The Romanian revolution in December 1989 was simultaneously the most violent of the transformations of 1989 and the most ambiguous. It was not a simple divide between regime and anti-regime protesters. There was no broad based movement like Solidarity to form the basis of a government to replace the Romanian Communist Party. The Group for Social Dialogue, a collection of dissident intellectuals, bore some family resemblance to Czechoslovakia’s Civic Forum, but it was a tiny organization of little more than a dozen members when it debuted on December 31, 1989. And it played no significant role in the revolution itself.
The group of people responsible for dismantling the Ceausescu regime – and trying and executing Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu – was the National Salvation Front (NSF). Composed of former insiders like Ion Iliescu – who had once been a member of the Central Committee of the party – the NSF nevertheless promised a clean break with the past. It banned the Communist Party, put the notorious Securitate under the control of the Army, prepared the ground for democratic elections, and in its December 22 communiqué outlined an economic program based on “eliminating the administrative-bureaucratic methods of centralized economic control and promoting laissez-faire and competence in running all economic sectors.”
But accusations of a “revolution hijacked” emerged almost from the beginning. Protests against the Front and its leader Iliescu broke out in Bucharest in January and February 1990. But it was the demonstrations in University Square in May and June that posed the greatest challenge to the Front. In the lead-up to the May elections, the political parties, students, and fledgling NGOs demanded that the Front abide by the eighth demand of the Timisoara Proclamation – put together in March by participants in the Timisoara uprising of the previous December – which argued for banning former members of the Communist Party and the Securitate from political office for ten years.
On May 20, however, Iliescu won a landslide victory in the presidential race with over 80 percent of the votes, while the NSF captured large majorities in the two houses of parliament. Many protesters in University Square packed up and went home. Others dug in their heels, and the confrontations with the police grew increasingly violent. Ultimately, Iliescu made an appeal to the Romanian public to restore order, and 10,000 miners descended on Bucharest. The clashes left several dead and hundreds injured. The unvelvet revolution was turning into an unvelvet post-revolution.
Vladimir Tismaneanu was at this time the chief American commentator on the evolving situation in Romania, appearing on the MacNeil Lehrer TV show, writing commentaries for The New York Times, and doing more in-depth analyses for The New Republic. Having grown up in Romania and with personal connections to many of the key political personalities, Tismaneanu took a very skeptical view toward the Front and the actions of President Iliescu. He was also a scholar of the Romanian Communist Party and thus well suited to analyze the critical question of how much of the old system survived under the guise of the new.
Although Iliescu and the NSF promised a clean break with the past, it would take Romania more than 15 years to confront this past in a systematic, government-sanctioned way. And it would be Tismaneanu who, in 2006, would lead the presidential commission into the abuses of the Communist system. As he told me in his Washington, DC apartment last April, the only hesitation he had over accepting the offer from President Traian Basescu was whether he would have complete access to government archives and complete freedom to write the report. The president gave his word. But access proved difficult.
“Initially the Archives wouldn’t give us anything or hardly anything,” Tismaneanu recalled. “Members of the commission were very angry. Then I went to Basescu. This was in June. ‘Mr. President I want to be very frank with you. Many of my friends — people that I admire, that you admire — believe that I have been caught in a trap. For you, it’s a great achievement. You are the president who created the commission to condemn Communism. The issue has been completely defused. For me, I put all my prestige, name, and authority on the line. The first thing I asked was for access to archives. What’s going on? Our people go there. They have no place to read. One of them told me that it took six hours to get half a file. No Xerox copies are allowed. There’s no permission to photograph the documents. They have to handwrite everything. They treat us with general hostility. The leadership of the archives is basically sabotaging what we are trying to do.”
Basescu called in the interior minister, Vasile Blaga, and directed him to fulfill Tismaneanu’s requests. Blaga dutifully set up a meeting for the next morning. “The next morning, I was there at the Central Committee, and it was the only time I saw Ceausescu’s office — the interior minister is in Ceausescu’s ex-office,” Tismaneanu told me. “The whole leadership including the general director of the archives was there. They were angry. And the seven of us were smiling. Blaga says, ‘This is an emergency meeting. The president of the country asked us to give full access and the complete cooperation of the ministry. I give this as an order as a minister. How long does it take to get them the Xerox machines?’ ‘Half an hour.’ And from that moment on, at the national archive, we got full cooperation.
We talked about his reflections on the events of December 1989, his interactions with Iliescu and Basescu, and the challenges of putting together the commission, writing the report, and dealing with its reception.
Let’s start with November 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. What did you think would happen in Romania at that time?
November 1989 was an extremely hectic month for me. I was working at Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) covering the changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for their journal Orbis. I was also a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania teaching two courses each semester, one on what used to be called Communist political systems. Third, I was involved as a rapporteur with a study group that the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) put together. Some very interesting people were part of the group, including Charles Gati, Ambassador Thomas Simons (who later served as ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state), and some of the actors in the dramatic changes of 1989 through 1991-2.
My colleague from University of Pennsylvania also participated, a Yugoslav philosopher and member of the Praxis group, Mihajlo Markovic. That was the first time in my life when I presented papers for this USIP study group. I mentioned what was going on in Kosovo, and I referred to the memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Science.
Mihailo, with whom I was very close, suddenly said, “Vladimir, what’s going on? Have you become a spokesman for Albanian propaganda?”
