Ambiguities Past, Present and Future
In a country hopelessly divided along ideological lines, and in where the Gypsy minority is either patronized by the left or criminalized by the right, it was a refreshing to see two weeks ago in Hungary a brief attempt at something completely different. On March 11th at the Terror House in Budapest, six Gypsies from the Maros region in Romania were honoured for the role they played during the pogrom at Tirgu Mures (Marosvasarhely) twenty years ago this past weekend.
The troubles began on March 16th, 1990, when a crowd of a hundred or so Romanians attacked a drug store which displayed its store signs in both Hungarian and Romanian. The majority of those in the crowd were Romanians from Moldavia who were resettled in the area during the Ceausescu regime. The situation gradually worsened and culminated on March 19th and 20th when bloody street battles raged between the local Hungarian minority and Romanians, many of whom were transported into the city from outside the area. It was at this point when Gypsies from neighbouring villages came to the aid of the Hungarians and confronted the Romanians who were armed with axes, clubs, and other sorts of weapons, and the famous phrase was uttered: "don't worry Hungarians, the Gypsies are here." At the end of what has since become known to most Hungarians as "Black March" or the Black Spring, five people were dead and some three hundred wounded. The renowned Hungarian writer, Andras Suto, was among the casualties. He was badly beaten and lost an eye during the conflict.
Although it has been twenty years since the pogrom, no one yet has been brought to justice. As a result, this episode in the post-communist era of Romania continues to sour relations between the two ethnic communities. There is, however, an expectation that some form of reconciliation will soon take place. The Romanian government recently declassified archives related to crimes perpetuated by the former regime. According to Laszlo Tokes, a key figure in the revolution that led to the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in December 1989, there is now finally hope that those responsible for the pogrom will be finally brought to justice. "We have the documents, the investigations have taken place, and about 80% of the perpetrators can be identified," noted Tokes. "The time has come for the perpetrators to be brought to justice for their crimes."
Yet others are not so optimistic. Although the Romanian government may have declassified some documents, this doesn't automatically mean that justice will be done. Many suspect that agents of the former secret police, the Securitate, were behind the events of Black March and that some of those responsible still occupy positions of power and influence.
The pessimism as to how well the wheels of justice will turn in Romania is further reinforced by present attitudes. Many are still afraid to speak openly about the events of twenty years ago. Of those who do, there is a common belief that what happened in March 1990 at Tirgu Mures wasn't a spontaneous demonstration but an organised provocation. They contend that elements of the former regime hoped to use the conflict as a pretext for re-establishing the dictatorship. Indeed, this wouldn't be the first such attempt; a few months later a similar conflict was provoked, this time in Bucharest. The difference then was that the pogrom wasn't ethnically based but directed against the intelligentsia.
In spite of the passage of time, the past still hangs heavy in Tirgu Mures and other areas of Romania. At the pharmacy where the events of Black March began the store signs are now all in Romanian only. Four other pharmacies are also located nearby and none of them dare to display their signs in Hungarian. Throughout the city, bilingual signs are few and far between. The Romanian government, meanwhile, still refers to the events as simply "an ethnic conflict".
As a further indication that the past dies hard in Romania, a statue of Stefan Gusa, a former general and key figure in the Ceausescu regime, will be soon erected in the city. Considered a hero by nationalists, Gusa was responsible for the violent crackdown in Timisoara during the revolution which ultimately overthrew the communist dictatorship. Ironically and quite inexplicably, Hungarian political leaders from the RMDSZ (the Hungarian-Romanian Democratic Alliance) also approved the idea for the statue. Their bizarre line of reasoning was that they would support the statue of Gusa in return for a statue to the late writer Andras Suto (who died in 2006). Politics is anything but straightforward in Romania.
Revolution or Palace Coup?
