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Romanian Uprising and Coup

Romania had experienced a brand of communism more brutal than most in the Soviet bloc. Centered on its egomaniacal leader, Nicholae Ceausescu, Romania and its people were forced to live under his Stalinist rule that included rapid and careless industrialization, and political and ethnic repression. Though relatively admired in the west for its independent foreign policy that included not sending troops to help put down the 1968 revolt in Czechoslovakia, the domestic situation was one of the worst in the eastern bloc. Ceausescu had built up a massive personality cult around himself and his wife, typified by the construction of the "People's Palace," a massive edifice whose construction required the demolition of huge chunks of old Bucharest and it stands as the second largest building in the world. Industrialization had caused a significant drop in agricultural production and the economy was in shambles due to a massive and rising national debt. In response to the economic situation, Ceausescu implemented an austerity program that led to severe shortages of food, electricity, and consumer goods. Also worth noting is the political and ethnic repression that took place. Following World War I, Transylvania, historically a Hungarian-controlled region, was given to Romania. Situated in NW Romania and bordered to the east by the horseshoe-shaped Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania had a large Hungarian population with a Saxon German minority. Ceausescu began a policy of promoting Romanian ethnicity and culture, while at the same time suppressing Hungarian and German culture. Many old Hungarian villages were simply bulldozed and many Romanians were forcibly moved to Transylvania to dilute the Hungarian population. Some have said that the Romanian-Hungarian border was even tougher to cross than the Berlin Wall, with Hungarians visiting family in Romania being held up for days at the border to make sure they did not have any Hungarian books or music. The formerly Hungarian town of Kolozsvar, one of historic Hungary's cultural centers, saw its name change first to the Romanian name of Cluj, and later to Cluj-Napoca, Napoca being the name of a Roman settlement in the region and added to the town's name to emphasize Romania's possible links to the old Roman Empire.

Finally, Romania had enough. On December 16, 1989 Lutheran minister, dissident, and ethnic Hungarian Laszlo Tokes was the focus of a massive protest in the Transylvanian city of Timisoara (Temesvar) that was sparked by anger against Tokes's forced relocation. But before too long the chants in support of Tokes turned into "We want bread" and "Down with Ceausescu." Upon hearing the news of the protest, Ceausescu is said to have flown into a violent rage and began cursing about a plot against him planned by the Soviets and Americans. Violence erupted when army units were sent into the city and massacred more than a hundred protesters. The event in Timosoara led to a nation-wide uprising against the government. Ceausescu hoped to restore his authority by holding a pro-government rally in Bucharest, but his plan dramatically backfired when the crowds at the rally began to protest against Ceausescu on live television. Fighting broke out in Bucharest between anti-government forces and the Securitatae. The latter were an elite and brutal secret police force that were taken from Romania's orphanages as children so that they would look to Ceausescu as a father figure and give him their undying loyalty. Senior army generals and many communist party figures joined the protests against Ceausescu and turned the tide in favor of the protesters. Though the Securitatae were helped by a system of underground tunnels designed especially for them, they were quickly defeated by the army and protesters. Ceausescu and his wife attempted to flee but were captured, given a brief trial on charges of genocide and gross abuses of power, and the couple were shot dead by a firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989. Video of the trial and pictures of the bodies of Ceausescu and his wife were broadcast on Romanian state television to show the country that the tyrant was dead. With the dictator gone, the protests soon settled down and Romania could begin to move on. The fall of Romanian communism was a dramatic and violent break from the jubilant rallies seen in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

With the vacuum of power that followed the death of Ceausescu, an impromptu governing coalition was formed. Called the National Salvation Front (FSN), it proclaimed the restoration of democracy and freedom. Among the FSN's first acts were to dissolve the Communist Party, transfer its assets to the government, and to repeal bans on private commercial entities and independent political activity. Romania held its first elections on May 20, 1990. Ion Iliescu, FSN Leader and former Central Committee secretary and deputy member of the Political Executive Committee who had fallen out of favor with Ceausescu, easily won the presidency with 85% of the vote while his FSN party won two-thirds of the seats in parliament. While international observers agreed that the results of the vote generally reflected the will of the majority, some parties reported that campaign police had stood buy while armed thugs attacked opposition party members before the election. Iliescu and FSN began a slow, gradual reform process, but reformed nevertheless by opening the economy and making the National Bank independent.

