Thirty years after what was called the “Romanian Revolution”, the former Romanian President Ion Iliescu is to stand trial for crimes against humanity for his role in the aftermath of the bloody 1989 revolt that toppled communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime.
On 25 December 1989, on Christmas Day, a revered day for Christian Orthodox Romanians (and for astrologers and occultists too, for it comes immediately after the winter solstice, triggering a new yearly cycle), Ceausescu and his much-hated and despised wife Elena were summarily killed by an improvised firing squad.
For three decades, the Romanians prided themselves for that brutal coup d’état that left almost one thousand dead. Ion Iliescu had been a government minister before being side-lined by Ceausescu in the early 1970s. He re-emerged as leader of the National Salvation Front, a group which took control of the country after Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, fled in the face of a growing popular revolt which began in the western city of Timisoara and spread to the rest of the country.
Three people have now been indicted for the crimes commited in Romania three decades ago: Ion Iliescu (r. in the picture), the air force general Iosif Rus, accused of a massacre committed at the Bucharest Otopeni airport on 22 Decembre 1989, and the shady Gelu Voican Voiculescu.
Voiculescu is the man who oversaw the execution of the Ceausescu couple on Christmas Day. A man obsessed with the occult and with the writings of the Romanian historians of the religions Mircea Eliade and Ioan Petru Culianu, whom he envied, Voiculescu (figured standing in the picture to the left) was the man who supervised the macabre Ceausescu execution and who was rewarded with many obscure functions afterwards. He ran the secret services (28 December 1989 – 28 June 1990) and the archives of the Securitatea secret services and supervised the June 1990 “Mineriad”, the suppression of the sit-in protests in Bucharest through the brutal intervention of swarms of coal miners from the Jiu Valley, brought to Bucharest to counter the protests.
Thinking of himself as a kind of Evola or René Guénon, he then was for years Romanian ambassador in some African countries. The irony is that he is an advisor to the prime minister Viorica Dăncilă and director of the Institute of the Romanian Revolution!…
After Iliescu took control on 22 December 1989, 862 people were killed. This is how it happened. I was there. (for a Romanian version of the facts click here)
Timisoara, 22 December 1989
In Timisoara, then in December 1989, I had my first contact with death and its absurd appearance. Once you see the first corpse, nothing can surprise you anymore. So, after the first night spent in the Municipal Hospital, I wasn’t surprised to see, on December 23, on a sunny clear morning, people do their shopping while a couple of blocks further could be heard machine gun fire. Of course shops were open, although there wasn’t much to buy. I remember the crossroads in front of the Municipal Hospital, totally empty because of the crossfire –a sniper on one building, scared young conscripts in the courtyard of the hospital spraying the building with blind fire- while a man in a wheelchair abandoned in the middle of the street was staring calmly at the balconies above his head.
I had returned to Romania after 18 months of absence, working as a journalist for the BBC (the radio, BBC World Service). I didn’t know that I would be able to enter the country. I had been practically expelled in the spring of the previous year and all I tried to do was to be in Budapest and see whether I could make some interviews with refugees from Romania who managed to cross the border into Hungary.
When, on the morning of December 22, it was announced that the regime had fallen and that there was fighting inside Romania I rented a car in Budapest and drove straight to Timisoara, the nearest city inside Romania and where everything had started.
By December 1989, Romania had become as poor and isolated as Albania. The Securitate, the secret services, had managed to infiltrate and control all layers of the society, including the church and the minorities. The regime had attained absurd limits. Ceausescu was obsessed with the country’s demography. Contraceptives, and even condoms, were prohibited, as was abortion. Women could ask for an abortion only when they had already had four children. Regularly there were gynaecological controls in factories, offices, and even in schools. Pregnant women were inscribed in a database and there was a regular follow-up to check whether they had an abortion. In terms of information, all newspapers were simply purveyors of official propaganda. As for TV, there was only one national channel, which broadcast 2 (two!) hours per day, from 8 to 10 in the evening. All typewriters had to be registered with the police.