In many ways, the post-communist past in Romania is inextricably linked to the revolution which brought an abrupt end to the communist dictatorship in 1989. It's perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that the ambiguity which exits toward the recent past stems from the same ambiguity which continues to surround the events leading up to December 1989. Indeed, this ambiguity is quite apparent beyond the borders of Romania as well. Whereas throughout the former East Bloc many countries celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (Germany), the Velvet Revolution (the states of the former Czechoslovakia), and the breach of the Iron Curtain (Hungary), there was little or no mention in the global media about the anniversary of the December Revolution in Romania.
Although in many former East Bloc countries there are a growing number of people who are beginning to feel that the democratic changes of 1989 have been either stifled or not carried through, in Romania this feeling extends all the way toward a yearning for a return of the former regime. According to a survey conducted at the end of last year, 35% of respondents lamented the fall of the Ceausescu regime, with 22% willing to live under the same regime once again. Meanwhile a vast majority -- some 73% -- felt sorry that Ceausescu and his wife were executed.
One reason for this failure to break with the past is the overly optimistic expectations of people in the aftermath of Ceausescu's downfall. Many believed that the old guard would simply give up of its own free will those privileges they had enjoyed for so many years, privileges gained at the expense of the general public, and that key positions within the state would no longer be occupied by those who had kowtowed to Ceausescu. Reality, of course, was otherwise. The real changes people had hoped for became less and less noticeable. The old guard continued to occupy key positions in government, cushioned by the old system of corruption when it came to acquiring goods and services. The Securitate, meanwhile, restructured itself. Although it changed its name under the pretext of having been abolished, political arrests continued, using the same methods as before. Those who dared to reveal uncomfortable truths about those in power started to be accused of a lack of patriotism and of high treason.
Aside from the fact that the fall of communism in Romania was the most violent example of regime change within the region, what really happened 20 years ago is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. The common view of the revolution is that on December 16th a protest broke out in Timisoara in response to an attempt by the government to evict a dissident, the Hungarian pastor Laszlo Tokes, who had made critical comments against the regime to the Hungarian media. Supporters gathered around his home to protect him from harassment and eviction. Others spontaneously joined in, and ultimately riots broke out throughout the city. The unrest spread, eventually reaching the capital. Ceausescu and his wife were eventually taken prisoner and summarily executed.
Some sources, however, go further and attempt to demonstrate that the roots to the Romanian revolution extend much deeper. One version views the anti-communist riot in Brasov on November 15th, 1987, as the main political event that heralded the imminent fall of communism in Romania. Meanwhile, in a recently released film by Arpad Szoczi called Dracula's Shadow - The Real Story behind the Romanian Revolution, the fall of Ceausescu was laden with aspects worthy of a cold war spy thriller. According to Szoczi, the Romanian Revolution was sparked by a secret mission undertaken in March 1988 by two Canadians: a former Quebec Cabinet Minister, Michel Clair, and Radio-Canada reporter, Rejean Roy. What followed was a cat-and-mouse game in the western Romanian province of Transylvania between the two French-Canadians, three Hungarian nationals who were their assistants, and the Securitate who followed their every move.
Szoczi's account of what happened some twenty years ago is all the more interesting in that it raises the possibility that the Romanian revolution was actually engineered from the outside. Szoczi claims that the former Soviet Union played a key role in the events leading up to Ceausescu's demise. For instance, a Soviet diplomat in Washington at the end of October had forewarned that a revolution would take place in Romania in December. Also, the older brother of Lazslo Tokes, who lived in Canada, was in contact with the Soviet embassy in Montreal. Exactly what role the KGB played in all this is still unclear. Szoczi has on several occasions tried to do an interview with Gorbachev about this but has been repeatedly turned down. He has also been turned down to view the Soviet archives into this period.
All this has, naturally, raised some intriguing questions. One concerns that of Lazslo Tokes himself and a possible connection between him and the KGB. For some, it's still strange how a police state with one of the most pervasive, ruthless, and efficient security apparatus in the world could have been outdone by a simple pastor and street protests. Ceausescu, in his madness and supported by his sycophants of unimaginable servitude, identified himself with the state, with socialism, with the nation. He went to great lengths, therefore, to make sure that all form of opposition and criticism be immediately crushed.
