduce order. And then we met again at the television, in the middle of the night, we presented our proclamation to the country, with 10 points, which were, in fact, the program of the Romanian revolution -- with general goals: the democratization of the country, pluralism, the setting up of a state of law, the changing of the economy to a market economy - an efficient economy, with industry, agriculture, trade and so on... And the opening up of the country to the world. It became the main program of the Romanian revolution and the setting up of the first provisional body, with the responsibility to rule the country -- the National Salvation Front.

"It worked for one month. We did reorganize this body into a Provisional Council for National Unity with the presence, this time, of the first parties which appeared in the month of January. On the 1st of February, we met with the leaders of these new parties -- there were 30 parties after one month only. On the 9th of February, when we convoked the first plenary session of this new body, with three representatives from each party, nine other parties had already appeared. So the Provisional Council was set up by the representatives of 39 parties and, adding to them, the representatives of the national minorities. It was our first idea -- this democratic representation of all the sectors of our society, including the national minorities. And then, in the constitution, a provision was introduced to have such a permanent representation of the national minorities in the parliament of the country, which is the case even now."

One of the most mysterious, and still unexplained, moments of the revolution was the period between December 22 and December 25, 1989, when unidentified groups roamed the streets of Bucharest and other cities, terrorizing the population and killing scores of people. Most of the deaths in Romania's revolution occurred in this period.

Iliescu says the killing was conducted by "terrorists" bent on bringing Ceausescu back to power. His opponents accuse Iliescu and the army of plotting the whole episode as a diversion, to allow them to consolidate their power. No terrorist was ever found. The violence ended abruptly, on December 25, the day of Ceausescu's execution. Iliescu was asked for his explanation of events:

"Our first idea in this moment was: who could be interested in this? And our idea was that there has to be some special group -- specialized, prepared groups -- inside the Securitate, maybe connected directly to Ceausescu, prepared in such an extreme moment, to intervene, to save the system. It was our first idea and I don't know even who was the first to use this word, 'the terrorists' - because they acted as terrorists. From dark places, they shot at many institutions, because they could see [that] this activity was concentrated around the Central Committee, where a lot of people met who participated in this action to overthrow Ceausescu.

"Another argument in favor of this thesis was the moment after the trial of Ceausescu and after his execution. All this activity was stopped. So, there was this conclusion that these people acted for some specific goal, to preserve, to save Ceausescu and Ceausescu's regime. Of course, it was maybe not a very large number of people -- professionals. And they disappeared. It's a pity, but we have no material proof of such people.

"Many were arrested in [those] days -- about 1,000, but on the first verification from the prosecutor's office, everyone had some alibi and could not be condemned for such activity. It remains one of the questions -- non-elucidated -- of our revolution. There are other conclusions: Maybe there did not exist even such specific groups, such professionals acting in this connection. Maybe it was, in these conditions, when many people received arms from the Securitate -- because these military groups, from the Securitate, which had the task to assure the protection of buildings -- they left their arms and many people entering the HQ of the Central Committee, entered in the possession of arms and anybody could use the arms, which did provoke this chain reaction of shooting. Maybe. It could be.

"Unfortunately, we did not have the possibility to have very concrete conclusions on this point. It remains one of the contradictory problems of our revolution."

Iliescu and his associates have been repeatedly criticized for ordering a rapid "show" trial of the Ceausescus, which did not allow for a full examination of the evidence against them. Iliescu admits it would have been better to wait, but says circumstances did not allow it:

"We acted under very specific conditions there -- [there was] shooting [everywhere]. And a small group of the members of the National Salvation Front, knowing that Ceausescu is there -- we did ask the existing institutions, the prosecutors and the Supreme Court, to nominate the people to go there and organize this trial. Of course, from the political point of view, we did discuss it.

"It would have been better for us, if we could have preserved him and then organized -- in normal conditions -- a trial. It would have been politically better, of course. But we were under the pressure of this military confrontation, when people died every hour ... so there was this idea to organize this trial faster, to give the people this chance to change. Because they did connect they idea of change with the disappearance of Ceausescu."

