The revolution of 1989 – A case of Romanian exceptionalism?
A conversation with Marius Stan, a scholar and co-author of Romania Confronts its Communist Past: Democracy, Memory and Moral Justice. He is currently the research director of the Hannah Arendt Center at the University of Bucharest. Interviewer: Simona Merkinaite.
Editor’s note: Parts of this interview were found to have been lifted (in some cases nearly word-for-word) from an article published nearly 20 years earlier. The interviewee did not cite the article, but we are adding its full citation in the footnote for further reference and to give credit to the original author. We apologize for the oversight.
SIMONA MERKINAITE: In the post-Stalin era, Nicolae Ceaușescu built one of the world’s most despotic regimes in Romania. Is this the main reason why 1989 turned out so bloody in Romania, compared to other countries in the region? Would you attribute this bloody uprising to the cult of personality leadership style that was sustained and enforced by the secret police, and the fact that Ceaușescu managed to build a dictatorship of his own rather than be a satellite of the Soviet empire? In general, is this because a regime in which society is held together by force in the end cannot be overthrown without blood?
MARIUS STAN: From the very beginning, I have to say that we should probably talk about the profound continuity between Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and his successor, Nicolae Ceaușescu. What happened was that Ceaușescu practiced a kind of national Stalinism. In fact, it was a blend of Stalinist methods of repression and manipulation, mixed with the anti-western resentment commonly existing in the Third World. To the chagrin of many communist leaders in the Soviet Bloc, the Romanian autocrat practiced a highly personal version of socialism, one in which men are bound to the messianic party and the “steerage” of the Ceaușescu family. It is essential to understand that for the Romanian communist regime, as well as for the Soviet one, the individual was nothing but an element of abstract reference, or a cog in the wheel in the grand mechanism, if we may. So, the source of all power was the monolithic party apparatus or, more accurately, the party leadership’s collective dictates, as articulated by the General Secretary.
Now, coming back to the question of Romanian’s “bloody” exceptionalism – of all the revolutionary events of 1989, Romania is the only country in the former Warsaw Pact (the Soviet Union not included) where authoritarianism succeeded totalitarianism. In other words, if we accept the concept of “post-totalitarianism” as formulated by people like Václav Havel, Agnès Heller, Ferenc Fehér or György Márkus as the last, decaying stage of communist regimes in the Soviet Bloc, Romania was the exception to the extent that Ceaușescu’s dictatorship symbolised radicalisation (look at the 1980s, for instance) instead of de-radicalisation. This, I think, explains both the violent demise of dynastic socialism and the successor regime’s spasmodic birth. Regimes can fall in many ways, and the USSR fell apart without obvious trumpets blaring. However, yes, I think the global trend is this — the more oppressive the regime is, the greater the chances of radicalising the rebellious act. Regarding Romania, the fundamental problem that we had to deal with was that of the beneficiaries of the authentic popular uprising.
Stephen Kotkin once wrote that civil society was at best very weak, precarious and fragile in Romania during the 1980s, while its opposite, the uncivil society (the nomenklatura), grew exponentially as part of the institutional elephantiasis of Ceaușescu’s autocracy. The December 1989 revolution got rid of the old regime’s most obnoxious features, including the dictatorial couple, but not the second and third echelons of the nomenklatura.
Now, much of what was supposed to be a glorious moment of national rebirth has remained shrouded in mystery, mainly because the new power holders, veteran Leninist ideologue Ion Iliescu and his associates, constructed a new mythology meant to foster their image as pristine democrats. They were merely echoing Gorbachev’s perestroika (limited reforms from the top) and resented any form of spontaneous societal self-organisation. The conflict between the new rulers, “the power”, and the nascent civil and political society reached its early climax in June 1990 when the government resorted to extra-legal forces (the Jiu Valley miners) to smash anti-communist protests in University Square in Bucharest and other places.
