One of the largest upheavals in the Balkan region was the violent overthrow of Romania’s autocratic Ceausescu regime by the democratic National Salvation Front. It marked the brutal end of the Ceausescu regime’s efforts to halt the wave of reforms breaking across Eastern Europe and the end of Romania’s nightmare of paranoia and oppression.
Nicolae Ceausescu, since he assumed ”de facto” power in 1965, treated Romania and its citizens as resources to be used in the furtherance of his dynasty. He placed thirty of his relatives in positions of power within Romania and built a personal fortune estimated in the millions of dollars. Along with Elena, his wife, he instituted several repressive policies which dehumanized the Romanian citizenry. Ceausescu’s pet projects included the repayment of a $10.2 billion foreign debt by maximizing exports to the point of creating substantial domestic shortages of food, energy, basic necessities as well as a bizarre Systemization program, which involved forcibly relocating rural residents into apartment blocks. Elena herself instituted several repressive programs to increase Romania’s birthrate, the result of which was a large number of children surrendered for adoption and an alarmingly high incidence of HIV/AIDS among children who received infected blood at birth. In order to retain power, the Ceausescus relied on the fanatical loyalty of their Securitate internal police to suppress dissent, leading to rumors of government massacres in the thousands.
It was, however, the Securitate’s repression which triggered the revolution. On December 15, 1989, Protestant pastor Laszlo Tokes who had criticized the Ceausescu regime for mistreatment of his fellow ethnic Hungarians was ordered deported. The following day, a crowd gathered near Tokes’ home in Timisoara to prevent the implementation of the deportation order. The Securitate Special Assignment Brigade allowed the protests to continue for a day before moving in with tanks and helicopter gunships and opening fire on the crowds. Several hundred casualties were reported in this first clash. Within days, demonstrations had spread to other towns and cities.
When Nicolae Ceausescu returned from a state visit to Iran on December 20, his immediate response was to declare a state of emergency in Timisoara. The following day, he attempted to give a speech to a government-sponsored rally in Bucharest promising wage increases but was shocked when the segments of the crowd turned on him and staged counter demonstrations. The Securitate were active later in the day, firing on demonstrators and using armored vehicles to disperse them. Similar armed clashes occurred in Arad, Brasov, Cluj, Sibiu, and Timisoara.
On December 22, it all fell apart. Ceausescu declared a national state of emergency and ordered the army to use force to disperse the demonstrators. Defence minister Colonel-General Vasile Milea refused, and was killed by one of Ceausescu’s bodyguards. After a last attempt to address the hostile crowd outside the Communist Party Central Committee building, Ceausescu and his wife fled the building by helicopter, leaving it to the demonstrators.
The revolutionaries at this time had organized themselves into the National Salvation Front and had received the backing of the Army. The Securitate, however, remained loyal to Ceausescu and counterattacked in a campaign of terrorism intended to frighten the Romanian people into submission. Heavy fighting took place in Bucharest, Sibiu, and Timisoara around hospitals, media buildings, and key government facilities.
By December 25 the revolution was all over. The Securitate threat had been largely neutralized by Army and National Salvation Front militia, although small pockets of resistance remained. The NSF was in control of the country. Finally, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, who had been captured late on December 22, were tried secretly on Christmas morning and then executed before a firing squad.