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225. Romania's First Post-Communist Decade: From Iliescu to Iliescu

The results of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Romania in November- December 2000 came as a surprise to those unaware of the sharp decline in popularity of both President Emil Constantinescu and the Democratic Convention (CDR), the coalition that swept him into office in the November 1996 elections.

The return of Ion Iliescu and the PDSR (Partidul Democratiei Sociale Romane) to presidency and government may be called a "velvet restoration" (to use Adam Michnik's concept): but it is not a return to the big party, quasi-authoritarian, "neo-communist" regime (or Iliescu I) that followed the collapse of Leninism in December 1989. To understand the PDSR's return to power (or Iliescu II) at least a cursory historical analysis is needed of Romania's bumpy transition and the Leninist legacies that influence the choices made by political elites and the average citizen once communism left the scene.

Romania's Communist Legacies: Continuity and Transformation

The main features of Romania's pre-1990 regime included:

  • the personalized nature of political power, or an inordinate personality cult of the party and state leader, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena;
  • the overwhelming role played in social and political life by the secret police (the Securitate), which was both a state within the state and the direct instrument of Ceausescu's personal dictatorship (this was quite different from other East European cases, including the GDR, where the Stasi was subordinated to the Party's collective leadership);
  • Romania's rampant economic decay in the 1980s resulting from Ceausescu's erratic policies; and
  • as a result of all these factors, deep malaise, cynicism, and despair were rampant in Romania, creating an explosive climate.

Thus, in 1989, the country found itself in a classic revolutionary situation.

After the 1989 revolution, however, unlike the Hungarian or Polish post-Leninist counterparts, Romania had no enlightened, reform-oriented faction within the party elite to further a negotiated transition. The disaffected party and Securitate cadres were isolated, fearful, and with very few exceptions, unable to articulate even a minimal alternative program to Ceausescu's disastrous course. The Romanian Communist Party, proportionately one of the largest in the world, had no collective leadership, no inner party life, and no genuine feedback from lower to higher echelons. For many years, Ceausescu and his coterie relied on the ideological claim to autonomy from the neo-Stalinist Soviet Union. Consequently, by the end of his rule, Ceausescu had isolated Romania from both the East and the West . With very few exceptions within the Securitate and the military, there were no genuine Ceausescu loyalists in Romania. The same, however, was not true regarding the Leninist regime, the socialist "welfare" state, and the leading role of the communist party (or, better said, the nomenklatura). Many Romanians despised, even hated Ceausescu and his tyranny, but did not like liberal, Western-style democratic values either. In 1989, Ion Iliescu, who despised Ceausescu but believed in a Communist Romania, succeeded Ceausescu as head of the state bureaucracy.

In the opening months of 1990, Romania was ruled by a self-appointed body, the National Salvation Front (NSF) Council, with Iliescu as its leader. Political parties, movements, and civic associations emerged. Critical intellectuals became vocal and called for rapid de- communization. They lambasted the Iliescu team's efforts to stay in power, accusing the NSF of having hijacked the revolution and established a "crypto-communist" regime. Confrontation between the anti-communist and post-communist groups and movements was fierce, particularly during the miner's raid on Bucharest in June 1990. In 1990 and 1992, Iliescu won popular elections. In the meantime the NSF split between the more reform-oriented group headed by Petre Roman (prime minister between 1990-1991) and Iliescu's supporters. The former would eventually create the Democratic Party, the latter renamed themselves the Party of Romanian Social Democracy (PDSR). The break between the former allies was deep and resulted in Roman's increasing rapprochement with the anti-communist coalition.

In the early-1990s the anti-communist coalition was dominated by the resurrected "historical" National Peasant Christian and Democratic Party (PNTCD), the "right" (as opposed to Iliescu's "left"), which initially pursued a confrontational strategy. Later, realizing the failure of extra-parliamentary opposition, the "right" formed its own umbrella coalition, including parties and civic movements. The most powerful personality within this coalition was Corneliu Coposu, a lawyer and former political prisoner who had spent 17 years in communist jails. Coposu personally selected a university professor, Emil Constantinescu, to run against Iliescu in 1992. In 1996, Constantinescu again campaigned against Iliescu, criticizing the absence of profound economic reforms, endemic corruption, and the lack of transparence, especially regarding the truth about the revolution of 1989 and the reluctance to deal with such issues as citizens' access to secret police files and property restitutions. Constantinescu won the 1996 election more as a result of the mass discontent with the PDSR's failure to generate economic results and the widespread perception that the opposition had the political will and the competence to take the country out of stagnation.

