Fri, Nov 08, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Most shocking revolution of 1989 still casts a shadow on Europe

Romania’s transition from communism was far from peaceful, and today a great wealth gap, as well as profound political instability, remain

By Rodney Jefferson and Andra Timu  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

The painted white outlines of two bodies slumped to the ground and the bullet holes in the wall above are more like a crime scene than a museum exhibit. Yet the gruesome act that took place here is marked as the turning point of a nation.

The execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989 remains among the most shocking images from the demise of communist rule in eastern Europe.

Nowhere in the former eastern bloc had a more oppressive regime than Romania, and nowhere saw a more violent end.

Prague, Warsaw and Berlin witnessed peaceful revolutions.

The death of the Ceausescus by a three-man firing squad at a military barracks in the town of Targoviste, about 80km north of Bucharest, was captured on camera for all to see.

As the world marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the iconic moment of that pivotal year for Europe, it is Romania that serves as the real measure of how the continent has struggled to shake off the legacy of dictatorship.

On the surface, Romania is thriving. Along with 10 other former communist states, it is firmly ensconced in the EU, the world’s richest open market, with new factories, roads and airports to show for its dozen years of membership.

The country is the biggest EU exporter of wheat along with France, benefiting the economy rather than starving its people as happened under Ceausescu. Per-capita GDP has risen 10-fold since the 1989 revolution, lifting millions out of abject poverty.

Still, the nation has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in Europe. Average wages are still only about 650 euros (US$725) a month, a quarter of those in Germany, helping explain why so many Romanians leave the country.

Its population has dropped to 20 million from a peak of 23 million during communism.

Political instability is endemic: There have been 20 prime ministers since 1989, almost the same number as Hungary and Poland combined, and despite the approval of a new government this week, parliamentary elections are looming again next year.

The former leader of the biggest party is serving three-and-a-half years in prison for arranging illegal payments. Its much-lauded chief prosecutor, who spearheaded a purge against the country’s kleptocracy before being ousted, was just named to the same role in the EU commission, the first to hold the post.

Across eastern Europe, cronyism, political malpractice and divergent financial prospects still blight countries that have become home to a mix of unstable leaderships and illiberal strongmen. In Romania, graft became an issue of national security, delaying its entry into NATO and the EU.

The problem is that corruption was “enshrined” under Ceausescu, said Iulian Chifu, a political scientist who was the special adviser to Romania’s president from 2011 to 2014.

“Corruption is the new communism,” he said. “It’s more important than the fight against the mafia in Italy.”

One man who has witnessed Romania’s journey at close quarters is former Targoviste policeman Mircea Gheorghe. His story starts in the revolution, when protesters feared the iron hand of the security service, the Securitate, and carries on through Romania’s troubled accession to the EU.

On Dec. 22, 1989, Gheorghe was on a training course in Bucharest when all officers were required to change into civilian clothes and head to where Ceausescu was due to speak. The square was only half full and the police were to make up the numbers. The reason only slowly dawned on him.

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