Ceausescu's Legacy

Ceausescu's Legacy

Mini Teaser: The Balkan problem the West forgot: Ceausescu's shadow and the dilemma of modern Romania.

by Author(s): Tom Gallagher

Romania, the largest country in a region of Europe that extends from the Aegean Sea and the mouth of the river Danube to the Carpathian Mountains, has been tarnished in many Western eyes by its proximity to the carnage in neighboring Yugoslavia--and as part, therefore, of that turbulent region, "the Balkans." Yet Romania remains aloof from the tumult across its western border. The most pressing threat to its security comes from within; specifically, from the coal fields of the Jiu Valley, 210 miles west of Bucharest. For ten years the coal fields have existed as a state within a state, where militant miners, earning some of the highest wages in the country, exercise de facto rule. The miners are, in fact, heirs to the hardline communist dictatorship of Nikolai Ceausescu, who from 1965 to 1989 presided over Romania's Marxist-Leninist regime.

In 1996 Emil Constantinescu, a liberal academic with impeccable anti-communist credentials, was elected president of Romania, a development hailed in Western capitals as a turning point in Balkan politics, one which complemented a growing Western willingness to consider integrating Romania into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That optimism proved short-lived. Soon after his election, Constantinescu issued a prescient warning about the strength of neocommunist forces in Romania:

"We are not talking about classic communism . . . but rather of a form that is both old, since it awakens latent nationalism, and new because of its goal, which is to preserve all that can be preserved of the old regime, both in men and structures: as many as possible of the large enterprises, as many monopolies as possible, especially in the areas of energy and agriculture, as many of the political and economic leaders as possible, and as much as possible of an isolationist and anti-Western mythology, ready to halt all openings towards Europe and the rest of the world."

Earlier this year the Romanian government announced that pro-communist forces, which remain influential in the state security services, had attempted to exploit the miners' discontent to mount a coup d'Žtat. The architects of the coup sought above all else to sever recently established contacts with the West.

In 1999, with prospects of joining NATO in the near future receding and a coalition of squabbling reformers discredited by multiple policy failures, the prospects for Romania seem uncertain. No large country other than Russia sees Romania as belonging to its zone of influence. Unlike Poland or Hungary, Romania lacks a vocal emigre community in the United States capable of persuading Washington of its homeland's right to figure significantly in American foreign policy.

And yet in an era in which conflicts between rival cultures are expected to replace ideological ones as sources of instability, Romania's strategic importance will soon become apparent. For the country is bisected by the faultline separating Christian Europe's Latin West and Orthodox East, a cultural boundary which in ex-Yugoslavia has already produced furious strife. The mainly Orthodox provinces of Moldavia and Walachia, which formed the original Romanian state between 1866 and 1918, are typically thought to belong to the Balkans, while on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains the province of Transylvania, part of Romania since 1918, is seen as Central European, mainly because of its experience of Habsburg rule and its large Western Christian minorities.

At the same time, the claimed Latin origins of the Romanians on both sides of the Carpathians mitigate these distinctions and provide an important unifying element. Indeed, Romania's self-image as a Latin country that believes itself to be an extension of the West helps to explain why it remains aloof from its Slavic neighbors. Russia is seen by Romanians as a long-term foe of their independence--and with some justification, for Russian troops are still stationed in the Transnistria region of Bessarabia, a province that had been part of Romania from 1918 until 1940. Relations with Hungary, too, are strained, mostly because of a quarrel over Transylvania, which was Hungarian-ruled until 1918 and still contains a sizable (1.6 million strong) Hungarian minority.

If majority-minority tensions and a crippled economy should turn Romania into a failed state, the repercussions would not be confined within its borders. Hungary, for example, might then prove to be a consumer rather than provider of NATO security. Indeed, the admission of Hungary into NATO poses a risk that Romania's northwest frontier will become a new partition line, dividing a stable Europe from a peripheral group of countries deemed to fall short of Western political and economic standards. Then, too, if Romania fails to promote conditions that allow its citizens to find gainful employment in productive rather than speculative activities, it may find itself at the mercy of lawless elements intent on creating a criminal state.

Romania was far from problem-free before communism was imposed in 1947. But until 1938 constitutional monarchy had survived in Romania for over fifty years, a unique achievement in the Balkans. Had it not been forcibly placed in the Soviet camp, Romania, with its abundant mineral resources and rich agricultural land, might well have developed an economy that rivaled Italy's by the 1950s.
The weakness of communism in a land where communism was associated with Russian imperialism and had very shallow local roots meant that efforts to Sovietize Romanian society were even more drastic than in any other Warsaw Pact country. For nearly fifty years, ideological goals--curtailing private ownership; removing bourgeois values and purging the social groups that stood for them; creating a numerically dominant industrial proletariat--overrode all others. Romania's communist rulers neglected the high-technology sector, despite the country's abundance of scientific talent. They allowed no experiments in market economics and starved the service sector of resources.

At the same time, more resources were poured into heavy and extractive industries in Romania--mining, in particular--than elsewhere in the communist bloc. The coal mines comprised a crucial part of a low-grade economy that the Ceausescu regime hoped to transform into a belching industrial powerhouse, modeled on the purest form of economic Stalinism. The miners represented the elite of the working class, were paid the highest wages in the country, and were encouraged to believe that coal could be mined forever, even if no profits were made. Not surprisingly, then, the miners today serve as foot soldiers in a campaign to halt industrial reform and, more generally, the liberalization of the Romanian economy.