Besides the political control, there was also an economic one. Romanians were chronically hungry. Most basic products, like meat and oil, were rationed, and could be bought only with certain coupons that people could obtain only through their place of work, or from the local administration in case of the pensioners. The result was that unemployed people, or some minorities like the Gypsies, could never buy legally meat or oil. (The regime denied that there was unemployment of any sorts.) All edible animals (cattle, fowls, pigs) were also thoroughly numbered and classified, in order to stop the peasants from slaughtering them. For slaughtering an animal a permit had to be obtained from the local authorities. In order to justify the lack of the most basic food products, the regime had invented the formula “scientific alimentation”, calculating how many calories needs a man, a woman, or a child per day. Also, following a visit to North Korea, Ceausescu got the idea of stopping the selling of food and simply offering the citizens communal meals at their place of work. The winter of 1989 put an end to this absurd modern utopia.
Protests had been scarce. The most known opponent of the regime was a frail teacher from the Transylvanian city of Cluj, Doina Cornea, who managed to send out of the country a series of letters criticising the regime and its human rights record. She was isolated and kept in house arrest, with police picketing in front of her home in order to discourage would-be visitors. Another centre of dissent was the northern city of Iasi, where a group of young intellectuals were also writing and publishing abroad manifestos and literature that could never have been printed in the country. Among them, Luca Pițu and Dan Petrescu had become well-known names following a series of broadcasts on the waves of the American –at that time based in Munich- Radio Free Europe. (Radio Free Europe was jammed by the regime, and listening to its broadcasts was punishable.) I had been part of that group.
In Bucharest, because of the overwhelming presence of the repressive forces, such open dissent was not possible. It was thus with an immense astonishment that the population heard, through Radio Free Europe, that a group of dignitaries of the regime had sent an open letter to Ceauşescu, the so-called “Letter of the Six”, letter in which the policies of the regime were mildly criticised. Among these was Silviu Brucan, one of the few authentic intellectuals of the Romanian Communist party, whose relations with Ceausescu were already tense, and who for a while, in 1987, had been under house arrest, after having been expelled from the party. Still, thanks to his relations in the Securitate, notably his friendship with Iulian Vlad, the Securitate chief, Brucan could, surprisingly, spend six months in the USA in 1988, where, as he later declared, he was in contact with officials from the State Department. Brucan had also relations in Moscow, and he had been promised a sort of informal protection by the Soviet embassy in Bucharest.
In the Letter of the Six, the regime was criticized from a left-wing perspective and there was no question of a structural change. The six signatories were not contesting Communism, they were contesting Ceausescu, who, in their view, had betrayed the Communist ideals. Still, they were all interrogated by the Securitate, and from that point on kept under house arrest.
Basically, the only resistance came from small groups of intellectuals. The countryside and the workers were like anesthetised, and very few dared dream of changes in their socio-economic situation. Actually, the regime was what could be called an open one, which could be resumed as such: it was not an exploitation of the society by a social group or by a caste of privileged. The social promotion was open to everybody, and whoever wanted to make a carrier in the power structures could do so, provided he or she playing by the rules. The excesses of the fifties were far behind. Romanians have even an expression for the period between the accession to power of the Communists after the Second World War and the thaw of the 1960s: it is the “obsessive decade”. After the thaw, after the decade of 1960, followed another two decades in which the regime built artificially an ideology, which at the time had a unique character.
It was what could be called a kind on nationalistic Communism. The main idea of this new ideology was that Romanians were a special race, which in the course of history brought some of the most important discoveries in human history. This went hand in hand with some authentic archaeological discoveries, as well as with a current which was very much in vogue at the time, discoveries which tended to show that the region between the Danube and the north of the Black and Caspian seas were most probably the region in which the horse had been domesticated by Indo-European tribes. The Ceausescu regime had built on this a whole national ideology which got the name of “Proto-Chronism”, that is the fact of having been at the origin of history, at the beginnings of time. Fancy theories were brought to the rescue of this. Archaeologists, linguists and historians started bringing spurious arguments to support this. They went to extreme lengths in order to prove that fire and pottery were first discovered on the territory of today’s Romania.
