Twenty years ago this December, the Communist government of Romania tried to evict a dissident Hungarian pastor, László Tokés, from his church flat in Timisoara. They could not have predicted that the reaction provoked by this would spiral into a country-wide revolt against the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. During the 1980s there was relatively little in the way of public dissent against the regime. But ten days after the attempt to evict Tokés, on Christmas Day 1989, Nicolae and his wife Elena were shot dead.
Ceausescu, dubbed the "murderer from Scornicesti" by the protestors, was a tyrannical ruler. A repressive state apparatus whose core was the infamous Securitate, the Romanian secret police, harassed and brutalised opponents of the regime. The New York Times has described the Securitate as "one of the Eastern bloc’s largest secret police forces in proportion to its population. Under the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, it was also among the most brutal. An estimated 11,000 agents and a half-million informers watched millions of Romanian citizens, hundreds of thousands of whom were imprisoned for political reasons. Some were killed."(1)
Whilst the terror did not reach the levels of the early years of Communism in Romania, it was still savage. Take, for example, the treatment of Gheorghe Ursu, an engineer from Bucharest, arrested on the 21st September 1989 for keeping a diary critical of Ceausescu and his wife. He was held at Securitate headquarters and severely beaten by his interrogators, before being moved to a prison hospital, where he died on 17th November. A March 1990 inquiry determined that he died from repeated strikes to the abdomen by a heavy object.(2) Harassment and brutality, however, were not limited to opponents of the regime. One of the worst human rights abuses practised under Ceausescu was the denial of abortion rights to women, part of a campaign of pro-natalism, dramatised in the powerful film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. As a result of this policy, over 10,000 women died from unsafe abortions, the majority from haemorrhage and blood poisoning. Doctors who flouted the rules faced the terror of the Securitate, whose officers were assigned to every maternity hospital to ensure the law was enforced.(3)
As part of his attempt to garner support for the Iraq war in Eastern Europe, George Bush II addressed a crowd in Revolution Square, Bucharest. He told them that, "You value your freedom because you have lived without it. You know the difference between good and evil because you have seen evil’s face. The people of Romania understand that aggressive dictators cannot be appeased or ignored; they must always be opposed."(4) Carefully avoided in his speech is the fact that the US government (including Reagan and Bush I) did not oppose, or even appease or ignore, Ceausescu; rather, they actively supported him, along with other Western powers. This has been written out of the narrative so effectively that, on the twentieth anniversary of the revolution, one cannot find a single English-language mainstream media source that thinks it worthy of comment. It is instructive to recall the nature of the support provided by the US and the UK, and to pin down the reasons why such support was forthcoming.
Most Favoured Dictator
In 1975, the US granted Romania "Most Favoured Nation" (MFN) trading status, following a period of flirtation that began with the Nixon administration. In 1969, Nixon visited Romania, where he praised the Ceausescu regime’s pursuit of "security, progress, and independence of the nations of Asia" (adding that his "country will bear the proper share of burdens in that part of the world"; manifest, for example, in the US’s ongoing attempt to bring "security, progress, and independence" to Vietnam through its aggressive war of extermination, aimed at obliterating the indigenous resistance and propping up a client regime in Saigon).(5)
In 1971, Romania joined GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), and went on to gain admission to the IMF and the World Bank. Integration into these economic institutions was supposedly the reward for pursuing an independent foreign policy—"tweaking the nose of the Russians" as Corneliu Bogdan, Romanian ambassador to the US, put it—though as commentators have noted, Romania’s "independence" was greatly exaggerated.(6)
Support for Ceausescu continued throughout the 1980s (in September 1983 Vice President George Bush described him as "one of Europe’s good Communists"), and it was only in June 1988 that Reagan announced that Romania’s MFN status would not be renewed. It is commonly stated that MFN status was withdrawn as a consequence of the lack of improvements in Romania’s human rights situation. For example, a detailed insiders’ study of Romanian-American relations between 1985 and 1989 states that "increasing human rights concerns within the US Congress and among the public played an important role in altering US policy towards Romania".(7) This analysis does not fit in well with a wider view of the role of human rights in determining US foreign policy. The Reagan administration certainly did not take human rights issues seriously, using them as a stick to beat official enemies with, but maintaining a deafening silence over violations in the case of vicious, repressive regimes that had their blessing and support. Thus "[i]n some countries, such as Cuba and the USSR, the Reagan Administration vigorously promoted the cause of human rights and spoke out forthrightly when violations occurred. In other countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, the Administration squandered its extensive opportunities to promote human rights by denying that violations occurred, and attacked human rights organisations that told a different story."(8) In fact, the statement is correct, but incomplete: the administration not only "squandered its extensive opportunities" to promote human rights, but also actively armed, trained and funded groups committing horrendous human rights atrocities.
