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National Day of Romania: Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Revolution

From a historical perspective a span of 30 years is a rather short time. Yet within that time, monumental changes have occurred in a strategically vital region of the world that have had a truly profound impact on its people and on the international system.

What occurred in 1989 was little short of a tectonic shift. What appeared to be immutable regimes throughout Eastern Europe fell like so many dominoes. Social scientists basically failed to predict these revolutionary developments, as country after country in the region committed itself to fundamental change.

No single country, however, was due for change more than Romania, whose people were suffering so terribly under the brutal communist rule of Nicolae Ceausescu and his clan, and nowhere else was violence more unnecessary and tragic.
From Timisoara to cities throughout Romania attempts were made to suppress peaceful protests with great violence, but the regime unraveled extraordinarily quickly and the world witnessed the short trial and prompt execution of the Ceausescu couple.

Social scientists at the time of the revolutions in Eastern Europe tended to focus on the reasons why the dramatic changes occurred.
That is, how could regimes that were so deeply entrenched, governed by an ideology claiming scientific truth, inevitable victory and the moral authority of being on the right side of history, disintegrate so suddenly throughout an entire region.

Unfortunately as, as it often happens in social sciences this may well have been the wrong question to focus on. Looking back a communist rule in Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe and how much that political order was both entirely artificial and illegitimate, the better question should have been, “why did these regimes last as long as they did”?

There are of course the standard answers. They include the readiness of the Soviet Union to intervene that was so starkly demonstrated in 1953 in East German, in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia.
Communism was also a remarkably well organized system of oppression. Yes, shortages of the most basic consumer goods was endemic and human dignity was under constant assault but the instruments of control were pervasive, brutal and effective.

But the standard explanations to not tell the whole story. The very small number of dissidents, people of extraordinary courage, was but one indication of what these regimes in Eastern Europe did to the psychology of the people.
We now know that resentment was very widespread but few people would organize or speak up in opposition. This is because communist rule in general and that in Romania in particular created a society seized with fear and polluted with pervasive distrust.
Neighbor would fear neighbor and brother could not trust brother. This not only helps explain how the regime could stay in power for so long despite the terrible things that they did to their own people but also signals the enormous psychological damage that goes beyond the economic devastation and deprivation and regular political repression that the people of Romania, and those elsewhere, in the region suffered.

That fear and mistrust, which were so readily and systemically infused into all aspects of life and relentlessly used by the regime did not merely keep the population in check; it created a long-lasting keep psychic wound that in turn corrupted both the spirit and human interchange.
It would profoundly affect the people not only before but also after the revolution.

Not surprisingly, the transition to democracy in Romania and elsewhere, one that was so readily welcomed by the West, was consequently also profoundly misunderstood.

Communist elites in Romania and elsewhere would try to hang on while claiming they transformed themselves. Fear and dependence did not disappear overnight.
Private knowledge on the part of those we called “the red directors” allowed them to enrich themselves quickly at the expense of others. Corrosive corruption, that saw such quick and unfair riches, made the pain of transition, which would be experienced everywhere throughout Eastern Europe, even more difficult to bear for much of the population.

Expectations of rapid and successful transitions therefore were unrealistic.
True, the West which had so casually left Eastern Europe to the tender mercies of the Soviet Union at Yalta and did not help the Hungarians or the Czechoslovaks in 1956 and 1968, respectively now owed the countries of Eastern Europe at the very least sympathy and patience.
The leaders of the newly emerging democracies in Eastern Europe owed all their people both honesty and competence. Sadly, the people of Eastern Europe, at least in the first years of the transition, received none of these benefits from the West or too few of them from many of their own leaders.
Romania was among the worst off in this regard.

For these reasons, transitions were not only painful, (and that was to be expected given the dramatic changes taking place), but slow and inefficient, and often accompanied by rampant corrosive corruption.

In light of much of the above, it is easy to be pessimistic. Yet again, however, we must go back to the big picture. That is, with all of the difficulties and shortcomings of transition in Romania, and elsewhere, what has been achieved is little short of remarkable and ought to be celebrated.

Today Romania is not occupied from the outside or controlled by an artificial regime on the inside. It is a struggling democracy.
But then democracies themselves, as Thomas Jefferson said in the early days of the United States, are a perennial struggle built on the recognition of human failings and frailties, a system of checks and balances in order to limit abuse that demand continued civic engagement. In short democracies are not perfect and are not perfectible but can improve and protect.

Today Romania is a member of the European Union and of NATO. Just how astonishing this last sentence is, think back to 1989 when Romania was a member of both the Warsaw Pact and of Comecon, vast coercive organizations that were nothing but tools of hegemony of the Soviet Union.
All three, the Warsaw Pact, Comecon and the Soviet Union, to borrow a Marxist term, have been thrown upon the dust heap of history.

Romania is a member of the community of democratic states. It offers an opportunity and not a guarantee.
It is probably the most important opportunity in Romania’s history and we can only hope that the government of the country and the people will make the most of it.
Crucially, as now a member of the community of democratic states,
Romania is receiving important foreign investment, it is building a modern infrastructure and it is part of the Western defense network. These are again, opportunities and not guarantees.
Still, all this is most worthy of celebration.
Thirty years after the utter darkness of the Ceausescu regime there clearly is light and there is opportunity.
The people of Romania well-deserve of both.

Therefore, to Romania and for the people of Romania we wish and we express a hope for a truly good and bright future.


Aurel Braun is a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto and an Associate at the Davis Center at Harvard University

Aurel Braun     12/4/2019


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