“What do you mean? Everything here is based on Le Monde, The New York Times, and so on.”
“Oh, but they all are penetrated by Albanian agents,” he said.
I thought, “Something is going to go very badly in Yugoslavia if someone who is teaching about such things – about Marxist humanism — someone you would have expected to know better, says such things.” And we know what happened with Mihajlo Markovic.
This was in mid-1989, two years after the workers’ revolt in the city of Brasov in Romania. At that time, in December 1987, I’d published an op-ed in The New York Times with the title, “Tremors in Romania.” My suggestion was that something would happen in Romania some day. Immediately after the Berlin Wall fell, I submitted another op-ed to The New York Times entitled, “Will Romania Be Next?” After a few days, I received a nice phone call from the Times — since I had already written for them they were a little bit more personalized — and they said they would not be able to use my piece because they had another piece on Romania. This other piece, which they ultimate published, promoted the idea that nothing would happen in Romania.
Also in 1987, FPRI asked me to put together a conference in New York, the presentations of which were eventually published in a book. It took place in October 1987, and it was linked to the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The title was suggestive of the dramatic changes: “Will the Communist State Survive? The View from Within.” Among the participants were Mihajlo Markovic, the Cuban émigré and journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner, the famous Russian dissident Alexander Zinoviev. It was the only kind of place where left-wing liberals and right-wing conservatives could speak a common language. I couldn’t imagine any other kind of event that would have in the audience, though obviously sitting in different rows, Midge Decter and Susan Sontag. They had paradigmatically opposite positions, but not when it came to the condemnation of Communism. The idea of the conference was to focus not on the workings of the Politburo but on what the dissidents had to say. We invited Miklos Haraszti, and he contributed an incredibly pessimistic paper, “The Paradigm of the Boots,” which was published in the Week in Review section of The New York Times. The only two countries where the dissidents could come from were Yugoslavia and Hungary. Even in Hungary there were problems. We invited Janos Kis, and he didn’t receive a passport.
The two most pessimistic presentations — optimistic for the bureaucracy, pessimistic for the freedom supporters — were Zinoviev with his keynote address called “Crocodiles Cannot Fly” and Haraszti’s parable of the boots. Haraszti was referring to the boots that had remained of the Stalin statue in Budapest. At a certain moment in 1986, the boots were removed. And he said they were not necessary any more because the boots remained inside us. It was basically his argument about the velvet prison carried to its ultimate consequences. The volume, which covered China as well, came out in 1991, coedited by me and Judith Shapiro.
Two Romanian dissidents also participated. One of them was the dissident poet Dorin Tudoran, who came to this country as a human rights activist in 1985. He was the editor, and I the co-editor, of the journal Agora, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. The other one was Mihai Botez, a mathematician, who some people call the Romanian Sakharov. We were all very good friends, me, Mihai and Dorin. Mihai, after the revolution, became Romania’s ambassador to the UN and later to Washington. He died in 1994, quite young. Unlike Todoran and me, who had a very critical approach to the Iliescu regime, Mihai Botez’s position was more cooperative. He got those appointments, which is not something that would happen for staunch critics of what we considered to be the authoritarian inclinations and practices of the Romanian regime. Tudoran became a broadcaster with Voice of America and became very active in international democracy aid. That was his evolution.
Back to December 1989. In early December, I got a call from PBS, from McNeil Lehrer: they wanted someone to comment on Romania because it was the moment of the 14th Congress of the Romanian Communist Party. I remember this vividly. I appeared together with Ambassador William Luers, who had served as U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, someone I’ve known for years. The third guest was Bulgarian. They were glowingly happy. And I was glowingly depressed. They were commenting on the demonstrations in Wenceslas Square in Prague with excitement and enthusiasm and euphoria. And I was commenting on the mechanical applause at the 14th Party Congress in Bucharest. I called the Congress on that show, and in my writings, the Congress of National Desperation and Disgrace. The whole thing had been staged like everything else. Ceausescu was reelected and his wife Elena was reelected, and the show seemed like it would continue like that forever. Meanwhile there had been a coup in Bulgaria, so everything seemed to be moving, except Romania, which could have been the setting for a novel called The Place Where Nothing Happens.
After that 14th Party Congress, things of course moved very fast. I was watching very carefully what was going on. There was a big meeting of the Warsaw Pact in the first part of December where Ceausescu was practically the only dinosaur still attending. Jaruzelski was still president of Poland but Mazowiecki was prime minister. Havel didn’t go, but he sent the prime minister. That was also the last meeting between Ceausescu and Gorbachev.
By mid-December, I received a call from CBC. They said, “We have a film from Romania that we filmed clandestinely. It’s from our main diplomatic correspondent. We would like you to do the commentary.”
I’d never been to Canada, so I said okay. As I was planning to leave Philadelphia they suddenly called and said, “Are you following the news?” This was before the Internet, so I hadn’t. “Apparently there is an uprising going on in Timisoara, and much of what we filmed was in Timisoara.” I went to Canada, and indeed, I discovered that there was an uprising in Timisoara.
I got another call from PBS to go back on their show. From that moment on, I was on the show every night, right up to the moment when I risked my career. That happened when Ceausescu delivered his last speech on the balcony of the Central Committee building.
Robin MacNeil asked me, “How long do you think it will take?”
I said, “Probably tomorrow.”
