Date: 24 July 2018    Author: Robert Rajczyk, PhD

Romania. From pariah to leader?

In December 1989, television channels all over the world showed the scenes of revolution in Romania and the execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the last Communist leader of Romania alongside his wife, Elena.

Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest. There are always fresh flowers on the grave of the CeauŞescu couple. © Author’s personal archive

The broadcasts also presented the humanitarian catastrophe in local orphanages and hordes of begging children on the streets. Thirty years later, Romania is a modern country, a member state of NATO and the European Union, but still struggling with the problems associated with its infant democracy.

Romania does not have a long history. It has been an independent political entity since 1878, when its independence from the Ottoman Empire was formally recognized at the Congress of Berlin. Just like an island, the country is surrounded from all sides by Slavs and Hungarians, who are ethnically unique in Europe. Meanwhile, their closest “cousins” live behind the Urals. Romania, on the other hand, is one of the Romance countries. Until 1918, there was a widespread theory that Romanians’ ethnogenesis was directly derived from the Roman civilization, which since Emperor Trajan’s rule had been permanently present on the territory of today’s Romania, then called Dacia. In the time of Greater Romania, that is, in the interwar period, the tradition of the Dacians, an indigenous people who had adopted Latin and some other elements of Roman civilization, was cultivated. Nicolae Ceaușescu, in turn, had an even more unusual concept of the origins of Romanians. The Conducător (Commander), and the genius of the Carpathians, among other monikers, due to his cult of personality, believed that Romania had a Roman Dacia origin. This idea, referred to as protochronism, has become the most important manifestation of the ethno-nationalism of the Ceaușescu regime. According to this term, Romania was one of the world’s centers of civilization and a precursor of the discoveries and inventions of Western Europe.

Epoca de aur

Epoca de aur, or the Golden Age – is how Romanian propaganda called the period which started in Romania in 1965, when Nicolae Ceaușescu, considered to be susceptible to influence and control, came to power, replacing Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, the founder of the communist state. Indeed, the first decade of Ceaușescu’s rule was marked by relative prosperity and even partial liberalization – for example, in the sphere of culture. The reality, however, was full of absurdities typical of a communist country, which are perfectly represented in Cristian Mungiu’s movie “Tales of the Golden Age”. Romania’s daily grind included, for instance, breeding hens on the balconies of blocks of flats made of prefabricated concrete. Another norm was the common smell of boiled cabbage, which Romanians would use to make provisions to survive the winter and to be supplied with vitamins. Andrzej Korybut-Daszkiewicz describes the life of ordinary people in his excellent book Czarujący książę ludzkości: potęga i upadek Nicolae Ceaușescu [EN: The Charming Prince of Humanity: The Power and Decay of Nicolae Ceaușescu].

Kent cigarettes were another popular symbol among Romanians. They were considered to be a synonym of luxury to such an extent that many Romanians would preserve their packets to then fill up with cheaper Romanian cigarettes. Car colors were also important – they identified their owner’s occupational status. Another absurdity was the police-piloted columns of government vehicles transporting the favorite dog of Ceaușescu, who had his biscuits imported from London by diplomatic post. In addition, the former head of the Romanian intelligence service, Ion Papec, claims that the Romanian dictator was so obsessed with his eventual assassination that he traveled abroad with foil-sealed clothes and beddings, which were used only once and then disposed of.

Romania was notorious for other innovative concepts, for instance the idea of repaying its national debt in full, which in turn led to the brink of the country’s physical destruction; or the famous Decree No 770 of 1966, which assumed an increase in the Romanian population to 20 million by 2000. According to this peculiar family policy, abortion was only permitted in the case of rape, a threat to a woman’s life, delivering children after the age of 45, or the precedent birth of four children. It is estimated that 11,000 women died as a result of illegal abortion procedures carried out by people without any medical qualifications, and often unofficially. Another Cristian Mungiu movie, “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days”, which won the Palme d’Or award at Cannes, tells the vivid story of such tragedies. The direct effects of Decree 770 were overpopulated orphanages and the phenomenon of Romanian ‘street children’.

