THE BLOG
10/20/2014 09:44 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

The Puppet Masters of Targu Mures

It's been nearly a quarter century since the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, and still many aspects of what happened in December 1989 and immediately afterwards remain a mystery. Many people in the country hesitate to call what happened around Christmas of that year a "revolution." They suspect that the collapse of the Communist regime was actually a managed transition orchestrated by insiders. But the relevant documents are either missing or remain classified. And official investigations have dispelled only a small amount of the fog. So the events of 1989-90 in Romania continue to generate speculation, frustration, and a wealth of conspiracy theories.

In 1989, Smaranda Enache was living and working at a puppet theater in Targu Mures. She had already come to the attention of the authorities when she attempted to stage a thinly veiled puppet allegory about the corruptions of the Ceausescu family. She was also actively involved in the protests that later took place in the Transylvanian town after residents heard about the unprecedented demonstrations that had taken place in mid-December in Timisoara.

A number of people were killed in Targu Mures during the uprising against the authorities. But despite a number of investigations, no one was found responsible.

"This is a very painful reality," Enache told me in her office at Liga Pro Europa in Targu Mures in May 2013. "After the collapse of the Ceausescu regime on December 22 and his execution on December 25, 1989, a series of ridiculous explanations were presented: that some of the protestors were nervous and attacked the soldiers and then guns were accidentally discharged. In fact, as far as I know, nobody went to prison or was condemned for what happened in Targu-Mures. The new government preferred to reward the victims than to punish the criminals. After the revolution there was a whole process of giving compensations and awards to the families of the victims and declaring people heroes of the revolution. People received certificates and some material benefits. And it was shocking to see that some of the people responsible, even leaders of the local Communist Party and the army, were rewarded just like the families of the victims."

More discouragingly, tensions didn't subside in Targu Mures. The town, by the late 1980s, was almost evenly divided between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians. Enache had been invited to work on cultural issues for the local branch of the National Salvation Front, the political entity that took over the functioning of the government. She was disturbed to see that many of the old Communist functionaries remained in place in the new structures. Equally disturbing was the rising nationalism.

"Another phenomenon that I registered very quickly, because my husband was Hungarian, was that there were people saying that there are too many Hungarians around," Enache recalled. "But we were in a region where half of the population was Hungarian. For me this was normal. So, this new ethnicist melody circulated in the corridors captured my attention."

Further to the east, inter-ethnic tensions had already exploded into violence in the Soviet Union, and Enache was worried that something similar could happen in Targu Mures. She expressed her fears in an interview with a Romanian TV journalist. "I said what I thought about the rights of minorities, that we were not enemies, that we had to build up a new society together, and that we should be very careful not to let things go in a bad direction. I said that I hoped that our city didn't go in the same direction as Nagorno-Karabkh. Already a serious conflict [between Armenians and Azeris] was going on there. 'We have to avoid another Nagorno-Karabakh in Targu-Mures,' I said."

When the interview was broadcast nationwide, Enache received a tremendous response. "We had no telephone at the time," she told me. "After 10 minutes, my neighbor came over and said that someone would like to speak with me. They'd already tracked down the telephone number of my neighbor! Then my father came over and said, 'Come fast to our home, because there are so many people calling you.' A lot of people were calling me and congratulating me and saying, 'Finally, it's wonderful to hear a democratic voice.' But others were calling me and saying, 'You bitch. You deserve to be killed. You should die. You're a traitor to the nation.'"

The response was swift from the National Salvation Front as well. Enache was removed from the list for the May 1990 elections. Then she was kicked out of her job.

"The commission of the NSF, of which I was part, invited me to a professional discussion," she remembered. "I'd been the artistic director of the puppet and youth theater of Targu Mures for many years. This theater received many professional awards. It was a well-known and artistically recognized theater, not because of my management but because there were many valuable and talented artists working there, whom I tried to serve. And they did wonderful things. I was brought to this commission in May 1990, and they told me that I do not correspond any more to the criteria to be a director, that I was professionally inferior. From June 1, I would be dismissed from my function. In addition, and this was ironic, they said also that the reason was that I had been a director during the Communist times. I was the only theater director from the Communist period to be dismissed at that time."

It had been a rapid reversal of fortunes - from thwarted producer of a dissident puppet allegory to autonomous participant in the December uprising to victim of the new puppet masters of Targu Mures. Ultimately, however, these were only the first dramatic twists and turns of Enache's career. We talked about her contributions to two of the most important organizations of civil society in Romania - the Group for Social Dialogue and Liga Pro Europa - and her stint as Romanian ambassador to Finland. We ended by talking about the continuing challenges of running an NGO in Romania today.

