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.
An acclaimed poet in the 1970s and ’80s, Mircea Dinescu felt the sting of Romania’s communist regime just as it was dying, played a significant role in the 1989 revolution, and became widely known as a media mogul in the years that followed, maintaining his place as a fierce yet lyrical foe of conformity.
A journalism graduate of the Communist Party’s Stefan Gheorghiu Academy, Dinescu was catapulted into the cultural spotlight in 1971 with the publication of his first book of poetry. A prolific writer, he also served as of the prominent magazine Romania Literara (Literary Romania) and was a member of the Writers’ Union. According to literary critic Alex Stefanescu, Dinescu’s success was partly due to the support of “protectors” from the Communist Party. Secret police documents published in Cartea Alba a Securitatii (White Book of the Securitate) testify to the poet’s support and even enthusiasm for the Ceausescu regime.
Dinescu’s downfall came in March 1989when, in an interview with the French newspaper Liberation, he acidly criticized Ceausescu and praised Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. He was fired from editorial post and placed under house arrest.
Nine months later he got his comeuppance. On 22 December, Dinescu took part in the peaceful seizure of Romanian Television. It was he who announced to the country that afternoon that Ceausescu and his wife had fled Bucharest.
A member of the newly founded National Salvation Front, Dinescu also became chairman of the Writers’ Union in 1990. He was forced to resign this position in 1994 in the wake of a scandal over a donated printing press that was diverted for the use of a foundation he chaired.
Dinescu invested earnings from his writing into media ownership, co-founding the influential satirical newspaper Academia Catavencu and buying or investing in several other publications, including the highbrow cultural magazine Dilema Veche. He also hosts a political talk show on the television channel Realitatea TV.
Both Dinescu’s poems and his on-air persona bear the mark of his sarcastic, inventive, and often shocking style. His 1976 volume Proprietarul de poduri (The Owner of Bridges) marked a sharp change in his youthful writing towards a subversive, politically charged lyricism that criticized the poverty and oppression of life in Romania. Years later the status quo under the new regime brought out Dinescu’s disappointment with the changes, or lack of changes, since 1989: “No revolution can change the world anymore,” he wrote. In a postmodern letter to Vaclav Havel, Dinescu describes how revolutions devour their children, while “the dissidents are unemployed/ and the protesters now queue at McDonald’s.”
His liberal use of slang and colloquialism led the prominent philosopherGabriel Liiceanu to dub Dinescu “the symbol and flag bearer of the Romanian suburbs,” a compliment to his authenticity and his reputation as a cultural hero.
From 1967 to 1992 Monica Lovinescu was the inimitable voice that kept millions of Romanians updated on the latest cultural and political trends in the West and the dissident movements in other Soviet bloc countries, at the same time offering critical analysis of the myths surrounding the totalitarian regime at home.
After completing her literary studies at the University of Bucharest, Lovinescu received a scholarship to study in Paris in September 1947. Three months later the communists took power in Romania and blacklisted the works of her late father, literary critic Eugen Lovinescu. This led her to request political asylum, which France granted in 1948.
Numerous articles in European and Romanian-language cultural journals established Lovinescu as a prominent voice among Romanian emigres. (It also made her mother, still in Bucharest, a prime blackmail target. In 1958 the 71-year-old Mrs. Lovinescu was jailed for “undermining state order”; she died in prison after refusing to press her daughter to inform on dissidents in France.) Lovinescu’s standing rose further in 1967, when she became the mind and the voice behind the Radio Free Europe programs Theses and Anti-Theses in Paris and Romanian Cultural Events. Following in the footsteps of her father, well-known as a promoter of modernist literature, she would read from new work and review both underground and mainstream Romanian authors.
Disturbed by her influence and the authority she wielded in Romanian cultural life, Nicolae Ceausescu in 1977 sent two assassins to Paris to have her silenced (according to onetime Securitate chief Ion Pacepa, who defected to the United States in 1978). Lovinescu recalled that two masked men savagely beat her in the courtyard of her house, leaving her unconscious. She returned to her listeners after five days in the hospital.
