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Romania: The Bloody Revolution In 1989 -- Historic Facts Remain Obscured

  • Jeremy Bransten

One of the singular aspects of the Romanian revolution is that so much of what happened 10 years ago remains veiled in mystery. Who were the so-called "terrorists" who wreaked havoc for several days in December, 1989, only to suddenly disappear? How did so many officials from the old regime manage to transform themselves into defenders of democracy? How did the countless agents of the Securitate melt into society without anyone noticing? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines these questions.

Bucharest, Romania; 15 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Less than six months after Romania's bloody revolution of December 1989, Ion Iliescu, an old communist functionary, had consolidated his grip on power. Official results of a May 1990 presidential election gave Iliescu an overwhelming 85 percent of the vote, although opposition allegations of irregularities were later confirmed by international observers.

An episode shortly after Iliescu's election demonstrated that violence was not gone from public life. Throughout the electoral campaign, demonstrators had occupied a square in downtown Bucharest, demanding the resignation of former top Communist Party officials from the National Salvation Front. The protest continued after the vote.

An attempt by police in June to violently disperse the crowd led to several minor clashes. But then, something unusual occurred. Groups of young men arrived and began setting fire to police cars and ransacking shops. The police and the army were nowhere to be seen and the original protesters had by that time also dispersed. Iliescu went on national television, appealing to people to come to Bucharest to prevent "fascist extremists" from overthrowing the government.

The next morning, thousands of coal miners descended on the city. Armed with clubs, chains and sledgehammers, the miners attacked the university, beating students and professors. The headquarters of opposition political parties were also ravaged.

Iliescu thanked the miners, calling them patriots. To this day, he credits them with saving his government. In an interview with RFE/RL, he glossed over the havoc the miners inflicted.

"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."

But the episode traumatized Romanian society for many years and reflected the new government's relationship with its people.

The worst excesses of the Ceausescu regime were indeed gone: the authorities no longer mandated how many light bulbs could be used in each house, how many children a woman should have or which conversations had to be reported to the secret police. But intimidation and occasional violence remained tools of the government. Loud dissent was met with truncheons, uncomfortable questions about the past hushed up and any serious political opposition stifled.

When democratic forces regained the upper hand and President Emil Constantinescu replaced Iliescu in 1996, many hoped things would finally change. Constantinescu, the rector of Bucharest University, was supported by many of the dissident intellectuals who had found themselves outmaneuvered by Iliescu in the first weeks of the 1989 revolution. An investigation of the events of 1989 and 1990 as well as a break with Iliescu's policies were key planks in his electoral platform.

Noted Romanian poet and political activist Ana Blandiana is one of those who picked Constantinescu to lead the democrats. She says that when her prot�g� came to power, he and his allies had no political experience. And they encountered a civil service and whole ministries staffed by loyalists to Iliescu and the previous communist regime.

"The team that came to power in 1996 found the old structures -- economically and administratively -- to be very strong. They were not weakened by the previous governments. They were staffed by people who were, from all points of view -- ideologically and economically -- opposed to the ideas for which the Democratic Convention was elected. Some of them were there in the Ceausescu era, others were installed under Iliescu. But all of them were former members of the secret services, of the Securitate, of the Communist Party, of Ceausescu's state structures."

Clearly, compromises were struck, and progress on economic reform and uncovering the truth about the past have suffered as a result. Still, the process of uncovering the truth about the 1989 revolution has begun.

This month (December 99), with much fanfare, President Constantinescu signed a law opening of the secret police files. In theory, Romanians will finally be allowed to find out who spied on them for the Securitate, and what they said. The original bill was drafted Constantin Ticu Dumitrescu, a current senator who spent 11 years in communist jails and waged a tireless battle to get his law approved.

But the final version, Dumitrescu says, is so watered down as to render it practically meaningless:

"The way it looks right now, I don't want it anymore, because it has been gutted -- it is unworkable."

In fact, the law opening the files may serve to strengthen the cronies of the old regime. As proposed by Dumitrescu, the bill had no punitive measures for spies or collaborators. But it was to be comprehensive, based on the German model.

The version signed into law exempts from scrutiny all politicians and diplomats, from the president down to all high school principals. Their files will remain sealed. So while a petty informer may have his deeds revealed to the neighbors, those who have the most to hide are guaranteed a clean slate.

Dan Voinea is the man who prosecuted Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena during their three-day trial in 1989. He watched Romania's leading couple executed by a military firing squad on Christmas Day. At the time, he believed in his mission, but he says he soon became disillusioned when he realized that many of Ceausescu's associates had delivered their boss to the wolves so they could remain in power.

During the Iliescu years, Voinea formed an alliance with the democrats. Now, he is Romania's chief military prosecutor, on a lonely struggle to bring to justice those responsible for the unexplained deaths in the 1989 revolution.

This summer, Voinea celebrated a victory when two officials in Iliescu's administration (Victor Stanculescu and Mihai Chitac), were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for ordering the killing of demonstrators in Timisoara.

But Voinea was reluctant to implicate the two in the so-called "terrorist" episodes that provided Iliescu with a pretext for consolidating power after Ceausescu's overthrow. Formal charges are still too sensitive to explore. Many people were killed during those days after Ceausescu's execution, but the circumstances still remain uninvestigated. Perhaps, Voinea hopes, the time will soon be ripe:

"Transparency should be total and if we want to build a real future for ourselves and live normally, we have to know our past."

In Timisoara, birthplace of the Romanian revolution, Traian Orban has just opened the Revolution Memorial Center for Information and Documentation. The project is in its infancy, and Orban spends his days overseeing construction work in the derelict building which he has obtained for the office.

Eventually, he hopes, the center will house thousands of files, video documentation, a library, museum and even a room staffed with historians and lawyers to help those seeking redress from the authorities. The center is necessary, says Orban, because people -- especially young people -- know so little about what happened in 1989.

"Textbooks used in schools don't say much about the revolution -- the truth about the revolution. That is normal, because we haven't had a real examination of the revolution. We initiated something to support this idea. We want to found a documentation, research and information center that can tell people more about the revolution. On a local scale, we already have some visitors who are getting to know events from what we tell them here rather than from books."

Orban deeply resents the fact that virtually the entire military elite in Timisoara, which was involved in massacring civilians here in 1989, has remained in place. He shows reporters a chart with photos and names of officers now and then. Many have been promoted.

"Look, in these papers you can see -- this major was a political secretary. Now he is also in the service of the army's 5th Corps of Timisoara. This was a lieutenant colonel, a colonel! And now he is a general in another town, Constanta. Another major, now he too is a general."

Nearby, in a renovated room, hang the photos of those killed in the revolution. Orban knows them almost all by name.

"He was my friend. Stefan. He was my school friend. We were students together. Fourteen years old, this girl, Rotja, 18 years, look the second sister: Marianne and Margaret. Soldier, soldier, soldier, student, 20 years old, 17 years old. Before the church. On the 17th of December, he went to the church and before the church, they shot..."

Orban's voice trails off. He limps back to a chair and sits down. Before the revolution, Orban was a veterinarian. Shot by a soldier during the demonstrations that brought down the government, he now uses a cane. His experience has strengthened his determination.

"I do what I do because every day, I am reminded that they made half a man out of me and I have the feeling that it would be like blasphemy to give everything up. This is my little war."

In Romania, the past leaves deep scars - both psychological and physical. But at last, in a small way, an effort is under way to uncover that past and perhaps -- eventually -- heal some of its wounds.