"The small organizations working on combatting extremism need active support, including financial support, for projects focused on young people," she concluded. "It's sad to see how much Romanian young people are going in the direction of conservative fundamentalist ideas. And Hungarian young people also. The future depends so much on them."

The Interview

You watched the execution of Ceausescu on television. Was that a complete surprise?

It was Christmas day. It was not a surprise. Already, the official TV and radio and newspapers informed us that he had been captured with his wife and they would be judged, that there would be a trial. It was a preparation. On the one hand I felt that it was a very fast execution, which contributed very much in a way to seal his guilt and the Communist Party's responsibility toward Romanians. On the other hand, he deserved it. It was very unfortunate because I never felt in my life that someone should have to pay with their life for something. I have always been against the death penalty. But in those days, in my head there was such a dilemma over what should be done. After his execution and his wife's execution and when we also saw what was allowed for us to see on TV -- the trial itself, the summary trial, the unprofessional trial -- it was such an offense to democracy and justice. It was a very unfortunate decision to execute him. But some people say even today that it was very good to execute him because if not, in five years, he would have returned to power in Romania.

So many people felt that our dreams of democracy were not fulfilled after the revolution to the degree that we were thinking. A very bureaucratic commemoration of the revolution, a very superficial analysis of Communism, a very superficial de-Communalization on top of an insufficient de-Nazification: everything was very frustrating in the end. His execution was just another mistake for democracy.

How long did you continue to work in the theater?

Until the end of April 1990. I was then dismissed from my position. I had a couple months of unemployment. All this happened because of my public positions. It all started the day, during the revolution in December 1989, when two delegates from the provisional leadership of the county, from the National Salvation Front (NSF), came to my office, and they invited me to join this council. I joined the council in January 1990 and as a cultural manager I was subordinated to one of the vice presidents of the county NSF. This was a Hungarian lawyer who had defended László Tőkés when he was harassed by the Securitate in Timisoara. His name is Előd Kincses. He was involved in the events in Targu-Mures in the years to come. I continued to work as artistic director of the theater, and at the same time I went every day to the council of the NSF. I was assisting some of the meetings. I was also watching the transfer of power because the headquarters used by the National Salvation council was the same county headquarters of the Romanian Communist Party and the same building. All the administrative apparatus of the Communist leadership was in place. It was in a way normal, because they were fast typists and good drivers.

On the other hand, they were in charge of taking minutes during the sessions of the council, of the new power, and some of the information appeared the next day in the media, especially in one of the newspapers, which was called the Red Star up until the fall of Communism and the Free Word afterwards. They were the same Communist journalists who had been condemning the revolutionaries as the so-called "enemies of the nation" until the last moment. And then they changed totally. I was very shocked to see the information from the council in this newspaper. I asked, "Why don't you change everybody, the whole apparatus, because this is a new power and the information should be the truth, not distorted by an apparatus still loyal to the ancien regime." Everybody was busy with the important priorities. Nobody was interested in these details. Then I saw some former Communist leaders like the secretary for the economy just coming and going in the corridors of the new power. I asked what this person was doing there. This secretary, Movila was his name, even on December 22, had been trying to stop the workers from coming to the center of the city. Another phenomenon that I registered very quickly, because my husband was Hungarian, was that there were people saying that there are too many Hungarians around. But we were in a region where half of the population was Hungarian. For me this was normal. So, this new ethnicist melody circulated in the corridors captured my attention.

The discussion about the rights of the minorities started in Romania as early as January 1990. The Hungarian community already organized itself officially in a political union, the UDMR (Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania). They were saying, and I thought it was normal, that now that the Ceausescu regime was finished, they would like to have back their rights, which had been limited by the national Communist regime. I participated in quite heated debates about the status of different schools. At the end of these debates, a young reporter from the local TV asked me for an interview. I said what I thought about the rights of minorities, that we were not enemies, that we had to build up a new society together, and that we should be very careful not to let things go in a bad direction. I said that I hoped that our city didn't go in the same direction as Nagorno-Karabkh. Already a serious conflict [between Armenians and Azeris] was going on there. "We have to avoid another Nagorno-Karabakh in Targu-Mures," I said.

I received a public profile because of that interview, probably through Hungarian channels, because it was in a way in favor of the Hungarian minority. The interview ended up in Bucharest where it was shown on national TV on a day when everyone was watching. It was January 29, when there was a huge demonstration against Communism and Ion Iliescu in Bucharest. I was not informed that this interview had been sent to Bucharest. I was at home watching TV with my husband and my son. At once the national TV 1 broadcast of the big meeting from Bucharest was interrupted, and the presenter said, "We will broadcast now an interview with a lady from Targu-Mures who is advocating in favor of good relations between Romanians and Hungarians." And I saw myself on TV.

