The Accidental Activist

02/01/2015 09:46 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015

Romania's revolution in 1989 was not as clear-cut as those in other countries in the region. There was not, for instance, a sharp divide between the Communist political elite and the post-Communist elite. And the street demonstrations that faded elsewhere in the region intensified in Romania through the spring of 1990. For instance in April and May 1990, thousands of students occupied University Square in the center of Bucharest for seven weeks to protest continued Communist influence on Romanian politics. The leader of the League of Romanian Students was 28-year-old Marian Munteanu.

After the elections of May 20, won overwhelmingly by the National Salvation Front and former Communist official Ion Iliescu, Munteanu and others urged the demonstrators to disperse. Some protestors refused to do so and maintained their encampment on University Square. The Romanian authorities appealed to miners to help "restore order" in June 1990. The miners violently broke up the occupation, killing six and injuring many others. Munteanu was arrested on June 13 and released shortly after. On June 14, however, he suffered a brutal beating that sent him to the hospital, where he was rearrested. By mid-July, Romania saw its largest demonstration since the fall of Ceausescu when 20,000 people gathered in Bucharest to demand Munteanu's release. As a result of domestic and international pressure, he was released after two months of detention.

I didn't have a chance to interview Munteanu in 1990 when I was in Romania because he was still in detention. But I met him last year for a conversation at a restaurant in Bucharest. I was surprised to discover that the activist who had captivated huge audiences of protestors for weeks at a time in 1990 never particularly relished that role.

"I don't like noisy large gatherings, not only from a professional but also from a personal point of view," he told me in May 2013. "I communicate better in small groups, not in large groups. My career plan, from the beginning, was focused on education. That was my life project. But in those moments, it was like in any catastrophic situation. In a fire, everyone must run to get water."

Like many young people at the time, he expected his elders to push for a clean break with the past. "At that moment, I thought that the 50-something generation would be able to do something right," he said. "But they didn't, and when that happened, it was one of the reasons my colleagues and I decided to get involved. We decided to organize things in a proper manner. I was a simple student. It was difficult for me to have contacts with major stakeholders in society. But because of the events, I started to get to know them personally, through discussions with the Civic Alliance and so on... After participating in those discussions, I knew I had to step in."

Today Munteanu largely focuses on his academic pursuits in folklore and ethnology. Although he largely left politics, he's satisfied that at least some of the changes that he and his fellow activists promoted eventually became state policy. "Let's remember that what we were asking for 23 years ago did indeed happen, with a major delay of seven or eight years," he argued. "Our requests did actually become state politics, but badly implemented. Can we evaluate this as a good thing? Of course it's good. But it's not because of the politicians. It's because of life. Because of pressure. And with lots of delays. If we analyze it within the system, it's a disaster. I know that generally administration is not the place for quality anywhere in the world. Maybe under Confucius in China 2,500 years ago. But even Confucius was not pleased."

He continues to take the long view. "We should focus on the perspective that some good things will take place over the long term," he maintained. "We should anticipate these even if we don't live long enough to see the results. I plant walnut trees in the garden of my house, in the mountain. It's almost impossible to live long enough to experience the shade of those walnut trees. Somebody, nevertheless, will enjoy them and their shade. Just not me."

We talked about his student activism days, his aborted presidential run, and his dissatisfaction with the management of government in Romania.

The Interview

Was there a moment in your life when you decided to be in the political opposition? Or was it a more gradual process?

Not at all. I never had this perspective. I don't like noisy large gatherings, not only from a professional but also from a personal point of view. I communicate better in small groups, not in large groups. My career plan, from the beginning, was focused on education. That was my life project. But in those moments, it was like in any catastrophic situation. In a fire, everyone must run to get water. You just feel you have to do something. I tried to be useful in a way. Of course, society has its own trajectory. We know that in a society, might makes right, even when it is obviously wrong. That's life.

My background in this kind of politics, in civil rights actions, was mainly focused on education and culture. Before 1989, I tried to sustain a relatively normal life, culturally speaking. Especially in a country like Romania, censorship was very strong. There were many books we weren't allowed to read. I tried to organize cultural groups in different Faculties, at the University. The main area of my actionswas culture. But in fact, the real focus was on freedom, because culture is an expression of freedom. Without freedom, you don't have culture, you have something else. So, we tried to find perspectives and solutions that could be useful for some later period of time.

When everything happened in 1989, we didn't worry about the accountability and involvement of the older generation. This was one of my errors of evaluation. I just didn't think in those years that the capacity for cohesion and organization of the older generation would be so low. I'm talking here about the intellectuals: the academics, the scientists, the writers, anybody who operated on the cultural level. Under Communism, only certain personalities had the chance to be published or had positions in institutions or cultural groups or universities -- not to mention the media. The literary reviews were written by a very small group of people. Today, in fact, we have the same pattern - more or less the same groups of people! Of course, just some of the old ones remain. Some of them died. But they had disciples who were able and willing to take their places.

At that moment, I thought that the 50-something generation would be able to do something right. But they didn't, and when that happened, it was one of the reasons my colleagues and I decided to get involved. We decided to organize things in a proper manner. I was a simple student. It was difficult for me to have contacts with major stakeholders in society. But because of the events, I started to get to know them personally, through discussions with the Civic Alliance and so on... After participating in those discussions, I knew I had to step in.

What was misguided about the Civil Alliance? Why were you disappointed?

They were under the control of the government. Let's say 60 percent of the key leaders - that's a schematic approximation. I could offer you specific data, but let's stick with this approximation. They did what the government wanted.

You mean the National Salvation Front.

Yes. Just like today. There's been no change. We have the same governmental policy from 1989 until today. You know the proverb -- the more things change, the more they stay the same. My assertion is that the older generation didn't really understand the chance they had. Most of the people who were involved, as I was, in those movements were later involved in the government, with very few exceptions.

The organizational structure of the students, which I helped establish, had 400-500 leaders at the top and a few thousand members. We were not very much liked by the government. The establishment had some people planted inside our movement. Since we were young and not very well developed, we tolerated these sort of actions. In those times we were able to rapidly gather several thousand people for a demonstration. For example, if the government passed a bad law, we were able to very quickly mobilize several groups of protesters at least in the major universities. From this point of view, we were a civic force. We were practically serving the society. We saw what some of the intellectual leaders were doing, that they were working directly with the government, and started to gain access to various positions in the establishments. But they were not able to manage even the educational and cultural institutions.

With what you learned since then, would you have done anything differently at the end of 1989 or beginning of 1990?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.