27 December 2014

25 years on: Romania

Protestors on a military vehicle (image from a collection by Denoel Paris and other photographers)

Gil Scott-Heron once sang a song called "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". 

This proved to be very much not true when it came to the revolutions of 1989; they were broadcast all around the world and the countries of the Soviet bloc already had a well-developed television system. OK, it wasn't exactly the multi-channel stuff of the USA and other Western countries, but they had colour, a couple of (state-run) channels and at times some fairly decent shows that actually ended up getting a Western broadcast. Some of these shows are in fact actually still going!

It was also a batch of largely civilised revolutions; while there was some violence, people weren't killed and the Communist leaders accepted their fates. With one exception. In Romania, what many people thought would have happened when communism collapsed happened - what was basically a short civil war, with around a thousand deaths.

They think it's Moldova... it won't be for nearly fifty years

The history of the then Kingdom of Romania during the war is fairly complex, but can be summarised as follows:
  • Britain and France guaranteed Romania's territorial integrity, but following the loss of France to the Germans in 1940, the USSR was able to demand and get parts of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina that became part of what is now Ukraine and Moldova. It also lost territory to Hungary and Bulgaria.
  • After this, a fascist named Ion Antonescu seized power and aligned Romania with the Axis.
  • Romania played a major part of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, as well as in the Holocaust (a Romanian government report in 2004 concluded that it was second only to Germany in its crimes against the Jews of Europe. It supplied Germany with oil and grain, which made it a major target for Allied bombing raids... and the targeting of oil supplies was one of the more successful aspects of them, as the Axis needed petrol etc. for their tanks.
    • Romania remains a significant oil producer and refiner, although it's admittedly not as well known as some other countries.
  • With the war turning against the Axis and the USSR approaching Romania proper, King Michael I was able to seize power in a coup in August 1944 and the country switched sides, with Antonescu placed under arrest. Soviet occupation followed.
After the war, the Soviet backed communists won power in a fraudulent election in 1946 and the following year, King Michael was forced to abdicate; he ended up going into exile. Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (who it was latter claimed forced said abdication at gunpoint) became leader of the country. There would continue to be some armed anti-communist resistance, but it was small scale and uncoordinated; while that made it harder to eliminate, it was still eliminated by 1962.

Antonescu was tried in a politicised trial in 1946 and ended up being executed by firing squad... the execution was recorded on film. In a way, that's rather ironic considering what happened in 1989.

Romania's involvement on the Allied side was ignored in the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties with the minor member of the Axis; while the border with Hungary was put back to the pre-1940 one, the Soviet and Bulgarian acquisitions stayed in place. They also had to pay $300 million in reparations to the USSR.

Gheorghiu-Dej was a repressive hardliner, but he was certainly not going to be Moscow's creature; Romania began to develop trading and diplomatic links with the West and Bucharest frequently asserted its independence from the Soviet Union.

He died in 1965 and his successor was even worse...

The worst thing to come out of Romania, ever

I once commented on TV Tropes that Romania has a bad international reputation because the three best known things to come out of it were Dracula, the Cheeky Girls and Nicolae Ceaușescu. The first is fictional, the second was added as a joke... but the third is all too real. 

Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-1989) took over three days after the death of his predecessor and did two things pretty quickly - change the party's name back to the Communist Party Romania and change the country's name to the Socialist Republic of Romania. He continued the country's independent course in foreign affairs, condemning the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, signed trade deals with the EEC and played a role in international negotiations.

Those were the nice things he did... which means I get onto the nasty ones pretty quickly. It's not entirely clear how many deaths one can lay at his door or that of his regime; he was found guilty of 60,000 deaths at his trial, but that, as we shall see, was of questionable legality at best.

The regime was propped up by the  Departamentul Securității Statului ("Department of State Security"), known among Romanians simply as the Securitate. One of the largest of the Soviet bloc secret polices, it was arguably one of the most brutal. Particular lowlights include:
  • Spreading of rumours
  • Attempted assassinations of defectors
  • Subjecting union leaders to five-minute chest X-rays to attempt (probably successfully) to give them cancer.
  • Putting microphones in public places to record people's conversations
  • Old-fashioned beating and torture in custody.
In 1966 or 1967 (sources vary on this), the regime decided that the one thing Romania really needed was a large population. So, they basically outlawed contraception and pretty much all abortion (which was in fact the main means of contraception anyway as other reliable methods weren't available) to stop a decline in the birth rate... and they were harsh on it. Women were checked monthly by a gynaecologist... and if you were found to be pregnant, the secret police checked on you to make sure you didn't terminate the pregnancy. Those who had ten or more children could get medals... but most women didn't want ten kids. In addition, it became very hard to get divorced.