The men orchestrating that campaign, however, come not from the mines of the Jiu Valley, but from the security apparatus of the Ceausescu era. The extent of totalitarian conditioning in Romania enabled officials with roots in the communist era to retain power after the upheavals of 1989, when Ceausescu was overthrown and executed by his former lieutenants. The most brazen voice of the old guard is the Greater Romania Party. Led by Corneliu Vadim Tudor, it has grown from a fan club of the late dictator Ceausescu into a serious political force. Tudor, a poet and proponent of ethnic purity, maintains an intelligence service staffed by disaffected members of the old secret police force, the Securitate. He prides himself on his links with Saddam Hussein and Colonel Qaddafi, and money from these sources is widely thought to bankroll his press empire and election campaigns. His party called recently for the formation of a revolutionary council and urged government troops to disobey orders. Activists with a background in the Securitate have also trained the miners in combat activity, joined in attacks on the police, and earlier this year stormed public buildings along the route of a miners' march on the capital.

Tudor is the Mussolini-style front man for a range of forces keen to ensure that a free market never gets off the ground in Romania. The most dangerous of these are the ex-Securitate members, who have emerged as "nomenklatura capitalists" in charge of a shadow economy beyond the reach of the state. In the early 1990s, they looted the communist-era Romanian Bank for External Commerce, obtaining interest-free loans on unsecured credit to launch themselves into business. Today, Tudor's supporters wield enormous influence in Romania's black market and oversee a number of tax evasion schemes. To distract attention from its plundering, this new oligarchy subsidizes extremist movements like the Greater Romania Party.

Just as firmly opposed to reform is an unholy alliance of anti-reform bureaucrats and managers of failing firms, whose interest in resisting change is easily explained. Until last autumn, electricity, gas and petroleum utilities had operated largely independent of the state, while generating huge losses invariably covered by the government budget. If deprived of these subsidies, Romania's energy sector might collapse altogether.

In 1997 it finally became clear that well-meaning liberals had little idea how to drag Romania out of the black hole into which it had fallen. At the urging of Western creditors, the reformers liberalized prices and announced plans to sell off or shutter failing companies. As part of this effort, in December 1998 the government declared that thirty coal mines were to be shut in the near future, a step that would reduce mining activity by a third. The IMF and the World Bank had announced in late 1998 that new credits, which Romania badly needs to service its debt, would not be forthcoming unless Bucharest drastically curtailed subsidies to loss-making industries. The mining sector seemed a logical place to start. Between 1990 and 1998 the state had poured four billion dollars into an industry that produced mainly low-grade coal for ever shrinking markets. For every dollar the mining sector earned, the state spent at least another six on it. Clearly it would be far more profitable simply to close down the mines and continue paying their employees for doing nothing.

The government gambled that it would be politically easier to appease the IMF and the World Bank, even at the risk of further enraging miners who had already rampaged through Bucharest on four occasions. It also recognized that a long-suffering public, whose living standards had tumbled in the 1990s, resented the fat wages commanded by the Jiu Valley miners. After a nerve-wracking three weeks at the beginning of this year, during which the government halted one miners' march by offering its participants lavish economic concessions, troops loyal to the government arrested Miron Cozma, the miners' leader, as he was organizing a second descent on the capital. A tenuous calm has prevailed ever since.

The miners' rebellion has, it seems, shocked beleaguered reformers into putting aside their differences, at least for now. The government of Radu Vasile contains several very able ministers who intend to create a law-based state in which free institutions play host to a system of private enterprise, an aim that commands majority support. Indeed, the sight of thousands of Romanians patiently queuing in the January frost to pay their taxes reveals a society in which most people still believe in the rule of law and the duties of citizens to the state. Despite plunging living standards, crime is lower than in neighboring East European countries, and the tight-knit Romanian family continues to produce well-behaved youngsters with a burning zeal for education.

The country is thus polarized into two rival camps: Romanians shaped by the communist era who depend on the state for their livelihood, and Romanians desperate to prevent the country from becoming a Third World economy under the control of rogue capitalists and anti-Western nationalists. Still a majority but lacking organization and authority, this latter group is reduced to watching helplessly as the government struggles to implement reform.

Both NATO and the European Union are holding the door open for Romania to join once it gets its house in order. But Western policies might unwittingly be playing into the hands of those ready to align Romania with Serbia and Russia, the two strongest anti-liberal models in the region. For Romanians will have to dig deep into their meager pockets to find the huge sums needed to upgrade their army to NATO standards and to compete economically with more efficient West European producers. The rhetoric of Euro-Atlantic integration will surely ring hollow if plunging living and health standards continue to be the lot of Romanians, and the possibility of an anti-Western backlash cannot be dismissed.

Even under the most dedicated reformers, Romania is currently too enfeebled to join NATO. The Clinton administration is doing no favor to Romanians by dangling before them (as the President did once again in a letter to his Romanian counterpart on March 16) an unrealistic prospect that could fatally distract them from far more urgent tasks. Instead of asking Romania to fulfill impossibly demanding targets in order to qualify for NATO membership, the Atlantic democracies should instead consider offering to rebuild Romania's public institutions and provide substantial aid for its transition to a free-market and democratic system. The attendant loss of sovereignty would be no greater than that experienced by Germany with the presence of NATO troops, and the results could be as beneficial for Romania as they were for post-Hitlerian Germany.

Essay Types: Essay