COVER

ROMANIA UNCHAINED

A NEW COALITION GOVERNMENT CONFRONTED DEMANDS FOR EVEN MORE LIBERTY

PEETER KOPVILLEM January 8 1990
COVER

ROMANIA UNCHAINED

A NEW COALITION GOVERNMENT CONFRONTED DEMANDS FOR EVEN MORE LIBERTY

PEETER KOPVILLEM January 8 1990

Eyes glazed over in death, a tuft of grey hair, a puddle of blood—the picture of executed dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu broadcast over Romanian TV last Tuesday marked the bloody climax to an already violent revolution. But it was a climax that had come with stunning speed. A mere week after anti-government demonstrations first broke out in the northwestern Romanian town of Timisoara, Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, fled the capital of Bucharest when army units joined the rebellion. That same day, Dec. 22, the couple was captured and on Christmas Day went before a military tribunal that accused them of genocide and plundering more than $1 billion from the country. But during the two-hour trial, Ceausescu, the self-proclaimed Genius of the Carpathians, defiantly challenged the tribunal’s authority. “I am the president of Romania,” he shouted. “I will only answer to the working class.” Then, with the sentence passed, he and his wife, who served as the country’s deputy prime minister, were led to their deaths at the hands of a three-man firing squad.

Army officials said that about 300 soldiers had volunteered for the assignment—an indication of the deep-seated hostility towards Ceausescu unleashed by the end of his repressive 24-year Stalinist regime (page 24). And after the relatively violence-free ground swell of reform that had swept through Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, the Romanian uprising was a clear reminder that change is often accompanied by bloodshed. At week’s end, as Romanians continued to bury the hundreds who had died, the country still faced the possibility of a drawn-out terrorist campaign by militant members of the late president’s well-armed secret police force, the Securitate. And in spite of offers of aid and support from Western countries and the establishment of a provisional government that pledged an end to Communist rule and free elections in April, the political future of the country remained under a cloud. But even the doubts could not dispel the joy expressed by many over the end of the Ceausescu era. Said Mihail Isaili, 40, an engineer at the Romanian national television station: “I don’t think we realize yet what has happened. It is difficult to take it all in.”

Crackdown: That sense of disbelief was evident throughout the world as observers contemplated the speedy fall of Ceausescu’s regime. Romania, which had been dominated by about 40 members of the Ceausescu family, had appeared impervious to the wave of reform that emanated from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies and in rapid succession toppled the hard-line Communist regimes in other Eastern Bloc countries. And when anti-Ceausescu demonstrations first broke out in the Transylvanian city of Timisoara (population 350,000) in mid-December, the government’s brutal crackdown initially made the chances for reform appear slight.

But last week, the Ceausescus were dead and their son Nicu and daughter, Zoia Elena, were in custody. Soldiers had also arrested Ceausescu’s sister, Elena Barbulescu, her son Emil, and one of the deposed dictator’s sisters-in-law. And last Thursday, one of Ceausescu’s four brothers, Marin, 74, was found dead in the basement of the Romanian Embassy in Vienna. Marin Ceausescu had worked in Vienna as chief of the Romanian Trade Agency since 1974 and was reportedly in charge of Romania’s secret police activities in Western Europe. Viennese police said that he had apparently committed suicide by hanging himself.

The events leading to the downfall of the Ceausescu family began on Dec. 15 when about 200 people gathered in Timisoara in an effort to prevent Securitate forces from arresting pastor László Tokés, a member of Romania’s approximately two-million-member Hungarian minority. Tokés, an outspoken advocate of human rights, had criticized Romanian abuses and discrimination against the country’s Hungarian minority in a Canadian-made documentary aired on Hungarian television in late July. The show of support for the minister quickly developed into a mass demonstration as thousands of Romanians of all ethnic groups joined the protest.

Surrounded: Security forces responded by going on a rampage. In the bloodbath that followed, they fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing hundreds. But, despite the repression, the protests continued—spreading from Timisoara to other Romanian cities and finally to the capital itself. When Ceausescu attempted to give a televised speech at a rally in Bucharest on Dec. 21, he was shouted down by protesters—with Romanian state television broadcasting the clear look of shock on his face. Then, security forces turned automatic weapons and tanks on the defiant demonstrators, killing several people and wounding many others.