The result was a baby boom - Romania's number of births doubled in a year and the 1967 babies would end up being 22 in 1989 - Freakonomics theorised that this actually made the revolution more violent as you had a lot of disaffected youth at the average age for being revolutionaries.
With families unable to afford to look after the extra kids, many ended up in orphanages that made the one in Oliver Twist look positively pleasant. Some stories of them can be found here.

The leader, who became full President in 1974 (and 'won' three more elections after that), being to set up a cult of personality around himself. His birthday became the biggest national day in Romania where not smiling was basically a health risk, he had a sceptre made for himself (which got a sarcastic compliment from Salvador Dalí... the Romanian press printed it not realising it was sarcasm), he called himself the Conducător or leader and restrictions on how he was portrayed on television were very strict. You could not emphasise the fact he was only five foot six. His wife, Elena, claimed to be a brilliant chemist, but she was just putting her name on other people's papers.

Oh and at least thirty family members were given high positions. Nothing like a bit of good old-fashioned nepotism, is there?

The 1980s 

As mentioned in other articles in this series, the Warsaw Pact countries had some quite serious problems with foreign debt - as did Romania, which was extended plenty of credit by the West to try and split the bloc. When this, combined with an oil deal with Iran being scuppered due to the fall of the Shah in 1979, Ceaușescu decided to free Romania of reliance on foreign loans.

In a manner that made Greek austerity look like a picnic. 

Much of Romania's industrial and agricultural production was exported, with resulting food rationing, electricity shortages, the eventual limitation of television to two hours a day and the closure of all the regional radio stations. It was as if Romania was going through a bad war; day-to-day life became a struggle for survival. The debt was paid off, but at a big human cost... frankly too high in my opinion

In November 1989, one of Romania's national heroes, gymnast Nadia Comăneci (her of the Perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics of 1976, although Soviet gymnast Nellie Kim also got one in the same Games) defected to the United States, via the gap in the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria.

The revolution

The downfall of the regime began on 16 December in Timișoara, Transylvania, where the Hungarian minority (who were being subjected to forced relocation) began a protest against a decision to evict a popular local pastor who had called from democracy on Hungarian television. The crowd wouldn't disperse, things got violent and the police, along with the secret police went in. There was a failed attempt to set the local party office on fire.

The following day, there were further riots, with ethnic Romanians joining in as well. The Army were called in and refused to open fire on demonstrators. Thus, the Securitae did the thing that many had feared would happen but had not in other revolutions.

They opened fire. They ended up killing three army officers (for disobeying orders) and a number of children. There would be further deaths in the next two days - not covered by Romanian TV of course, but people learnt about them through other means like Radio Free Europe. Rumours of thousands of deaths soon spread; people were beginning to believe as many as 64,000 had died. The 'truth' was irrelevant to what people believed.

Demonstrations began to spread across Romania and the President, who had taken a trip to Iran just as all of this was breaking out, came back to an orchestrated demonstration of support. A large crowd was gathered in Palace Square, basically brought in on pain of losing their jobs, being told what to do... where they promptly proceeded to play the wrong notes.

Ceaușescu, appearing on the balcony of the Central Committee Building started a rambling, wordy speech in he blamed events in Timișoara on agitators... and after eight minutes, people began to actually boo him. His facial expression as he tried to placate the crowd is considered a defining moment of 1989's revolutions; he knew he was in deep trouble. He was finally removed from the balcony by his security and then ordered troops to open fire on the crowd. They refused, so the Securitate did that and open street fighting followed. One protester waved a Romanian flag with the Communist insignia removed.. and others soon imitated him.

Hundreds died, some crushed by tanks.

The following day, defence minister Vasile Milea died in suspicious circumstances - it was eventually concluded as suicide in 2005, but people believed he had been murdered. An official announcement claiming suicide after being sacked for treason just helped that belief. Most of the army then proceeded to switch sides... as did many of the top officials. The new defence minister, Victor Stănculescu, then ordered troops back to barracks without his President's knowledge - a key moment in the revolution. He also aligned himself with Ion Iliescu's group of those trying to gain control of the situation.

The following day, the leader planned to address his people, but the crowd threw projectiles at him and he had to swiftly retreat back inside. He and his wife then proceeded to flee as the crowd below stormed the building, leaving by helicopter with some very angry people only a few metres behind.

As they left, a 'National Salvation Front' made up of military leaders and second-tier officials in the Communist Party took control. However, the military and the people of Bucharest soon found itself under attack from loyalists to the old regime as the city was hit by a considerable amount of street fighting; this 'terrorist' activity lasted until 27 December, when it abruptly stopped. Far more people died from the last guard attacks than in trying to bring down the regime in the first place. However, amidst all the chaos, Romanians started celebrating Christmas; something long suppressed under their previous rulers.