Following that traumatic episode, it took years for Romanian civil society to regroup itself and reclaim a robust public sphere. My point is that violence continued well into the new regime, and this reality triggers questions about the legitimacy of Iliescu’s first bout in power. From this point of view, we may not have had a negotiated transition, as in Central Europe, but an extension of a reality still plagued by enduring Leninist legacies. Leszek Kołakowski was right to call this debris “moving ruins”, referring to the old elites’ avatars and the presence of the old regime’s ideological and cultural relics. Institutionally, Kołakowski argued communism had died. Morally, its pathologies continued to haunt the post-communist world. Sadly, it was bound to be accurate, especially in the case of Romania…
I think that for the rest of Europe, and maybe even the world, one of the symbols of the downfall of the Soviet empire is the picture of Ceaușescu on the balcony, ready to address the crowd of people, expecting to get the fake and forced approval of the crowd, but he actually gets booed. This is the unexpected element of the political world. Under Ceaușescu’s rule, there was no evidence of coup plotting or organising an independent political or civic movement. Usually when people stood up to express a dissenting view, they were ruthlessly repressed, imprisoned, killed or pushed into exile. And so, the refusal to bow to the leader right there on the square in December 1989 is a symbol of reclaiming power by the people. Under a despotic authoritarian regime, there always is a question of how – how do acts of dissent grow into mobilised mass opposition. Could you share a little bit of the Romanian perspective?
The December 1989 revolution was born as an explosion of popular revolt against a totalitarian dictatorship in a terminal crisis. Today we can make several considerations about the nature of this historical moment and its meanings. I would firstly say that in December 1989, Romania was indisputably in a state of political, economic and moral disarray. The old regime had lived its life and had no means of survival. All the regime had to do was resort to psychological and physical terror.
First, in the Jiu Valley in the summer of 1977, then in Brașov in November 1987, Ceaușescu’s regime had faced significant spontaneous movements willing to reject the overall repressive system. The myth of a predestined leader and that of the communist party as “the vanguard detachment of the working class” had finally been dispelled. Nationalist-chauvinist demagoguery, meant to provide a symbolic foundation to the dictatorship, was just a smokescreen used by cynical propagandists. “Dynastic socialism” became even more vulnerable with Gorbachev’s initiation of the liberalisation strategy known as perestroika and glasnost.
It is important to stress that Ceaușescu was already isolated internationally and very much despised by a desperate population. The revolt in Timișoara on December 16th 1989 was the inaugural moment in a series of actions that would culminate in Bucharest and other cities on December 22nd and 23rd, and which effectively constituted a revolution as the foundation of freedom. The fact that a revolution took place in Romania seems hard to deny, at least in its consequences. Nevertheless, it was an interrupted revolution, and this interruption explains the subsequent convulsions.
Romanian dissent during communism was at best limited, or
weak, in Kotkin’s terms. Moreover, dissent within the party-state structure was
interpreted as a betrayal of the leader and an anti-socialist gesture. The
tumultuous relationship between communist Romania and the Soviet Union led
dissidents to be accused of serving the Kremlin’s interests. It was a tactic
aimed at isolating them both within the party structure and a deeply anti-Russian
population. The same strategy had been used against reformist intellectuals to
isolate them from the rest of the intelligentsia. Ceauşescu’s grip over society
and the party apparatus was totalistic enough to make dissent a quixotic
endeavour, or even a form of suicide. From this point of view, the generic
Romanian dissenter was a lone wolf, incapable of generating solidarity
Romanian dissent during communism was at best limited, or weak, in Kotkin’s terms. Moreover, dissent within the party-state structure was interpreted as a betrayal of the leader and an anti-socialist gesture. The tumultuous relationship between communist Romania and the Soviet Union led dissidents to be accused of serving the Kremlin’s interests. It was a tactic aimed at isolating them both within the party structure and a deeply anti-Russian population. The same strategy had been used against reformist intellectuals to isolate them from the rest of the intelligentsia. Ceauşescu’s grip over society and the party apparatus was totalistic enough to make dissent a quixotic endeavour, or even a form of suicide. From this point of view, the generic Romanian dissenter was a lone wolf, incapable of generating solidarity demonstrations.
Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan probably captured the success of Ceaușescu’s regime in eliminating all forms of an autonomous organisation best when they spoke of its “sultanistic patrimonialism.” Moreover, the totalitarian policies of social control atomised the population and deepened older cleavages in Romanian society, especially between intellectuals and the rest of the society. Romanian intellectuals’ personal courage in the late 1980s had little impact on society. It is not at all surprising that we did not have a negotiated transition in Romania. The highly repressive nature of Ceaușescu’s dictatorship made anti-regime protests inevitable and spontaneous. Their primary source was no longer an intellectual one, as in other former communist states, but ordinary individuals and fringe groups, who, in the absence of a cohesive and articulated revolutionary programme, with the notable exception of the “Timișoara Proclamation”, took part in the chaotic and violent transformation of society. That was the nature of our mass opposition in 1989. That was, yet again, a case of “Romanian exceptionalism”.
The “balcony scene” is, without a doubt, essential. Addressing the crowd from that balcony, Ceaușescu was struggling to calm down an increasingly hostile mob. Everything seemed in vain, and at one point, the nation’s father shows up in a distant, small and insignificant helicopter, fleeing from the rooftops of the Central Committee. It was, to be sure, a dream of history, not the history of a dream. So, you are right — that unexpected moment of changing the balance of power, against all odds, of self-empowerment at the very base of the social pyramid is, in fact, equivalent to abandoning fear and regaining civic courage. Through its novelty and momentousness, it announced a new body politic. Revolutions, historical breakthroughs and great political upheavals do not start in a day, as we know from François Furet. There are, however, symbolic moments like this one that “seal” the break with l’ancien régime decisively and unforgettable.
It seems to me that a dictatorship built on the cult of personality is also at the core of the forceful response to protests in Belarus today. Do you see any parallels between Romania prior to, and during, 1989 and Belarus today? Is there anything the civil dissent movements can learn from Romania, or can the history of transition offer any warnings to the civil disobedience movements today?
We would not be wrong to link the “lost treasure” (to borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase) of all the revolutions of 1989, not just the Romanian one, to contemporary civic movements of self-empowerment. Since you have mentioned the history of transition, it is evident that in recent years protests have become a regular instrument in the hands of citizens of various ideological backgrounds. We deal with a routinisation of non-confrontational forms of civic action, which can lead to a society of social movements. The elements of this new social structure and civic ethos are still a work in progress, of course, although we can already see in them the beginnings of direct democracy…
The 20th century provides many instances of personality cults all across the globe. In this respect, I highly recommend Dutch historian Frank Dikötter’s latest work How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury, 2019), where he touches upon Ceaușescu as well. It is true, except for Enver Hoxha in Albania, no other East European leader of the post-Stalin period had managed to create such a celebrated yet coercive and pervasive cult of personality as the Romanian autocrat. The celebration even seemed grotesque in the rest of the Soviet Bloc, just as much as [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka seems today for the rest of the post-Soviet space, except Putin’s Russia, of course. Let us also remember how Ceaușescu’s asphyxiating cult prompted the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to speak in private of him as “the Romanian Führer”.
The factors that contributed to the development of a deep and explosive social, political and economic crisis in Romania toward the end of the 1980s came from such a personal regime – a highly centralised model of leadership based on clan instead of party dictatorship, an obedient and demoralised political class, reliance on coercive methods of domination and Ceaușescu’s opposition to liberal reforms. If we take the same variables and check them against the current Belarussian state, we realise that the suggested pattern is confirmed.
After his first election in 1994, Lukashenka pursued his dream of consolidating personal power by taking advantage of the unfulfilled expectations for a better life of ordinary Belarusians. He thus came to power at a time when disillusionment regarding the absence of immediate benefits of their state’s independence had generated a wave of nostalgia for the relative stability of the Soviet Union. In May 1995, Lukashenka organised a referendum on restoring some of the symbols (flag and anthem) of Soviet Belarus. A year later, in 1996, the same president triggered a second referendum and managed to dissolve the legitimately elected parliament, replacing it with a group of loyal supporters. In so doing, Lukashenka practically eradicated the separation of powers that underpins democratic governance and began to build the quasi-totalitarian system that exists today.