A friend of mine who was teaching history at Penn told me later that night, “You just risked your career! If it doesn’t happen tomorrow…” A colleague of mine had published a book on the future of East Germany, and that may have cost him his tenure at Princeton. A year later there was no East Germany, so why would they give you tenure? In my case, however, it worked.
The first shock after Ceausescu left Bucharest was that I could call anybody in Romania. It was unbelievable that feeling that one could speak absolutely freely and no longer use those convoluted circumlocutions. You could speak normally. One of the new weeklies in Romania called me up at that time and asked me to send them an article.
I said, “Are you going to print it?
“Why would we call you if we don’t plan to print it?”
“But my name is on the blacklist!” I still had the feeling that I was banned. I was born under that regime. I left it, but I internalized its modus operandi and all the rest.
The moment of the revolution was probably the busiest time of my life. I probably appeared on every single news channel in the world, including the Vatican! During this time, I got another call from The New York Times. The editor said, “Vladimir, you were right, we were wrong. We need a piece from you in the next six hours.”
This was on December 22. The phone was ringing every second. My then-director, and we were quite close, the well-known historian Daniel Pipes, said, “You have to do it.”
I said, “I don’t have time!”
“Vladimir, you don’t say no to The New York Times when they ask you to write an op-ed for tomorrow. Consider it a workplace assignment.”
I wrote the op-ed. After this experience, my advice to people is not to write an op-ed in six hours. My op-ed, which was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, was full of illusions. Its message was: support Romania’s new leaders in their jump into democracy. Like everybody else, I was caught up in the extraordinary feeling that the evil was coming to an end.
On the evening of December 22, I was with Jim Lehrer this time. Mihai Botez was also invited, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who talked about the general transformation. We were asked to comment on what was going on in Romania. We were showed the first tape with the new leadership. Maybe Iliescu was there too. But Jim Lehrer described the person who was announcing everything as Romania’s former foreign minister Corneliu Manescu. I didn’t pay much attention to this. Mihai Botez intervened and said, “I don’t know exactly what’s going on in Bucharest. But the person speaking there is not Corneliu Manescu but a movie director and actor who was very involved in the Ceausescu regime.” That was the first sign that we had to be careful about what was going on in Romania.
So I started looking at the different signals. David Binder, who is a dear friend, interviewed me at that time for a piece he published in The New York Times about Petru Roman with the title, “An Aristocrat among the Revolutionaries.” Other leaders started to appear, including Silviu Brucan and Ion Iliescu.
The New Republic commissioned me to write a piece about what was going on, and it produced the first big clash between me and the Romanian regime. The article was called “New Masks, Old Faces: the Romanian Post-Communist Junta’s Familiar Look.” From that moment on, I realized that the old propaganda machine was working as if nothing had happened. It was the same old provocations. I’d broadcast a lot through Radio Free Europe, and I received these letters about my family that were clearly disinformation, but very professionally done, and it started up again as if nothing had happened.
When was your first trip back to Romania after these changes?
My first trip was together with Dorin Tudoran. We went in February 1990 and returned in March. We stayed 10-12 days. I had an assignment from the New Republic to write a second piece, which I called “Between Revolutions,” and from the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine to write a piece I called “Return to Romania.” Dorin and I went to see Iliescu, and we talked with many many people. We stayed in Bucharest and shared an apartment at the Hotel Intercontinental. It was a terrible hotel at that moment, but it was the best hotel in Bucharest. I remember vividly the chaos in Bucharest, but it was an exuberant chaos. It was clearly a revolutionary atmosphere. When people don’t cross the streets where they’re supposed to cross the streets – then you know that something very different is happening. The media were very free — not the television, which was completely controlled, and I don’t know about the radio — but the press was free: Romania Libera, 22.
I was also working with the section editor of a journal published in London of which Jan Kavan was the main editor. It was called East European Reporter. I was the country editor. We published the “Letter of the Six” by Silviu Brucan and the five other Party veterans. I also got a copy of the Proclamation of Timisoara to translate, and we published it also in East European Reporter. Kavan went one way. And his executive editor, Jonathan Sunley – who was not very conservative at that time, but he moved in that direction and I was told that he is now very close to Orban – had the opposite of Kavan’s views.
You’re familiar with the “Proclamation of Timisoara” and the famous point 8, which was, to the best of knowledge, the first formulation in Eastern Europe of the imperative of lustration. At that moment, my dear and good friend Adam Michnik was not such a strong opponent of lustration. Later, he became the most persuasive voice of the anti-lustration philosophy. We know what happened later with Kavan. I myself had to change the paperback edition of my book Reinventing Politics. Jan is a friend of mine. He came to this country and taught at Adelphi University. He said, “I want to use your book. But I don’t want to use a book in my class that presents me as a controversial ex-police informer.” I told him that I said “reportedly” and “allegedly,” but that I couldn’t ignore that there was a debate.
Romania at that moment struck me as clearly divided. The old bureaucracy was still intimidating. Dorin and I saw Iliescu for about 20 minutes in a totally perfunctory meeting. There was no indication that he had any idea to whom he was talking. He repeated the same record as all his speeches: “we are the spontaneous emanation of the revolution” and so on.
