By Glenn Ellis
It has been quite a year in Romania with the resignation of two prime ministers and near-impeachment of a president. This coupled with nationwide riots and a growing sense of injustice means that next month’s parliamentary elections will be the most bitterly contested for decades.
The power struggle between Traian Basescu, the right-wing president, and Victor Ponta, the left-wing prime minister, has grabbed all the headlines, but the story behind this struggle stretches back to Romania’s communist past – and to the very moment when a firing squad put an end to Nicolai Ceausescu, Europe’s last Stalinist dictator.
On Christmas day 1989, in a barracks outside Bucharest, Captain Dan Vionea, a young military prosecutor, was told by his superiors to prepare a case. When he asked the name of the accused, he was told ‘Nicolai Ceausescu’.
The Berlin Wall had just fallen and communist regimes were toppling like dominoes across Eastern Europe, but not Romania. Here Ceausescu’s fearsome secret police, the Securitate, maintained a ruthless grip on power. Ordinary Romanians took to the streets. Thousands were killed or injured.
Ceausescu fled by helicopter while the capital erupted in bloodshed. But the Ceausescus were captured and the young captain found himself face to face with the dictator.
Vionea was ordered to write an indictment by hand and read the charges. He was shocked to find that no evidence was submitted and there were no witnesses.
Within an hour, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were sentenced to death and shot. The outside world hailed it as a triumph over the regime and its feared secret police, but Voinea begs to differ.
I met Voinea, now a retired general, at the barracks where the dictator and his wife were gunned down. He took me to a wall riddled with bullet holes.
“They did not think it would be a good idea to give Ceausescu a proper trial,” he says. “Because other crimes of the communist regime would come out. So they killed him to save themselves and then spread the idea that the people killed Ceausecu. In this way the communists remained in power, even after the revolution.”
The general’s sense of injustice is palpable as we walk through the grounds of the now defunct barracks.
“In the revolution there were 8,000 victims, dead, wounded and arrested,” he says. “And from these 8,000 not a single party activist.”
One man who shares the general’s view is historian and poet, Marius Oprea, Romania’s leading expert on the Securitate.
I encountered Oprea in the magnificent baroque city of Cluj in central Transylvania at the county morgue. His team of volunteers were bent over a skeleton on a slab, piecing together the last moments of a young life tragically cut short during the communist terror.
Even now no one knows how many people were killed by the Securitate. Five years ago Oprea created the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes winning the support of President Basescu. But when he began exhuming the bodies of Securitate victims from unmarked graves and demanding justice, Basescu, fearful of what he was finding, sacked him from the organisation he had founded.
“I trusted him to clean up the country from the communists and Securitate,” says Oprea. “But he put them back in power and he even threw me out of my job.”
Oprea’s search for Romania’s missing has taken him the length and breadth of the country. But telling the truth here is risky. Oprea now has many enemies and like General Voinea, he receives death threats.
There is a sense that the old guard are simply untouchable.
“I’ve never seen anyone from the Securitate condemned in a court for their crimes,” Oprea says, “even if it is proved. In Romania this does not happen.”
From Cluj I headed west, through rolling hills and scattered farmsteads – and landscape scarcely touched by the 20th century – to meet the man credited with starting the revolution that brought an end to communism in Romania.
Laszlo Tokes went on to become a significant political figure and was until recently, vice president of the European parliament.
But back in communist times, he was a humble priest risking everything by preaching democracy and liberty from his pulpit in the city of Timisoara – tantamount to signing your own death warrant in what was easily Europe’s most brutal dictatorship.
The Securitate tried everything to silence him including a botched assassination attempt. When this failed, they decided to evict him from his church. But Tokes’s parishioners formed a human chain around the building.
“They stopped the whole process of eviction …” Tokes tells me, almost overcome with emotion, “and a spontaneous revolt changed into an anti-communist demonstration and in some hours started a general uprising against the whole regime.”
It was a pivotal moment. Tokes’s defiance lit the touch paper that spread the revolution from Timisoara to the rest of Romania.
Nevertheless, many wonder how much things have really changed in the intervening years.
“The final victory over communism has not yet arrived.” Tokes insists, pointing to the fact that many of the regimes most notorious criminals are still at liberty.
The Securitate officer responsible for the ruthless treatment of Tokes and his family is Major Radu Tinu, who agreed to meet me at his dacha in the mountains outside Timisoara.
Tinu has done well for himself in the years since and exudes an air of confidence and swagger as he pours me a plum brandy on his terrace.
“No one I knew ever objected to what I did,” he says abour Tokes. “Many said: Why didn’t you smash his head when you had the chance?”