The coup had come from the interior of the secret services. It is still not clear what was the role of the army, or whether high officials in the hierarchy of the army knew beforehand what was going to happen. In any case, the actions of the military forces have clearly shown a total lack of coordination, which culminated in a series of clashes between armed formations who had no idea who they had in front of them. One such instance was the massacre in front of Bucharest’s international airport of a motorised brigade by the military who were holding the airport. 50 young conscripts were machine gunned by their own comrades, each side thinking that they had “terrorists” in front of them (“terrorists” was the term used by the officials and by the media to designate those who supposedly took the arms to defend the Ceausescu regime and to shoot into the crowds of demonstrators).
At the time, everybody believed in the scenario of die-hard terrorists who would fight for Ceausescu until death. There were rumours of the existence of Arab, or North-Korean terrorists, ruthless and highly skilled.
I had just read Malaparte’s Technique of the Coup d’Etat and I was amazed to see how well and systematically that technique was applied by the Romanian putchists. Of course, the most important step was to take possession of the TV studios (in Malaparte’s times it had been the radio) and to start spreading rumours, calling on the population for help. I have been in the famous hospital cemetery in Timisoara, where it was said that 4000 corpses had been dumped, and where I could count only 17 of them, most of them obviously old, coming the morgue of the hospital and not from the recent oppression. I have seen in Bucharest, where I could enter inside the TV studios, how they were calling on the population to defend them, saying that they were under attack from “terrorists”, whereas I could see that nobody had fired a shot against the TV. No window was broken, no impacts of bullets on the walls, but the houses around had been ravaged by heavy fire from the soldiers who were now eating oranges in the TV courtyard. I’ve also been to the neighbourhood in Bucharest where a whole army brigade had been massacred by a special forces unit in a carefully staged operation. A severed head stayed for days on display on the reversed tank, and passers-by were extinguishing their cigarettes on the face of the dead “terrorist”.
Bucharest 25 December 1989
Ceausescu’s execution took place on Christmas Day, December 25. He was shot by a firing squad together with his wife, Elena, after a speedy parody of a trial held in the presence of the occultist Gelu Voican Voiculescu the man who was to become chief of the secret services after 1989, Virgil Magureanu. A short movie containing excerpts from the “trial”, as well as shots of the bodies of Ceausescu and his wife Elena were aired on the national TV.
The whole mise-en-scène functioned, at least internally. Some journalists, among whom the author of the present article, questioned the credibility of the official scenario. Still, the population felt relieved, there were practically no voices of dissent, and only a handful questioned the need for such a speedily delivered travesty of justice. I recognized that mentality. I was back home.
And Ion Iliescu?
After the coup d’État and the almost one thousand dead, Ion Iliescu, now 89, was elected president in 1990, reelected in 1992, and served another term from 2000 to 2004.
Iliescu and former Deputy Prime Minister Gelu Voican Voiculescu are now accused of “directly spreading misinformation through televised appearances and press releases, contributing to the institution of a generalized psychosis.”
Their statements increased the risk of “instances of friendly fire, chaotic shooting, and contradictory military orders.”
Iliescu, who underwent heart surgery last month, will also have to answer accusations of “crimes against humanity” over the repression of a protest in Bucharest in 1990 that left at least four people dead.
Both Iliescu and Voiculescu have denied any wrongdoing with Voiculescu describing the accusation as an “act of political revenge.” No date for trial has been announced.
“Crimes committed during the  revolution cannot remain unpunished,” President Klaus Iohannis said in a statement on April 8.
For further reading (in Romanian, with links):
“Nu am văzut nimic la Timișoara”… Despre luciditate în timp de Revoluție…
Din nou despre lovitura de stat din 1989 și filmul care l-a demascat pe Ceaușescu…