The Commission in Romania

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.

The Interview

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, " target="_hplink">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.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.