Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The End of Ceausescu

Lasko Tokes had a history of conflict with Romania's Reformed (Calvinist) Church authorities as well as with the political authorities; that's how the pastor had ended up in Timisoara. At previous postings in Brasov and Dej, both in Transylvania, Tokes had spoken against the the leadership of the Reformed Church, whose congregation in Romania was entirely ethnic Hungarian, and the condition of Romania's Hungarians. This had provoked his relocation to Cluj and then, in 1986, to Timisoara, a predominantly Romanian Orthodox yet cosmopolitan city of about 350,000. What major trouble could the Hungarian pastor possibly cause there?

He allowed students to recite poetry, which was expressly forbidden, and spoke out against Ceausescu's unpopular "systematization" (destruction) of villages and their Orthodox churches. The Timisoara authorities, faced with the prospect of organized dissent, pressured the Reform Church bishop to remove Tokes, which he did in March 1989. On that ground the authorities set eviction proceedings in motion. Tokes appealed, every window in the pastors flat was smashed. In November, Tokes was slashed with a knife by thugs during a break-in, the police posted to keep him under house arrest did nothing. Finally, losing his official appeals, Tokes invited his parishioners at Sunday Mass to witness his scheduled eviction on the coming Friday, December 15. That's right: the authorities had informed the pastor of the precise date.

Around forty parishioners, mostly elderly, formed a human chain outside the pastor's residence, defying the conspicuous Securitate. When the Securitate did not, however, disperse the small crowd, more people beyond the pastor's supporters joined, including ethnic Romanians, Germans, Serbs, Greeks and, some have said, a few Gypsies. Some who joined were from other Protestant denominations, such as Baptists and Pentecostals, religious minorities who were similarly harassed. Others came from an adjacent stop for the tram that ferried workers to the city's outlying industrial plants and students to the big local universities. The tram also facilitated the spread of information about the confrontation throughout the town.

Timasoara's inhabitants that winter, as previously, had no electricity for most of the day and often for much of the evening, including during the interval from 6:00 until 9:00 P.M., when people needed it most. Elevators where avoided, since the blackouts, coming without warning, trapped people in them. The strongest light bulbs sold were only forty watts. The temperature inside homes was no more than 55 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and hot water usually came in once a week. People in Timisoara, as elsewhere in Romania, were given coupons to buy a few kilos of meat and fifty grams of butter- a month. They queued for hours, and sometimes even the meager allotments their coupons permitted ran out. The town also had large local bread factories and other major food production facilities. But much of this locally produced food, like everything else, was being exported for hard currency. The furious townsfolk, spending years shoulder to shoulder in queues, were united in their desperation. But they could call on no forms of social organization other than their churches, which were under Securitate surveillance.

On December 16, Timasoara's mayor, summoned to intervene by the Securitate, arrived at the Reformed Church and requested that Tokes instruct the crowd to disperse. In order to avoid bloodshed, the pastor agreed. But the crowd, by then much beyond his congregation, was in no mood to go home. Tokes discovered himself a "prisoner" of the people's anger. "In that street", recalled one eyewitness, "was a tension and a feeling of power you could almost touch." Both joyous and apprehensive, the gathering crowd began to relocate to the city center and began singing the 1848 Romanian national anthem "Awake Romania". Shop windows were smashed- the regimes blackout enabled some people to hurl rocks without being seen- and some chanted "Down with Ceausescu!" "Down with tyranny!" "Freedom!" This lightning escalation- precisely what the mayor has sought to preempt- had transpired in a single day. It was the beginning of a political bank run.

The next day Tokes was brutally beaten and removed to an isolated village, as if he was still the root cause of the protest. But even without the Pastor some two thousand people faced down mounted bayonets and marched in columns, many carrying the banners of their factories. Drenched by cold water from a fire truck, the infuriated crowd rushed the vehicle, broke it apart and drowned it in the river. Then they ransacked the party building, tossing the books by Ceausescu onto a bonfire. They also captured five tanks loaded with a few hundred shells. This was duly reported to Bucharest.

The reaction was ferocious. That afternoon, at a conclave of the regime's Political Executive Committee, Ceausescu railed at a conspiracy involving West and East (Moscow), voiced suspicions of his own Securitate, demanded the restoration of order, and threatened anyone who failed to use the requisite force. "I've given orders to shoot," said the Conducator, according to an official transcript.

That very afternoon, December 17, The Army Chief of Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister Major General Stefan Gusa, under the watchful eye of a party hardliner, arrived in Timisoara, as did armored and motorized columns. Gusa claimed he found hundreds of shops damaged, looting, wild shooting and rumors of possible assaults on munitions depots. He set about recapturing the city. Several score civilians were massacred, and several hundred were wounded and arrested. On the 19th he was called to rescue the city party secretary at the Electrobanat light factory, which had a predominantly female workforce, but was greeted with shouts of "Criminals, you murdered our children!" Before fleeing the confusion, the local party boss had recorded the irate women's demands: "We want heat...We want chocolate for our children..socks, underwear, cocoa and cotton."