Ceaușescu’s “inventions”

One of the “inventions” of Ceaușescu was certainly his extraordinary cult of personality, which persisted in Romania – despite the fact that the country’s inhabitants could only dream of hot water coming out of their taps, basic food products and heated apartments (the temperature in which did not exceed 15 degrees Celsius). Hardly any goods reached the villages at all, so in order to buy bread, inhabitants would often travel to a nearby town where there was a chance to buy some. The cult of personality also included the wife of the dictator, Elena, who was appointed by Nicolae Ceaușescu to be the second person in the country.

According to the famous book Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescus’ Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption by Ion Paceba, the former head of Romania’s foreign intelligence who escaped to the West during the dictatorship, one of Elena’s hobbies, apart from passionately listening to the conversations of Romanian dignitaries (and to her own daughter), was collecting academic ranks. There were no barriers in this regard, despite the fact that Elena had the same level of education as her husband. She “specialized” in polymer chemistry and was even a professor in this field, largely as she had worked in her youth in a factory dealing with polymer production and had simply liked the subject. The ghostwriting of Elena’s scientific work was practiced in Romania long before it became one of the major problems of modern science in the country. That is why the date of the public defense of Mrs. Ceaușescu’s doctorate was secretly postponed until a day earlier than officially planned, so that no one would attend it. Moreover, there was a well-known joke in Romania about the scientific preparation of a dictator’s wife, who read the chemical formula of CO₂ not with chemical symbols, but phonetically, the latter meaning in Romanian a protruding part of the belt usually clinging to a kontusz (a robe-like garment worn by male nobility).

Bucharest, Romania. People’s House boasts 1,100 rooms. © Author’s personal archive

Another “original” idea was the systematization program of several thousand villages – a settlement strategy supposed to equalize traditional rural areas, especially those with Hungarian populations, and replacing them with huge agro-industrial complexes with autarky production structures and a limited form of social life. This insane project was partially stopped, mainly due to the mass campaign of “adoption” of Romanian villages by their counterparts in European Francophone countries. Previously, before Mikhail Gorbachev took over power in the USSR, Ceauşescu was promoted by Western countries as a way to break up the unity of the socialist camp.

Seeming independence

In the West, Ceauşescu enjoyed such recognition and support that he was accepted as a true statesman rather than a communist satrap. This was all the result of a clever game in which he created himself as a politician independent of the Kremlin. He was indeed sometimes autonomous, but still quite rarely – for example in 1968, when he refused to send the Romanian army to suppress the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Nicolae Ceauşescu, a journeyman shoemaker, who completed only a few classes of elementary school, was meeting with the most important politicians and heads of state of his time. In the White House, the dictator was received by Richard Nixon, while the British Queen granted him the title of a nobleman. The West was keen to lend money to Romania to finance economic programs, but kept forgetting to mention that a large part of this money was to be lent under very unfavorable conditions. This did not prevent Ceauşescu from fulfilling his dream of building a government district in the center of Bucharest with offices and VIP apartments. At the same time, 7 km2 of the city’s area was demolished and 40,000 inhabitants were relocated. By 1989, six years from the very start of the project, 700 architects and 20,000 workers had completed 80% of the world’s second largest office building after the Pentagon. Today, the 12-storey People’s House (including four underground stories), serves the Romanian parliament and tourists.

Former Central Committee of the Communist Party building. CeauŞescu spoke publically for the last time from this balcony. © Author’s personal archive

Revolution or coup d’état?

Romania was the only country in the Soviet bloc that experienced a change of power as a result of armed violence. Whether it was a spontaneous revolution of a vegetative nation, or a coup d’état – this is still difficult to resolve after nearly 30 years. The facts, however, cast doubt on a hypothesis of a grassroots social uprising. Power was quite efficiently transferred to the hands of second-order party activists, as the Ceauşescus were rapidly brought to trial in a provisional military tribunal and immediately executed after the verdict was given. Public discontent with the first few months of the new government was effectively pacified with the help of representatives of the working class. Miners from the Jiu coal basin used batons to break up demonstrations opposing the new authorities[1]. Five such mineriads were organized between 1991 and 1999. Their leader, Miron Cozma, was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment in 1999. He was pardoned for several hours in 2004, on the last day of office of President Ion Illiescu, whose power Cozma saved together with miners, and whose collapse was caused by the first non-communist government of Petre Roman.

