In Romania, incomplete revolution
Problems linger 20 years after communism
TIMISOARA, Romania - With chants of “Liberty,’’ grizzled former fighters in this snow-dusted city yesterday relived their role in toppling communist Eastern Europe’s most repressive dictator. But most Romanians paid little heed - focusing instead on today’s economic hard times and political rancor.
The residents of Timisoara were the first to defy Nicolae Ceausescu: It was here that citizens flocked to the defense of an ethnic Hungarian dissident pastor who was being threatened with forced relocation, leading to rapidly escalating confrontations with police.
The next day, police, army, and secret service units began firing at protesters, the start of six days of fighting that subsequently spilled over to Bucharest and led to the end Ceausescu and his era of hunger, hardship, and repression.
More than 1,000 people were killed in the sole violent upheaval of the revolutions that swept communists from power across Eastern Europe 20 years ago. Of those, 118 were killed in Timisoara.
Timisoara mayor Gheorghe Ciuhandru told a gathering of veteran revolutionaries that the city near Romania’s western border with Hungary and Serbia should be proud the uprising began here.
Today, Romania is a member of both the EU and NATO, both of them clubs associated with Western values and prosperity - and on the surface seems to have overcome the past.
Yesterday, Timisoara was awash in bright Christmas lights, and streets were flooded with well-dressed shoppers, some jumping to avoid the spray of slush thrown up by late-model Western cars speeding by.
Almost lost in the downtown bustle was a group of about 70, most of them male and in their 50s chanting “down with Ceausescu,’’ and “Liberty.’’
Some juggled traditional beeswax candles with cutting-edge mobile phones, in a telling symbol of a Romania that seemed like a relic of the 19th century just 20 years ago, and a nation with many of the trappings of modernity today.
But 20 years on, the bloody struggle of the war veterans appears irrelevant to a new generation facing economic hardship and political bickering, and focused more on living for today than reliving history. People in passing streetcars stared at the small crowd passively, and a girl in her early teens flashed a tired “V’’ sign as she walked by.
Today, Romania is drowning in debt - with foreign obligations of almost $113 billion. Although it joined the EU in 2007, the nation remains plagued by corruption, mired in recession, and paralyzed by political infighting - most recently by a hotly contested presidential election marred by allegation of wholesale fraud.
US Ambassador Mark H. Gitenstein paid tribute to the events of 20 years ago - while noting that Romania has a long way to go to achieve full democratic, free-market values.
“You in Romania have much yet to do to complete your revolution,’’ he said. “Romania, like America, must aspire to be a government of laws . . . not a country where policy and law depends on which party attains a majority of 50 percent plus one.’’
“To be blunt: It’s time to start doing instead of just arguing,’’ said Gitenstein.
Tudorin Burlacu, who was among Timisoara’s revolutionary fighters 20 years ago, complained of politicians claiming to believe in democracy but playing by the old, communist rules - in claiming that the revolution was not over.
“It’s a free country,’’ said the 53-year-old engineer. “But the state institutions are controlled politically by people who are now in power.’’
Asked if he had a message for Romania’s youth, he said: “They have to learn from us, they have to keep fighting from freedom.’’
But today’s generation has other priorities.
“We saw it on TV, but it’s no big deal for us,’’ said Iasmina Capverde, 17, of the planned march and other commemorative festivities. “Maybe for our parents it was a big day, but it’s nothing special for our crowd.’’
Musicians from the local opera house performed a mixture of Christmas carols and popular Romanian music in a short concert attended by ex-President Emil Constantinescu, in office from 1996 to 2000.
“I am here for those who fought and died for the ideals that changed lives in Romania and wrote a page of heroism in Romania’s history,’’ said Constantinescu.