Like Ceaușescu in communist Romania, Belarus’s disputed president has almost absolute power over the country, primarily through the vertical structure of political and personal influence he has created. He places himself above everything by controlling the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government. The parliament (called the Great National Assembly in communist Romania) is loyal to Lukashenka, wholly obedient and powerless. In many instances, the contested president of Belarus issues decrees and orders that become laws. He also appoints and removes almost every judge in the country, from the Supreme Court to the Constitutional Court and any other regional courts.
As we know, both dictators, Ceaușescu and Lukashenka, have resorted at one point or another to political murder. I’m not going to dwell here on Ceaușescu’s bloody deeds, which are already known and proved. Instead, I should mention 1999, a tragic year for Belarusian democracy, when the authoritarian Lukashenka regime challenged political morality’s limits by physically getting rid of its political opponents Gennady Karpenko, Yuri Zakharenko, Viktor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky and others. Their assassination, followed by the disappearance of the bodies, signalled that the regime was ready to resort to the physical elimination of its opposition. From this point of view, even if the means are reminiscent of the Soviet experience at large, I would compare Lukashenka to Vladimir Putin.
The last stage in Belarus’s aggregation as a totalitarian state began after the 2001 elections, when Lukashenka, securing another five years in power, laid the groundwork for his presidency’s unlimited extension (something Vladimir Putin accomplished only earlier this year). Thus, what had been authoritarian in nature became totalitarian, and today’s Belarus shows all the worrisome signs – a leader obsessed with controlling all aspects of national life, the absence of separation of powers, monopoly over the media, rigid censorship and shameless propaganda incessantly praising the current system’s “advantages.” There is also a selective attitude toward history, while pro-democratic landmarks are being removed from the official narratives. There are plenty of witch hunts involving repressive security agents who, of course, do not shy away from mass intimidation and terror, as well as denying the existence of any legitimate opposition.
However, unlike Ceaușescu, who remained a convinced Leninist until the day of his final execution on December 25th 1989, Lukashenka does not care whether his state has an ideology. Today’s Belarus lacks what can be called a coherent doctrine, but it does have a government programme designed to instil in the population something of a state dogma, contributing to Lukashenka’s total control over society. The only element missing from today’s totalitarian Belarus is a single mass party. Lukashenka, who pretends to be the rightful successor to Soviet leadership, seems to have discovered that he does not need one. This model seems more efficient to him because it does not require formal decision-making procedures. It is also why one person, together with his group of sycophants, exercises full power and decides everything.
What seems to have escaped Lukashenka’s totalitarian mindset all this time is the so-called “phenomenon of contagion.” And speaking of contagion, it is not at all irrelevant that the Romanian revolution started in Timisoara, along the border with already crumbling communist regimes. The accession of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to the European Union was the first moment to generate a certain transmogrification of Belarusians’ attitudes toward Europe. That was quite a remarkable change, if we consider the absence of objective information in Belarus, doubled by inflation of negative information about the problems that the new EU members would have had. Nevertheless, the “contagion” happened.
Over time, this growing pro-European sentiment has eroded Lukashenka’s basis of support, because he is a leader known for having no pro-European agenda and being hostile to western values. This got to the point where it currently expresses itself in the streets through massive and uninhibited protests. From this point of view, I would instead compare the current pro-democratic movement in Belarus with what happened in Romania between 2017-2018, when this member of the European family was going through severe authoritarian backsliding and democratic breakdown. The Romanian “lessons” are, in fact, warnings that in the absence of civic courage and solidarity, the ever-present authoritarian temptation might make a horrid comeback in the shape of a “captive state”. We are safe from such harm right now in Romania, however, democratic life requires a daily struggle and constant courage, as painfully proven by recent clashes between local civil society and a corrupt government dominated by the same social-democratic party whose honorary president still is Ion Iliescu…
How did the meaning of 1989 change over time? Was there a change after the condemnation of the communist regime, which happened exactly 17 years after the uprising in December of 1989 began?
I think we must first take a look at the objectives of 1989. It is the only way to realise where we started and where we came from. The revolution’s first goal was to destroy the totalitarian institutional structures that functioned in the region – the one-party regime, a planned economy (which proved its bankruptcy), propaganda institutions that ultimately controlled life and, first and foremost, the spiritual life. In 1989, all these institutions collapsed; they had been annihilated.
