1 May 2002, Volume 4, Number 9THE SECURITATE ROOTS OF A MODERN ROMANIAN FAIRY TALE: THE PRESS, THE FORMER SECURITATE, AND THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF DECEMBER 1989
By Richard Hall
Nothing is perhaps more indicative of the smug ignorance or delusional wishful thinking of rigidly partisan critics of Ion Iliescu and those who seized power in December 1989 than the coverage of the case of former Militia Sergeant Petre Olaru, which broke upon the Romanian press scene in April 1999. Tragically, the result of such blindly partisan analysis has been similar to that seen in the cases discussed in the first two episodes of this article -- in their zeal to target and tar Iliescu and other members of the "nomenklatura" with the greatest share of blame for the December 1989 bloodshed, these critics have eagerly embraced and promoted the wildest and most ridiculous fabrications of the former Securitate and Militia, fabrications designed to exonerate these institutions and their employees for the repression and bloodshed of December 1989.
Those who are inclined to view the December 1989 events as a "dead story" that lost its importance in Romanian politics after the early 1990s, or who claim that the historiographical revisionism in the media has had little impact on public opinion, generally tuned out reporting on the revolution -- out of fatigue and cynicism -- rather early on, and thus tend to be unfamiliar with more recent developments on this front. For example, a poll by the Center for Rural and Urban Sociology (CURS) on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Ceausescu's overthrow, revealed just how far media revisionism of the understanding of what happened in December 1989 has advanced. As the daily "Ziua" announced, a bare 11 percent of those questioned continued to believe -- in what not even the author of the piece could struggle to present in neutral terms -- in the "myth of the terrorists" -- those accused of responsibility for the over 900 deaths that followed Ceausescu's flight from power on 22 December 1989 and who were originally portrayed as Securitate members (most likely from the Special Unit for Anti-Terrorist Warfare -- USLA -- and the Fifth Directorate) fighting on behalf of Ceausescu ("Ziua," 17 November 1999). That almost 90 percent of those polled could admit to having changed their mind on this issue -- for during the events, nobody expressed doubt as to the either the existence, or the identity, of the "terrorists" -- must say something about the impact of media coverage, since from the beginning of the post-Ceausescu era debunking the "myth of the terrorists" has been at the forefront of reporting on the December 1989 events.
Nor, as the so-called "Olaru case" demonstrates, is it true to say that December 1989 has lost its value as an instrument in fighting contemporary political battles. For at least a year and a half -- from late 1997 through early 1999 -- former Militia Sergeant Petre Olaru, and those who promoted his claims, attempted to influence the administration of President Emil Constantinescu and the leadership of institutions of the Romanian state, as the following discussion of the case elucidates.
'ZIUA' BREAKS THE 'OLARU CASE': 'THE MOST SPECTACULAR INVESTIGATION OF DECEMBER '89 TO DATE'
On 5 April 1999, the so-called "Olaru case" first came into the public eye at a specially convened news conference at the Hotel Bucuresti ("Ziua," 6 April 1999). Presenting what they maintained was incontrovertible proof that the December 1989 events were from start to finish part of a KGB-engineered coup d'etat were: Sorin Rosca Stanescu, editor in chief of the daily "Ziua"; Serban Sandulescu, a senator representing the ruling National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD), vice president of the Senate's Defense Committee, and head of the third parliamentary commission to investigate the December 1989 events; and Stefan Radoi, a former "Ziua" advisor and assistant to Sandulescu in his capacity as head of the aforementioned parliamentary commission.
The three explained how former Militia Sergeant Petre Olaru had approached President Emil Constantinescu in late 1997 with evidence of the KGB's role in the December 1989 events; how the state secretary for the Interior Ministry, General Teodor Zaharia, had conducted three hypnosis sessions with Olaru in order to "maximize Olaru's 'complete memory'"; and how in a meeting the previous night at the Presidential Palace, Constantinescu had allegedly asked Radoi to investigate the allegations of KGB involvement. As proof of Olaru's revelations they apparently showed excerpts from a fourth hypnosis session conducted with Olaru (which was shown on the Prima TV station). The next morning's edition of "Ziua" printed a copy of a letter the newspaper had sent to a whole series of Western embassies and well-known Western media outlets and watchdog organizations -- including CNN and Reporteurs sans Frontiers -- requesting "international protection for the witness Petre Olaru" ("Ziua," 6 April 1999).