Despite the fiery announcements and contrary to the initial declarations, the National Salvation Front, which transformed from a revolutionary committee into a political party, the building of democracy in Romania continued with resistance. National communism of the Ceauşescu era was replaced by a flirtation with openly nationalist parties: The Greater Romania Party or the Romanian National Unity Party. This “precedence of ethnicity” has been demonstrated in the treatment of national minorities, who account for 11% of the country’s population, especially the largest of them, the Székelys (a Hungarian ethnic group covering about 6.5% of the population). Ethnonationalist policies have given way to attempts to cohabitate with minorities following Romania’s accession to the Council of Europe. Participation of national minority organizations in public life was institutionalized by establishing the Council of National Minorities. Interestingly, the official status of national minorities is granted only to those who are represented there. Minorities benefit from so-called positive discrimination, which manifests itself, inter alia, in electoral preferences[2]. Every minority has the right to one seat in the lower house of parliament. This is beneficial not only to organizations registered with the National Minorities Council, but also cultural and educational associations aspiring to this title in order to obtain a mandate “through the back door”. There are some paradoxes here. At one point in time, even the Macedonian embassy in Romania did not recognize the Macedonian minority[3].

Gheorghe Firczak, on the other hand, did not successfully complete his efforts to secure the mandate of a Member of Parliament until he founded the Union of the Ruthenians of Romania and took his place in parliament as a member of this minority group[4]. An interesting correlation was also noted in the case of the Union of Croats in Romania. During one of the parliamentary elections, the total number of votes on the organization’s list increased twenty-fold compared with the previous election, although the number of Croats in Romania did not increase at all. It turned out, however, that membership in the organization made it much easier to acquire Croatian citizenship, and thus the possibility of economic emigration.

Childhood democracy

Romania has been ruled since 1989 by alternately social democratic teams, whose pedigree originates from the National Salvation Front or teams from so-called “old” parties, i.e. those which operated in the interwar period. In addition, there have also been new groups which have emerged as a result of divisions in the existing ones and which often have a high level of relevance. The same is true of those who hold the office of president. Ion Iliescu and Traian Băsescu came from the parties that had emerged from the evolution of the National Salvation Front, Emil Constantinescu from the so-called old parties, and Klaus Iohannis (of German origin) who was a long-standing mayor of Sibiu. The political struggle in Romania is intense. The parliament suspended President Traian Băsescu twice because of political conflict with the ruling majority. Twice, however, the president has been defended by ordinary Romanians. In the first referendum they voted to keep him in office, and in the second case the turnout was too low for the vote to be valid. The country was also unlucky with some of its prime ministers. One of them, Adrian Năstase, a former communist activist, a former spokesperson for the National Salvation Front, a former speaker of parliament and a former chief of diplomacy, was sentenced twice for fraud and corruption. In turn, another head of the Romanian government, Victor Ponta, originating similarly to Năstase from the successor of the National Salvation Front – the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was accused in June 2015 by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) of forgery, tax fraud and money laundering during his legal practice. In addition, the prime minister, under pressure of allegations of plagiarism, renounced his doctoral degree, which he was eventually deprived of by the Council for Academic Titles in disciplinary proceedings.

Romania outside the Schengen area

The accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area is one of the most controversial decisions that the European Union now faces. For the time being, several Western European countries are against this because of the high level of corruption and the question of border protection in Romania and Bulgaria. Corruption is one of the most significant social problems in Romania today. In a country where the average salary does not exceed EUR 500 net, the phenomenon of bribes is still widespread, although society itself is increasingly rebellious against it. In October 2015, a club burnt down in Bucharest bringing about nearly 30 deaths. This triggered mass demonstrations and the resignation of the then prime minister, who was blamed by society for tolerating corruption and who allowed the use of a building not compliant with fire regulations. In January 2017, demonstrations took place on the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian cities, provoked by government plans to change the Penal Code. The amendment was to consist in the abolition of penalties for certain corruption offenses, the latter of which resulted in losses to the state of about 200,000 lei (approx. EUR 47,000) and amnesty for several thousand convicted of corruption offenses. Among them was Liviu Dragnea, the PSD leader, who was found guilty of abuse of office. For this reason, he could not become prime minister, and thus the changes made by the coalition government of PSD-ALDE were intended to make this possible. Public protests, in which Romanian president Klaus Iohannis was also present, led to the resignation of the two ministers and the discontinuation of the amendment. In return, the definition of “abuse of office” was liberalized, opening the way for the PSD leader to avoid punishment and forcing the president, under the threat of activating impeachment, to approve the dismissal of the head of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate[5]. This institution was set up in the run-up to Romania’s accession to the European Union, and its prosecutorial and investigative powers have led to 90% of DNA cases ending in convictions. Among them were nearly 40 proceedings against high-ranking Romanian politicians, including former prime ministers Adrian Năstase and Victor Ponta, as well as the leader of the PSD Liviu Dragnea.