Neither was the US Congress consistent in its application of human rights provisions. As Holly Burkhalter of Human Rights Watch observed in her speech to the Subcommittee on Human Rights in 1988, "the Congress appears to be taking less and less seriously its responsibilities towards monitoring military and police aid to governments engaged in gross abuses of human rights. Generic human rights laws … have become virtually irrelevant, since countries engaged in systematic abuses of human rights regularly receive US assistance without debate… In one particular case, that of Guatemala, the Congress itself took the lead in earmarking significant military and police assistance to a country with one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere."(9)
The public cannot have had much to do with the shift in US relations, as the media cooperated with government policy by barely reporting on human rights abuses in Romania. David Funderburk, the US ambassador to Romania from 1981 to 1985, has pointedly attacked media complicity, noting that it was only after Ceausescu was deposed that "we started hearing about Romanian orphans, and AIDS victims, and palaces all over the place, and lavish wastes of money… My question is, why didn’t you hear about it five years before that? Or ten years before that? … It was going on from 1965 till 1989, but we only saw it on American television in 1989. But it was still there. I was watching it for two decades, and reporting it back, and nobody was doing anything about it."(10) One answer to Funderburk’s question was given to the prominent Romanian dissident Mihai Botez:
"For years, dissidents, people like me, were perceived as enemies of the West because they were trying to distance Ceausescu, this golden boy of the West in the Soviet Camp, from the US. When David Binder, probably one of the most influential Western journalists writing on Eastern Europe, came to Bucharest, I met him in the house of an American diplomat. He said some quite unpleasant things, such as ‘Who are you? What do you mean by Romanian dissidents? What do you mean by Romanian civil society? In the Balkans, such things never happen. We prefer to speak to people who represent ‘real things’, like Mr. Ceausescu. At least he has power.’"(11)
A striking insight into the values and priorities of some Western journalists.
At the same time as Congress adopted a more critical stance towards relations with Romania, support for Romania within the US business community was "dwindling". "Because of the Romanian debt reduction program, imports from the United States fell drastically… Lobbying by American businessmen for MFN for Romania lost much of its force in the mid-1980s, and the increasing US trade deficit with Romania became a source of contention between the two countries. At the same time, Ceausescu’s need to acquire raw materials… lead to a marked increase in trade with the Soviet Union, worrying those in the United States who believed this would compromise his ability to pursue a relatively independent foreign policy."(12) It seems likely, then, that the increased level of criticism of Ceausescu’s regime was largely a reflection of his rejection of US business-friendly trading policies. Such an analysis is in line with the principle implicit in Human Rights Watch’s presentation to the Subcommittee on Human Rights: that it is the role of the US government to focus attention on the human rights abuses of countries politically and economically independent of the US, such as Cuba and the USSR, but to ignore the atrocities committed by allies like Guatemala, where in the early 1980s the forces of US favourite Rios Montt ("a man of great personal integrity" according to Reagan) were torturing, raping and murdering thousands.