Timisorians were withdrawing their fear. General Gusa asserted that close up, he belatedly discovered that the protesters he had been violently suppressing were not hooligans but people. Perhaps, but on December 20 the Conducator returned from a trip to Iran ( negotiating arms for oil) and appeared on state television, pugnaciously denouncing the demonstrators as "hooligans", "fascists" and "foreign agents". He thereby confirmed- for the first time in official media- the fact of much-rumored protests. However, while work stoppages in Timisoara were developing into a general strike , General Gusa blinked. He ordered his troops to withdraw from around the Electrobanat plant and the city center, where a least forty thousand people were massed on Opera Square. Protesters began embracing soldiers and chanting "The army is with us!"

On the balcony of the opera house, loudspeakers were set up for the prime minister, who was expected to arrive that day. Instead, at 2:00 a forty-one year old professor from the Technical University, Lorin Fortuna, announced himself. He delivered a speech proclaiming the formation of a "Romanian Democratic Front". Suddenly, local authorities started looking to the professor to negotiate on behalf of "the opposition."

The central regime, however, was in no mind to capitulate. The Bucharest authorities ordered in workers with clubs and "patriotic guard" uniforms from other regions to Timisoara by train..they arrived in the city on December 21 but they were not met at the station or given directions. They went home. Others turned around on route. For the same day Ceausescu ordered a mass rally in Bucharest to support the regime against "foreign interference".

The run on the bank was broadcast to the entire nation. As Ceausescu spoke, some people apparently sought to penetrate the cordon around the official rally; their was jostling and a thud, perhaps from a falling lamppost. Tear gas grenades were fired, which sowed greater confusion. Some members of the crowd shouted "Timisoara! Timisoara!". Soon TV viewers, including Security forces around the nation who had been ordered to watch, began hearing "Ceausescu the dictator!". Before censors cut the live broadcast- it took three minutes to do so- Romanians saw a startled, frightened tyrant, angrily flailing his hands and heard pathetic cries of "What?" and "Shut up"!

That evening security forces assaulted the crowd but in the morning of the following day hundreds of thousands of people lined the capital and reassembled in front of the Central Committee fortress. At 11:30 A.M. Ceausescu again stepped onto the Central Committee balcony. The crowd jeered him with the slogan "The army is with us". Shoes, stones, and other projectiles were hurled and the dictator hustle inside. The crowd began storming the party sanctuary. From the roof, an overloaded French built helicopter staggered off, making Ceausescu a fugitive. But the fugitives were captured and held by the police, then by the military.

On December 25, ten days after the demonstration of forty elderly parishioners began at the grimy, three story apartment building of a minister of the Reformed Church, a kangaroo court was hastily convened at a provincial garrison. Ceausescu and his wife were convicted of genocide and sentenced to death. So many members of the garrison wanted to be in the firing squad that lots had to be drawn. In the end, all eighty were allowed to take part and pumped the deposed couple with more than a hundred bullets. "The Antichrist has been executed on Christmas Day" exulted the announcer on State radio. The shock at what many came to call Romania's "miracle of December" was incalculable.

Violence and rioting continued into 1990, as workers armed with clubs and crowbars- Ceausescu's hoped for shock troops- materialized belatedly, bused in to bash protesters who opposed the new regime for its conspicuous surfeit of former Communist party members. Ceausescu and his wife were among the very few prosecuted for what happened during the Communist era. But the violence and accusations about neo-communism obscured the fact that the planned economy had been terminated, though a liberal state cannot be taken for granted.

Stephen Kotkin in "Uncivil Society"

1 comment:

  1. The author notes that in asking the members of their councils for advice on how to resolve the growing discontent of the Romanian people, hitherto regarded as no better than ( in Marx's phrase for the peasants of his time)"sacks of potatoes", executives of the Communist Party were delivered sheaths of babble.

    Babble obscures and avoids simple though often painful solutions to often very simple yet global problems. Take the banking crisis. A transaction fee on the stock market and raising the capital gains tax to the same level as the income tax would solve a lot of problems.Problems like 'excessive risk taking', "too big to fail', regulatory complexity, the growing national debt, and even huge chunks of the health crisis since epidemiologists have long said that great inequalities of wealth in society have negative medical consequences that override ' personal responsibility.'

    Instead of engaging in this struggle (in the old liberal phrase) 'like men' the Administration puts forward sheaths and sheaths of minutia which it admits will require an army of interpreters to get across to the accountants on Wall St. and will inevitably contain legions of prevaricating loopholes which are beside the point.

    Along with the babble comes the expectation that there is always some technological panacea that will pull us out of the rut, or a unwholesome commitment to 'panaceas' whose real innovation is the mindless hype with which they are put forward, or whose capacity to change the situation on the ground is so far into the future as to constitute an idle dream.

    The American scholar Jonathan Schell summed it up succinctly" "Do you believe in freedom of speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act openly.

    One day in December of 1989, in a small town in Romania, a couple of guys started shouting the hitherto unheard words "Down with the Tyrant". Ten days later, contrary the expectations of the whole world, with small sacrifices compared to all that occurred in the previous four decades, the tyrant was gone. How about that? Babble is a fly in the wind of truth.