Olaru had an amazing story to tell. December 1989 had found Olaru as a simple policeman in the village of Crevedia in Dambovita county in the south of the country, not far from Bucharest. Actors, journalists, and intellectuals had reportedly made a habit of staying in summer houses on Lake Crevedia. On 14 December 1989 -- therefore a day prior to the first demonstrations in Timisoara that were to spark Ceausescu's downfall -- Olaru claimed he made "a routine inspection" of film director George Vitanidis' house ( Olaru in "Ziua," 6 April 1999). Olaru said that Vitanidis had been suspected of engaging in illegal currency transactions and that this was the motivation for the inspection of his premises. To his astonishment, Olaru claimed, among Vitanidis's undergarments he allegedly found an unopened letter, sealed with the insignia of the Soviet Union on the back.
When Olaru opened and read the letter, he discovered that it was a detailed description of plans for a Soviet-backed coup d'etat, including the names of those who were to act in conjunction with the plan. It spoke of a "group of 60 excursionists with cars who were in Buzau and would disperse to the specified place" -- in other words, of "tourists." It even specified how many people it was anticipated would die in the unfolding of the coup: "there will be 30,000-40,000 deaths," the letter read, but hastened to add, "it will be worth it." Vitanidis, the letter went on to say, had been selected to film the historic events, because the Soviets' original choice, film director Sergiu Nicolaescu, had changed his mind.
According to Olaru, he informed his superiors and later that day Securitate Director General Iulian Vlad came to Crevedia, leafed through the letter, and took possession of it, instructing Olaru not to mention its contents to anyone. Then, a week later, on 21 December -- thus in the midst of the upheaval and bloodshed in Timisoara -- army Chief of Staff General Stefan Guse showed up in Crevedia to try to find out the contents of the letter, of which by now he had heard. Ceausescu was overthrown the next day...but this was only the beginning of Olaru's ordeal.
PETRE OLARU: THE MOST SOUGHT-AFTER MAN IN POST-CEAUSESCU ROMANIA
After Ion Iliescu, Petre Roman, and many of the others mentioned in the letter seized power in December 1989, Olaru claimed he became a focal point of attention among the country's new leaders. Prior to writing to President Constantinescu in late 1997, Olaru maintains that he was approached by a series of political celebrities, all either wanting to know the contents of the letter Olaru had allegedly seen (and of which he was no longer in possession) or warning him of the trouble he would encounter if he ever disclosed its contents. Olaru alleged that he was repeatedly offered large sums of money and other inducements, but consistently rejected the offers.
A copy of the "Report to Emil Constantinescu" Petre Olaru submitted to the Romanian president in late 1997 detailed the alleged approaches and threats as the following synopsis shows:
January 1990: Prime Minister Petre Roman comes to Crevedia and tells Olaru, "Sir, you are the man who can destroy NUMBER ONE [i.e. Iliescu]," and offers him help.
May-June 1990: General Nicolae Militaru, also mentioned in the letter as a co-conspirator, tries on several occasions to get Olaru to come to Sinaia to "discuss some problems." Olaru refuses to meet with him.
Early 1991: Director Sergiu Nicolaescu travels to Crevedia and tells Olaru, "...don't talk about anything with anyone -- even in the future."
March 1993: General Adrian Nitoi tries to ply Olaru with whiskey, but Olaru keeps mum.
June 1993: General Gheorghe Ionescu Danescu, minister of the interior, demands to know what Olaru knows; Olaru tells him he does not know anything.
September 1994: General Iulian Vlad tells Olaru not to worry, he won't talk.
August 1995: Colonel Stoica calls on Olaru to offer him a position in the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI), but Olaru rejects it.
Summer 1995: Editor Ion Cristoiu offers Olaru 5 million lei to reveal what he knows, but in vain.
1995: Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor's sister and Defense Minister Taracila contact Olaru trying to get him to talk, but to no avail.
February 1996: Corneliu Vadim Tudor offers Olaru 100 million lei to talk and then offers an additional 200 million lei when Olaru won't accept. Olaru continues to refuse to talk.
May 1996: Former Foreign Minister Adrian Severin contacts Olaru.
June 1996: Former Minister of Finance Florin Georgescu comes calling.
May-October 1996: General Buzea from the SRI tries to arrange a meeting with SRI General Marcu; Olaru refuses.
June-July 1996: General Suceava wishes to get in touch with Olaru.
Summer 1996: General Tepelea tries the same, also unsuccessfully.