March 1990 is the key for understanding the whole evolution of Romania in the new years. There was the Timisoara proclamation, which appeared on March 9. There were the Targu Mures incidents and the formation of Vatra Romaneasca. And there was the reestablishment of the Romanian Intelligence Service, the new Securitate. All this happened in practically a week. Point 8 of the Proclamation became the major demand of the University Square protests, which began in mid-April. In the elections in May. Iliescu won overwhelmingly with 85 percent of the vote and probably with no fraud. Maybe there was semantic fraud because he pretended to be an anti-Communist, but there was no real technical fraud. Then the original initiators of the University Square protestors, like Marian Munteanu, withdrew. What remained were the more radical groups.
I was back in Romania with a third assignment from The New Republic and also Christian Science Monitor. I arrived in Romania on June 9 and was in Bucharest during the Mineriad (when the miners came to Bucharest to break up the University Square protest). The title of my New Republic article was a paraphrase of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia — it was called “Homage to Golania.” Iliescu had called the University Square protestors golani, which means “hoodlums” in Romanian. So, homage to Hoodlumia. That’s when I witnessed barbarism.
I was approached at the end of my trip by a former schoolmate. He’s three years younger than me and was very close to Iliescu, like his stepson. Iliescu doesn’t have children but he essentially adopted this fellow and his brother after their parents died in a plane crash. After the revolution, this guy became Iliescu’s chief of staff.
He called me and asked, “Would you like to see Iliescu?”
“To talk about what? The blood of the students on the sidewalks of Bucharest?”
He said, “Don’t give me this lecture.”
“Don’t give me this propaganda!”
That was the end of that. I did not see Iliescu until 1994, even though I went to Romania basically ever year. Neither of us had any interest in meeting. I wrote some very tough articles about the National Salvation Front, and it’s in all my books. I was very close to Democratic Convention circles, particularly close to the Civic Alliance party, and its head Nicolae Manolescu who is a personal friend. My main point was to support the development of something Romania didn’t have. It’s like the articles that come out these days about the Arab Spring and why there is no intellectual ferment like what we saw with Charter 77 in Eastern European countries. We know that dissent in Romania existed, but it was weak, isolated, and usually a solitary experience — Doina Cornea, Tudoran, Botez. Radu Filipescu distributed leaflets against the regime on his own on a motorcycle, leaving them in people’s mailboxes. It was individual. There was very little of the collective action that made Eastern Europe such an interesting case and that inspired people later on. Out of that experience there was a learning curve – for dictators and also for oppositions.
I want to jump ahead a bit to the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania that you chaired. I didn’t find that much information about it.
I’ll send you a good article, an interview that’s online, in a journal called Baltic Worlds, published in English in Sweden. They wanted an in-depth interview about the post-commission situation. It also has a good biography, written by a Swedish professor I’ve never met. There is also an Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice, edited by Lavinia Stan. The author of the entry is the former coordinator of the commission, a very good historian, Cristian Vasile. He is a young historian and played a very important role as scientific secretary of the Commission..
First of all, why didn’t Emil Constantinescu, when he was president, create such a commission? Constantinescu was a staunch anti-Communist, an anti-totalitarian intellectual. Did he have a great foreign policy? Yes, no doubt. Did he lose popularity because of his pro-West policy when at a crucial juncture he supported the NATO military action in the former Yugoslavia? Yes, that decision dropped his popularity by 10-15 percent. When Iliescu was head of the opposition, he opposed the action because, as he said, “Romania historically has only two friendly neighbors: the Black Sea and Serbia.” Emil Constantinescu and his foreign minister Andrei Plesu took the risk. They did the moral and right thing. Some people might disagree, but interestingly once Iliescu became president again in 2001 he was very much in favor of the U.S. action in Iraq. I even asked him in my conversation with him, “It’s one thing to be head of opposition and another to be president. Why didn’t you understand Constantinescu’s choice?” Because without Romania playing that role in 1999, I don’t think it had a high chance of joining NATO in 2003. It mattered enormously in the changed perception of Romania as a reliable ally of ours, of the West.
Under Emil Constantinescu, there were two or three missing elements. The pressure from society for such a coming to terms with the past was not very strong in the mid-1990s in Romania or in East-Central Europe as a whole. Second, Emil Constantinescu made an unfortunate statement that his very election as president of Romania was the realization of point 8 of the Timisoara Proclamation, which was wrong. The proclamation was about the lustration of a whole class of people, not about Emil Constantinescu becoming president (or King Michael or whomever). His misunderstanding of this was, in my view, part of his psychological makeup. He thinks he’s a regional and global leader, and he’s very enamored with himself. In this respect, neither Iliescu nor Basescu has this problem. They are very realistic. There are a few things that the two have in common, not ideologically to be sure, but in terms of political style. I had a long dialogue with Iliescu that I did at the end of his second mandate. I wanted to keep my good name. I didn’t want to be accused like Michnik was after his conversation with Jaruzelski, but I thought that we could have a dialogue between a historian of Romanian communism and a major figure. Still, some people didn’t like it. Anyway, I know Iliescu pretty well, Basescu very well, Constantinescu quite well — so I can compare them. In 2013 I published a book of dialogues with Romanian political analyst Cristian Patrasconiu titled The Book of the Presidents (Cartea presedintilor).
Under Constantinescu, it was not the hour of decommunization. Sometimes distance in time can help. That’s one of the things I’ve learned. Only a month ago in Brazil did they create such a commission, three decades after the restoration of democracy. It’s never too late. The Dominican Republic only a year ago opened a museum about the Trujillo times. But the most important thing, which people sometimes forget, is that in 1996 there were very few, if any, young Romanian historians or political scientists with a Western background who could do what we did in 2006. That’s a ten-year difference. The average age of our experts was 30. Ten years earlier, under Constantinescu, the average age of these people was 20.
