The Road To Democracy: Romania ‘s Transition from Communism
Transition studies is one of the most popular fields in political science. The move towards democracy in East-Central Europe after the fall of communism is a challenging subject. The countries did not start from the same place, they followed individual paths with different outcomes. Some are closer to the liberal democracy model while others lean towards illiberal versions.
Romania is one of the more interesting case-studies. Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime was more extreme than any of its European counter-parts, apart from Albania. In this article we want to explore how its historical background meant a tedious transition. How corruption is difficult to shake-off both institutional and societal levels.
Apart from a thaw at the beginning of the 1960s, Romania’s Communist regime kept mostly Stalinist characteristics. Power and control of the economy were under the firm grip of the Nomenklatura. Consequently, there was no real dissidence, just a handful of intellectuals who were easy to silence by the secret police. By the 1980s, Ceausescu was turning the regime into a family affair.
The other regimes in Europe gave concessions to the population. They also improved the standard of living. This meant growing foreign debt, further made worse by the economic crisis of the 1980s. However, Romania gave little importance to the production of consumer goods. It was made worse by Ceausescu’s decision to pay-off the country’s foreign debt. This led to sever shortages for the population.
The situation was made worse by the elements borrowed from the regimes in China and North Korea. The creation of a cult of personality and banning abortion. Out of all European communist regimes only Romania needed a bloody revolution. Unfortunately, power was kept by the second and third echelons of the Nomenklatura.
The First Years Of Post-Communism
The political landscape was both very diverse and full of conflict. Between 1990 and 1992 it was dominated by Ion Iliescu, leader of the National Salvation Front. He presented himself as a formed dissident. However, at a certain point he was pegged as the successor to Ceausescu. He categorically won the 1992 elections. This was not difficult since national television was under the control of the state.
The most troublesome events were the ‘Mineriade’. President Ion Iliescu called on the miners to come to Bucharest to disperse people protesting against him and the new regime. The discourse described the protesters as hooligans and vandals. However, they were part of a nascent opposition. At this point, Romania did not seem stable or very liberal.
Underlying economic issues and political instability meant increasing rates of inflation. Consequently, the standard of living went down. This was made worse by inefficient economic reforms. People with connections bought many enterprises and sold them for scrap.
One of the methods for privatisation was MEBO. It involves distributing shares to employees. However, they had little money and were in no position to become investors. They were more than willing to sell them for less than their real worth. It was easy for those with capital to buy them out.
Gelsor was an investment fund used by a so-called businessman, Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, to hijack privatisations. He had the help of former Securitate officers. They would enter biddings and force prices to go down. Their clients would then move in and buy enterprises for less than their worth. Next, they would sell them for scrap, turning an easy profit.
Dreams Of Riches
Ponzi schemes found a very fertile land. Decades under the communist regime meant little freedom. Romanians did no have the possibility to take part in private economic activities. This means little knowledge of such things. It means vulnerability in the face of new phenomena.
People were easily enticed by the perspective of get-rich-fast schemes, Caritas and the National Investment Fund (FNI). They were told that if they would invest all of their savings, they would have great returns. Corrupt politicians would often guarantee for such schemes.
Banks were victims of businessmen with connections. They would take out huge loans guaranteeing with TVs or old buildings. Easy money for considerable capital. Consequently, these banks soon went bankrupt. These hits were though for the population and made the economic transition more difficult.
Opposition In Power
In the 1996s election a broad coalition of right-wing parties won. This was a promising event for Romania’s new democracy. However, the alliance was incredibly unstable, it had three prime-ministers and another ‘mineriad’. The economic crisis in Russia also played a part in decreasing the standard of living.
Some of the problems came from the fact that the former power still had people in key positions. The coalition did not fully control state institutions. Consequently, reforms were further made more difficult. At that point in time, Romania still had difficulties with the rotation of power.
The 2000 elections saw Ion Iliescu running against Corneliu Vadim Tudor. The latter was a house poet of the Ceausescu’s and now a leading nationalist politician. His extreme discourse made many Romanians fearful. Consequently, Iliescu won a second term even if he was not the ideal choice.
The 2000s saw Romania go through more positive transformations. In 2004 it became part of NATO, signalling its return to the rest of Europe. In 2007 it took the most important step, becoming a member of the European Union. However, some still ask if the transition period is truly over. The country does indeed look better economically. The standard of living is higher now and there have been some high-level convictions for corruption.
The year 2017 saw protests against changes which would threaten the independence of the justice system. Up to half a million people took to the streets on a single day. This was the biggest social movement in Romania since its 1989 Revolution. It clearly highlights that the society is more mature and civically active.
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Originally published at https://www.theworldbriefly.com on February 9, 2022.