As the rebellion intensified, some units of the regular Romanian armed forces began siding with the insurgents. On Fri., Dec. 22, the rebellious forces occupied the Romanian state television station in Bucharest. Renamed Free Romanian Television, the station quickly became the nerve centre of the revolution—and then the provisional government. Inside, a group calling itself the National Salvation Front appealed for popular support, saying that Ceausescu had been overthrown and announcing that they were forming a provisional government (page 25). Outside, army units fought pitched battles with Securitate forces attempting to recapture the station. But the efforts failed, and the station continued to broadcast 24 hours a day, fuelling the revolution.

Meanwhile, when crowds attempted to storm the Central Committee building on Dec. 22, Ceausescu and his wife fled, escaping from the roof in their white presidential helicopter. According to some officials in the new government, the couple headed for a military base at Boteni, about 100 km northwest of Bucharest, apparently hoping to take advantage of the unrest to travel from there to another country. But when they landed, a group of peasants surrounded the aircraft, preventing the Ceausescus from escaping until troops arrived. Then, the officials added, on Dec. 25, at 4 p.m., the couple was summarily executed outside of the Boteni military barracks. The next day, Romanian television began broadcasting an edited version of the trial and pictures of the executed dictator.

Execution: That measure was designed to convince Securitate forces that further struggle was pointless. In fact, fighting began to taper off although, at week’s end, sniper fire could still be heard in Bucharest. For its part, the provisional government gave the Securitate members until 5 p.m. on Thursday to surrender or face execution—while the army braced itself for an anticipated last-ditch attack by Securitate members against the TV station. The deadline passed without incident, and officials said that thousands of secret police had surrendered or been captured. But as officials continued to be transported in armored personnel-carriers, it remained clear that the Securitate still posed a threat. “There are still fanatics loose,” said Cazimir Ionescu, a member of the National Salvation Front.

The provisional government lost little time in overturning many of Ceausescu’s most hated laws and decrees. Some of the changes were symbolic—Romanians would no longer have to address each other as comrade and the Communist party emblem was dropped from the national flag. But other changes went to the heart of Romanian life. In the early 1980s, Ceausescu began exporting much of the food grown in Romania, the proceeds being used to pay off the country’s $21-billion foreign debt. Because of strict domestic rationing, fresh fruit and vegetables were almost unavailable to ordinary Romanians, while pigs’ feet became one of the few meat items still stocked in stores. But last week, the new government announced that food previously scheduled for export would be made available to Romanians instead.

That change was immediately felt in Bucharest, where people flocked to the stores to buy items that for many had become nothing more than a distant memory. Along with meat and vegetables, they also received a chance to buy more exotic goods, including chocolates, oranges and bananas. “We used to our spend our time tramping the streets looking for something to buy,” said Maria Balança, 60. “We would push and fight like animals. Now I can take chocolates home for my grandchildren.”

Abortion: Other changes were just as dramatic. The new government announced an end to strict abortion laws that had been in place since 1966. Ceausescu had imposed the ban, applying to any woman who had fewer than four—later increased to five—children, to increase the country’s population, which now stands at 23 million. And the new authorities decreed an end to Ceausescu’s hated modernization policy, under which villages were razed and people resettled in urban centres.

But rumblings against the new government already began to be heard. Among the complaints: some members were former Communist party officials, including new President Ion Iliescu, a personal friend of Gorbachev’s, who had fallen out of grace with Ceausescu. “A lot of the people in the new government are oldtimers who were anti-Ceausescu but were linked to the Communist party,” said one Western diplomat in Bucharest. “A lot of younger people resent that.”

For their part, many foreign governments quickly recognized the new National Salvation Front government—and pledged aid to help the country recover from the devastation of revolution. The U.S. state department expressed American support for “the newly constituted Romanian government and its commitment to democratic reforms.” As well, Washington pledged nearly $900,000 in relief. Other countries offering support and humanitarian aid to Romania included Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Spain, Iran and Israel.