Have you ever seen the report? It’s 880 pages. Part of it was published in the Journal of Democracy: Basescu’s speech when he presented the report. Sometimes it’s called the Tismaneanu commission or the Tismaneanu report. On the one hand, it’s flattering but I’m also not so happy about that because I received too much of the blame. No, it was a collective work written by about 36 people: young historians, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists. One person wrote about the phenomenon of queuing for food. Professor Gail Kligman from UCLA wrote a chapter about the politics of abortion. Dragos Petrescu and myself worked on the chapter on the Communist Party. I wrote, together with one of the commission members, the introduction, which of course mattered strongly. My closest collaborator during those days was philosopher and public intellectual Horia-Roman Patapievici. As a member of the Commission and a dear friend he became also a major target for those who resented our work. There was truly an orgy of invectives and calumnies meant to shatter our will and de-legitimize the whole endeavor.
I talked to Traian Basescu the first time in my life after he became president. He came to Washington. I was very close friends with Andrei Plesu, who was at that time a presidential advisor on foreign policy and cultural affairs. We talked about setting up a meeting with Basescu, who had defeated Adrian Nastase in the elections of 2004, with intellectuals either of Romanian origin or with an interest in Romania. Charles King from Georgetown University came, Maria Bucur who teaches at Indiana University, Dragos Paul Aligica, Christina Zarifopol-Illias, Peter Gross, Gail Kligman, Dorin Tudoran, Mircea Munteanu: about 16 people participated.
At this meeting, some people asked about the fate of the archives. It was not something obviously very high on Basescu’s agenda. He said, very politely and very friendly, “What do you want us to do with the archives? Probably they have long since been falsified or destroyed.” He took a polite but distant and not very committed approach. At the end, I gave him a copy of my history of Romanian communism, Stalinism for all Seasons. Other people gave him other things. We said goodbye. And that was more or less it, and he went back to Bucharest.
In summer 2005, a key moment happened during an interview with Basescu conducted by the editor of 22, Rodica Palade, a very good journalist. She asked Basescu to what extent he was considering — as the new head of the Romanian state after he defeated the former Communist (or better, the klepto-Communist) Nastase — condemning what had happened during the Communist period.
He said, very politely, “Ms. Palade, when I ran for president of Romania in 2004, I did not have decommunization as a major point in my program. Second, in terms of my own feelings, my memory of Communism was not one of starvation. I was a sea captain, at the rank of general, captain of the most important ship in the Romanian fleet. I have to be very frank. If there was no milk in Romania, I would stop in Rotterdam and buy powdered milk. If there was no chocolate, we always had big bags of Toblerone. If there were no jeans in Romania, I would buy jeans in New York. Basically, I was spending between 8 and 9 months of the year on the sea. My father was also in the army. I didn’t know the penitentiaries.”
“There are books, Mr. President,” she said. “The Black Book of Communism. And there’s Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Stalinism for all Seasons.”
“I know both books. But these are the opinions of the authors. If we are going to do such a thing, we will need a scholarly commission. We have to produce a document that scholars consider valid.”
“Who are you going to ask?”
“I don’t know. Probably the Romanian Academy.”
Then he realized that going to the Romanian Academy was like going to Ceausescu personally. It was the most unreconstructed institution in Romania. Many of the people in the Academy had been publicly exposed as Securitate informers. It was the last place to go to. Keep in mind that Elena Ceausescu had been an “academician” (a member of the Academy). It absolutely would have been a conflict of interest. They couldn’t condemn something that they basically loved and served.
That was the end of the interview. But then it became an issue of civil society, with an appeal initiated by a filmmaker and signed by many people. I was among the first ones to sign. It was called the Unofficial Report toward the Condemnation of the Communist Regime in Romania, based on the documentation from the Sighet Memorial in the northern part of Romania. In a few weeks there were thousands of signatures, including the most prominent figures in Romania society. It was the equivalent of KOR in Poland. Clearly it was not something to be dismissed. By the end of February 2006, the major trade unions of Romania endorsed the appeal for a public condemnation.
Then out of the blue, when I was giving a lecture in Redmond to the Microsoft Corporation called the “Life, Death, and Afterlife of Romanian Communism,” I got a call from my wife. You might ask: what is the connection between Microsoft and Romania? The largest ethnic group working for Microsoft, other than Americans, are Romanians. They invited me to give a talk and in Romania they were organizing some things as well. I was not paid the way other people are paid, but it was still very nice.
So, my wife calls me and says, “Listen you have a call on the answering machine — one message in Romanian, one in English.”
“They can wait,” I said.
“I don’t know if you want to wait. It’s from the office of Traian Basescu.”
I used the hotel phone. I never look into the agreements you sign with the hotel. Do you know how much they charge per minute?
The amount you got from Microsoft went to pay for that phone call.
Yes. It was something like $48 a minute. When I saw the bill I said, “What are you talking about, it was only ten minutes!” Never will that happen again.
I had no idea why Basescu was calling. I’d also done an interview with the same Rodica Palade in which she asked me what I thought about the idea of a commission. I was very direct. I said, “When Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago, they didn’t heed a special commission to condemn Communism. We know what communism was in Romania.” It’s important to note that this wasn’t a condemnation of Communism in general. We had good relations with China at that point. No, I worked very carefully on this. It was the commission for the analysis of the communist dictatorship in Romania. That’s it.