We had no telephone at the time. After 10 minutes, my neighbor came over and said that someone would like to speak with me. They'd already tracked down the telephone number of my neighbor! Then my father came over and said, "Come fast to our home, because there are so many people calling you." A lot of people were calling me and congratulating me and saying, "Finally, it's wonderful to hear a democratic voice." But others were calling me and saying, "You bitch. You deserve to be killed. You should die. You're a traitor to the nation."

After January 1990, I was taken up by this growing tension in Targu-Mures. Although I very much wanted to contribute to reduce tensions and explain to people what was going on, I had no opportunity to have an interview in the Romanian media, nothing at all. I was cut off totally from communicating through newspapers, radio, TV. The former Red Star was not willing to explain what it was all about or to write about how we could build a good future together by respecting minority rights and keeping our identity as well, by having a consensual democracy and not allowing conflict. I began to see that this conflict was being prepared by professionals to make it possible for the Securitate and the former Communists to stay in power by demonstrating that they were the good patriots. But I also felt that, after Nagorno-Karabakh and what was starting to happen in Yugoslavia, this was a Soviet scenario -- the Soviet Union hadn't collapsed at the time - to prevent us from joining the family of democratic nations.

In the end, there was retaliation against me for that interview and what I did during the revolution and afterwards to prevent the conflict. I was on an election list. I wanted to run in the elections in May 1990 for the first free parliament in Romania. But the local court admitted a challenge by 160 people from Targu-Mures against my candidacy and that of several others including the lawyer I mentioned before, Mr. Kincses. There was no way of recourse against this decision. I had not even been informed that there was a trial on my candidacy. It took place on a Saturday, when the courts were not even supposed to meet. I met by accident a friend of mine who was a lawyer and he said, "Do you know that the court convened under exceptional circumstances and you have been removed from the list for parliament?" Later on, several people among the 160 who challenged my candidacy declared to the media that they'd never signed such a paper, and some had even been abroad.

Then the commission of the NSF, of which I was part, invited me to a professional discussion. I'd been the artistic director of the puppet and youth theater of Targu Mures for many years. This theater received many professional awards. It was a well-known and artistically recognized theater, not because of my management but because there were many valuable and talented artists working there, whom I tried to serve. And they did wonderful things. I was brought to this commission in May 1990, and they told me that I do not correspond any more to the criteria to be a director, that I was professionally inferior. From June 1, I would be dismissed from my function. In addition, and this was ironic, they said also that the reason was that I had been a director during the Communist times. I was the only theater director from the Communist period to be dismissed at that time.

You were dismissed by the NSF?

Yes.

That's interesting in and of itself.

Yes. But the NSF, when they dismissed me, was already different. Already we'd had this unfortunate conflict on March 19-20 here in Targu Mures. Then, Előd Kincses, the vice president of the NSF, received mysterious threats and left Targu Mures. He was afraid for his life and moved to Hungary to live for five years before coming back.

I was not dismissed by the so-called political leaders. I was one of the culturally responsible people, and I understood that I was no longer useful for the Front. The meeting included a lady who'd been working in the theater academy. She was also the wife of a judge from the previous period. Two actors were also there. It didn't look like a political decision but rather a real professional decision that I was not meeting expectations. But there was no explanation. At that time, we had these work certificates that mentioned our workplaces. It was important which article from the labor code was used when you were dismissed, for possible reemployment. I was dismissed under a very offensive clause: for being professionally inferior and unfit for the job. I spent a few months unemployed.

Then I had a chance to be invited to become a member of the Group for Social Dialog (GSD) in Bucharest, which was a reward, so to say, from the Romanian dissidents and pro-democratic intelligentsia because of my stances. They heard that I was unemployed and I had no salary. They paid me, and for a short period I was the executive director of the GSD. Meanwhile we already had our organization, Liga Pro Europa, founded in December 1989. But we had no resources. We were all volunteers. Then we received the first grants from the United States so that, by the end of 1990, we had our first computer and our first Xerox machine due to the support of Irena Lasota, director of IDEE Washington. We started immediately to publish the only independent weekly newspaper, Gazeta de Mures, a militant weekly in Targu-Mures. We started to organize more institutionally our role and activism in Romanian society. At that point I returned home to work here. And I worked at Liga Pro Europa until 1998 when President Constantinescu sent me to Finland to be an ambassador, where I remained until 2001 when Ion Iliescu returned to the presidency of Romania. Iliescu immediately recalled 18 ambassadors appointed by President Constantinescu, and I was among them. I returned to Targu-Mures in 2001 and continued to work here.

I want to go back to March 1990. Already in January, you wanted to avoid a Nagorno-Karabakh situation here in Targu-Mures. By March, that event was on everyone's mind. Was it a gradual process of building tensions, or did the March events seem to come from nowhere?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.