CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania | It’s Christmastime in Cluj-Napoca, but here, and throughout Romania, the holidays bring more than the hustle and bustle of frantic shopping and snow-hampered commutes. This year Romanians are also celebrating 20 years since winning their freedom – if “celebrating” is the right word.
“It feels like much of what we fought for during that glorious December has been overshadowed by frustration that democracy did not instantly bring gratification for everyone,” says Nicolae Badescu, a 59-year-old engineer who was out in the streets of this western Romanian city during the revolution of 1989. Continue reading …
Divisive Romanian leader who succeeded Ceausescu, 1930-
Ion Iliescu was the dominant political figure of post-1989 Romania, and the most divisive. For many, the achievements of his three terms as president (1990-1992, 1992-1996, and 2000-2004) – notably ushering Romania into NATO and laying for groundwork European Union membership – will always be overshadowed by a perception that he failed to follow through on the commitment in his December 1989 “Communique to the Country” to demolish the vestiges of the totalitarian state.
Trained as an engineer, Iliescu studied in Moscow in the 1950s and upon returning home quickly climbed the Communist Party ladder, serving as minister for youth issues from 1967 to 1971. But when he began to display what he has termed “a critical attitude towards the dogmas of the cultural revolution,” he was pushed out of politics, ending up in charge of a technical publishing house.
Iliescu (right) with Elena Ceausescu in 1976, before he fell out of favor with Romania's Communist elite.
His reputation as an outsider proved invaluable in December 1989, when the selling tide of popular protest that began with peaceful demonstrations in support of Timisoara minister Laszlo Tokesculminated in the arrest and executionof communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. Iliescu’s history of dissent from the ruling ideology and his solid professional standing were the credentials that catapulted him to the forefront of the National Salvation Front umbrella movement.
But his presidency began under unfavorable auspices. Throughout the spring of 1990, crowds of students and young people protested daily on Bucharest’s University Square, aiming much of their ire at the former communist officials, Iliescu above all, who had returned to positions of power. Iliescu responded by bringing in miners from the Jiu Valley to quell the demonstrations; they trashed public buildings and attacked protesters and passersby alike, on one occasion leaving seven dead and more than 1,000 injured, by the official count.
Iliescu publicly thanked the minersfor restoring order, and at the end of his presidency he pardoned one of their leaders, Miron Cozma, who had been sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1999. Public outrage forced Iliescu to revoke the decision. After leaving office he was twice put on trial on charges of genocide, instigation of war, and complicity to torture. In June 2009 he was found not guilty of all charges.
Iliescu’s legacy continues to divide Romanian society. Protesters heckled him with shouts of “assassin” and “Judas” during the 2008 commemoration of the December revolution and again on his birthday on 3 March 2009. Current President Traian Basescu has called his predecessor “a specialist in coups d’état” – an allusion not only to the controversy surrounding Iliescu’s accession to power but also the Romanian parliament’s failed 2007 impeachment of Basescu, which he blames on Iliescu’s Social Democratic Party.
Though he officially retired from politics last year, Iliescu maintains his voice in Romanian affairs politics through his blog. In a 12 October speech to the Romanian Academy, Iliescu took aim at contemporary national discontent, saying it springs from “the polluted minds of people with complexes” – people he said took no responsibility for the country’s political situation until after 1989, when it became safe to dissent.
Currently in production, the independent feature film Listopad tells the fact-based tale of three Prague teenagers caught up in the seismic events of November 1989. In this TOL podcast, Daniela Ivanova talks to director Gary Griffin and producer Jeffrey Brown about the film’s inspiration and aims, the potential pitfalls for American artists tackling Czech history, and re-creating a seminal scene of the Velvet Revolution on the streets of Prague 20 years later.
[Editor’s note: A native of Bulgaria’s Montana province, journalist and poet Diana Ivanova is working on projects that explore personal and collective memories of the socialist period. This article is drawn from one such project with students in the region. Photo of Vratsa by Elena Chochkova.]
VRATSA, Bulgaria | “Teacher, you disappointed me when you said you were with the Communists!”
The dialogue occurs in Vratsa, a town in northwestern Bulgaria. It’s a 10th-grader’s reaction to his teacher’s recollection about her father: a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1989, he thought the protesters in the streets of Sofia wanted to plunge the country into chaos.
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the landscape for media freedom in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union offers a decidedly mixed picture. Two divergent narratives have emerged: one, for the new democracies of Central Europe, the Baltic states, and those in southeastern Europe, is that of impressive but fitful progress. The other, a far grimmer story, is what might be characterized as the near complete reassertion of authoritarian media control in much of the former Soviet Union that has accompanied a broader assault on democratic institutions in the region.
This Jekyll and Hyde pattern of media development is starkly on display in analyses by the media and democracy monitor Freedom House and in numerous reports by other press monitors over the past two decades. Continue reading …
LAKE BALATON AND PRAGUE | Laszlo Takacs sweats over a bubbling fryer, deftly wielding his tongs to pull out another Frisbee-shaped langos. One swimsuit-clad customer after another requests Takacs’ deep-fried dough disks, especially the classic: slathered with sour cream, sprinkled with grated Trappist cheese, and drizzled with garlic sauce for good measure.
“Hungarians have always loved langos, and they always will,” Takacs says. “It’s a national specialty, like goulash.”
This was Hungary’s communist-era version of fast food – oily, cheap, tasty, and reliably belly-filling. Today it’s a relative rarity, overwhelmed by Western staples like pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, even shwarma and Chinese food. Continue reading …
By Francesco Martino/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso
EDIRNE, Turkey | Rasim Ozgur’s eyes are framed by deep wrinkles, but they still shine with intensity as he recalls the events of May 1989.
“I was beaten twice until I bled and lost consciousness,” says Ozgur, a painter and sculptor who now teaches art at the University of Izmir. “The men from the milicija told me that if they saw me talking to ‘reported’ people they would kill me. Then one day they told me, ‘You’re about to emigrate. You choose: Austria or Sweden.’ I got ready. I had no choice. On the 29th, though, Zhivkov announced that the borders with Turkey would be opened. I packed and left with my family. A week later I crossed the border, right here, in Edirne.”
Today this city on the Thracian plain, for centuries the gateway from the Balkans into Turkey (and, from 1365 to 1453, the Ottoman Empire’s capital), has the sleepy and somewhat provincial look of a decayed capital, mirrored in the city’s two rivers, the Maritza and the Tundzha. There is no outward sign of the tragedy for which it was the stage two decades ago. Continue reading …