September 1996: General Dumitru Iliescu of the Presidential Guard and Protection Service offers Olaru a transfer, an embassy post, or early retirement. Olaru turns him down on all accounts.
1997: Journalist Petre Mihai Bacanu of "Romania libera" unsuccessfully attempts to get Olaru to talk.
March 1997: Petre Roman comes calling again.
April 1997: The so-called "Refrigerator King," Novolan, an influential member of the ruling Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) local branch, approaches Olaru.
May 1997: Two men sent on the orders of "Cotroceni" by Interior Minister Dejeu contact Olaru. ("Ziua," 6 April 1999, emphasis in the original)
It would appear that Olaru had become -- without a doubt -- the most sought-after man in Romania!
SKEPTICISM AND CYNICISM GREET OLARU'S REVELATIONS FROM SOME CORNERS
On 7 April, "Ziua" published the response of Presidential Adviser for Defense and National Security Dorin Marian to the claims made by Olaru and promoted by the daily "Ziua," ("Ziua," 7 April 1999). Marian acknowledged that he had known of the "Olaru case" since late 1997. In November 1997, Sandulescu and Radoi had met with President Constantinescu to discuss the case. In December 1997, Olaru had sent his report to the Presidency. In his statement, Marian highlighted the reasons he had informed President Constantinescu in the fall of 1998 that he had concluded that Olaru's claims were "baseless" and "an ingenious combination of speculation that circulated in the mass media, especially during 1990 and 1991."
Marian pointed out that there was no extant copy of the document Olaru claimed to have come across in Vitanidis's home. Moreover, he noted it would be highly unusual that a letter detailing such prized secrets should have displayed such amateurish "tradecraft," without any effort at concealing names and operational instructions in "code words." The dates on which certain events were said to have transpired strained credulity -- for example, General Guse is known to have been in Timisoara from the 17 until the morning of 22 December and thus could not have been in Crevedia on 21 December as Olaru maintained.
Marian also commented that Olaru appeared to have displayed an amazingly insubordinate attitude for a Romanian noncommissioned officer faced with the repeated orders and threats of military and political superiors: "If these events had really happened, it is hard to believe that he would still be working for the Interior Ministry!" In four months of tapping Olaru's phone, Marian stated that Olaru received no threats and that in the conversations Olaru did have with notable personages they appeared not to know or recall who Olaru was. Finally, Marian expressed skepticism as to why Olaru was subjected to hypnosis rather than a lie-detector machine, and was cynical about the fact that Olaru had requested of the Presidency that he be granted an ambassadorial post abroad as a "means of enforcing his protection."
Cornel Nistorescu, editor in chief of the daily "Evenimentul Zilei," a competitor of "Ziua," and a sometimes protagonist in journalistic controversies with "Ziua" director Rosca Stanescu, was also having none of Olaru's hypnotic or uninduced recollections. In editorials on 7 and 8 April, he wrote sarcastically of his own dream, how he and Nicolae Ceausescu had bathed together and Ceausescu had invited him to travel in the presidential helicopter ("Evenimentul Zilei," 7 and 8 April 1999). Nistorescu suggested that claims as outlandish as Olaru's were not even worthy of a bad spy novel.
Nistorescu also noted how this was not the first he had heard of Olaru. He too had been aware of Olaru's existence and allegations for some time: for one and a half years Olaru's tale had been persistently and skillfully floated his way. As early as the summer of 1997, he revealed, two individuals had attempted to put him in touch with Olaru. The question was why? Nistorescu observed. According to Nistorescu, "one gets the feeling that insistent efforts are made to march [us] in the direction of Olaru's tale."
'ZIUA' AND COMPANY STRIKE BACK: 'OLARU'S ORDEAL CONTINUES'
In response to the dismissive remarks of Presidential Adviser Dorin Marian and presumably to the cynical commentary of the likes of Cornel Nistorescu, Sorin Rosca Stanescu, Senator Sandulescu, and Stefan Radoi sought to fight back. Rosca Stanescu penned an editorial entitled, "Who is being duplicitous? Dorin Marian or Costin Georgescu? Or Both?," in which he insinuated that Marian and perhaps even SRI Director Georgescu -- who had failed to comment on the validity of Olaru's charges -- were either too fearful, compromised, or complicit to admit the KGB's role in the December 1989 events ("Ziua," 9 April 1999). Sandulescu and Radoi maintained that "Sergeant Olaru isn't crazy!" and "Ziua" published even more details of what they claimed was evidence that "Olaru's ordeal continued even into 1998" ("Ziua," 8 and 9 April 1999).
