After Ceausescu

Owen Bennett-Jones

‘Same brothel, different whores’: the words chosen by Valentin Gabrielescu of the re-created National Peasants’ Party to express his opinion of Romania’s provisional government, the National Salvation Front. And he’s by no means alone in distrusting Romania’s new rulers. From the lunch tables of the elegantly-appointed restaurant in the Writers’ Union to the raucous student meetings all over Bucharest, the Front, as it calls itself, attracts puzzled enquiry, suspicion and, as often as not, angry derision. The Front’s detractors believe that the revolution has been stolen by Ceausescu’s apparatchiks from its rightful owners: the students who fought for it and the country’s handful of uncompromised dissidents. The Front’s problem is that it has attracted too much support. Police chiefs and factory managers all over the country simply declared themselves to be in favour of the new government and have stayed in place demanding that the same old forms be filled and the same hours worked. So the Front is increasingly perceived as a body that will reform the Communist system rather than overthrow it. In fact, it’s too early to say what ideology it has.

Unsurprisingly, a few days in office have not given the Front time to outline a policy programme, and, in any event, the organisation is made up of so many different strands of opinion that it is by no means clear that they could agree on one. Whatever the critics say, dissident intellectuals do have their representatives in place even if they are not in the key posts. Andrei Pleshu as Minister of Culture, and Alexandru Paleologu as the new Ambassador to Paris, are appointments with which nobody is inclined to argue. But what do they have in common with the Front’s heavyweights – the Acting President, Ion Iliescu, for example, and the former US Ambassador, Sylviu Brucan? To be sure, these two men risked their careers and their liberty in opposing Ceausescu, but the fact remains that they did once support him, and in the eyes of the purists, they are compromised. So, of course, are untold millions of Romanians, and what may prove to be of greater significance is that these two groups represent different moral and political schools of thought. Add to that the Front’s occasional proletarian revolutionary, and it is hard to believe that unity will be maintained for long.

Originally, it wouldn’t have mattered. After all, the Front’s aim was to provide a caretaker government until free elections, which would be held, they said, in April. In those circumstances, the Front’s diversity was its greatest asset. Within a few days, furthermore, they had delivered peace to the streets, and, despite the organisational nightmare brought on by the threat of further Securitate attacks, had produced from somewhere more meat and coffee than Romanians had seen in decades. But much of the good will that flowed from this rapid and effective seizure of the initiative by the Front was lost by Sylviu Brucan’s announcement that it would stand in the elections not – whatever this might mean – as a party but as a bloc. That intention, above all else, has alienated much of the Front’s support and the manner in which it was made reveals a great deal about the organisation. Brucan’s formal position is relatively junior – he’s chairman of a twenty or so strong ‘legislative’ commission under the new Minister of Foreign Affairs. But no one in Bucharest really knows what’s going on, and when Brucan came on television and announced that the Front would stand, no one questioned his authority. Some twenty-four hours later there were members of the Front’s council who didn’t even know about the announcement. Brucan’s behaviour has since provoked much criticism, within the Front and outside.

The newly-formed political parties, fast becoming opposition parties, do have a clear view on the question of the elections. They want the members of the provisional government to stand for whoever they like as long as it is not the Front. It is very difficult at this stage to sort out which of the plethora of new groups are serious, and command significant support. Nobody, not even the organisers, has any idea of the size of their membership lists. The Liberal Party is written off by many as a re-creation of the old party of the bourgeoisie and consequently doomed in the immediate post-Ceausescu era. The two parties which can at least claim embryonic regional organisation, and which appear to be dominant at this stage, are the National Peasants’ Party and the Romanian Democratic Party. As far as the elections are concerned, they would both welcome some individuals from the Front into their own ranks. That’s not to say that these individuals would necessarily find the parties very attractive. After all, their leaders are now chiefly employed in undermining the Front, which all the while is trying to govern the country in appallingly difficult circumstances. And the annoyance they may feel about this can only be increased by the suspicion that many of these critics, if they had happened to be in the right place at the right time or to know the person who was, would probably have worked quite happily for the Front from the start. But the dynamic of the explosion of genuine political activity in Romania has made enemies of natural allies. Moreover, despite a cascade of declarations, the new parties have themselves been unable to come up with detailed political programmes. In as much as there is any difference between them, the National Peasants’ Party stresses religion and morality, while the Romanian Democratic Party inclines towards the establishment of a free market as its top priority. Neither understands much about the democratic process: how could they?

There was a telling moment at a recent meeting of the Christian Democratic Party – the youth wing of the National Peasants’ Party. The students were planning a demonstration. Should it be held to demand concessions – TV time and so on – from the Front, or should it be used as an occasion to commemorate the students who died during the revolution? Views were expressed in much the same way as they would be in any student union at a Western European University. But at the moment when a vote seemed appropriate, the students wheeled in one of the former leaders of the pre-war Peasants’ Party. The old man first fuelled the students’ distrust of the Front, describing them as the enemy, and then declared that the demonstration would be held to mourn the dead. No one dissented and the matter was settled. Old habits die hard. And that perhaps is the most compelling reason to fear that the Romanians have not got a secure grip on democracy. While it is possible to point to the odd stab at free elections in Romanian history, the dominant tradition is clearly authoritarian. Despite the high price that has been paid in the Warsaw Pact’s only violent revolution, it is difficult to see the Romanians taking up the lead in the scramble for democratic values. Whether you are for the Front or against it, no one can deny that Romania’s new rulers have slipped with great ease into the practice of ruling by decree.