So, I talked with Basescu. He said, “Listen, are you following what’s going on here?”
“Yes,” I said, “a little bit.”
“I decided to put together a commission.” I thought he might want to ask me for some suggestions. “After serious reflection, I have the following proposition for you. I want you to chair this commission.”
“Let me sit down,” I said. ” First of all, Mr. President, it’s the greatest honor. As a social scientist who believes in the values that you promote, this is an important opportunity. Second, I don’t need to ask my wife — I’ll do it. I know she will say yes. Mary has always been on my side in all my intellectual and political commitments. Third, I need several things guaranteed. I need to have complete freedom in putting together the commission, complete autonomy in the writing of the report, and full access to the archive. Please don’t respond yet. Ask the minister of internal affairs and others. Emil Constantinescu tried very hard, and nothing happened. The archives remained closed. We’re talking about the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Securitate.
He said, “Oh, no, I’ll grant upon you all the authority of the chief executive of Romania…”
“Mr. President, you haven’t worked on this issue. I have. I don’t want to be the lightening rod for the discontent of the researchers when they discover that they can’t do anything and the whole thing is just a symbolic manipulation.”
After three days we had another conversation. I accepted the job. It became the most important assignment for me: intellectually, morally, scholarly, and so on.
Soon after, Rodica Palade, the editor of 22, called me (or maybe I called her). “Listen we’ve had a precedent with the commission on the Holocaust chaired by Elie Wiesel. Wiesel went to Bucharest, appeared publicly with Iliescu at a press conference, and explained what the commission was about. You have to come to Romania and appear publicly with Traian Basescu.”
That was the beginning of a nightmare. In 2006, I flew back and forth to Romania seven times, basically every month to put together the commission. In general, I had good responses. We had only two major cases of “convulsion.” I invited to be a member of the commission one of the founding members of the Group for Social Dialogue (GSD) who at that moment was the chair of the history department at the Central European University and a close friend of the man whose fellowship you have. I knew that he’d been a critical intellectual in Iasi before 1989. After 1989, he was a founder of GSD, a secretary of state at the ministry of education, and a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. He accepted the invitation, which remains the mystery of my life. He would still be what he was if he had not accepted.
Because you would not have dug up the information about him.
Right. Basically, in a matter of days, I heard from someone in the commission, the head of the political prisoners’ association. “We have a very serious problem with the commission,” he told me. “It’s your friend from Budapest.”
“What’s the problem? He has a lot of enemies. He’s a brilliant guy.”
“It has nothing to do with that.” Then this guy gave me everything, including code names.
“I don’t believe it,” I said.
He gave me a number of criteria of how to verify it. And all of it was confirmed. It was not only him. There was another guy, a journalist from a newspaper where I published a column. “Check tomorrow if he is still there,” this fellow told me.
Next day, the editor had resigned. I called friends of mine and asked why he resigned. They said that nobody knew. They’d been told that documents had come out.
So, I sent a note to my friend from CEU and I said, “Listen, either we talk or you know what we’re talking about.” He withdrew for “personal reasons.” Things didn’t stop there. He decided to act preemptively. He published a confession in June. His career went spiraling downward, which is a pity since he’s a brilliant guy. I had no role in this. On the contrary, I publicly defended him. I said that he remains my friend. I received lots of criticism. People said, “You say that you are very critical, but if it’s your friend you change your position. In other cases of informers, you are very tough.” Probably they had a point about this double standard. Of course if it’s a personal friend it’s very hard for me to feel the same way as an abstract story. This was a guy who played with my son when he was a kid. We’d put together workshops and conferences, and we’d also co-edited a volume. But still, it’s the principle. His answer was that he only reported good things about people. Excuse me? That’s always very debatable. And the best solution is not to sign any agreement with those jerks.
Did you see the book by James Mark, The Unfinished Revolution, about political justice in Eastern Europe?
It’s a very good book, but he gets some things wrong regarding our commission. He talked to some members, but it would have been good to talk to me as well. He wrote that the commission was formed as a result of pressures from the EU. How many times did we talk about the EU? Zero. It was civil society. That’s very important to understand. Second, he doesn’t understand the EU. If he thinks the EU is interested in decommunization, well, then he should find another profession. They couldn’t care less.
This was the summer and fall of 2006. I had a semester from my university to complete a different project, and they allowed me to do the work on the commission. In January I was starting a new semester. I realized that without my presence the research team would not work. Perhaps it would happen in other countries, but in Romania forget about it. Internal fights, laziness, you name it,. So that was the time limit that we had.
Did you encounter any barriers to access?
The president was very optimistic. But he discovered the challenges as well. We worked under very difficult circumstances. But without Traian Basescu, this commission would not have been created, would not have worked, and would not have produced a document. That’s my totally honest opinion.
I do appreciate certain things about Traian Basescu. At a certain moment, he really understood that this particular issue could become a defining feature of his presidency. Let me give you an example of this moral component. Andrei Plesu told me that he accompanied Basescu when he went to Washington in 2005. They went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. There is a little film there about Romanian soldiers killing Jewish kids. Basescu, when he saw that, started to cry. Remember: he comes from a military family. Andrei, who had resigned in the meantime and has no association with the Basescu, remains critically favorable. Basescu is very abrasive and can antagonize many people. But with me and around me, he was always very polite. But I don’t work with him. Plesu told me, “If you manage to convince Basescu to deal with this issue the way he internalized the Holocaust, then you win. Maybe not with the Romanian nation, but with him and that’s the important thing.”
