Romania marks 20 years since anti-communist revolt

AP News
Posted: Dec 16, 2009 2:23 PM

With chants of "Liberty," grizzled former fighters in this snow-dusted city Wednesday relived their role in toppling communist Eastern Europe's most repressive dictator. But most Romanians paid little heed _ focusing instead on today's economic hard times and political rancor.

The residents of Timisoara were the first to defy Nicolae Ceausescu: It was here that citizens flocked to the defense of an ethnic Hungarian dissident pastor who was being threatened with forced relocation, leading to rapidly escalating confrontations with police.

The next day, police, army and secret service units began firing at protesters, the start of six days of fighting that subsequently spilled over to Bucharest and led to the end Ceausescu and his era of hunger, hardship and repression.

More than 1,000 people were killed in the sole violent upheaval of the revolutions that swept communists from power across Eastern Europe 20 years ago. Of those, 118 were killed in Timisoara.

Timisoara mayor Gheorghe Ciuhandru told a gathering of veteran revolutionaries that the city near Romania's western border with Hungary and Serbia should be proud the uprising began here.

"To those who were born free, I say that things were changed in this revolution. We have freedom of expression, freedom of movement and the right to private property."

Today, Romania is a member of both the EU and NATO, both of them clubs associated with Western values and prosperity _ and on the surface seems to have overcome the past.

On Wednesday, this westward looking city of ornate fin-de-siecle buildings, exclusive boutiques, huge shopping malls and fine restaurants was awash in bright Christmas lights and streets were flooded with well-dressed shoppers, some jumping to avoid the spray of slush thrown up by late-model Western cars speeding by.

Almost lost in the downtown bustle was a group of about 70 people, most of them male and in their 50s chanting "down with Ceausescu," and "Liberty."

Some juggled traditional beeswax candles with cutting-edge mobile phones, in a telling symbol of a Romania that seemed like a relic of the 19th century just 20 years ago, and a nation with many of the trappings of modernity today.

But 20 years on, the bloody struggle of the war veterans appears irrelevant to a new generation facing economic hardship and political bickering, and focused more on living for today than reliving history. People in passing streetcars stared at the small crowd passively, and a girl in her early teens flashed a tired "V" sign as she walked by _ without looking back.

Today, Romania is drowning in debt _ with foreign obligations of almost 78 billion euros ($113 billion). Although it joined the EU in 2007, the nation remains deeply troubled, plagued by corruption, mired in recession, and paralyzed by political infighting _ most recently by a hotly contested presidential election marred by allegation of wholesale fraud.

U.S. Ambassador Mark H. Gitenstein paid tribute to the events of 20 years ago _ while noting that Romania had a long way to go to achieve from full democratic and free-market values.

"You, in Romania have much yet to do to complete your revolution," he said. "Romania, like America, must aspire to be a government of laws ... not a country where policy and law depends on which party attains a majority of 50 percent plus one."

"To be blunt: it's time to start doing instead of just arguing," said Gitenstein.

Tudorin Burlacu, who was among Timisoara's revolutionary fighters 20 years ago, complained of politicians claiming to believe in democracy but playing by the old, communist rules _ in claiming that the revolution was not over.

"It's a free country," said the 53-year-old engineer. "But the state institutions are controlled politically by people who are now in power."

Asked if he had a message for Romania's youth, he said: "They have to learn from us, they have to keep fighting from freedom."

But today's generation has other priorities.

"We saw it on TV, but it's no big deal for us," said Iasmina Capverde, 17, of the planned march and other commemorative festivities. "Maybe for our parents it was a big day, but it's nothing special for our crowd."

Musicians from the local opera house performed a mixture of Christmas carols and popular Romanian music in a short concert attended by ex-President Emil Constantinescu, in office from 1996 to 2000.

"I am here for those who fought and died for the ideals that changed lives in Romania and wrote a page of heroism in Romania's history," said Constantinescu.

The revolt began Dec. 16, 1989, when authorities tried to forcibly move ethnic Hungarian pastor Laszlo Toekes to a remote rural parish. Supporters gathered outside his house and soon the site was teeming with protesters.

Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed after a summary trial on Christmas Day. His brutal reign was underpinned by the notorious Securitate who had an army of an estimated 700,000 informers _ about 1 in 20 Romanians _ to stifle dissent during 25 years of harsh rule.

Toward the end of the Ceausescu era, ordinary Romanians suffered through harsh rationing in which bananas and oranges became luxuries, as the dictator tried to pay off the country's foreign debt. Meat, cooking oil and butter were severely limited, blackouts were common and in winter, Bucharest was the communist bloc's gloomiest capital, its potholed streets gripped in ice and darkness.

The world greeted Ceausescu's downfall, captivated by television images of poorly clad but jubilant Romanians flooding the streets and riding confiscated military vehicles. Horror after horror of his era was exposed _ mental asylums where patients were kept like animals and orphanages whose charges were little better off. But still the people rejoiced _ and hoped for better times.

Those times have come, but Romania remains one of Europe's backwaters.

Leonard Iovita stopped to ponder his nation's uneven road to freedom and democracy as he took a break from work at a crammed flower stall outside the Bucharest cemetery housing the grave of the Ceausescus

"We live on a seesaw. When you say it's good, that's when you fall into the pit," he said. "We are broken.

"And I don't think even God can fix us."


Associated Press writers Alison Mutler in Timisoara and Alina Wolfe-Murray in Bucharest contributed to this report.