The Legacy of the Romanian Revolution (Demo)

by Alexandru Gussi – PhD in Political Science (Paris, 2007), Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Bucharest University

Armand Gosu – PhD in Russian History (Moscow, 1998), Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Bucharest University

For the great majority of Romanians, the flight of Nicolae Ceauşescu and fall of the communist regime were so surprising that they could only be perceived as miracles. On December 22, 1989, this impression of a miracle was shared by virtually all Romanians, be it those who followed the events in front of their TVs, or those risking their lives in the streets. It is this impression of a miracle that provides a key to the understanding of these events: even those who took to the streets and assumed so many risks were not mentally prepared to conceive life after a victory that seemed impossible up to the very last moment. The Revolution was made possible by a desperate, initial rebellion that had no leaders, no organization, and no ideology aside from the implicit anti-communism of the Romanian flag from which the communist coat of arms had been removed. The absence of an organized, dissident movement and a culture of samizdat diminished even further any chance that the victims of the communist regime could benefit from its fall. It was others who benefitted from these events, which is why the impression of a miracle was quickly replaced by the idea of a “hijacked Revolution.” Hijacked by whom? By the nomenklatura whose ascension was blocked, for various reasons, by the Ceauşescu family, together with officers from the Securitate and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Defense. The latter were fully aware that the regime would be unable to withstand a general rebellion and that the geopolitical context made it highly improbable for a Neo-Stalinist such as Ceauşescu to continue to rule the country. This led to the fact that the man of the hour was not an anti-communist, but precisely the person who was expected to succeed Ceauşescu for the leadership of the Party-State. When Ion Iliescu came to power, he was presented as a revolutionary, but not as one who pertained to the anti-communist rebellion. During a speech by the new leader delivered in what is now referred to as the Revolution Square, protesters responded to his wooden language by chanting “No communists!” At the time, Iliescu’s reaction was to pacify the crowd by arguing that the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) was gone. Thus, on December 22, the sole party was expeditiously dissolved by its own Central Committee. This, however, was not a real dissolution, but rather an integration into the administration of the new state. The former State-Party members unburdened themselves of the party and a new political state structure was created. The National Salvation Front (FSN) would then replace PCR and assume a form of revolutionary legitimacy. The discourse that broached this revolutionary legitimacy made possible a near perfect institutional continuity. The State remained the same, while most of the servants of the totalitarian regime became “active participants” in the revolution. Thus, previous agents of repression became current champions of change after December 22, 1989.

How could those who took to the streets accept this state of affairs? Some did so because they perceived the events as miraculous and simply did not have the necessary clarity of mind to  understand such a historic moment. Others attempted to protest, but the new power managed to make any alternative seem irrelevant under the threat of a possible urban guerilla war. The fear of Ceauşescu’s return and of a civil war anesthetized the people’s revolutionary potential. The recent inquiry of the Public Prosecutor’s Office into the events following December 22 explicitly refers to the fact that the ensuing struggles were orchestrated by the new power in an attempt to consolidate itself. Previously a group of nomenklatura, FSN became the architect of the Revolution after December 22. Together with the miraculous aura surrounding December 1989, this would turn the political bloc formed around Ion Iliescu into the founder and main protagonist of Romanian post-Communism for the following 15 years; one might say, even to this day. Thus, the great paradox of the Romanian Revolution was that it made possible the continuity of the communist state and, to a great extent, the continuity of political elites and their access to resource networks. Nevertheless, this use of revolutionary legitimacy did have two positive outcomes. First, those who orchestrated the performance were forced to entertain the semblance of democracy and even promote a certain limited form of de-communization. They had to de-communize their discourse, they renounced the majority of symbols pertaining to the Socialist Republic, and they were unable to uphold their nostalgia for totalitarian communism. Second and more importantly, Romanian society had the feeling or, rather, the certainty that it freed itself. FSN’s narrative was short-lived. Iliescu could portray himself as the savior of nomenklatura or the man of the hour, in general, but not as a liberator. Regardless of its historic (in)accuracy, the feeling that it had freed itself gave civil society unparalleled legitimacy and rendered counter-productive any attempts of the government to restrict political freedoms. Even though the degree to which Romania has become a democratic state is still debatable, the feeling of triumphant liberty remains, from the 1990s to this day, the most important legacy of the Romanian Revolution.

Alexandru Gussi & Armand Gosu

Edits., Democratia sub asediu, Editura Corint, 2019.

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