The wave of revolutions that swept away central Europe's communist regimes 30 years ago was remarkably peaceful until it struck Romania. More than 1,100 people were killed and thousands hurt as protests to end Nicolae Ceausescu's 24-year dictatorship met with brutal violence from the military, police and Securitate secret police.
Most of the casualties came after Ceausescu was ousted on December 22nd 1989, during several more days of chaos that made the birth of democratic Romania a bloody and bitter affair. Ceausescu’s former underlings had stepped into the breach and seized power, which they would retain for most of the next 15 years and use to block investigations into the revolution and its aftermath.
Last month, a Bucharest court launched hearings into whether crimes against humanity were committed by former Romanian president Ion Iliescu and other ex-communists who took control of the country when Ceausescu fled. They are accused of using “diversion and misinformation” and “chaotic shootings and contradictory military orders” to sow mayhem and kill and sideline protesters, before claiming legitimacy by halting the terror they had orchestrated.
Twelve years after Romania joined the EU, it has yet to establish the truth about how its democratic state took shape. Building on such shaky ground has undermined Romania's justice system and eroded trust in a state that has shielded Ceausescu's successors at the expense of the victims of 1989. Experts do not have high hopes for the trial that began last month, yet Romania is ending 2019 as a regional bright spot for the rule of law, which is under attack from populist leaders in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Civil society and huge protests helped stop the Social Democratic Party (PSD) crippling Romania's anti-corruption laws, and boosted the liberals who last month ousted Iliescu's old party from power. Three decades after risking their lives to remove a tyrant, Romanians used the street and the ballot box to restate their commitment to democracy.