One of the questions posed by many in the Western media since 22 December has been this: was the Romanian revolution not in fact a Moscow-inspired coup d’état? The case rests on a mixture of rumour, scraps of circumstantial evidence, and – the meat and drink of conspiracy theorists – a motive. The Soviets have indeed so far done rather well out of it. Their strongest opponent in the Warsaw Pact has gone, and the new men are already looking more favourably towards Moscow, which in its turn has promised food and energy supplies to alleviate the impact of a vicious winter. The rumours that there had been a coup began with a remark made by General Nicolae Militaru, the new Defence Minister, who, on a video recording of a meeting of the new government’s leaders on 22 December, settled the argument as to what the group should be called by saying that the National Salvation Front had already been in existence for six months.

In addition, some of the new men are known to have close links with Moscow, which itself welcomed the revolution even as it was happening. Wilder rumours are circulating in diplomatic circles: that the Soviets had squared the Army in advance, that the final mass demonstration of the old regime, in which Ceausescu was shouted down, was held against the former leader’s better judgment. Others had persuaded him that it was the best way to reassert his authority after the killings in Timisoara: then placed their own people in the crowd to shout him down.

The Front, of course, dismisses all this as gossip. They assert that the uprising was spontaneous, and that the leadership, as Brucan put it, has been forged ‘in the flames of the revolution’. Certainly, it would be surprising if like-minded members of Romania’s political establishment – past and present – had not spoken to one another about the post-Ceausescu order. Perhaps a few were even told on trips to Moscow that the Kremlin wouldn’t be too upset to see the back of Ceausescu. But such nods and winks are a long way from a Moscow-led coup. As for the Army, it is clear that the decision to back the people came after the students had been rampaging through the streets. And if there was an order from on high, it did not reach officers in the lower ranks. Many of these have spoken of the agonising decision faced when their duty to defend the institutions they were deployed to protect was pitted against the demands of the huge numbers of demonstrators bearing down on them. That these decisions were taken individually is confirmed by the fact that some officers chose to shoot those soldiers under their command who refused to fire on civilians. The eye-witnesses are in agreement that this was a revolution.

Moscow also has reason to fear a more democratic Romania. While the Baltic States are currently making the running in the race to be free of Russia, it might well be that Soviet Moldavia will now take up the baton. The region includes much of the former Romanian province of Bessarabia, its annexation having been agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. For as long as Ceausescu ruled Romania, the calls for unity by Soviet Moldavians were bound to be muted. But that is most unlikely to remain the case. Only hours after the revolution there were demands for reunification from the Soviet side. The Kremlin knows the dangers. Over the last year there have been massive nationalist demonstrations in Moldavia, and the Kremlin has been forced to concede that ethnic Romanians there be allowed to write their language in the Latin as opposed to the Cyrillic alphabet. It is revealing that the Soviet Red Cross effort and the emergency hospitals set up to treat victims of the violence in Romania have been run from, and established in, the Ukrainian city of Odessa rather than the geographically more convenient location of Soviet Moldavia’s capital, Kishinev.

President Ceausescu played off his own Romanian population against the German and Hungarian minorities: but he never dared to take on the issue of Soviet Moldavia. His successors may not feel so restrained, and the students’ Christian Democratic Party, for example, has already demanded reunification. Until that is achieved, it says, there should be a corridor across the Soviet-Romanian border allowing for freer travel. There can be no doubt that whoever does come to govern Romania would be giving up a great opportunity for gaining popular support if he did not play the Moldavian card. And that would have plenty of domestic implications. The lexicography of the former regime allowed only for ‘Romanians, Hungarians, Germans and other nationalities’. The others include Armenians, Gypsies, Tartars, Ukrainians, Serbs, Lipovan-ians and many, many more. If the Soviet and Yugoslav experiences are anything to go by, these groups are bound to use such democratic rights as they are granted to assert their language, their culture and their separateness. Tendencies of this kind can only be accelerated by any hardening of Romanian nationalist opinion. While the different nationalities came together in the moment of the old order’s overthrow, there is every reason to believe that they will diverge in the post-revolutionary period.

The atmosphere in post-revolutionary Bucharest is happy, excited and hopeful. People are hungry for information and queue not only for coffee and bread but also for newspapers. Good will abounds as the people smile and talk. A couple who planned to divorce have postponed their decision. After all, they say, this changes everything. But much will stay the same. A multi-party system is far from the most likely outcome for a people who acknowledge their ignorance of democracy. And watching them as they try to grapple with its requirements and opportunities, one can sympathise with those who plaintively reflect that Romania has transported itself from one unreality to another.