With Russia’s aggression and Ukraine’s problems in the impeachment headlines, it’s easy to forget how far most of the Warsaw Pact nations have come since 1989.
Thirty years ago, Romania was a police state, with a shrinking economy. Today, it’s a democracy with a rising standard of living.
What happened? It was not an invasion by US troops or a tweet storm.
On Christmas Day 1989, Romania’s dictator and his wife were executed in Târgoviște, Romania. It was one of the last acts in the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. His killers were what Donald Trump would call the deep state: government bureaucrats from the defense and intelligence agencies, acting on their view of their nation’s interests, sided against the head of state. But they did not act in a vacuum. Ordinary people around the nation, at great risk to their lives, had taken to the streets to demand change.
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena had resisted the end of Communist totalitarianism in the region — and impoverished their country in a misguided effort to pay off foreign loans. Their people — and the higher levels of the bureaucracy — turned against them.
In the West, Romania’s revolution didn’t have the romance of the Prague Spring, Poland’s Solidarity backed by Pope John Paul II, or Berliners dancing and singing on the wall. And, in Romania, many don’t even think it was a revolution, since the successor regime was dominated by former Communists, not anti-Communists.
But December 25, 1989 did mark the end of totalitarianism in Romania. Ceausescu’s successors, from the former Communist youth leader who replaced him, Ion Iliescu, to Romania's current president Klaus Johannis, had to win elections, endure western-style media criticism, and assemble parliamentary majorities to govern.
Today it’s easy to identify Romania’s problems — a standard of living still below the European average, too much corruption, under-investment in good roads and rail. The Russians would love to destroy Romania’s democracy and use it to weaken the EU and NATO. But it’s also easy to overlook Romania’ strengths — people with strong work ethics, skills in engineering, language, and IT, and cultural ties to Western Europe. And, Romanians are no patsies for Russian propaganda. Because of their history of invasion and oppression by Russians, they were anti-Putin before it was cool.
Romania is now the ninth-largest member of the EU and one of the few NATO countries which meets the Alliance’s goal of defense spending. Last year, its economy grew faster than any other in Europe. It’s not at the level of Italy or Denmark. But it’s dynamism is greater. That’s a big deal.
As important, while countries from the UK (and the US) to Poland and Hungary are gripped by ethnic and cultural conflict, Romania isn’t. It has minorities with serious interests and issues, but its politics are more about social policy and clean government than identity. Its Hungarian minority, about seven per cent of the population, has its own party, governs some localities, and joins coalition governments at the national level. In this fall’s free, fair, and competitive presidential election, the winner was the ethnic German center-right incumbent who defeated the center-left candidate of the party of former communists. (Germans make up 2 tenths of one percent of the population.)
The bottom line is that, thirty years after the fall of Communism, Romania is a normal European country — democratic and market oriented — with normal problems.
That’s something to celebrate this Christmas.
Jim Rosapepe is former U.S. ambassador to Romania (1998-2001) and a member of the Board of the Council of American Ambassadors. Sheilah Kast, a journalist and host of WYPR's "On the Record," is his wife. Together they wrote “Dracula is Dead: Travels in Post-Communist Romania.”