If 1990-97 had seen a parade of political celebrities making a pilgrimage to Crevedia trying to get Olaru to talk or remain silent, the year 1998, according to the details published by "Ziua," was even busier. After writing to President Constantinescu, Olaru claimed, he had been contacted by the following personages in 1998, as insistent as ever about the information Olaru held and willing to offer even larger sums of money than in previous years:
-- Novolan, the PDSR "Refrigerator King," returns -- this time offering 200 million lei.
-- The director of Antena-1 TV in Targoviste offers Olaru $40,000-$50,000 to talk.
-- General Victor Atanasie Stanculescu offers "unlimited amounts of money or gold."
-- General Paul Sarpe of the army's Defense Intelligence unit threatens Olaru's son.
-- More representatives of the PRM seek out Olaru.
-- Two more unidentified generals offer Olaru 400-500 million lei. ("Ziua," 9 April 1999).
"Ziua" continued to defend the veracity of Olaru's story in the days that followed. It published portions of Olaru's three hypnosis sessions with General Teodor Zaharia on 7, 12, and 22 November 1998. Sorin Rosca Stanescu became more explicit in his accusations against those who had cast doubt on Olaru's account. In an editorial entitled "Fear of the KGB," he excoriated the "cowardly fear of the government," and its wishful thinking that the KGB would "simply go away." He claimed that by now the SRI had weighed in -- although he did not say whether it had been SRI Director Costin Georgescu, whom he had criticized for his silence in an earlier editorial -- and that the SRI had informed him that "they don't believe Marian's theory that Olaru is crazy" ("Ziua," 14 April 1999). Rosca Stanescu even insinuated that Dorin Marian himself might possibly have KGB ties -- thus explaining his reluctance to believe Olaru or take Olaru's charges seriously.
Stefan Radoi also stepped out of the shadows, so to speak. When "Ziua" first broke the Olaru story on 6 April 1999, Rosca Stanescu had mentioned Radoi as a former "information officer" until 1982, who had in 1990 become a close confidant of Corneliu Coposu, the long-persecuted head of the outlawed National Peasant Party during the communist era. In an interview with "Ziua" on 18 April 1999, Radoi admitted more precisely that he had been a member of the information service of the Securitate's USLA between 1979 and 1982. In the interview, Radoi alleged that "KGB and GRU agents were openly involved in the December 1989 coup d'etat," that the "terrorists" in December 1989 had acted to "create enough panic in order for the 'luminaries' of the 'revolution' [i.e. Iliescu, et al.] to seize power," and that the USLA troops accused of being the "terrorists" during the events had never fired on anyone, as they had never been trained in guerrilla warfare, contrary to what had been alleged ("Ziua," 19 April 1999). According to Radoi, Zaharia had been frightened by what he heard during the hypnosis sessions with Olaru -- thus causing him to abscond with the documents and tapes of the sessions -- and that "many of those mentioned on the Olaru list want to kill him."
Radoi's admission that he had been an USLA officer was significant -- especially in light of the fact that Rosca Stanescu himself happens to have been an informer for the USLA (between 1975 and 1985). Given that it was precisely the USLA that had been accused during the December events as being responsible for the lion's share of the bloodshed, it is difficult to regard their past as wholly irrelevant to the fact that they were now promoting a story that exonerated the USLA -- even if indirectly -- of being the "terrorists" and thus of responsibility for the bloodshed. In light of Radoi's position as an advisor to Senator Serban Sandulescu, Radoi's account of the December 1989 events and his claims regarding role of the KGB and GRU provided some insight as to the possible influence Radoi may have had upon Sandulescu in the latter's capacity as head of the parliamentary commission investigating the December 1989 events. Sandulescu had published his conclusions on those events in a 1996 book entitled "The Coup d'etat that Abducted the Revolution," a work that alleged that the December 1989 events were essentially a Soviet-engineered coup (Sandulescu, 1996).
THE BENEFICIAL CONSEQUENCES OF PROFESSIONAL AND ECONOMIC COMPETITION IN THE PRESS SCORE A VICTORY FOR COMMON SENSE
If the "Olaru case" was evidence of the still-troubling cultural and institutional legacies of the communist era, it was also evidence of the intrinsic benefits of the journalistic and personal competition characteristic of the postcommunist era (for a good overview of trends in the Romanian media's postcommunist development, see Gross, 1996). As we have seen, Cornel Nistorescu was having none of Rosca Stanescu's latest, proclaimed journalistic coup. But more important and promising from the journalistic point of view was the investigative response of the journalists at the daily "Cotidianul."