After a three-day trial, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas Day (December 25), 1989, by a military firing squad. Iliescu was asked whether he gave the order:

"No, no no... We didn't get an opinion... I personally did not have any discussion -- not with the members of the trial, with the prosecutor, not with anybody. We only sent two members of the National Salvation Front. Mr. General Voican Voiculescu and Mr. Magurelu. And General Stanculesuc, who was a member of this council, organized the displacement of people in Tirgoviste and also organized the trial, but the decision, it was an independent decision of these representatives of judicial institutions. Based on the law existing at that time."

The speed with which Iliescu took control of events, starting on December 22, gave rise to speculation that he had already discussed seizing power, along with disaffected military officers, months earlier. Iliescu was asked if there was any truth to those rumors. Did he plot a takeover earlier in 1989?

"I think many people did discuss, on a particular basis -- me personally, also -- I had such discussions with many people. Of course, in very restricted conditions and in a very confidential way -- with political personalities, with simple people, even with a former military man, General Ionita and Militaru, with Mr. Magurelu, who was a professor in a political institution -- about the situation and the way out. We should implicate ourselves in any such action which could save the country, which could eliminate Ceausescu's regime. ... To have a plan, you need to have the conditions to put it into action. We did discuss about the possibilities, the way to act, but for us it became very clear, after different contacts inside the army, officers, inside different other institutions, that it was not possible to organize anything."

In June 1990, after being elected president, Iliescu called on coal miners from the Jiu Valley to come to Bucharest and help the army and police clear the city of anti-government protesters. Armed with clubs, chains and sledgehammers, the miners attacked the university, beating students and professors. The headquarters of opposition political parties and the house of one of the opposition's presidential candidates were also ravaged.

Iliescu was accused by opponents of unleashing a mini reign of terror to cow his rivals. He was asked to answer those charges:

"It's a joke, it's a joke, it's a wrong presentation of the events. First of all, it was not the miners who introduced violence in the political life of the country. [That] is the main idea: that the miners acted as maneuvered masses manipulated by Iliescu. Who are such people, Iliescu, or any other, to have such a power to manipulate the masses?

"It was, of course, an evolution of the general context of our social life. But the first to introduce violence in the country was not the miners. .... They appeared later... "On January 28, the main opposition party, the National Peasant, the National Liberals and the Social Democrats, but the first two, organized a meeting. And they wanted, by force, to remove the government of the National Salvation Front. It created a reaction from the population of Bucharest, which regarded the National Salvation Front as the expression of the Romanian revolution. Those who are attacking this body are [seen as] attacking the revolution.

"No miner was in [the city during] this period. January, February, then the square of the University: two months occupying the center of Bucharest. In which democratic country would this be accepted -- to occupy the center of the country for two months and for the forces of order not to intervene? We did not have the force to do it. And we decided to leave them, to make this permanent electoral meeting in the University Square. After the elections, the people expressed their option, on May 20. Three weeks after the elections, even after the elections, we did not take forceful measures to liberate this center point of the capital. We waited for them to eliminate this activity.

"After three months, they, with an organized group, attacked the main institutions of order in the country: the police in Bucharest, the Interior Ministry, the National Television. It was a sort of attempt to stage a coup d'etat -- attacking such institutions...

"In this moment, people from Bucharest ... and the miners came to save the democratic institutions, elected by the people. It was the reaction of the miners. They did not introduce the violence. It was the reaction to violence. And in the night of the 13th of June, with no miners in Bucharest, six people were killed. And it was the result of this anarchistic group, inspired and supported by those in opposition at the time.

"So, it is not correct. It is not at all fair to condemn the miners for the violence. The violence of the miners was only the reaction to the first violence of some political forces who supported such movements."

Iliescu lost the 1996 elections to Emil Constantinescu and a coalition of democratic forces. He was asked to evaluate the current government's performance:

"In the last three years, you can see a very dramatic deterioration of the economy of the country and of the conditions of life of the people. So, there is for this reason a big dissatisfaction of the people concerning the goals of the revolution. It was the main expectation of the people, with the revolution, to have a better life. The results, in the last three years, are contrary to this expectation."

Difficult economic conditions have eroded public support for the policies of Emil Constantinescu, and polls now put Iliescu ahead, if an elections were to be held today. He was asked if he intends to run again for the presidency:

"Maybe. It will be a decision of our national conference of the party. It's a political decision."