Ceauşescu, Nicolae (1918-1989), president of Romania (1967-1989). Born in Scorniceşti, he joined (1933) the Union of Communist Youth and was imprisoned (1936; 1940) for his political activities. In post-war Communist Romania he held several party posts, becoming a member of the ruling Politburo in 1955. He succeeded Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the Romanian Communist leader, as first secretary of the party and the effective ruler of Romania; in 1967 he also became the country’s president. He promoted industrialization and pursued a foreign policy relatively independent of the Soviet Union, while keeping domestic political opponentsfirmly in line. During the 1980s he imposed a bitter austerity program to liquidate Romania’s foreign debt, a program of forced relocation of rural population, and an extreme cult of personality, while rejecting political and economic reforms introduced in the USSR and other East European countries in the late 1980s. His brutal suppression of a demonstration for human rights in the city of Timişoara sparked widespread demonstrations against his dictatorship and the Communist Party rule and turned the army against him. His attempt to flee Bucharest on December 22, 1989, with his wife Elena, herself a member of the Politburo, was unsuccessful. Captured and tried secretly, they were executed on December 25.
In December 1989, a combination of mass uprisings, primarily in the cities of Timisoara and Bucharest, and a coup d’état led by dissident Communists and elements of the armed forces had produced a political revolution of major proportions—culminating in the dramatic execution of Romania’s president and Communist Party leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day. During the last two weeks of December, thousands of people were killed in street battles that first pitted civilians against government troops and Ceausescu’s Securitate (internal security) forces, and then saw the Securitate battling civilians and the army, which turned against Ceausescu on December 22. When the smoke cleared, the leadership of the Romanian Communist Party had been swept away, and an interim ruling structure, the Front of National Salvation, had been established.
The composition of the Front reflected the coalition that had helped unseat the Ceausescus. By the end of 1989, its leadership was held firmly by Ion Iliescu, a Communist with reformist ideas who had fallen out of favor with the Ceausescus several years earlier. The new regime pledged major changes, including gradual reduction of state control over economic and social life and democratization of the political order, with elections to be held in the spring.
The New Regime.
During the first few months of 1990, the Front attempted to consolidate its hold over Romania’s political system. It soon became clear that former Communist leaders were determined to retain control; gradually, those members of the provisional government who objected to this trend resigned in protest or were relegated to secondary positions. Doina Cornea, the most prominent Romanian dissident during the Ceausescu era, was one of those who resigned, claiming that the revolution had been aborted. In January and February violent demonstrations led primarily by students and intellectuals, rocked Bucharest.
A major cause of such protest behavior was the debate about measures to be undertaken against former leaders of the Ceausescu regime, as well as against officers of the Securitate forces, which had resisted the revolution with such brutality. After the execution of the Ceausescus, the death penalty was abolished. Court cases against other members of the Ceausescu clan were slow in developing, adding to the uneasiness over this issue. The Front did agree, in January, to formally outlaw the Communist Party.
By late in the year, at least two major trials had made headlines. In September, Nicu Ceausescu, youngest son of the ousted dictator, was convicted of “instigation to murder” and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The young Ceausescu, a former Communist Party leader in southern Transylvania, had been accused of causing 89 deaths during the revolution that toppled his father. Also in September, Iulien Vlad, head of the Securitate under Ceausescu, went on trial on charges of “complicity in genocide” for his role in the deaths of over 1,000 people during the December revolution. In November, however, a military court suspended Vlad’s trial, citing insufficient evidence.
Ethnic Turmoil.
