Setting the Romanian Scene

Special Feature on Romania - Part II of III - Romania - 21 Apr 2015
Setting the Romanian scene: from the Communist legacy, to the lights and shadows of the 1989 Revolution and the “Return to Europe”. by Eva Chitul
++ continues its Special Feature on Romania with Part II that shows life in Communist Romania and the Revolution of 1989. You can find Part I – presenting the Romanian geography, history and cultural heritage here. Part III of the special series will look at the most recent Presidential elections and the struggle of Romanian anti-corruption campaigns and will follow soon. ++

The rise of Ceauşescu and the Communist legacy

The end of the Second World War saw Romania playing host to Soviet troops, who marched into the country in August 1944. This was a pivotal turning point in Romanian history as the ‘liberators’ ensured the country took up a new form of rule, as a satellite to the Soviet Union.
The Parliamentary elections in 1946 saw the Communists come to power who then forced King Michael I to abdicate in December 1947, leading to the birth of the Popular Republic of Romania.

In 1948, the Securitate (Romanian Communist Secret Police) was set up as a tool to ensure that the country’s leadership was safeguarded, and all those who opposed it were dealt with through any means necessary. Thus society saw the incarceration of the country’s elite and former political leaders, beginning a premeditated process of extermination of all those seen as a threat. The officers of the Securitate had discretionary powers, and those who spoke against the regime were arrested and sent to prison or forced labour camps. Nationalisation began in 1948, and private property became a thing of the past.

In 1964, the stranglehold placed on the country was loosened and gave way to a liberalisation period which enabled a relative escape from the looming Soviet shadow. Living standards continued to improve under Nicolae Ceauşescu, who took over as the leader of the Communist Party in 1965. However, the trend took a dramatic turn in 1971 following two state visits to China and North Korea. The immense parades, spectacular displays of adulation of the glorious leaders in the two countries inspired Ceauşescu to put forward a similar model in Romania.

All publications and media were placed under strict control by the Communist Party to ensure no anti-regime ideas would surface. Ceauşescu’s personality cult grew following his election as president in 1974, and the Securitate became essential to the smooth functioning of the system with informers infiltrating all levels of society. The population found itself trapped within the Socialist regime, subjected to intense propaganda and indoctrination, with the end goal of creating the New Man.

Life in Romania worsened as Ceauşescu decided to pay off all external debts and extreme austerity measures were put in place. Everything was rationed: each citizen had the right to half a bread per day and 1 kg of sugar, 1 litre of oil, 1 kg of meat and five eggs per month but since there was no guarantee that portions would suffice, huge queues formed in front of grocery stores sometimes as early as 3 am. Austerity measures reached such extremes that citizens were given 20 litres of gasoline per month and were allowed to drive every second Sunday only. Hot water was available for 2 hours per week and cooking was done during the night when the gas pressure was high enough. The rationing continued until 1989.

The lights and shadows of ‘89

In December 1989, Romania witnessed one of the most important events in its recent history – the overthrowing of the Communist regime. The 1989 Revolution marked the final chapter of decades of oppression which ended with the execution of President Ceauşescu and his wife. In the chaos that followed the December revolution, the National Salvation Front (FSN) – a political force who’s leadership was mostly made up of former second and third rank Communists at the front of which was Ion Iliescu – took the reins of the country. Thus, no clear break was made from the former regime. In May 1990 the first free democratic elections are held and with a participation of over 85 percent, Iliescu is elected as president of Romania. The new Constitution was set in 1991, and in 1992 Iliescu was elected for a 4 year term.

After decades of oppression, the population of Romania was now presented with a chance to make a fresh start and rebuild its society in line with sound democratic values. However, the venture failed before it even began. With the former regime’s nomenclature still present amongst the newly elected leaders, the country was building its reform on Communist foundations and the corrupt and opportunistic mentalities and practices continued to be nurtured in the years to come, to the detriment of sound reform.

In 1991, the Romanian Democratic Convention (CDR), an electoral alliance of several parties, was founded by the National Christian Democratic Peasant’s Party, the National Liberal Party and others with the goal of mounting an effective opposition against the all-dominating FSN (that became the Romanian Social Democratic Party shortly afterwards). Although the elections in 1996 brought the CDR to power, the newly elected leaders were not prepared to push through the reforms needed.

"The Return to Europe"

With the Iron Curtain no longer cloaking the eastern countries, Romania officially requested to join the European Union in June 1995. Progress towards integration turned out to be more difficult than originally anticipated, as the corrupt legacy created extremely difficult hurdles which the country was struggling to overcome. Although initially planned for May 2004, membership was postponed due to persistent problems with corruption, the independence of the judicial system and the slow implementation of reforms. The lack of a proper restructuring following the fall of Communism was now more visible than ever; reforms were unable to take root due to strong resistance from within the country.

The pressure from the European Union coupled with the risk of a second postponement managed to crack the internal barricades and saw the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) and of the National Integrity Agency (ANI). With the goal of membership and the conditionality of progress prior to joining, Romania managed sufficient reform to ensure its EU membership in 2007. Although seen as a great victory by the Romanian authorities, the situation on the ground was quite different. The progress leading up to membership was deemed to be very fragile and the EU considered reform from the inside of the Union to be a more effective approach. As a consequence of the new tactic, the EU set up the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which was created to monitor progress in the fields of judicial reform and the fight against corruption post membership. The CVM is ongoing, with the 14th report published on January 28 2015.

Although having come a long way since the Revolution, Romania is still in the early phases of its journey “back to Europe”. While the 2007 EU Membership represented a huge leap forward, it remains to be seen how much time will be needed for the country to recover the ground lost following decades of Communist oppression and indoctrination.

RO_2015-2_Spec_Palace of Parliament
Source: fusions-of-horizons | CC BY 2.0

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Source: Romanian National History Museum |

Tanks and Miliţia on the Magheru Boulevard in Bucharest, during the Romanian Revolution of 1989

Source: Denoel Paris and other photographers | CC BY-SA 3.0

Demonstrators and TAB-71 APCs on the street (Romanian Revolution of December 1989)

RO_2015-2_Spec_Revolution 1989
Source: Denoel Paris and other photographers | CC BY-SA 3.0

Romanian Revolution of December 1989

Related topics

Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM)
European Union (EU)
Ion Iliescu
National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA)
National Christian Democratic Peasant’s Party
National Integrity Agency (ANI)
National Liberal Party (PNL)
National Salvation Front (FSN)
Nicolae Ceauşescu
Romanian Communist Party (PCR)
Romanian Democratic Convention (CDR)
Romanian Social Democratic Party
Securitate (Romanian Communist Secret Police)
Soviet Union
World War II

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