Down with Ceausescu! Long live Iliescu!

Owen Bennett-Jones

Romania’s attempt to establish democracy lasted almost exactly six months. After the December revolution, Romanians did begin to use their new passports to travel abroad, they were able to buy and sell goods for the most part without fear of reprisals from the state, and for the first time in over forty years, they could freely speak their mind.

That all came to an end on 14 June with the arrival in Bucharest of the twenty thousand shock troops of the Iliescu regime, the miners from the Jiu Valley. This is the third time since the revolution that they have made the trip to the capital, and on each occasion they have demonstrated their fierce loyalty to the National Salvation Front. But this was the most brutal of their visits. For over thirty-six hours they rampaged all over Bucharest beating up anyone who crossed their path. They were extremely savage. Some broke into a secondary school. They beat the children, on the grounds that one 16-year-old had spoken to anti-government protesters in University Square. The beating was only stopped when the teachers gathered their courage and formed a barricade around the school. This was one incident among thousands.

The street in which I live is a quiet one in a leafy suburb of the old city, a mile or so from the centre of town. Three houses down from mine is a district office of the opposition National Peasants’ Party. During the election campaign I dropped in there two or three times to try and find the local candidate. There were only ever a few people in the building and they never knew the whereabouts of their prospective representative. It was an obscure and unimportant party office in which very little hard organisational work was done. But the miners found it and destroyed its contents. I cannot believe that they chanced upon the building: they must have been told where it was. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that some of the more thuggish of the National Salvation Front’s bosses were working closely with the miners’ union leaders throughout their stay in Bucharest.

Whatever else the Ceausescu regime may have been responsible for, it did not resort to open violence on this scale. Using the miners to suppress the opposition was a tactic original to the new regime and had fascistic elements. The miners’ racism became evident when they made a particular target of Gypsy markets and the area of Bucharest in which most Gypsies live. The Gypsies can be forgiven for recalling that similar treatment was meted out to them by Hitler’s henchmen, who went on to incarcerate the Gypsies in concentration camps alongside the Jews. The miners’ anti-Gypsy prejudice has received official backing in the form of government statements claiming that the majority of the anti-government protesters are Gypsies: people of poor quality. And then there’s the fact that the miners came to Bucharest in their uniforms – one of their number told me that his uniform ‘made him feel better’ as he travelled to the capital from the Jiu Valley. More significantly, when Ion Iliescu addressed the departing miners he spoke of their ‘patriotic awareness’ and ‘exemplary devotion’. He wanted to establish a National Guard of ‘well-trained, determined and resolute people to intervene in exceptional moments’. And he urged the miners ‘to maintain their spirit of mobilisation’. So, in the heat of the moment, a relatively unreformed Communist had resorted to the language of fascism to celebrate the salvation of his so-called fledgling democracy. What it was that decided the miners to act so violently is difficult for an outsider to establish. And perhaps for an insider, too: many of the Romanians I have spoken to in Bucharest explained their behaviour by saying that the miners are primitive people: they come from the villages and they will simply do what they are told. But one American journalist, who recently spent a week in the Jiu Valley, told me she was treated hospitably and well. The miners had been friendly towards her, and indeed as she slipped in and out of the Intercontinental Hotel, which overlooks University Square where much of the violence took place on 14 June, some of the miners would recognise her, stop beating up a hapless passer-by and come towards her waving and smiling.

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