Shielding the Conducator
In 1978, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu enjoyed a state-visit to Britain—complete with an honorary knighthood for Nicolae, and an honorary degree for Elena—primarily for the purpose of securing an important aerospace deal between the UK and Romania. Ion Ratiu, a Romanian pro-democracy campaigner, organised a protest outside a hotel reception held by Ceausescu for the Queen. As a bulletin of the Romanian Cultural Centre in London reveals, "the UK Government had unofficially agreed to "shield" Ceausescu from any unpleasantness arising from demonstrations."(13) The Times described how "[t]he protesters, carrying placards comparing life in Romania to Orwell’s 1984, said they were fenced off with railings and a coach was used to block them from Mr Ceausescu’s view." Ratiu was arrested for obstructing the police, for which he later received an absolute discharge. The police operation was transparently aimed at concealing the embarrassing dissent against British cooperation with an oppressive tyrant.
The 1978 state-visit was merely the high-water mark in an ongoing ‘political romance’ with Ceausescu’s regime. In June 1975 Ceausescu visited London on his way back from South America, and Harold Wilson took the occasion to remark that "only two or three people in the world possess a vision and understanding of things like that of Nicolae Ceausescu". James Callaghan said in a 1978 interview that Ceausescu had "a well-deserved reputation as a world statesman". Margaret Thatcher, as leader of the opposition, called on Ceausescu during his state-visit, and according to the Romanians she "expressed her particular satisfaction" at meeting him again (she met him first during a visit to Romania in 1975). Indeed, according to Mark Percival:
"It is extraordinary how little opposition was voiced among MPs to Britain’s political support for the Ceausescu regime, in spite of the fact that its unpleasant nature was clearly shown in publications, for example, by Amnesty International and the Minority Rights Group."(14)
Just as the US press cooperated with government policy, so too did the British press. Ratiu’s British-Romanian Association tried to get letters critical of the Ceausescu regime and British policy into the press, but had a lot of difficulty. In December 1971, Free Romanian Press (the British-Romanian Association’s newssheet) attacked the Times for failing to print a letter that criticised an article which suggested churches in Romania were doing quite well. Mark Percival asked the Foreign Office whether it had played a role in suppressing letters from the British-Romanian Association to the press, but it would neither confirm nor deny that it had applied any pressure.(15)
British policy with regard to Romania was "largely determined by considerations of trade."(16) The most significant contracts were those involving British Aerospace and Rolls Royce, both negotiated during the state-visit. Romania were to produce BAC 1-11 aircraft and Rolls Royce Spey engines, under deals worth £200 million to British Aerospace and £100 million to Rolls Royce. So important were these deals that the British government agreed to underwrite any losses made on them. As happened with the US, trade relations with Romania began to deteriorate in the mid-1980s: "[I]n the long term, Britain was unable to maintain [its] favourable trading position. In 1984, Ceausescu’s campaign to repay Romania’s foreign debt began, and this led to a considerable reduction in imports from Britain and other countries."(17)
As economic relations soured into the late-1980s, the British government followed the US in criticising Romanian human rights abuses. The FCO’s 1988 annual review of Romania states that the "narrow range of our contacts with the Romanian government reflected accurately the narrow range of our present interests here, limited as they are… to trying, on the political side, to get Romania to modify its human rights policies and to check its retreat into isolation and, commercially, to try to reverse the decline in British exports."(18) Given that it is "extraordinary how little opposition" was voiced by MPs, on both sides of the House, to known human rights abuses when Ceausescu was a good trading partner, we can justifiably treat with scepticism the sincerity of concern expressed here.
British (and, more generally, Western) support for Ceausescu was not harmless: it helped to undermine Romanian dissidents. As Botez argued:
"The West, directly or indirectly, helped Ceausescu and discouraged the opposition. Don’t forget: three presidents of the United States, three presidents of France, the emperor of Japan, the Queen of England and a lot of other important people expressed their admiration for Romanian policies… It is very difficult to fight a policy that is perceived as successful by practically everybody in the world."(19)
Learning from the Tragedy of Romania
Two months after Ceausescu was overthrown, The Nation featured an article recapitulating the record of Western support for Ceausescu. The article begins with a personal experience related by Observer journalist John Sweeney:
"One woman, tears streaming in a Bucharest church where the body of the first student to be shot in the capital was laid, asked: "Why did you in the West support him? Why?" I had no answer to give her."
