The Romanian Revolution of 1989 was a week-long series of increasingly violent riots and fighting in late December 1989 that overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu, and after a summary trial, the execution of Ceauşescu and his wife Elena by firing squad. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country to overthrow its Communist regime violently or to execute its leaders.
By 1989, Ceauşescu was showing signs of a complete denial of reality. . Ceauşescu claimed that under his regime the arts were flourishing, healthcare was at an all-time high, the sciences were making breakthrough discoveries, and the CAPs (kolkhozes, another allure of no de-Stalinization) were making record harvests, enough to serve the country for years to come. All the people really got was a lifetime of propaganda, barrack-like apartments, physically insolvent healthcare services (resulting in a huge HIV epidemic), crippling energy shortages, hours of waiting outside empty bread ration stores, and the continuous demolition of buildings around the country only to be replaced by low quality Stalinist style Buildings. Also, while people were suffering under his disastrous policies, Ceauşescu and his family were living the high life, with large palaces boasting luxuries outseating even today's standards. Ceauşescu, like other dictators, began placing his second son, Nicu, (his first son was adopted) in the spotlight for succession. Obviously, people did not want Nicu to succeed his father, as he was seen as even worse than him due to the fact he was known for his Gambling problems, his drinking problem, and being responsible for many car crashes and rapes around Bucharest. Indeed, the people were being increasingly dissatisfied with Ceauşescu's family and policies.
Unlike the other Warsaw Pact leaders, Ceauşescu had not been slavishly pro-Soviet, but rather had pursued an "independent" foreign policy based on that of Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia (which Ceausescu used to his advantage after his death). While Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of reform, Ceauşescu emulated the political hard-line, megalomania, and personality cults of East Asian communist leaders such as North Korea's Kim Il Sung. Even after the Berlin Wall fell and Ceauşescu's closest comrades, GDR's leader Eric Honecker resigned, and Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov was replaced in November 1989, Ceauşescu ignored the threat to his position as the last old-style communist leader in Eastern Europe.
Riots and protests resumed the following day, December 17. The rioters broke into the District Committee building and threw Party documents, propaganda brochures, Ceauşescu's writings, and other symbols of communist power out the windows. Again, the protesters attempted to set the building on fire, but this time they were stopped by military units. Since Romania did not have a riot police (Ceauşescu, who belived the Romanian people loved him, never saw the need for the formation of one), the military were sent in to control the riots, since the situation was too large for the Securitate and police to handle. The significance of the army presence in the streets was an ominous one: it meant that they had received their orders from the highest level of the command chain, presumably from Ceauşescu himself. The army failed to establish order and chaos ensued with gunfire, fights, casualties, and burned cars. Transport Auto Blindat (TAB) (APC) armored personnel carriers and tanks were called in. After 8:00 p.m., from Piaţa Libertăţii (Liberty Square) to the Opera there was wild shooting, including the area of Decebal bridge, Calea Lipovei (Lipovei Avenue), and Calea Girocului (Girocului Avenue). Tanks, trucks, and TABs blocked the accesses into the city while helicopters hovered overhead. After midnight the protests calmed down. Ion Coman, Ilie Matei, and Ştefan Guşă inspected the city, in which some areas looked like the aftermath of a war: destruction, ash, and blood.
The morning of December 18, the centre was being guarded by soldiers and Securitate-agents in plainclothes. Mayor Moţ ordered a Party gathering to take place at the University, with the purpose of condemning the "vandalism" of the previous days. He also declared martial law, prohibiting people from going about in groups larger than two people. Defying the curfew, a group of 30 young men headed for the Orthodox Cathedral, where they stopped and waved a Romanian flag from which they had removed the Romanian Communist coat of arms. Expecting that they would be fired upon, they started to sing "Deşteaptă-te, române!" (Wake up, Romanians), an earlier national song that had been banned since 1947. They were, indeed, fired upon and some died, and others were seriously injured, while the lucky ones were able to escape.