After the overthrow of Ceausescu, Lovinescu visited her home country several times and in 1999 was awarded Romania’s highest civil honor, the Order of the Star, but she continued to live in Paris, where she died on 20 April 2008at the age of 84. Her post-1990 published works include radio scripts, a novel, two volumes of autobiography, and six volumes of a diary, which raised a stir in Romania over her intransigent judgments of important cultural figures and her disenchantment with post-revolutionary times.
Lovinescu courted controversy again in a 2002 magazine interview in which she offered barbed criticism of former dissident intellectuals who she said should have gotten more involved in Romanian politics after 1989. She took aim what she considered a thriving “Homo Sovieticus” mentality in Romania and the pervasive nostalgia for a communist-era “golden age,” and decried the country’s failure to hold a Nuremberg-style trial of communist leaders. “The only solid base for change is one of mentalities,” she said. “Without that, even the few good things that have been done are built on quicksand.”
Photo and video documentary of the mounting demonstrations in Timisoara, Romania, in December over the communist regime’s attempt to silence dissident minister Laszlo Tokes by transferring him to a remote village parish. The movement spread to Bucharest, spelling the end for dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Dissident minister and catalyst for the Romanian revolution, 1952-
Laszlo Tokes became a target for Romania’s communist regime for his dedication to his flock and played a crucial role in catalyzing the unrest that led to the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime. Years later, free to practice both his spiritual and political vocation, he remains a bete noire to Bucharest over his loud calls for greater autonomy for the country’s Hungarian minority.
A Protestant minister and a prominent voice of Transylvania’s Hungarian community, Tokes became a target of the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, in 1982, after he detailed human-rights abuses in a Hungarian-language samizdat magazine. He fell afoul of the authorities again with his sermons against the government policy of relocating villagers to cities, which threatened to disperse the Hungarian population.As a consequence, in March 1989 religious authorities ordered his transfer from the city of Timisoara to the isolated parish of Mineu.
Tokes refused to leave. On 15 December, the date he was to be evicted from his Timisoara flat, members of his congregation gathered to protest the eviction in front of his flat. They were soon joined by passersby; within days several thousand were gathered, protesting the Ceausescu regime. The demonstrations spread to Bucharest, leading to the bloodiest regime change in Central and Eastern Europe’s revolutionary year.
After the overthrow of the dictatorship, Tokes became one of Romania’s twoReformed bishops.He won a seat in the European Parliamentas an independent candidate in 2007 and was re-elected this past June, when he ran on the list of the newly formed Hungarian Solidarity party. Central to Tokes’ political agenda is increased cultural and territorial autonomy for Romanian Hungarians. President Trajan Basescu has rejected Tokes’ demands, saying that Romania is a unitary state which guarantees the rights of minorities.
Since the revolution Tokes has been dogged by claims that he was a spy for Hungary, as the communist-era apparatchiks believed, and a Securitate informant. He has acknowledged that he was approached by the secret police and forced to sign some documents but maintains he never actively collaborated. (He sued the Associated Press for reporting the allegation in 1998 but lost.) In 2001 the National Commission for the Study of the Security Archives granted Tokes a certificate attesting that he never collaborated with the secret police.
In June 2009, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation awarded Tokes the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom for his role in the Romanian revolution. In his acceptance speech [http://www.americanhungarianfederation.org/news_Victims_of_Communism_LaszloTokes.htm], he railed against privileged members of the old regime he said had maintained control by transferring their political power into the economic arena, and he blasted the Romanian government for a “Euro-conformist politics of window-dressing” that kept it from going beyond rhetoric in condemning communist crimes. “It is painful to observe,” he said, “that the final victory of the freedom fighters over communism has not yet arrived.”
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with history teachers is the second in the series that resulted. Continue reading …
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with artists is the first in the series that resulted.
Part 1: What does an artist, accustomed to using metaphor and subterfuge under communism, do when the lid comes off? Continue reading …
Why the reality of post-Communist Europe has not measured up to the expectations of 1989.
By Jiri Pehe
“Now we have a democracy,” Tomas G. Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, said of his new country upon its founding 90 years ago. “What we also need are democrats.”
These words could be applied as aptly to the post-communist countries of contemporary East-Central Europe. The problem of “democracies without democrats” is as real today as it was when Masaryk’s new state rose from the ashes of World War I. Continue reading …