Ethnic relations also posed a major problem for the government. The Ceausescu regime had been characterized by its extreme Romanian nationalism. In contrast, the revolutionary leadership proclaimed the immediate removal of all discrimination against ethnic minorities, particularly the Hungarians, and pledged to reestablish Hungarian centers of education and culture that had been eliminated under Ceausescu’s rule. However, the removal of censorship and the easing of political control over the expression of ideas also allowed extreme Romanian nationalist movements to emerge, especially the organization Vatra Romaneascea, or Romanian Hearth. The program of this group, laced with elements of native fascism, old-fashioned populism, and extreme nationalism, was largely directed against the Hungarian minority. Ethnic tensions culminated in March in serious disturbances in the city of Tirgu Mures, during which some 2,000 Romanians armed with scythes and clubs attacked 5,000 ethnic Hungarians. Government tanks and troops had to be deployed before the fights abated. Other, smaller disturbances occurred elsewhere, particularly in Transylvania. In language shockingly similar to that of the Ceausescu era, the Front leadership accused the Hungarian government of promoting the demonstrations.
The Electoral Process.
Another major issue was the relationship between the Front and the many new opposition groups and parties that had sprung up. Iliescu had originally promised that this umbrella organization would dismantle itself so that its constituent parts could participate in the forthcoming national elections on an equal footing with all other parties. However, Iliescu eventually decided to participate with the Front intact.
Since it controlled most of the facilities of the old order, including much of the press, radio, and national television, the Front clearly had a substantial advantage in the electoral campaign. Other tactics were employed to intimidate the opposition, such as demonstrations by workers forcefully expressing “indignation” over those who opposed the revolution by criticizing the Front. In some cases, opposition candidates were barred from entering communities and even physically assaulted.
The elections, held on May 20, produced an astonishing victory for the Front and for Iliescu personally. The Front captured almost three-quarters of the seats in Parliament, and Iliescu was elected president with close to 90 percent of the vote. Some observers ascribed the margin of victory to intimidation of the opposition, as well as to the opposition’s lack of time and facilities to mount an effective campaign. Others cited the authoritarian attitudes and values engrained in the general population, coupled with widespread fear among the electorate that economic decentralization could result in the loss of jobs.
After the Elections.
After the May elections the victors appeared to harden toward other elements of the political order, while opponents of the regime became more vocal. Through much of the summer mass demonstrations occurred, particularly in Bucharest. In June, Romanian soldiers shot protesters who raided the state television offices and burned down police headquarters. In the same month, thousands of armed miners from the coalfields of northern Romania, brought to Bucharest to quell demonstrations, used wooden clubs and rubber truncheons against suspected opponents of the government. The United States accused Romania of vigilante violence against the antigovernment demonstrators, and the U.S. ambassador boycotted Iliescu’s presidential inauguration, on June 20, to demonstrate concern.
Through the summer and fall, challenges to the government were dealt with harshly, but it was nevertheless possible to demonstrate and to issue such challenges. Ethnic relations were troublesome. Remnants of the old order, particularly the Securitate, were left relatively intact or were integrated into the new system. Still, the most pressing concern for the average Romanian was the economic crisis.
Economic Problems.
In July the government announced that the economy had declined sharply in the first six months of the year. Imports, mostly food and crude oil, had risen 46 percent, while exports had dropped 43 percent. On July 11 the government eliminated subsidies on crude oil, in a first shift toward a market economy; the price of gasoline doubled, and other prices also rose. By midsummer the country was experiencing severe shortages of meat, cheese, and butter. The situation was aggravated when 24 Western industrialized nations withheld economic aid after the brutal crackdown in June against government protesters.
In October, Prime Minister Petre Roman presented to Parliament a package of economic reforms that he described as “shock therapy” intended to stimulate Romania’s transition to a free-market economy. Protests erupted in November when price controls were lifted and the prices of some foods and other consumer goods soared. In the same month the government devalued the currency by almost 50 percent.
Orphans and AIDS.
The Ceausescu regime’s ban on abortions and contraception resulted in an increase of orphaned children, almost one quarter of whom were discovered this year to be infected with the AIDS virus. The practice of transfusing unscreened blood into infants of low birthweight, along with the reuse of unsterilized hypodermic needles during the procedure, were thought to be responsible. Among the first actions of the Front had been the legalization of birth control and abortion.

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