Obviously, in the liberal thinking of the Eastern and Central European dissent movement, for reasons related to a very high expectation threshold, the communist elites’ persistence was not anticipated. There are many exciting studies on this topic, including in Romania. On the meanings of 1989, there was a second element that I do not believe was anticipated – the persistence of Leninist-type mental forms and a Manichean conception of political space, which generates polarisation. Of course, polarisations exist, but these visions strengthen, consolidate and perpetuate them. It is not that things would not be relatively polarised in the western world, but at least there is also a culture of consensus and a culture of dialogue.
We now know for sure that one of the meanings of the revolution of December 1989 was precisely the long-awaited resurrection of an aggressed and often humiliated Romanian civil society. What we must keep in mind when analysing the legacies of critical intellectuals after 1989 is that taking power was not the ultimate dissident dream. Anti-political activists in the 1970s and 1980s were ready to restore truth and morality to the public sphere, rehabilitate civic virtues and put an end to all methods of totalitarian control, intimidation and coercion.
Their intentions were indeed radical, but only in terms of those institutions that kept the Leninist party-state machinery in motion. Thus, their revolution was self-limited. They wanted to detonate the Leninist regimes with the dynamite of democratic values, and in this sense, they succeeded. Only in this sense has the deep meaning of 1989 remained unchanged.
Why did this process of condemnation take such a long time in Romania? It seems that people there witnessed the worst of tyrannical regimes for quite a prolonged time due to the regime’s cult of personality. The terrible neglect of the people can be mentioned here as well, as Romania has become known post-1989 as a country with a harrowing AIDS outbreak among orphaned kids, often referred to as Ceaușescu’s children. It illustrates the horrors of the Soviet system. Can it be attributed to the fact that Ion Iliescu, previously a loyal functionary of the party, immediately took over power, so there was no clear break from the regime?
The two totalitarian experiences that plagued Romania’s second half of the 20th century officially became “another country” after 1989. This was also a regrettable characteristic for the Democratic Convention during President Emil Constantinescu’s administration (1996-2000). Let us not forget that only after his scandalous comments on the Holocaust in Romania, which provoked a strong reaction both in diplomatic and international academic circles, did Ion Iliescu create, in 2004 (so at the end of his last term), the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (ICHR), chaired by celebrated writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel.
The objective of this “mis-memory” of the totalitarian experience in the country was indeed to fuel legitimisation discourses of the post-communist political establishment, the “original democracy,” designed by Iliescu and his acolytes in the first post-communist years. This is at least one explanation of why it took so long for the post-communist Romanian society to confront its multiple traumatic pasts. In terms of historical memory, one significant achievement had been the condemnation, in December 2006, of the communist dictatorship as illegitimate and criminal. This, in turn, provoked one of the most heated controversies between supporters of de-communisation, including lustration, and a united coalition of nostalgic communists, ultra-nationalists and various beneficiaries of the Iliescu semi-authoritarian system. Unlike other former communist countries, Romania’s break with the dictatorial past cannot be separated from the “original sin” of the post-communist order. Maintaining the myth of its emergence as a spontaneous rejection of the communist dictatorship was (and still is!) the main legitimising source for those who took power in December 1989. Therefore, it is the clash between Iliescu’s self-serving narrative and the civil society approach. Simply put, the Iliescu regime — from 1990-1996 and 2000-2004 — was politically and institutionally authoritarian and intensely hostile to pluralism and the rule of law.
The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz often comes to mind when thinking about the political changes of 1989 and the speed with which the people in power adapted to the new circumstances and became the faces of the opposition. In the book, Miłosz described a special personality trait, Ketman, which can live with contradictions of doing one thing and believing another, adapting to all the changing rules and a quickly evolving environment, while deceiving oneself that you somehow still remain an autonomous subject willing to separate right from wrong. In a broader sense, can this sort of captivity of the mind account for the weakness of democracy in Romania and other countries of the region? Just like the communist elites who, in the face of political change, in 1989 adapted to the pro-democratic movement, and now as we witness the backsliding in democracy globally, will they again re-orient themselves toward authoritarian politics?