On December 19, Radu Bălan and Ştefan Guşă visited the workers in the city’s factories, but failed to get them to resume work. On December 20, massive columns of workers were entering the city. About 100,000 protesters occupied Piaţa Operei (Opera Square — today Piaţa Victoriei, Victory Square) and started to chant anti-government protests: "Noi suntem poporul!" ("We are the people!"), "Armata e cu noi!" ("The army is on our side!"), "Nu vă fie frică, Ceauşescu pică!" ("Have no fear, Ceauşescu will fall"). Meanwhile, Emil Bobu and Constantin Dăscălescu were sent by Elena Ceauşescu (Nicolae Ceauşescu being at that time in Iran), to solve the situation. They met with a delegation of the protesters and accepted freeing the majority of the arrested protesters. However, they refused to comply with the protesters’ main demand (resignation of Ceauşescu), and the situation remained essentially unchanged. The next day, trains loaded with workers originating from factories in Oltenia arrived in Timişoara. The regime was attempting to use them to repress the mass protests, but they finally ended up joining the protests. One worker explained: "Yesterday, our factory boss and a Party official rounded us up in the yard, handed us wood clubs and told us that Hungarians and ‘hooligans’ were devastating Timişoara and that it is our duty to go there and help crush the riots. But now I realize that this is not true."
On December 18, 1989, Ceauşescu had departed for a visit to Iran, leaving the duty of crushing the Timişoara revolt to his subordinates and his wife. Upon his return on the evening of December 20, the situation became even more tense, and he gave a televised speech from the TV studio inside the Central Committee Building (CC Building), in which he spoke about the events at Timişoara in terms of an "interference of foreign forces in Romania's internal affairs" and an "external aggression on Romania's sovereignty." The country, which had no information of the Timişoara events from the national media, heard about the Timişoara revolt from Western radio stations like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and by word of mouth. A mass meeting was staged for the next day, December 21, which, according to the official media, was presented as a "spontaneous movement of support for Ceauşescu," emulating the 1968 meeting in which Ceauşescu had spoken against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact forces.
As he was addressing the crowd from the balcony of the Central Committee building, sudden movement came from the outskirts of the massed assembly, as did the sound of (what various sources have reported as) fireworks, bombs, or guns, which together caused the assembly to break into chaos. Initially frightened, the crowds tried to disperse. Bullhorns then began to spread the news that the Securitate was firing on the crowd and that a "revolution" was unfolding. This persuaded people in the assembly to join in. The rally turned into a protest demonstration. The entire speech was being broadcast live around Romania, and it is estimated that perhaps 76% of the nation was watching. Censors attempted to cut the live video feed, and replace it with communist propaganda songs and video praising the Ceauşescu regime, but parts of the riots had already been broadcast and most of the Romanian people realized that something unusual was in progress.
Ceauşescu and his wife, as well as other officials and CPEx members, panicked, and Ceauşescu went into hiding inside the building.
The reaction of the Ceauşescu couple on the balcony is memorable: They staged futile attempts to regain control over the uprising crowd using phone conversation formulas such as "Alo, Alo" ("Hello, Hello"), Ceauşescu's wife "advised" him how to contain the situation "Vorbeşte-le, vorbeşte-le" ("Talk to them, talk to them"), and they urged the crowd "Staţi liniştiţi la locurile voastre" ("Stay quiet in your places"). In the end Ceauşescu allowed himself to be directed into the Central Committee building by his underlings.
The jeers and whistles soon erupted into riot; the crowd took to the streets, placing the capital, like Timişoara, in turmoil. Members of the crowd spontaneously began shouting anti-communist and anti-Ceauşescu slogans, which spread and became chants: "Jos dictatorul!" ("Down with the dictator"), "Moarte criminalului!" ("Death to the murderer"), "Noi suntem poporul, jos cu dictatorul!" ("We are the People, down with the dictator"), "Ceauşescu cine eşti?/Criminal din Scorniceşti" ("Ceauşescu, who are you? A murderer from Scorniceşti"). Protesters eventually flooded the downtown area, from Piaţa Kogălniceanu to Piaţa Unirii, Piaţa Rosetti, and Piaţa Romană. In one notable scene from the event, a young man waved a tricolour with the Communist coat of arms torn out of its center, while perched on the statue of Mihai Viteazul on Boulevard Mihail Kogălniceanu in the University Square, .