The former leader and his wife's attempt to flee into exile failed; after a few hours, they ended up being locked in a room of an agricultural college in Târgoviște and were arrested by the local police, who handed them over to the army.

Ceaușescu had been given a considerable number of gongs by Western governments over the years; including a couple of honorary knighthoods - most of these ended up getting revoked around this time, including the one from the Queen. When he got that one, the couple practically stripped their Buckingham Palace suit of anything of value... taking the towels is a bit cheeky, but the whole suite is just taking liberties.

On Christmas Day, Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu faced a court-martial set up by the National Salvation Front on charges of illegal wealth-gathering and genocide, among others.

The trial was perfunctory, in violation of a good number of legal procedures (it was widely condemned for this in fact) and had one inevitable outcome. The couple were sentenced to death, taken outside and received an assault rifle machine-gunning for Christmas; one NSF member later said he saw 120 bullet wounds - which strongly implies the firing squad actually reloaded They were in fact executed within five minutes; so fast that the cameraman who was going to film the execution was only able to catch the end of it, the dead bodies duly appearing on Romanian television a couple of days later, as well as on Western channels.

One does have to give Ceaușescu some credit - he was singing "The Internationale" (a very well known left-wing song, although the original English version is rather hard to sing) as he was positioned for execution. His wife just told the three members of the firing squad (there were apparently hundreds of volunteers) that they were the kind of people who slept with their own mothers, although not in such polite terms.

They would be the final people executed in Romania - capital punishment was abolished two weeks later.

Romania today 

The Romania Communist Party disappeared and unlike most of the former bloc states, it has not come back in any form.

The NSF won presidential and parliamentary elections held in March 1990, with Ion Iliescu becoming President after gaining over 90% of the vote, but not everyone was accepting of the new government, feeling that it was too dominated by former Communists and not doing a good enough job. There were four lots of violent anti-government protests in 1990 and 1991, known as Mineriads (as they involved miners in some form or another) that resulted in a number of deaths.

A new constitution was created and the NSF split into two; the Democratic National Salvation Front (headed by Iliescu) and the Democrat Party. The former won the 1992 elections and formed a coalition government that lasted until 1996, when the next elections saw a peaceful handover to a centrist government. This first term also saw the Caritas scandal, which saw a huge pyramid investment scheme go the way of all of them... down the plughole with a lot of people losing money.

King Michael is actually still alive and aged 93; along with Simeon II and the current Dalai Lama, they are the only three Second World War heads of state still alive.

The country's current leader is President Klaus Iohannis, a Transylvania Saxon and thus Romania's first ethnic minority president. The Prime Minister Victor Ponta is head of the Social Democratic Party, runs a three-party coalition and recently surrendered his doctorate over charges that he plagiarised his thesis.

There was a decade of economic decline after 1989, followed by a boom once reforms that had an effect that lasted until the sub-prime crisis; it needed an IMF loan but the economy is slowly growing again and unemployment isn't actually that high compared to some countries at 7%. It is now considered an upper middle income country; it still has a way to go to get in the high income category.

Romania joined the European Union in 2007 along with southern neighbour Bulgaria. Unlike the countries that joined in 2004, it was not given full access to the whole free movement of workers things by the United Kingdom; instead having to wait until 2014 for this to happen (to the whole of the rest of the EU) amid alarmist claims of basically the entire two countries potentially wanting to emigrate at once. Of course, they did not.

Romania has moved considerably towards the West; it is believed that CIA black sites in their 'enhanced interrogation' programme were based there. In addition, it plays host to a land-based interceptor site for the US missile defence system.

The country is also one of the world's biggest arms exporters - 11th place in fact; with sales to various Middle Eastern countries that still use Pact-calibre weapons. Romania in fact still retains some MiG-21s, which are also capable of carrying Western missiles (via an upgrade from Israel's Elbit Systems), but these are due for replacement in the next couple of years by F-16s.

Nadia Comăneci briefly returned to Romania in 1996 with her fiancé for their wedding, this was televised live. She now holds dual US-Romanian citizenship.

The rest of the Communist countries

1989 concluded with five of the six satellite states of the USSR having thrown off their shackles and  gained their freedom, Moscow just letting them do it. Bulgaria would follow the following year; although that was more a case of the Communist Party itself making the country democratic; it gave up its monopoly on power, changed its name and won free elections. It would lose the next lot to the centre-right, but the Bulgarian Socialist Party remains very much a key player in the politics of Bulgaria.

Protests began in Albania in 1989 and after reforms, the communist party there won the 1991 elections, holding power for another year.

Finally there was Yugoslavia; where the federal state collectively threw off Communist rule in 1990... then proceeded to disintegrate in a series of wars, some of which would be very bloody indeed.

For some this would be called the "end of history", but we now know very differently; some might argue that we are in a new Cold War with Russia. It might not be that, but it's certainly something.

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