Romania's Bloody Revolution: 20 Years Later

At that point, the "masses" were receiving their marching orders from Studio 4 in the Bucharest television center. Poet Mircea Dinescu had arrived there at about 1 p.m. and, after being introduced as "our hero," was put in front of a microphone. In the midst of the chaos, he managed to express the inconceivable in words: "The army is with us. The dictator has fled. God has turned his face to the Romanians once again. We have won."

We? In this hour of triumph, Dinescu still had no idea who else had joined him and occupied the headquarters of the state-owned broadcaster. He was overjoyed to have an audience once again, after months of house arrest. Dinescu, the gifted lyricist and probably the most eloquent rebel of the Ceausescu era, had hurled angry verses at the wall of silence in the name of the people: "I will break open the wall with a pickaxe and let you look in."

That afternoon, Dinescu found himself surrounded by a colorful mix of people. In addition to a few declared regime opponents, there were generals in full regalia and senior members of the Communist Party in the building. In the midst of it all was Ion Iliescu, who was once Ceausescu's crown prince and had subsequently fallen out of favor. Now, 18 years after being marginalized, he seized his opportunity.

Many of his colleagues who gradually began to arrive at Studio 4 and soon formed the core of the National Salvation Front, were old acquaintances. There was Silviu Brucan, the party ideologue of the last Stalin years and later Romania's ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, whom Ceausescu had eventually placed under house arrest. There was General Nicolae Militaru, who is believed to have conspired against Ceausescu in the 1970s. And there was General Stanculescu, who was constantly in contact with the group by telephone.

Was this a team of clever contemporaries who had happened to be "at the train station" when the revolutionary train arrived, as the crafty Brucan would later say? Or was it a small group of conspirators loyal to Moscow, for whom Brucan, as he claimed, had received the Kremlin's blessing to overthrow Ceausescu in 1988?

A Collapse of the System

Nowadays Iliescu would no longer mention "the noble goals of communism" that Ceausescu had allegedly betrayed. After 1989, Iliescu served two and half nonconsecutive terms as president of Romania. During that time, he ordered security forces to brutally suppress protesting mine workers, but also steered his country on a course to NATO and the European Union. Today, he is almost 80 years old, and he is at peace with himself. He arrives at our meeting surrounded by bodyguards and assistants.

The constant talk of a coup d'etat is nonsense, says Iliescu. The popular uprising was a reaction to a dictatorship in which no one could speak his mind, he says. "It was the collapse of the system." He, Iliescu, slid into the situation at the last minute, "with my moral authority, which I had acquired in 18 years as Ceausescu's opponent."

Only a few hours after arriving at the television station, Iliescu told millions of viewers nationwide that a group calling itself the National Salvation Front had assumed power, and that he was its leader. There are various theories as to what happened under the command of the National Salvation Front in the days leading up to the execution of the Ceausescus.

One thing is clear: More than 900 people died throughout the country.

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