On 14 April 1999, "Cotidianul" published an interview with Dimitrie Vitanidis, the son of the man in whose house Olaru claimed he had found the "key to the secrets of the revolution" -- the letter with Soviet insignia unearthed during a "routine inspection." The interview was with George Vitanidis's son precisely because the director was no longer in a position to defend himself -- he had died in 1994. According to Dimitrie Vitanidis, no one -- including the staff from "Ziua" and the "officer" Radoi who had promoted the allegations against his father -- had bothered to contact his family. The younger Vitanidis dwelt on the fact that if the letter had existed, as Olaru suggested, the KGB would have had to have been complete idiots. But he also said that the Vitanidis's chauffeur mentioned by Olaru did not in fact exist, and that there had been no such search of the house at Crevedia -- mainly because the house was uninhabited in December 1989 because it was too cold to stay in during the winter.
Approximately a week later, on 20 April 1999, an extraordinary news conference took place in Crevedia. Present were the mayor of Crevedia, the next-door neighbor of the Vitanidis home in Crevedia, and a group of peasants from a neighboring village who had had run-ins with the police officer Olaru during the Ceausescu era. The Vitanidis family neighbor, Ionel Dumitru, stated that he did not recall either the house-search or the existence of the alleged Vitanidis chauffeur mentioned by Olaru. The peasants recounted Olaru's less-than-stellar human rights record prior to December 1989. The town mayor opined that he believed Olaru had been "'helped' to invent this subject." Irina Dumitrescu of "Cotidianul," who rather cynically noted Radoi's previous affiliation with the USLA, remarked that no one from "Ziua," Prima TV, or Senator Sandulescu's staff was in attendance at the news conference ("Cotidianul," 21 April 1999; see also "Evenimentul Zilei," 21 April 1999).
BUT ROMANIA'S MODERN FAIRY TALE HAS DEEP ROOTS...
It is practically surreal that well over a decade after the December 1989 events, a well-known and perceptive critical intellectual and journalist from Romania could unabashedly argue to a Western audience in the pages of the journal "East European Politics and Societies" that accounts of the December 1989 events fall into two categories: those advocated by the remnants of the communist party-state (including the Securitate) and those advocated by "critical intellectuals, journalists, and representatives of the re-founded 'historical parties.'" According to Dan Pavel -- himself apparently a believer of Olaru's tall tale (see his article in "Ziua." 20 April 1999) -- "critical intellectuals, journalists, and representatives of the re-founded 'historical parties'" differ in their assessment of December 1989 because they have "asserted that Iliescu and his group were the masterminds of those bloody events (more than 1,000 victims) involving 'terrorists' that nobody ever saw in trials" (Pavel, 2001, p. 184). Pavel's clear-cut dichotomy of good versus evil and truth versus falsehood makes for a good morality play. Unfortunately, it bears little resemblance to reality and is, hence, deeply misleading. Perhaps most distressing of all, it is indicative of just how poorly many who have the capacity -- wanted or unwanted -- to shape public opinion in Romania know the story of what the former Securitate and its sympathizers have argued about December 1989, as this three-part article has demonstrated.
(Richard Andrew Hall received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University in 1997. He currently works and lives in northern Virginia. Comments can be directed to him at email@example.com.)
SOURCES "Cotidianul" (Bucharest), 1999, web edition, http://www.cotidianul.ro.
"Evenimentul zilei" (Bucharest), 1999, web edition, http://www.evenimentulzilei.ro.
Gross, P., 1996, Mass Media in Revolution and National Development: The Romanian Laboratory, (Ames: Iowa State Press).
Pavel, D., 2001, "The Textbooks Scandal and Rewriting History in Romania--Letter from Bucharest," in "East European Politics and Societies," Vol. 15, no. 1 (Winter) pp., 179-189.
Sandulescu, S., 1996, Decembrie '89: Lovitura de Stat a Confiscat Revolutia Romana [December '89: The Coup d'�tat Abducted the Romanian Revolution], (Bucharest: Editura Omega Press Investment).
"Ziua" (Bucharest), 1999, web edition, http://www.ziua.net.