But not everyone was so happy about the new government. For one, ethnic tensions continued as it became clear that Iliescu and the FSN had no intention of ending the policy of forced Romanization. As a general policy, the FSN promoted Romanian nationalism and the Romanian Orthodox Church while exploiting ethnic tensions to gain votes. A dramatic example of these ethnic tensions occurred in the Transylvanian town Tirgu Mures (Marosvasarhely) in 1990. While ethnic Hungarians were peacefully celebrating a Hungarian holiday, the Vatra Romaneasca (Romanian Cradle), a neo-fascist nationalist group, attacked the Hungarians, eventually causing eight deaths and over 300 severe injuries. The FSN eventually sided with the Vatra Romaneasca, blaming the violence on Hungarian nationalists.

Beyond the issue of ethnic tensions, many Romanians were upset and worried that the new post-Ceausescu government was still too greatly influenced by the Ceausescu-era elite, namely Iliescu. Their accusations were not unfounded. The new government had been slow to prosecute figures from the old regime and much of the economic power had not changed hands. To protest the growing political and economic influence of this group, anti-communist demonstrators, mostly students, camped in Bucharest's University Square in April 1990. However, the demonstration ended tragically and violently when unemployed and mostly drunk miners from the Jiu Valley descended on the protesters with their pickaxes and shovels. When the miners were done with the protesters, they moved on to the headquarters and houses of opposition leaders. But an even greater black mark was added when Iliescu publicly expressed his thanks and gratitude to the miners, potentially indicating that the miners had been sponsored and encouraged by the new government. It was later reported that the defense minister Victor Stanculescu had made it clear to Iliescu that he did not want the army to become involved in politics, keeping in mind the fact that the army had once turned on Ceaucescu. This may have led Iliescu to turn to the miners for support since the military would be kept on the sidelines. Iliescu's actions drew the anger of the international community, condemning the use of violence to suppress dissent. In addition, the European Community postponed the signing of a trade and economic cooperation agreement with Romania and the United States boycotted Iliescu's presidential inauguration and withheld all non-humanitarian aid.

Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other former communist states were begining the process of lustration, a process which former communist officials are purged from their government jobs or barred from running in elections or holding public office. Yet no such process occurred in Romania, not even in regards to the former Securitatae agents and former associates of Ceausescu. There was a growing perception among many, both within Romania and elsewhere around the world, that the toppling of Ceausescu was not the result of the protests in Timisoara and Bucharest, but rather a coup by top communist officials who used the uprising as cover for their plan. It is quite easy to see how this is the case, considering how the army turned against Ceausescu, the trail and execution of the Ceausescus, and how Iliescu and the FSN took power only hours after Ceausescu's death. The fact that the new government was loaded with former communist officials and the fact that there was not even a semblence of a process of lustration, not to mention the FSN's policies, proved to many that Ceausescu was simply done in by his own circle and not the crowds of protesters. Iliescu has remained in office to this day despite electoral threats from oposition groups and ultra-nationalist groups. Currently Romania is making a bid for membership in the European Union but does so with the dubious distinction of having a government made up largely of individuals who plyed their craft under Ceasescu's Stalinist dictatorship and assumed power in a coup. While Romania is hardly the only EU country whose government has ties to the former communist regime (for example, Hungary's two most recent prime ministers both served in the old regime, with former prime minister Peter Megyessy having served as a spy and current prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany having served as the head of the young communists), the way in which the new government came to power continues to raise eyebrows. This goes to show the impact that the legacy of Romania's coup has had on its political environment, even more than 10 years later.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:22 ZULU