I said to Basescu, “Mr. President, I know that you are a very busy person. But if as we advance through the chapters dealing with different issues, do you want to look at any of the materials?”
He said, “If you give me 10 pages, that’s already a lot for me. Look at all that I have on my desk. And this is your job, not mine. But if it’s 10-15 pages, I’ll read it.”
I gave him 80 pages, including a sociological profile of the informers and the chapter on the Pitesti experiment, which he obviously didn’t know anything about that. He wasn’t listening to Radio Free Europe in the 1970s. So, I was visiting a friend of mine in Timisoara and at 11 pm, the phone rings.
It was Basescu. “I read what you gave me and I have a question.” And this was the moment when Basescu decided he would go to the end of this thing, which led to his first impeachment in May 2007. “Was there any moment when this ‘diabolical’ institution called the Securitate acted on its own in pursuing its own crazy ideas?” You’re familiar with the case of the Pitesti experiment? There are only two cases — in Romania and in China – of the government trying to create a New Man via the most infernal methods. “Are you sure,” Basescu asked, “that this is true?”
“Yes, Mr. President, I am sure. This is a commission of experts and this was written by experts.” And the experts were paid, by the way, $100 a month. In other words, almost nothing. We the members weren’t paid.
“Do you think that Party leaders would give such an order to the Securitate?” Basescu asked.
“First of all, you are asking me a question that would be the topic of a dissertation, the relations between Party and Securitate in a Communist dictatorship. I don’t think I can give a full answer. The devil is in the details here. But if you ask me if the Politburo decided to transform students into monsters in Pitesti, probably not. Did the Politburo member in charge of the Securitate know about this experiment? Yes. Was it part of a policy of the Party to get rid of any form of opposition among the youth? Did they follow the idea of the New Man? This was the Party’s goal, not the Securitate’s. From day one, Dzerzhinsky put it clearly: “we are the sword and shield of the Party.” No general secretary of the Party was executed by the secret police, but many heads of the secret police were executed by the general secretary. Have you heard of Beria? Khrushchev liquidated Beria, not the other way around. Everywhere the Party is the key institution.”
Initially the Archives wouldn’t give us anything or hardly anything. Members of the commission were very angry. Then I went to Basescu. This was in June. “Mr. President I want to be very frank with you. Many of my friends — people that I admire, that you admire — believe that I have been caught in a trap. For you, it’s a great achievement. You are the president who created the commission to condemn Communism. The issue has been completely defused. For me, I put all my prestige, name, and authority on the line. The first thing I asked was for access to archives. What’s going on?”
There were 25 researchers doing this work, staying at Ceausescu’s villa because it belongs to the presidency. The archives are part of the ministry for internal affairs.
“Our people go there,” I continued. “They have no place to read. One of them told me that it took six hours to get half a file. No Xerox copies are allowed. There’s no permission to photograph the documents. They have to handwrite everything. They treat us with general hostility. The leadership of the archives is basically sabotaging what we are trying to do.”
Basescu goes to his secretary. “Call in Blaga.” Vasile Blaga was the interior minister. Currently he is the leader of the Democratic Liberal Party that broke with Basescu (or Basescu broke with them). Blaga came over from the ministry, which was the old building of the Central Committee, to Cotroceni Palace. Probably he had a special car. In 10 minutes, he was there, in a sweat.
“Yes, Mr. President?” Blaga said.
“Vasile, dear. You know Professor Tismaneanu.”
“Yes, of course.”
“You know that I appointed him.”
“You know that I really take this very seriously. Professor, what do you need?”
“First of all,” I said, “the researchers should have a special room where they can read. Because this is a presidential commission, permits should be given to them to enter and not wait forever in line in the morning. There should be at least two Xerox machines, with a technician, from 8 am to 8 pm. The archives were closing at 3 pm. And we want complete access. There should be no document that they are denied access to.”
“Will you still be here tomorrow?” Blaga asked. “Can you come to my office at 10 a.m.?”
“Of course, Mr. Minister. I’d like to come with three members and three experts of the commission. Because this is not just my job.”
“Okay, just call my secretary and give her the names.”
The next morning, I was there at the Central Committee, and it was the only time I saw Ceausescu’s office — the interior minister is in Ceausescu’s ex-office. The whole leadership including the general director of the archives was there. They were angry. And the seven of us were smiling.
Blaga says, “This is an emergency meeting. The president of the country asked us to give full access and the complete cooperation of the ministry. I give this as an order as a minister. How long does it take to get them the Xerox machines?”
“Half an hour.”
And from that moment on, at the national archive, we got full cooperation. From that moment on, Romania democratized its archives. So, if nothing else, this was an achievement. With the interior minister, cooperation went up to 80 percent, which is pretty high. With the Romania Intelligence Service, cooperation was about 30 percent. They were polite. But they were forced to give things.
There was zero cooperation from the Foreign Intelligence Service. I met with the director at the time who was trained as a sociologist and was in the Social Democratic Party and friendly to Iliescu. I went to his office with a colleague of mine, an expert, but my colleague wasn’t allowed into the office. He had to wait outside. The director gave me some huge envelopes.
