December 1989 – end of the dictatorial regime

The year 1989 brought along a geopolitical quake of big magnitude, too little anticipated by specialists – historians, politologists, sociologists economists etc. One by one, like in a classic domino scheme, communist regimes in the Centre and South East of Europe collapsed like sand castles. The big and mighty protective power, the Soviet Union, who had also installed many of them at the end of World War II, was no longer capable of managing the situation or keeping its empire under control, eventually disappearing at the end of 1991. The shockwave of the quake propagated to the entire world, leading to the end of the Cold War, the bipolar clash that had lasted for over four decades.

Amidst such an avalanche of events, a genuine roller of history, Romania stood out from the bloc of Central and Eastern European countries as the only state where the removal of the dictatorial communist regime was achieved by violent means. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, found their end in front of the execution platoon in Targoviste, after a highly controversial trial.

The causes of such situation are object of controversy among specialists, but, beyond such disputes which, up to a certain point, are only natural, there are a few undebatable facts. First of all, the policy of the Bucharest regime was atypical of the system of alliance dominated by the Soviets. While at first the Romanian authorities were very obedient to Moscow, a major turn happened in the early 1960s, when Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej’s team adopted a policy of autonomy from the hegemon. The same line of conduct was taken over and explored even further by Nicolae Ceausescu who took over after Dej’s death in March 1965.

The authenticity of that policy cannot be questioned, as it was the basis for the entire conduct of the communist regime up until its collapse in December 1989. Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej and, later on, Nicolae Ceausescu stood on the traditional Russophobia shared by large segments of the Romanian public.

Basing his action on that popular trend, strengthened by various facts such as the vehement condemnation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Treaty states in August 1968 and employing, especially in the early 1980s, tough repressive methods, the Ceausescu regime blocked the emergence of a local opposition and viable alternative from the leading elite as it happened in Czechoslovakia where Vaclav Havel, recently passed away, raised a profile, or in Poland with its Solidarity union in the first line.

There was yet another important factor that intervened – the beginning of reforms in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, something Nicolae Ceausescu, still contained on his old Stalinist position, decisively rejected. That contributed to the international isolation of the regime which, amidst the revolutionary wave of the year 1989, turned Romania, with Nicolae Ceausescu at the helm, into an ‘issue’ in international affairs.

Concomitantly, the aberrant domestic policies led to a surge of public dissatisfaction, which contributed to the isolation of the Ceausescu regime. The last chance for change to happen peacefully in Romania was the 14th Congress of the Romanian Communist Party taking place in November 20 – 24, 1989. But it did not happen. On the contrary, that was a moment of apogee of the cult of personality as far as the Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu presidential couple was concerned.

Under such local and international conditions, the popular explosion sparked in Timisoara, on December 16, 1989. A few days of street protests followed, and the repression measures taken by the authorities proved ineffective. More than that, reprisals only managed to enhance the determination of the population to fight for its freedom. So, on December 20, 1989 the locals obtained their victory, making Timisoara the first Romanian city where the Revolution was victorious.

Having returned from a visit to Iran (December 18 – 20, 1989), inexplicable to this day, Nicolae Ceausescu realised the seriousness of the situation, but the measures he took from that point on only deepened the crisis of his regime. Of course, the most controversial idea was to hold the rally on December 21, 1989, broadcast by the public radio and television. For the first time, Ceausescu was massively booed at, so the live broadcasting was suspended. When he resumed his speech, Ceausescu started making a series of promises to improve the economic situation of the population, in a desperate attempt to take the initiative. But the blunt hostility of the crowd caused him to withdraw, which only enhanced the chaos in what was called the Republic Square. During that night, several hundred protesters, many of who were very young, put up a barricade trying to resist the repression forces.

The following day, December 22, 1989, was the last day of existence for the communist regime in Romania. The Executive Political Committee sat during the morning, deciding ‘to go up to the last notch’, declaring state of necessity in the entire national territory, as uprisings had been reported in other major cities (Sibiu, Arad, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca etc). Defying all precautions, around 10:00 Bucharest downtown was occupied by hundreds of thousands of people – there is research claiming there were 1 million – who were urging Ceausescu to leave. Meanwhile, the suicidal of National Defence Minister Vasile Milea, considered to be a traitor of the country, had been announced. In one last attempt to reverse the wheel of history, Nicolae Ceausescu took the initiative of addressing the crows again, but only to receive more rabid boos.

At 13:06, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, accompanied by Manea Manescu, Emil Bobu and a few other people in their entourage, fled on a helicopter that took off from the top of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. Most researchers agree that their flight marked the end of the communist regime in Romania. At about 15:30, the couple was arrested in Targoviste and locked up in an army unit. The trial of the former dictatorial couple Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu took place on December 25, when they were convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. The sentence was immediately enforced by an execution platoon made up of parachutists.

The way in which the communist regime ended in Romania is a subject of intense political and historic controversy in this country. In the 22 years that lapsed since the event, it has been the object of numerous inquiries which however failed to draw a very clear contour of developments, causes and meanings. A lot of literature has been published on that – volumes of documents, memories, albums, chronologies, monographs etc. – the number of which amounts, according to some opinions, to 1,000. Nonetheless, views and appreciations have always been divergent and often contradictory.

Practically, we have three major theories about those epochal events in our national history. The first of them, a widely spread one, too, is that what happened then was a revolution where, apart from any local and international scenarios or foreign involvements, the crucial role was played by the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Romanians who, in an impressive display of solidarity, took to the streets of major cities and overthrew a dictatorial regime deemed odious by the entire people.

A second explanation characterise the December 1989 events as the expression of the old conspiracy theory. Here we actually find two versions. The former suggests a domestic plot organised by some of the heads of the old nomenklatura as well as by important fractions of the Securitate and Army. The latter places the events around the idea of a coup orchestrated from abroad and supported from within by selected forces in the sphere of intelligence services and military top decision-makers.

And last, the third major idea present in many public debates going on in the country speaks of a hybridisation of the revolution, seconded by a coup supported from abroad by major powers, in which power groups made up of anti-Ceausescu communists, fully benefiting from the assistance of intelligence and army, became involved. Actually, they took advantage of the void of power left behind the dictator’s flight and took over command, eventually through a negotiation with the former regime’s loyal forces. One can notice that the advocates of this view do not deny the revolution itself, but rather suggest that it was somehow hijacked in the process of fulfilling specific political aims.

Such controversy is natural up to a certain point, given the atypical character and authenticity of the December 1989 events. Such historical facts are hard to capture within pre-set patterns and debates usually extend way beyond the moment of their occurrence. But, no matter from where we look at it, the Romanian Revolution of December 1989 continues to be a landmark in our national history, one that placed Romanians onto the coordinates of a certain stage in their evolution, characterised, despite inherent difficulties, by the prevalence of democratic principles, rule of law and market-based economy. At the same time, the December 1989 Revolution reconnected Romanians to the West, from which they had been separated at the end of WWII, when Europe was divided by an ‘Iron Curtain’, to use Winston Churchill’s famous phrase.

By Petre Otu

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