Amongst Tinu’s other victims was Nobel Laureate Herta Muller. Muller’s chilling novels graphically depict the terror of life in Ceausescu’s Romania. But Tinu is not a fan of her work.
“If she’d won the Nobel Peace Prize I would understand, but for literature… please!”
A communist flag still flies on Tinu’s garden. As I leave, his mobile phone rings with the theme from The Godfather. Though it is almost comical, I have to remind myself that Tinu was a senior figure in a brutal regime that imprisoned, tortured and killed its opponents.
Back in Bucharest, I visited the National Council for Studying Securitate Archives where Germina Nagat, the chief investigator showed me around.
She has spent 10 years sifting through the archive looking for evidence of human rights abuses. It is a massive task.
Files were kept on virtually everyone with the sole purpose of blackmail – an immense dossier to control the population. If laid end to end the documents would stretch for 24km.
As we wander through the shelves, Nagat picks a file at random and opens the cover. It is packed with secret photographs, stolen letters and personal mementos -the guiltless details of an innocent life, pored over endlessly by the Securitate.
It is one of five volumes kept on a young man from the 1950s until his death in the 1980s. Putting it back Nagat turns to me, “All this … ,” she says, gesturing to the endless rows of documents, “and for what?”
“It’s not easy to understand from a human point of view,” she goes on. “It’s tragic … it’s monstrous. The details are more often than not monstrosities.
It’s very hard to accept that it’s a real story – that’s what everybody from outside keeps telling us: ‘well I can’t believe this, it’s not possible’. It was possible and it happened.”
After the fall of Ceausescu, the files remained in the hands of the new secret police, the SRI, who were made up almost entirely of former Securitate officers.
Many files had been destroyed, including that of Basescu, the current president.
It took eighteen years before they were finally opened to the public and even then under pressure from the EU. Nagat has sent over a thousand cases to the prosecutor general, but to date no one has been convicted, not least, she says, because the judicial system remains riddled with former Securitate officers.
“If you see the list of persons we sent to the court,” she tells me, “you will see some of the names on the list are Securitate officers in the judicial system. They were assimilated immediately after the revolution, some of them, so they are still active of course – it’s very simple.”
A stone’s throw from Nagat’s office lies the People’s Parliament, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.
It is Ceausescu’s absurd folly at the heart of Bucharest. Hundreds of historic buildings were torn down to create this ugly colossus, the construction of which virtually bankrupted Romania. Bucharest was once considered the Paris of the East, but not anymore.
In a park opposite, I had arranged to meet Constantin Bucour, a Securitate captain who was assimilated into the SRI, but was thrown out a few years ago after revealing the scale of state surveillance in post- communist Romania. According to Bucour it has actually increased.
“The phone calls of politicians and journalists are intercepted,” he says.
“Actually it could be that all of us are intercepted. The president gives an order, then we will be intercepted, it doesn’t matter. The people already accept this – they say it doesn’t matter as well. Nobody thinks that this is repression of human rights. To intercept your phone means getting into your house, into the intimacy of your family, of your relationships. It’s something very ugly.”
When I press him further about President Basescu, he makes a startling accusation.
“From my point of view, I’m convinced that Traian Basescu was an undercover officer of the Securitate. A lot of archives have disappeared – but the people they didn’t disappear and he had several different contact officers – so it means a lot of people know about his activity. Some of them were bribed and they are silent now. But others speak.”
Not surprisingly, President Basescu denies any links to the Securitate, but it is a sobering thought.
My next appointment is with Stelian Tanase, one of Romania’s leading writers.
During communism, Tanases’ books were banned and he suffered badly at the hands of the Securitate. But even now Tanase, like many of the regime’s current political opponents, says he is shadowed and his phone calls are monitored.
“They want to control and to know everything about us …” he says, “my private life, my manuscripts, my friends, my relatives. They’re details of our lives, but if they want to be in control then that means to have details about me – information to blackmail me, to threaten me.”
I ask Tanase to describe the pervasive nature of the Securitate in Romania today.
“Eighty per cent of rich Romanian people come from the Securitate structures. If you read Forbes or Capitol, they publish every year the list with the richest people in Romania. You can take it name by name and you could discover very easily their connection with the Securitate.”
And what about the president? I ask him.
“I think he was very connected with the Securitate. If you ask Romanian journalists they say the same thing. He is an officer – he is like Putin. You know this structure of a communist state? He came from there. He started his career very supported by the secret structures.
“We have an appearance of democracy, we have a constitution, we have unions, a free press, parties, election, we have everything – but it’s only a façade. You know this concept: ‘facade democracy’ like in South America? Romania is a South American democracy – it’s a half democracy half dictatorship.”