As the hours passed, many more people took to the streets. Soon the protesters — unarmed and unorganized — were confronted by soldiers, tanks, TABs, USLA troops (Unitatea Specială pentru Lupta Antiteroristă, anti-terrorist special squads), and armed plain-clothes Securitate officers. The crowd was soon being shot at from various buildings, side streets, and tanks. There were many casualties, including deaths, as victims were shot, clubbed to death, stabbed, and crushed by armored vehicles (one TAB drove into the crowd around the Intercontinental Hotel, crushing people — a French journalist, Jean Louis Calderon, was killed; a street near University Square was later named after him). Firefighters hit the demonstrators with powerful water jets and the police continued to beat and arrest people. Protesters managed to build a defensible barricade in front of Dunărea ("Danube") restaurant, which stood until after midnight, but was finally torn apart by government forces. Intense continuous shooting continued until after 3:00 a.m., by which time the survivors had fled the streets.
Records of the fighting that day include footage shot from helicopters — sent to raid the area and to record evidence for eventual reprisals — as well as by tourists in the high tower of the centrally located InterContinental hotel, next to the National Theater and across the street from the University.
It is likely that in the small hours of December 22, the Ceauşescus made their second mistake of the day: Instead of fleeing the city under cover of night, they decided to wait until morning to leave. Ceauşescu must have thought that his desperate attempts to crush the protests had succeeded, because he apparently called another meeting for the next morning. However, before 7:00 a.m., his wife Elena received the news that large columns of workers from many industrial platforms (large communist-era factories or groups of factories concentrated into industrial zones) were heading towards downtown Bucharest. The police barricades that were meant to block access to Piaţa Universităţii (University Square) and Piaţa Palatului (Palace Square, now Piaţa Revoluţiei — Revolution Square) proved useless. By 9:30 a.m., University Square was jammed with protestors. Security forces (army, police and others) re-entered the area, only to join with the protesters.
By 10 A.M., as the radio broadcast was announcing the introduction of martial law and of a ban on groups larger than five persons, yet hundreds of thousands of people were gathering for the first time, spontaneously, in central Bucharest (the previous day's crowd had come together at Ceauşescu's orders). Ceauşescu attempted to address the crowd from the balcony of the Central Committee of the Communist Party building, but his attempt was met with a wave of disapproval and anger. Helicopters spread manifestos (which did not reach the crowd, due to unfavourable winds) instructing people not to fall victim to the latest "diversion attempts," but to go home instead and enjoy the Christmas feast. This dictate, which drew unfavorable comparisons to Marie Antoinette's haughty "Let them eat cake", further infuriated the people, who at that time had trouble procuring such basic foods as cooking oil.
Upon learning of Milea's apparent suicide, Ceauşescu appointed Victor Stănculescu as minister of defense. He accepted after a brief hesitation. Stănculescu, however, ordered the troops back to their quarters without Ceauşescu's knowledge, and moreover persuaded Ceauşescu to leave by helicopter, thus making the dictator a fugitive. By refusing to carry out Ceauşescu's (who was still technically commander-in-chief of the army) orders, Stănculescu played a central role in the overthrow of the dictatorship. "I had the prospect of two execution squads: Ceauşescu's and the revolutionary one!" confessed Stănculescu later. In the afternoon, Stănculescu "chose" Iliescu's political group from among others that were striving for power in the aftermath of the recent events.
At 11:20 of December 23rd 1989 the commander of Ceausescu's flight, Lieutenant-Colonel Vasile Malutan, received instructions from General Lieutenant Opruta to proceed to Palace Square to pick up the President. As he flew over Palace Square, he saw it was impossible to land there. Malutan landed his white Dauphin, no. 203, on the terrace at 11:44. A man brandishing a white net curtain from one of the windows waved him down. Malutan said, "Then Stelica, the co-pilot, came to me and said that there were demonstrators coming to the terrace. There the Ceausescus came out, both practically carried by their bodyguards ... They look as if they were fainting. They were white with terror. Manescu (one of the vice-presidents) and Bobu (Secretary to the Central Committee) were running behind them. Manescu, Bobu, Neagoe and another Securitate officer scambled to the four seats in the back ... As I pulled Ceausescu in, I saw the demonstrators running across the terrace ... There wasn't enough space, Elena Ceasescu and I were squeezed in between the chairs and the door .. We were only supposed to carry four passengers .. We had six."
