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.
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 …
Ex-underground publisher and liberal politician, 1952–
“I was public enemy No. 1. And that’s why I became mayor,” Gabor Demszky said in a 2006 interview. “The connection is clear.”
Indeed, Demszky parlayed his unpopularity with Hungary’s Communist regime into one of the longest-lasting sinecures in European politics. He is now in his fifth term as chief executive of the country’s capital city – although whether he could win re-election in an increasingly fractious Hungary next year is unclear.
Demszky (center) at a conference of EU mayors
In his youth Demszky flirted with Maoism and critiqued the government from the extreme left, but he turned against communism and in his 20s balanced law and sociology studies with dissident activity, attracting regular police attention and getting suspended from the University of Budapest. (For a time he worked as a taxi driver.) Nevertheless, through the 1980s he tirelessly published banned books and magazines, did work fighting poverty in a country where the condition official did not exist, and forged ties with Polish anti-communists. He also helped found the Alliance of Free Democrats, a liberal party in which he is still a key figure.
His prominence in the now-legal opposition that emerged in 1989 won Demszky a seat in parliament in the free elections of March 1990, then the top job in Budapest city government that October. Remarkably for a politician who learned the ropes in those anything-goes early days, he still holds the job, winning re-election in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006.
But as Hungarian politics grew increasingly polarized into socialist and conservative-nationalist camps, the Free Democrats’ liberal stance has become less popular. The party barely squeaked into parliament in the 2002 and 2006 national elections, and Demszky himself was only narrowly re-elected mayor in the 2006 Budapest balloting, which closely followed revelations that his coalition partner, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, had deliberately misled the public about the country’s financial state.
Amid the scandal, Demszky was criticized for municipal actions seemingly aimed at limiting the size of anti-government protests. Two years later the Free Democrats broke with the increasingly unpopular Socialists, after 14 years as somewhat unlikely partners. Demszky’s party suffered another setback in this summer’s European Parliament elections, losing the two seats it won in 2004 and doing poorly even in its stronghold of Budapest. These days the darling of post-communist Hungarian politics is a regular target of eggs, tomatoes, and invective hurled by nationalist demonstrators at the annual 15 March celebrations of the 1848 revolution.
On 28 November 1989, in the face of a peaceful mass revolt, the Czechoslovak Communist Party announced it would give up its constitutional monopoly on power. Two decades on, its successor, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, is the third-most popular party in the Czech Republic and has been gaining in recent polls at the expense of the mainstream parties, the left-wing Social Democrats and the center-right Civic Democrats.
Though still reviled by much of the public, the Communists wield sufficient support to likely prevent either of the leading parties from forming a stable parliamentary majority in next year’s elections. With young leaders such as MP Katerina Konecna, elected to parliament in 2002 at age 21, at the forefront, the party is working to burnish its image and expand beyond its elderly base, downplaying its association with 40 years of totalitarian rule and claiming a commitment to the values of democratic socialism. In this video report from the Argus, an online magazine produced by students in the ePhotojournalism program at Australia’s Griffith University, Konecna and other modern Communists talk about the party’s platform and its place in today’s Czech Republic.
Click here to learn more about the Argus’ Velvet Revolution anniversary project and view other videos about the post-communist Czech experience.
Slovak-born sociologist, publisher, and writer, 1945–
Slovak among Czechs, federalist vainly trying to stop the “velvet divorce,” Jewish intellectual who helped start a phenomenally successful private TV station – Fedor Gal’s life in the past 20 years has been a study in contrasts.
Gal was born in 1945 in Terezin, the Jewish ghetto in northern Bohemia where his pregnant mother had been transported from Slovakia in the last stages of World War II. His father died a month later in Germany during a forced march of concentration camp inmates, a journey Gal retraced for the 2009 documentary Krátka dlouhá cesta (Short Long Journey).
Gal (right) with fellow Public Against Violence leaders Milan Knazko and Jan Budaj in 1990.
Gal went on to study chemical engineering and economics at universities in Bratislava and Prague. According to his website, in the mid-1980s he became one of the first scientific researchers to break loose from the rigid academic system and work on a freelance basis.
The quick fall of Czechoslovakia’s communist government and the rush to fill the resulting power vacuum made Gal a leading figure in Slovak politics, and by his own account a target for much vitriol and bigotry.
Along with figures such as actor Milan Knazko, lawyer Vladimir Meciar, and dissident activist Jan Budaj, Gal helped transform the main Slovak dissident group, Public Against Violence (VPN), from a free-floating anti-regime coalition into a broad-based political movement that easily won the first democratic vote in June 1990. Recently, on his own website, Gal recalled the welter of emotion and released tensions that accompanied the Velvet Revolution: “So many illusions, so much euphoric enthusiasm, naivety, amateurism, and at the same time human hyena-ism, collected frustrations, egoism broke through in the course of days and weeks to the surface of our daily lives.”
But the euphoria for Gal was short-lived. As splits began to appear in the VPN between the nationalist wing around Meciar and a more federalist-inclined faction, he found himself at the receiving end of grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures published in hard-line communist and nationalist newspapers. Disgusted, he decided to leave Slovakia and has lived on the Czech side of the former federation ever since.
Established in Prague, he returned to his academic career for a time, but more significantly, became part of the group that won the first license for a private television station in the former Czechoslovakia. Nova launched in Prague in 1994 with a diet of foreign shows, sensationalist news, and late-night porn, becoming by far the most-watched Czech station for many years and earning Gal enough money to devote his days to publishing (through the G plus G publishing house he started with his son Robert) and writing. He has published a string of books on travel, spirituality, and popular science, as well as collections of essays.
This year Gal jumped headlong into the pool of revolutionary retrospection, co-producing a series of online video documentaries on the events of 1989 and ‘90 for the Slovak magazine Tyzden. His own view of the legacy of the past 20 years was expressed in an April discussion at the Catholic University of Ruzomberok, Slovakia. “Democracy is not freedom,” Gal said, “only an environment where it is better to fly than during communism.”