“Please look into these,” he said, “but for your eyes only.” I looked at the materials, and it wasn’t anything. There was a source, a code name, something about Helmut Kohl. “You understand,” he said.
“No, I don’t understand.”
“They are important state-to-state issues, and this goes beyond us.”
It’s true that our experts asked for information about the negotiations with Israel and Germany over the sale of Romanian Jews and Germans, and that involved important people. I could understand the confidentiality in that case because it involved other partners, and you can’t break certain agreements. But we had asked about the files of dissidents, including the files of Radio Free Europe. They said that those were still national security files. Why? RFE didn’t exist anymore, and most of those people were dead. Probably it was about infiltrations. In any case, there was basically no cooperation at the Foreign Intelligence Service.
We also received miserable treatment at the ministry of health, which we needed for the abortion issue. Remember: abortion was linked to the militia. All those officers who were arresting people for the illegal interruption of pregnancy: they had probably been lieutenants and captains and had since become colonels and generals. It was impossible. We didn’t have subpoena powers in the mandate, like in South Africa. We didn’t have the time, and I’m sure parliament wouldn’t have passed that. We tried to work with the president not the parliament.
There are 23 recommendations in the final report. Basescu mentioned in his speech only those he thought he could carry out. He didn’t mention lustration. “It’s not me,” he said. “This is the parliament of the country. I can propose it but I don’t have the right to issue laws.” After that he created an advisory commission to the president to implement the proposals. Then it became simply an issue of money. With the crisis, money became unavailable. There is still no museum of Communism in Bucharest. We proposed it, but there was no money. There is only Sziget, which is a private museum. I’m not necessarily against a private museum. But I don’t think history should be an official story. I have mixed feelings about such a “museumification” that creates accepted narratives.
On the commission, you discovered some things about your friends. Did you discover anything that fundamentally changed your understanding of the Party?
Yes. Of course we had a number of hypotheses. As it turned out, the nature and the strength of the Romanian resistance to Communism appeared much more clearly. The country had a real armed resistance. Contrary to the legend promoted both by the far Right and the far Left that the resistance was Iron Guard, the actual resistance was made up of former military officers, teachers, people belonging to democratic parties including some social democrats and even a few disenchanted Communists. These people belonged to the resistance brigades and units in the mountains. The successors to the fascist movement were not happy with our results. The far Left and far Right were totally united on that.
A second conclusion was that indeed there was a continuity between the first and second stages of Romanian communism, which shattered the historiographical consensus that the Ceausescu regime was fully nationalist compared to the first stage. That created a reaction from the “old historians” — ex-Communist historians – who were very upset and said that Ceausescu condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and so on. But our position was that there was a continuity with variations in terms of Stalinist regimes.
A third conclusion was about the level of individual dissent. We found quite a lot of evidence showing that there was indeed a significant amount of resistance. The protests in the Jiu Valley in 1977 and in Brasov in 1987, based on the documents, apparently created earthquakes among the top leadership. For the first time, we had documents from the Ceausescu era showing how Ceausescu gave orders to get rid of the leaders. It was like in the Soviet Union where the Politburo was obsessed with Sakharov.
For me, through the work of this commission, I began to question more this “totalitarian thesis” as it pertained to Romania. Hannah Arendt once said that the only perfect totalitarian universe is the concentration camp. Romania cannot be described as a concentration camp, definitely not after 1956. Maybe between 1949 and 1953 it could be described as such a camp, but even then there were coffee shops and restaurants. I thought there was much less resistance and opposition, and now it’s clear there was much more.
Why was the report so controversial? We clarified the values of the commission from the beginning. I said that our anti-Communism, which was unambiguous, was not an anti-Communism rooted in another extremism. Our position was civic liberal anti-Communism, which is equivalent to civil liberal anti-fascism. We were explicitly anti-Communist and anti-fascist. In a country that experienced both, it’s important to emphasize that. You can imagine the reactions. To his credit, in spite of all the criticisms, Basescu stood by it. In his view, he would have liked his speech in December 2006 to be a moment of closure. But Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the head of the Romania Mare Party, turned it into the opposite by clowning and booing and creating a circus in the parliament.
Iliescu also got very mad because he was mentioned in the report. Of course he was mentioned! He had been a secretary of the Central Committee. He wasn’t singled out. We wrote a book together, a series of interviews (published in 2004). Now, he called me a scribbler. I said, “I’m very flattered, you wrote a book with a scribbler!”
That’s not the worst insult!
He said “pathetic” scribbler. Iliescu is a political animal. He is a person with an understanding of how political games are played. Unfortunately, he came to power too little and too late. He would have been a blessing for Romania in 1985.
He could have been the Jaruzelski of Romania.
Or the Kadar of the best days. But he never fully abandoned his Leninist habits of the mind.
All the commissioners signed that they accepted the report in the letter and in the spirit. That didn’t mean that some members didn’t say later, “Oh i didn’t mean it.”
Did I have any major disappointments? No. Later on, I read more about commissions. There’s a book, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop by Francisco Goldman, about Guatemala. Probably if I’d read that book before starting, I would have had some reservations about taking the job. I didn’t anticipate the level of hatred — including at my school. The type of letters that I received! But also you have to look at the other side — the tremendous letters that I received in support. Those were signed. The other ones were unsigned.
Washington, DC, April 19, 2013