Violations: Ottawa was also quick to publicly state its support for the new Romanian government. On Dec. 22, the day that Ceausescu was forced to flee Bucharest, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark issued a statement welcoming the president’s overthrow as a “joyous moment for all Romanians and Canadians who hold dear the values of human life and liberty.” Clark also announced that Canada was giving $100,000 for emergency medical supplies to Romania. Spokesmen for Romanian-Canadian organizations quickly branded the government’s contribution as an “insult,” saying that far more was needed. But External Affairs spokesman Mark Entwistle said that Ottawa has offered to provide future assistance. “If there are any specific requests, they will be considered,” Entwistle said.

Still, some foreign governments acknowledged that they were concerned about the arbitrary manner in which the Ceau§escus had been tried and executed. But, for the most part, the criticism was muted—a sign that governments were trying to set themselves apart from a regime that many of them had previously courted because of Ceausescu’s unwillingness to follow Moscow’s line. For one thing, Romania enjoyed most-favored-nation trading status with the United States for most of the past decade, a privilege that was finally withdrawn in 1989 because of Ceausescu’s evident human rights violations. And as late as 1985, when the Ceausescus visited Canada, Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé remarked during a ceremony for the dictator that Canada was “particularly honored” by his presence.

Earlier, in 1978 and 1981, the Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. signed contracts to help Romania build two 685-megawatt CANDU nuclear reactors as part of that country’s long-term plan to build five reactors at a site near Cernavoda, 150 km east of Bucharest. Last week, those projects became the subject of concern after reports that Securitate forces intended to attack and capture the construction site. But the attacks did not materialize. And Michel Hébert, media-relations manager for Atomic Energy, told Maclean’s that the reactors are far from completion because, under the terms of the agreement, the Romanians themselves are in charge of construction. “They are going at their own pace,” Hébert explained. And, he added, “ even if there was an invasion, all they would find is a big construction site consisting mainly of poured concrete.”

In Bucharest, meanwhile, Romanians began to dismantle the vestiges of the Ceausescu regime. In the national library, workers were busy removing the dictator’s complete works, which had occupied six long shelves. “No one ever read this stuff, no one,” said Virgil Tiberiu Spanu, the library’s director of acquisitions. Passers-by spat on the bodies of Securitate members killed during the fighting with the army. And people waved the country’s red, yellow and black flag—with gaping holes in the middle where the Communist emblem had once been.

Gold: The new authorities also allowed Romanians a glimpse at the wealth amassed by the Ceausescus at a time when many in the country were on the verge of starvation. One broadcast on Romanian TV took viewers on a tour of Ceausescu’s daughter’s residence outside Bucharest. It showed that Zoia Elena had owned gold plates, goblets and cutlery, jewelry and paintings. As well, the kitchen featured a solid-gold meat scale and a package of imported veal—which the announcer said had been intended as dog food. But the main attraction was the 40-room presidential mansion, dubbed the “museum of madness” by the new government. Among the riches: Oriental carpets, cabinets full of solid-gold and silver ornaments, solid-gold bathroom fixtures and original paintings plundered from the country’s museums. Said one young army officer who lives with his wife and child in a cramped apartment: “When I saw what was here, it was unimaginable.”

But for many Romanians, last week also was a time of grief as they gathered to bury their dead. At week’s end, at a makeshift cemetery in the southern part of Bucharest, the coffins continued to arrive. Until Tuesday, the space had been a children’s playground. Now, a swing set still standing provided an eerie contrast to the dozens of freshly dug graves. Among the mourners was teacher Elena Predam, a cousin of 31-year-old mechanic Stefan Butnaru who had died during the Dec. 22 battle around the television station. “Stefan was one of the heroes,” Predam told Maclean’s. “His blood is the price of our liberty. So we must have real freedom—and we cannot settle for less than that.” After 24 years of brutal repression, it appears that Romania is on the verge of a new, and democratic, era.