Along these lines, some see the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime as a necessary consequence of Perestroika. Romania was the only country holding out against the winds of change blowing across Central and Eastern Europe. Hence, an orthodox communist dictator like Ceausescu could prove to be a destabilising force and a source of refuge and influence for those refusing change throughout the East Bloc. Indeed, when Hungary opened its borders to let out East Germans fleeing west, Ceausescu had tried to forge an alliance among the communist governments within the area in order to counter what was happening in Hungary. For Gorbachev, however, it was clear that there was no holding back the tide of history.
In Romania, ambiguities in the past often dictate and reinforce ambiguities in the present. A case in point was the fall of the government at the end of last year, prompting a two-month political crisis. The subsequent election in December, however, did little to resolve the issues at stake. In fact, many argue that it created more than it appeared to solve.
In mid-October 2009 Parliament voted out the government amid increasing political infighting, prompting the IMF and the European Union to halt payments on a $30 billion bailout loan. President Traian Basescu narrowly won re-election through what was considered by many to be a fraudulent vote. "Of course the election was corrupt and fraudulent," summed up one observer. "Everything in Romania is corrupt and fraudulent, especially politics."
"A little fraud in Romania is, you might say, like a little snow in Siberia," wrote The Economist in 2004. "Only to be expected, not really worth a fuss." Then, the weekly publication reported on an election that was narrowly won by the left. The fact that little has changed since Romania joined the European Union is not only an embarrassment for the country, but for the EU as well. Instead of now demonstrating its capacity to meet in full the EU's high standards of democracy, Romania continues to be the most corrupt nation in the European Union, this according to Berlin-based monitor Transparency International. The fact that more than 20 Cabinet ministers and former ministers have been accused by prosecutors of corruption attests to this sad state of affairs. Not only this, during the last presidential campaign between Basescu and then PSD rival Adrian Nastase, the former had let slip what most already had long known: "You know what Romania's greatest curse is right now? It's that Romanians have to choose between two former Communist Party members."
Having officially lost the run-off last December, Mircea Geoana, president of the Social Democratic Party, and Crin Antonescu, leader of the opposition National Liberals, said they will remain in opposition. Both are confident that their time will come sooner rather than later. According to Geoana, the present government has an "unstable" majority based on "traitors."
The traitors Geoana was referring to was none other than the RMDSZ. Together with the Social Democrats and the National Liberals, the RMDSZ had helped to bring down the government of Emil Boc in October, only to enter into a coalition three months later with their former rivals. Because of the narrow victory, Basescu was in desperate need of coalition partners and thus seemed to let bygones be bygones. In the end RMDSZ leader Bela Marko was made deputy prime minister; his party also obtained the health, environment and culture portfolios.
While some may regard such a move on the behalf of the RMDSZ as shrewd politics, others feel that the label of "traitors" or "opportunists" perhaps fits better. Much in the same way as with the statue of Gusha in Tirgu Mures, many feel that the RMDSZ is simply a party without scruples, and that Marko would lie in bed with Lucifer if necessary.
As present day politics in Romania clearly shows, the ambiguities that are part of everyday life aren't limited to merely time, space, or ethnicity, but seem to be present at all levels of Romanian society. For this reason, coming to terms with the recent past is an almost impossible task, whether it is the December revolution that brought an end to communism or the growing pains of the post communist era as exemplified by the events of Black March.
Indubitably, one thread which runs through all these ambiguities is the prevalence of those in positions of power and influence and whose lives and careers span both then and now. "Happy 20th anniversary of the revolution," wrote one blogger at the end of December, a date which not only commemorated the overthrow of Ceausescu but the formation of Basescu's new center-right government. "Can we have another one please, and get rid of all of them this time?" (John Horvath)