After 1989, Romanians felt no nostalgia for Nicolae Ceaușescu, but for the age of predictability and frozen stability when the single party state took care of everything. For so many, the leap into the kingdom of freedom proved to be extremely painful. What disappeared was the certainty about the limits of permissibility and the petrified social ceremonies that had defined a person’s existence. Of course, The Captive Mind became an essential document of anti-totalitarian literature. It was a demystifying work in a century of bloody ideological storms. When it came out in 1953, it triggered the anger of left-wing intelligentsia of Rive Gauche. For Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir (not to mention Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet), Stalin was still the name of the alternative to the execrated imperialism of an America deemed fascist. They had suspended their critical reason and placed all their hopes in the East. So, the phenomenon you were describing had a western version as well.
While focussed on the discussion of the communist Ketman, as an expression of the mental schizophrenia specific to the totalitarian universe, the theme of The Captive Mind is, of course, an enduring topic. What happened in the “people’s democracies” was an attempt to gain total control over the human spirit. Hence the crucial role of conditioning through ideology. For Marxists, freedom was and is not an autonomous value, but an “understood necessity” – that is, explained according to the party’s interests. As Miłosz himself wrote, man must be made to understand and to accept. Who are the enemies of the new (communist) system? Those who do not understand. In their case, the solution turned out to be bullets, prisons and concentration camps. Ideology thus became an instrument of moral anaesthesia and a smokescreen covering all hidden drives and criminal actions. That ideology taught people to hate people in the name of an abstract love for humanity.
Here is the crux of the matter: the individual’s desire to belong and find a political and moral purpose that would give an immortal meaning to his/her existence. To be sure, there existed a belief that the revolution would establish a “divine kingdom,” hic et nunc. Miłosz examines four cases of such regimentation in the communist movement by frantically embracing the Marxist faith. It is perhaps a fascinating part of a book meant to last as an expression of truth, alongside the writings of Orwell, Koestler or Solzhenitsyn. The very much missed historian Tony Judt was right in writing this about The Captive Mind: “Between Ketman and the Pill of Murti-Bing, Miłosz brilliantly dissects the state of mind of the fellow traveller, the deluded idealist and the cynical time server.”
Miłosz writes about people he had been close with and whose post-war evolution shocked him. The cases he discusses can undoubtedly shed light on similar behaviours and rationalisations among the Romanian intelligentsia. Especially after 1956, the actions of disappointed intellectuals and revisionist apostates proved that the enslavement of thought is not eternal. The conflict between “priests” and “jesters” described by Leszek Kołakowski led to the erosion of dogma and the resurrection of dignity. The case of Polish poet Adam Ważyk, author of the remarkable “Poem for Adults,” a text which made Stalinist mythological certainties explode, is revealing for the possibility of cancelling – by rediscovering inner freedom – the hallucinogenic effects of Murti Bing pills. Other similar reactions can be mentioned, from a young François Furet to Marxist Hungarian playwright Gyula Háy.
As I have tried to explain, the Romanian rocky road to transition had many facets and causes. It is true. The communist ideology had been incredibly incisive and suffocating, an atmosphere that people like Miłosz or Koestler knew so well and could describe. However, that is also why the loss of this teleology has been felt so strongly in the post-communist world. That is why everyone today seems to be looking for that purpose, or at least a substitute, in a compelling scenario meant to ascribe some meaning to a chaotic present.
In my opinion, it is not as much about the “captivity of the mind” – at least not 30 years after – as it is about a complex phenomenon called nostalgia. Moreover, this nostalgia has become a self-defence mechanism against the accelerated pace of change and economic shock therapies. Perhaps many reformers of the 1990s were blinded by the “rescue mission” of the free market. Historical determinism was replaced by economic determinism. The lost revolutionary teleology that had given meaning and purpose to the chaotic transition after 1917 in Russia, and after 1945 in Central and Eastern Europe, was rediscovered as economic teleology. It was hoped that the free market could generate the necessary democratic institutions and reflexes, but it was not like that. As Svetlana Boym once noted, the “privatisation of nostalgia” went hand-in-hand with economic privatisation, turning the personal nostalgia of someone young in the 1970s into a public and political instrument. This phenomenon was part of a strategy to encourage the “epidemic of nostalgia” to cover the traces of some reprehensible actions today.