An example of Ceausescu’s megalomania. Government district of Bucharest. © Author’s personal archive

Romanian tiger?

Since Romania’s accession to the European Union in 2007, 20% of the population aged 20–64 has emigrated to work elsewhere. Romanians are most likely to emigrate to Italy, Spain, France and Portugal, with which the Romanian language is linked by the group of Romance languages. In 2017 alone, emigrants transferred nearly 5 billion euros to their homeland. In 2017, Romania’s GDP increased by 6.9% compared to the previous year, and year-on-year consumption has increased by as much as 14%. This is due to the reduction in the VAT rate from 25% to 19% over three years. On the other hand, the World Bank forecasts for 2018 a 4.5% increase in GDP and 4.1% in 2019, while inflation in Romania remains within the 3% range. Changes in the tax system also include a reduction in the number and amount of social security contributions, a reduction in personal income tax to 10%, taxation of profit transfers abroad for multinational corporations or a 1% turnover tax for companies with revenues below one million euros. The tax-free allowance was also increased eightfold. Among the most valuable Romanian brands, the Brand Finance consultancy mentions Dacià to be worth USD 1.4 million. In the top 10, there were also three banks, the petrochemical company Petrom, and the state electricity distributor[6]. In turn, Romania was ranked 18th out of 189 countries in the ranking of download speeds. According to a study, it takes 48 seconds in Romania to download a 7.5GB movie, almost two seconds faster than in Macao[7], for example.

Quo vadis România?

Romania appears to be a modern country with a rapidly developing economy and a relatively fast motorway network (a 10-day vignette costs about 3 euros). However, the fight against corruption remains. What is hopeful is the relatively high level of civil society for a country in Central Europe during the biggest demonstrations against the deregulation of anti-corruption laws since 1989. In turn, environmental organizations have effectively blocked the extraction of the largest gold mine in Europe, in the region of Roșia Montană, in order to protect the country’s nature – it is possible that cyanide was being used for the extraction of the ore from the deposit.


[1] In June 1990, miners armed with batons and pickaxes roamed the streets of Bucharest for several days, pacifying actual and alleged opponents of the post-communist movement from the National Salvation Front. Injured people still assert their rights as members of the Mineriad Victims Association. Interestingly, Miron Cozma, the mineriad organizer, was a participant in the protests of miners from the Jiu coal basin in 1977 against the communist authorities. During the three days of August, 30–35 thousand miners were on strike opposing the raising of retirement age and demanding the introduction of a 6-hour working day. The protest in which miners Ceauşescu’s brother-in-law, among others, was taken hostage, ended after the latter’s visit and the fulfillment of some of demands of the mining industry. The strike was covered by the media embargo, the coal basin was blocked by the security services, and protest leaders were persecuted. One of them died in an unexplained car accident.

[2] The Hungarian minority, whose organization, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania is regularly given mandates and has its own parliamentary club, is the only one not to benefit from electoral preferences. The other minorities form one club of 17 Members of Parliament during this term of office. There are 19 minority organizations in total, but the Czechs and Slovaks have one common MP and one organization.

[3] The amended regulations were challenged by the president and the parliamentary opposition before the Constitutional Court, which will decide on their constitutionality in September. The 2002 census proved the existence of 740 people declaring Macedonian nationality.

[4] They consider themselves to be an ethnic group of the Ukrainian people.

[5] The amended regulations were challenged by the president and the parliamentary opposition before the Constitutional Court, which will decide on their constitutionality in September. The European Commission, the Council of Europe and the US and Canadian embassies are also critical of this change.



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