Romania 20 Years Later, Not Exactly Bread and Roses

BUCHAREST– For Elena Neagu, the holidays do not bring joy; they bring sorrow.

In the days before Christmas 1989, as the country erupted into a chaotic revolution, her 21 year-old son, Petrisor Hotea, also took to the streets. He had been released from the army just days earlier, and thought he could put his skills with a rifle to use, as the army joined the people in taking back the country from the communist regime.

On December 31, after frantically searching the city for her son, Neagu found him in a city morgue. She had to fight to retrieve his body, because the people in charge believed he was a "terrorist," rumored to have come from the Middle East to fight for the communists. Petrisor was buried on Jan. 1, 1990, the same day that US President George H.W. Bush broadcast a message proclaiming "a new century and a new millennium of peace, freedom, and prosperity" to the people of the Soviet Union.

"Christmas is coming, New Years is coming, and death comes over us. Some are celebrating, while others are crying," she said as she swept the snow from Petrisor’s grave.

Neagu is not alone in her pain. 275 bodies, mostly young men and women, were buried in Bucharest on New Year’s Day. The white marble crosses at the Revolutionary Heroes Cemetery, half buried in snow drifts, stretch a whole city block. Over 1,000 people lost their lives, and thousands more were wounded, as fighting broke out across the country.

Twenty years after the end of the communist regime headed by Nicolae Ceausescu, the parents, wives, husbands, and friends of the dead still do not know how their loved ones were killed. When asked if her son died for a good cause, Neagu’s reaction is mixed.

"Who knows what he was thinking when he was 21? All the repression, the interdictions, the unfulfilled desires? He and so many others died thinking that it’s going to be good. The good is just for some," she said, looking around to make sure no one was listening in the quiet graveyard.

"If I think about it, everything was better in Ceausescu’s time. There wasn’t food or electricity, but people were getting by. You had to have a job or they would put you in prison. We would stand in a line for a full day, but we had some meat on the table," Neagu said.  "There is so much misery in this country now."

Her feelings are shared by a majority of people who struggle to eke out a living in the new world order. Mirea Alexandru was one of the many people who took to the streets as the whisper of "revolution" broke into a roar. Now, he says he regrets the way things turned out.

"Twenty years ago we went out in the streets hoping it’s going to be like in the West, or at least what we perceived as the West," he said. "I didn’t realize that we were heading towards a big lie. What happened, in fact, is really far from what we were expecting. It’s a lot worse than what it was."

Alexandru, now in his 40′s, works as a night watchman for one of Romania’s many security companies. Stopping to check out an exhibition about the revolution at the entrance to the subway, he said that he had been threatened with violence when he asked for his salary at his last job. With only severely weakened unions in Romania, Alexandru has little recourse to get the 500 euros owed to him.

"We have made it to a point where we don’t have housing [or] the safety of a pension. Not having a secure job and a place to stay, finally the idea of family is compromised. Millions of people are going abroad to earn a living. It’s traumatic. Can it be any worse?" he asked.

In the past two decades of transition to a market-based economy, Romania has become mired in debt. With a recent $27 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, the country’s external debt is now well over $100 billion. He may have been a megalomaniac, but Ceausescu’s ambition to export everything possible ensured that Romania was debt-free by 1989.

The government’s financial problems are mirrored in the bank accounts of average citizens. Although salaries and pensions in Romania are among the lowest in Europe, prices are comparable to those in Western Europe. The average monthly salary is estimated at $1,000 per month, yet the average pensioner receives $250 a month. In 2005, 25 percent of Romanians were living even under that poverty level.

Seeking the promise of higher pay and a more modern way of life, 3 million Romanians have left the country since 1989. The gastarbeiters’ remittances contribute billions to the economy each year, allowing their families to modernize their homes, buy food, and otherwise get by in areas with little employment. Because Romanians will not have the right to work in other EU countries until 2014, many go to Spain, Italy, or Germany as temporary laborers. Each year, they leave 300,000 children behind in villages inhabited only by the very young and the very old.

Marian Ion was shot during the chaos of December 1989, while working at an Electrolux factory in Bucharest. Now retired, his children have left Romania in search of a better life: one in Italy, the other, in Canada. He blames those who took power after the revolution for selling out the country, leaving no infrastructure to rebuild society and provide jobs for young people.

"Who destroyed all the factories? Who sold all the agriculture? Who sold everything?" he asked, weeping tears of frustration. "They also sold the people. My children are working abroad because they sold the population!"

At a ceremony commemorating the "martyrs of the revolution," Ion and his compatriots remember the final days of 1989, when Ion Iliescu, a functionary in Ceausescu’s communist party, formed the National Salvation Front and assumed power of the provisional government. Ignoring the people’s cries for communist-free leadership, dissent was finally crushed after Iliescu called in a gang of miners to break up a protest of his government in June 1990, a month after he was elected president. Hundreds of people, mostly students and intellectuals, were wounded, and six died during the violence. Iliescu served two terms as president.

Those who ruled the country as communists are still in power, Ion said, pointing out that Iliescu left the National Salvation Front to form the political party now known as the Social Democrat Party. In the presidential elections held earlier this month, the Social Democrat candidate Mircea Geoana lost by a thin margin to the Liberal Democrat incumbent Traian Basescu, himself a naval captain in the communist government.

"There are still communists in power, just different kinds of communists," Ion said. "The politicians never thought about the people, they only are interested in loading their bags with money."

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