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.
Illustration: Mountain People
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.
The crowd was jittery as news dripped in about unrest in the city of Timisoara, ground zero of the regime’s ultimate downfall. Then a man appeared at the window of the Athenee Palace — at the time one of the most bugged hotels in the eastern bloc.
“What shocked me was that 10 minutes before Ceausescu started speaking, a guy at a third floor came out of the window and started waving a flag cut in the middle and screamed, ‘Death to the dictator!’” Gheorghe, now 61, said over lunch in his hometown.
“I couldn’t believe his courage because I would never have imagined that someone could do that considering how restrictive and strict the system was. Of course Securitate officers immediately went and took him out,” he said.
Shortly after Ceausescu started speaking, there was an explosion — like gunfire, or possibly just a car backfiring — and panic ensued.
People got hurt in the mayhem, and the order came to get back on the bus and return to base, Gheorghe said.
The following 72 hours would put him at the forefront of the drama.
Sensing the way the wind was blowing, Gheorghe and a colleague slipped away from the rest of the group and wandered the streets of the capital all night. By then it was clear the military had taken control.
Gheorghe did not know it — he avoided listening to Radio Free Europe or Voice of America out of fear of the secret police — but Ceausescu had already been deposed.
The regime was dismantling rapidly. Stopped by Securitate officers, Gheorghe and his colleague were told to get back to base, where the military gave them weapons and took them to a cemetery in the west of the capital.
They were told to seek out “terrorists” who were hiding there — only no one was to be found. The officers were just being used as stooges to allow the army to show it was defending the revolution, he said.
“All of a sudden a military helicopter showed up and started shooting at us,” Gheorghe said. “Four or five of my colleagues were killed. I was lucky because I managed to hide and take cover.”
The shock took an immediate toll.
“A few days later I was completely gray. I was 31,” he said.
As Romania was thrust into the unknown, Gheorghe resumed his day job. Since 1984, he had specialized in tackling fraud in industry and agriculture, essentially theft from state-run entities as the country suffered horrific shortages. Now people were trying to get their hands on the levers of the economy.
Until his retirement in 2007, the year Romania joined the EU, he was involved in cases investigating anything from minor misappropriation to illegal activity during the privatization process.
“It was complete chaos — everyone was stealing, no one wanted to work anymore, industrial production collapsed,” he said of the immediate aftermath of the revolution.
Then a new political establishment took over.
“I used to go and check on companies that I knew had political protection. I would submit a file but I knew it wasn’t going to be sent higher up,” he said.
Romania is still trying to counter that legacy. The country rose eight places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index between 2013 and last year, the years when former chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi was in office. That is still only above Bulgaria, Hungary and Greece among the EU’s 28 members.
Under communism, Ceausescu cut his people off not only from the West, but from its neighbors after falling out with the rest of the eastern bloc over the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Lining up all day for food and fuel and coping with power cuts were the cost of state austerity policy to repay overseas debt.
Everyone old enough to remember the late 1980s has a story of hardship, brutality — or tragicomedy.
Radu Magdin, 37, still clearly remembers crying as a small child in the middle of the night, thinking his mother was dead. She had left at 5pm to go food shopping and not returned. When she eventually came home, it was after seven hours and with just toilet paper for her trouble.
Ceausescu’s “big mistake was that he starved us to pay foreign debt,” said Magdin, a consultant on political and strategic communications who advised former Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta.
Poverty has since abated, but even in the capital you do not have to stray far from the late 19th century streets and Orthodox churches to find people living in makeshift shacks, a stone’s throw from Ceausescu’s enormous People’s Palace, which now serves as the parliament building.
The wealth gap is evident too on the smooth, EU-funded road north from Bucharest toward Targoviste. Mercedes and Audi sedans overtake farmers on horse and cart, while locals sell tomatoes, fruit and a multicolored array of squash at the side of the road.
Targoviste Mayor Daniel Cristian Stan, 41, complains that the clampdown on corruption and constant changes in government personnel make it tough to access the European funds he needs to improve the town of about 100,000 people.
Since joining the EU, the town has been awarded at least 140 million euros for projects including new street lighting, parks and public transport.
“If the government falls, I have to wait another six months for another minister to understand what I need here,” the mayor said in the town hall.
Stan remembers the immediate aftermath of the revolution in a different light. Under Ceausescu, viewers got two hours of television a day. For Stan as an 11-year-old, the revolution was not just televised; it brought unlimited television.
Thirty years ago, the Ceausescus were turned over to the army following an unsuccessful attempt to flee by helicopter and car. They received a medical checkup and a room with two single beds that they insisted be pushed together.
A swift trial found them guilty of genocide, then they were taken outside into the courtyard and shot.
Today, a small gray marble plaque simply marks the time of death: Dec. 25, 1989, at 2:45pm.
For Magdin, who as a child assumed that his mother had been killed by the regime, there is no looking back.
“He was killed on Christmas Day in a Christian country,” he said. “And yet everyone was happy.”
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