As for your last question, let us briefly mention Viktor Orbán’s political metanoia. It is proof that many Central and Eastern European leaders, once they saw themselves as members of the reunited European family, went back to the old nationalistic shibboleths and added a crust of kleptocracy to something which – yes, you are right – puts them at the starting block of authoritarian temptation.
You and Vladimir Tismaneanu once wrote that the current democratic backsliding and rise in authoritarianism is an expression of political anger and moral outrage. I always wonder how much it is applicable to young democracies, such as our countries in the Central and Eastern Europe region, where there is no formal tradition of participation or hope for justice and truth in politics. Are our countries more receptive to authoritarian impulses because here people have no habit of associating politics with anything noble, but instead rather dirty, where they are convinced that their voices do not matter?
Both Vladimir and I have written extensively on what is called the “new authoritarian wave.” We are all aware that Eastern and Central Europe is experiencing a vicious return to authoritarianism. Your question can be answered in many ways, but the fact is that Romania dealt with such a backsliding recently, and after more than two years of protests and civic pressure, the infamous social-democratic government collapsed.
I should also mention the August 10th 2018 episode, when faced with legitimate public grievances, the then leaders resorted to tear gas and water cannons. Thankfully, immediate national and international outrage ensured that authorities’ refrain from using force against protests continued. In reality, Romania’s malaise stems from the all-pervasive corruption of its ruling elite. This corruption spills everywhere, and it is embedded in the country’s health and education system, its transportation networks, post offices and so on. It works at the expense of average citizens and permeates every level of communal organisation and daily life in post-communist Romania.
Of course, the then ruling party, the Social Democratic Party, made infamous attempts to overhaul judicial legislation, which looked very much authoritarian from the outside. Nevertheless, in real terms, the ruling party did so to protect itself and its interests. Romanian civil society’s rediscovered civic drive directly resulted from the government’s constant assault on democracy and the rule of law. In the end, it turned out to be a clash between those who cherish open society and the rule of law, and those who resent it. Nevertheless, these are not necessarily classic ideological cleavages, as proven by the heterogeneous political preferences of the many Romanians who took to the streets, sometimes daily, between 2017-2019. The good news is that the civic revolution gave birth to a political movement which already has serious chances of success in the upcoming legislative elections. So, at least in Romania after 2017, people have not been receptive to authoritarian impulses, and they have realised that their voice matters.
There has always been political anger and moral outrage. The issue is reorienting them towards the best possible outcomes. Of course, Belarus remains relevant for comparison with both 1989 and more recent pro-democratic movements. The drive of those people, of the Belarusian civil society, stems from the same moral outrage that brought thousands and thousands of individuals to the streets of Bucharest in 1989. What we need now, and this seems quite urgent, is to quickly understand and reverse the rhythm of democratic backsliding in the region. It will take a lot of public pressure and much courage, but we can only answer with full European solidarity to the challenges that remain.
Cited article and for further reference:
 Hall, Richard Andrew. “Theories of collective action and revolution: evidence from the Romanian transition of December 1989.” Europe-Asia Studies 52.6 (2000): 1069-1093.
Simona Merkinaite is a Rethinking Europe progamme expert with Open Lithuania Foundation and is doing a PhD focusing on Arendt at Vilnius University.
Marius Stan is a political scientist and research director of the Hannah Arendt Center at the University of Bucharest. Together with Vladimir Tismaneanu, he co-authored Romania Confronts its Communist Past: Democracy, Memory, and Moral Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
This interview was conducted within the framework of the project titled “Rethinking the Democratic Future: Lessons from the Twentieth Century” which aims to rethink democracy, civic engagement and ideas of Europe from 1989 to 2019. The project is a joint co-operation between the Open Lithuania Foundation, Respublica Foundation and the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe. The project is co-financed by the Europe for Citizens programme of the European Union. For more on the project visit: https://visegradinsight.eu/rethink1989/rethinking-the-democratic-future/
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