An Incomplete Break with the Past: Explaining the 1996 and 2000 Elections

While the 1996 change was an incomplete ruptura, it finally created a culture of political alternance that most Romanians had never before experienced. The November 1996 transformation was an incomplete but genuine breakthrough, akin to the December 1989 real but unfinished revolution. The victors of 1996 lost quite pathetically the elections of 2000. The real cause of the defeat was the inconsequential, indecisive and faltering nature of the reforms initiated, but not truly implemented by the three governments under the Constantinescu presidency. The 2000 elections consecrated the demise of the old-fashioned, ideologically ossified PNTCD and the rise of a more dynamic and modern party, the National Liberal Party (PNL). They also indicated a move to the left by the Romanian electorate, of which the main beneficiary turned out to be the PDSR.

In short, the 2000 vote for Iliescu (and for Corneliu Vadim Tudor) was fundamentally a vote rooted in dissatisfaction, frustration, and disaffection with the ruling coalition and its failure to deliver what it had promised. The true surprise of the 2000 elections was not Iliescu's or PDSR's victory, but the rise of Vadim Tudor and his Romania Mare party (PMR). A combination of anti-systemic nationalist caudillo and self-indulging buffoon, Vadim managed to transform a marginal entity into a major oppositional party, controlling one-fifth of Romania's parliament and many of the specialized commissions. Vadim is not the Polish-Canadian-Peruvian Stanislaw Tyminski who managed to challenge Lech Walesa in the runoff of the Polish elections in the early 1990s. His deliberately strident discourse combines Hungarophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, anti-market, anti-corruption and anti-establishment themes. He appeals to Romania's resentful youth (who did not know much about his past as a Ceausescu court poet) and to many pro-Western Romanians who had voted for Constantinescu in 1996 and were sorely disappointed with the CDR's blunders and misperformance.

Vadim Tudor's party is not a traditional extreme right formation or a reincarnation of the mystical-revolutionary Iron Guard: PRM is neither left, nor right, but an elusive conglomerate of communist and fascist nostalgias, hostility to modernity and diversity, and a militaristic, phallocratic cult of the nation (racially defined), the movement, and the leader (conducator). Vadim's idols indicate his mindset: medieval prince Vlad Tepes (the Impaler); pro-Nazi dictator, marshal Ion Antonescu, and communist nationalist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu. Historical ignorance and amnesia have been Vadim Tudor's main assets in his reinvention as a tribune of Romanianness. For many, Vadim Tudor appeared indeed as the true voice of the people - the angry prophet speaking of behalf of the "wretched of the earth."

Instead of organizing and mobilizing themselves against both the PDSR's moderate, and Vadim Tudor's radical forms of populism, civil society groups continued to champion abstract, often-nebulous visions and ideals. Never was the gap between the pro-Western intelligentsia and the electorate so deep as in the fall of 2000. The democratic forces lacked a unity of vision, strategy, and tactics. They appeared disoriented, confused and stuttering. The National Liberal Party engaged in a number of behind-the-scene arrangements which ended up by ruining the ruling coalition. The modest economic growth in 2000 (which was often invoked by PNTCD/CDR candidate, Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu) did not result in any significant improvement of half of the population's abysmal living conditions. Under these circumstances, Iliescu managed to appear as the wise statesman, the bulwark against Vadim Tudor's erratic populist adventurism, and a paragon of political rationality. Voting for him, it seemed, was the only reasonable solution if one wanted to exert this civic right.

Romania: What's In Store for the Next Decade?

A minority left-wing government needs the support of the center-right and moderate left parties, including the Hungarian Democratic Union, in order to pass laws and unleash the much- needed structural (micro and macro-economic reforms). It is clear that there is a generational gap within the PDSR: Iliescu and his close friends (Oliviu Gherman or Nicolae Vacaroiu) are in many respects an anachronism, to the extent that their political formation and much of their life coincided with the illusions about the reform ability of Leninist regimes as well as the nationalist fantasies of Ceausescu's times. Adrian Nastase, born in 1950, represents a different age and cultural group. It is likely that the PDSR, which is far from being a completely homogenous unit, will evolve and even split along these lines: on the one hand, anti-Western, anti-market, and anti-intellectual traditionalists, not essentially different from the PRM in terms of authoritarian nostalgias and nationalist mindset, and on the other hand the modernizers.

Second, the old PNTCD has ceased to exist and a reconstructed, indeed new formation will most likely emerge that will get rid of the anachronistic "seniors" whose main legitimacy was the fact that they had suffered in communist jails (in January 2001, the PNTCD Congress elected philosopher Andrei Marga, a former Minister of Education, University of Cluj Rector, and WWC fellow, as its new chairman).

If reforms are seriously undertaken, Romania could move forward. Vadim Tudor would lose much of the popular support, making his rise to influence in 2000 an ephemeral phenomenon.

If procrastinations and corruption continue to plague the transition, authoritarian populism has a future in Romania. Ion Iliescu is not Belarus' Aleksandr Lukashenko or Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, but his successor may be.

Vladimir Tismaneanu spoke at an EES Discussion on January 9, 2001. The above is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report #225


About the Author

Vladimir Tismaneanu

Vladimir Tismaneanu

Former Wilson Center Fellow and Director, Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies, University of Maryland
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