Towards the end of the article, the author poses some of his own questions:
"Ceausescu may be gone, but the West remains, and Romania’s modern history throws a question in our face, just as the woman in the church did. What are the future relations to be, between Western Europe and the United States on the one hand, and between Romania and Eastern Europe on the other? … Will Eastern Europe be treated as a giant Third World repository of cheap resources and labor, but one conveniently close to home—at least for Western Europeans? If this is allowed to happen, then we will have learned nothing from the tragedy of Romania, and Ceausescu’s bitter, resentful face will haunt us all, East and West."(20)
Whilst Romania is not a Third World country, some of the tendencies anticipated by the author can be detected. A recent article in the Financial Times notes that, though the financial crisis may have taken its toll on Romania, there are still positive signs for the future:
"When the crisis passes, the factors that made the country an attractive investment destination will remain. With a population of 22m, Romania has a GDP per capita of 15 per cent of the EU average, compared with 25 percent in Poland and 35 per cent in Hungary."(21)
Despite desperate poverty and recent public sector protests over low wages, the newly formed government is planning on implementing austerity measures imposed by the IMF as a condition of Romania accessing a €20 billion loan. Although Prime Minister Emil Boc will maintain the 16% flat-rate income tax, he is expected to cut roughly 100,000 public sector jobs and freeze public sector pay for next year.(22) Earlier in the year, The Economist admonished the Romanian government for failing "to implement the unpopular reforms that it agreed with the lenders".(23) Now, however, it seems that it will go ahead with these reforms, despite their "unpopularity".
As the country moves further down a path that most Romanians do not want to take, it should not be surprising that, when asked to contemplate how Romania has progressed since the 1989 uprising, a common refrain is: "we did not go out in the streets for this".
(1) New York Times, 12th Dec. 2006, online: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/12/world/europe/12spooks.html?_r=1
(2) Dennis Deletant, Ceausescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965 – 1989, (M.E. Sharpe, 1995), p. 331.
(3) P. Stephenson et al., ‘The Public Health Consequences of Restricted Abortion – Lessons from Romania,’ American Journal of Public Health, Oct. 1992; cited in Deletant, Ceausescu and the Securitate, p. 333.
(6) Mark Percival, for example, points out that "Britain and other Western countries greatly over-estimated the degree of Ceausescu’s independence from Moscow" (p.79), and notes that just as Britain and the US began deepening relations with Romania in the early ’70s "policy-makers appear to have ignored the fact that at exactly this time, relations between Romania and the Soviet Union were becoming closer." (p. 81) M. Percival, ‘Britain’s "Political Romance" with Romania in the 1970s’, Contemporary European History, Vol. 4, No. 1, (Mar. 1995), pp.67-87.
(7) R. E. Kirk and M. Raceanu, Romania versus the United States: Diplomacy of the Absurd, 1985-1989, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), p. 13.
(9) Same as (8).
(10) David Funderburk, ‘The Betrayal of America’, a speech to the John Birch Society, 1991, online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JexL88-mfrc&feature=related
(11) Cited in Deletant, Ceausescu and the Securitate, p. 205.
(12) Kirk and Raceanu, Romania versus the United States, p.13.
(13) ‘Special Feature: From the Ion Ratiu Archives,’ Romanian Cultural Centre in London, online: http://www.romanianculturalcentre.org.uk/ratiu-foundation/2008/06/special-feature-from-the-ion-ratiu-archives/
(14) Percival, ‘Britain’s "Political Romance" with Romania in the 1970s,’ p. 79 (Wilson and Callaghan’s remarks); p. 83 (Thatcher and opposition from MPs in general).
(15) Ibid., p. 84.
(16) Deletant, Ceausescu and the Securitate, p.205.
(17) Percival, ‘Britain’s "Political Romance" with Romania in the 1970s,’ p. 72 (trade deals with British Aerospace and Rolls Royce); p. 77 (decline in British exports to Romania).
(19) Deletant, Ceausescu and the Securitate, pp.205-06.
(20) Patrick Barnard, ‘Romania and the West: Remembering Our Man Ceausescu’, The Nation, February 19, 1990, pp.230-232.