Romania is gearing up to remember next month's 20th anniversary of the violent revolution that overthrew the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in which some 1,300 people lost their lives. Celebrations and memorials are planned - though some Romanians still feel ambivalent about the 90-minute show trial of Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day, 1989, which was followed immediately by their execution by firing squad.
Ironically, Romania finds now itself in the middle of a crucial presidential election still colored by the deep shadows of the past. It remains one of Europe's poorest countries and has been hit especially hard by the global recession.
In last Sunday's voting, incumbent Traian Basescu of the centrist Democrats won almost 33 percent of the vote. He'll face off in a run-off on December 6 against Mircea Geoana of the Social Democrats, the heirs of the Communist Party, who won around 30 percent. A third candidate, Crin Antonescu, took around 20 percent, and has thrown his support to Geoana. Polls suggest a close finish with Geoana possibly holding a narrow advantage.
In many ways, Romania emerged from the revolution the least prepared of any country in Eastern Europe to face a non-communist future. Its economy was in ruins, its people half-starving. Unlike Poland, which had Solidarity, or Czechoslovakia, where Vaclav Havel was the natural choice for president, Romania had no dissident movement to provide its new leaders. Ceausescu had ruthlessly crushed any and every sign of dissent. The Securitate secret police were ubiquitous, monitoring every citizen's movements, associations, telephone conversations and activities. It's been said that one in every four Romanians was collaborating with the Securitate in one way or another.
After several days of bloody street fighting, so-called "moderate" communists led by Ion Iliescu managed to exert authority over the country. Iliescu duly won almost 90 percent in the first post-communist election in May 1990. Former communists stayed in control for all but four years until 2004, slowing economic reforms, keeping the lid on attempts to investigate the crimes of the past and allowing rampant corruption to emerge as the country's biggest problem. Indeed, today corruption permeates almost every aspect of daily life, from visiting the doctor to winning prized slots in medical or law schools.
The country's agricultural sector remains hopelessly backward and many Romanian villages still lack running water.
The no-nonsense Basescu, a former merchant marine captain, promised a fresh start when he narrowly won the presidency in December 2004. He steered the country to European Union membership in January 2007 and presided over several years of economic growth. Foreign investment flooded into the country, real estate in and around Bucharest took off and the government took some halting steps to tackle corruption and come to terms with the past.
But the Social Democrats still controlled parliament and were able to frustrate much of Basescu's agenda. They even engineered an attempt in 2007 to impeach him - but a referendum decisively returned him to power.
Then came the global economic slump. Thousands of Romanian workers who had found lucrative employment in Italy, Spain and elsewhere in Europe, lost their jobs and had to return home. The Romanian economy is forecast to shrink by 8.5 percent this year and had to look to the International Monetary Fund for a $30 billion bailout. The country has been run by a caretaker government since mid-October when the Social Democrats withdrew their support. There is no state budget for 2010 and the IMF has delayed disbursing its next scheduled loan payment of $2.2 billion until the crisis is resolved. The money is needed to pay some 1.3 million state workers, who will likely have to celebrate Christmas without their salaries. For them and for millions of other Romanians, it's likely to be a long, cold winter.
As they mark their anniversary, Romanians should take pride in their revolution. They exhibited enormous courage, defying the dictator's tanks and guns with their bare hands to win freedom and the chance of a brighter future. But for many, the promise of that revolution has yet to be fully redeemed.