According to Malutan, it was 12:08 when they left for Snagov. After they arrived there, Ceausescu took Maultan into the presidential suite and ordered him to get two helicopters filled with soldiers for an armed guard, and a further Dauphin to come to Snagov. Malutan's unit commander replied on the phone, "There has been a revolution .. You are on your own ... Good luck!". Malutan then said to Ceausescu that the second motor was now warmed up and they need to leave soon, but he could only take four people not six. Manescu and Bobu stayed behind. Ceausescu then ordered Malutan to head for Titu. Near Titu, Malutan says that he made the helicopter dip up and down. He lied to Ceausescu, saying that this was to avoid anti-aircraft fire, since they would now be in range. The dictator panicked and told him to land.
He did so in a field next to the old road that led to Pitsti. Malutan then told his four passengers that he could do nothing more. The Securitate men ran to the roadside and began to flag down passing cars. Two cars were flagged down, one of a forestry official and one a red Dacia of a local doctor. However, the local doctor was keen not to get involved and after a short time driving the Ceausescus faked engine trouble. A car of a bicycle repair man was then flagged down and he took them to Tirgoviste. The driver of the car, Nicolae Petrisor, convinced them that they could hide successfully in an agricultural technical institute on the edge of town. When they arrived, the director showed the Ceausescus into a room and then locked them in. They were arrested by the local police at about 3:30 pm.
Footage of the trial and of the executed Ceausescus was promptly released in Romania and to the rest of the world. The execution of the Ceausescus was not filmed since the film crew recording these events missed the execution as the firing began too quickly.
After Ceauşescu left, the crowds in Palace Square entered a celebratory mood, perhaps even more intense than in the other former Eastern Bloc countries because of the recent violence. People cried, shouted, and gave each other gifts. The occupation of the Central Committee building continued. People threw Ceauşescu's writings, official portraits, and propaganda books out the windows, intending to burn them. They also promptly ripped off the giant letters from the roof making up the word "communist" ("communist") in the slogan: "Trăiască Partidul Comunist Român!" ("Long live the Communist Party of Romania!"). A young woman appeared on the rooftop and waved a flag with the coat of arms torn or cut out.
At that time, fierce fights were underway at Bucharest Otopeni International Airport between troops sent one against another under claims that they were going to confront terrorists. According to a book by Ceauşescu's bodyguard, Securitate Lieutenant Colonel Dumitru Burlan, the generals who were part of the conspiracy led by General Stănculescu were trying to create fictional terrorism scenarios in order to induce fear and to push the army onto the side of the plotters.
However, the seizure of power by the new political structure National Salvation Front (FSN), which "emanated" from the second echelon of the Communist Party with help of the plotting generals, was not yet complete. Forces considered to be loyal to the old regime (spontaneously nicknamed "terrorists") opened fire on the crowd and attacked vital points of socio-political life: the television, radio, and telephone buildings, as well as Casa Scânteii (the center of the nation's print media, which serves a similar role today under the name Casa Presei Libere, "House of the Free Press") and the post office in the district of Drumul Taberei; Piaţa Palatului (site of the Central Committee building, but also of the central university library, the national art museum, and the Ateneul Român, Bucharest's leading concert hall); the university and the adjoining Piaţa Universităţii (one of the city's main intersections); Otopeni and Băneasa airports; hospitals, and the Ministry of Defence.
During the night of December 22–December 23, Bucharest residents remained on the streets, especially in the attacked zones, fighting (and ultimately winning, even at the cost of many lives) a battle with an elusive and dangerous enemy. With the military confused by contradictory orders, true battles ensued, with many real casualties. At 9:00 p.m. on December 23, tanks and a few paramilitary units arrived to protect the Palace of the Republic.
Meanwhile, messages of support were flooding in from all over the world: the United States (President George H. W. Bush); the Soviet Union (President Mikhail Gorbachev); Hungary (the Hungarian Socialist Party); the new East German government (at that time the two Germanys were not yet formally reunited); Bulgaria (Petar Mladenov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Bulgaria); Czechoslovakia (Ladislav Adamec, leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and Václav Havel, the dissident writer, revolution leader and future president of the Republic); China (the Minister of Foreign Affairs); France (President François Mitterrand); West Germany (Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher); NATO (Secretary General Manfred Wörner); the United Kingdom (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher); Spain; Austria; the Netherlands; Italy; Portugal; Japan (the Japanese Communist Party); and the Moldavian SSR.
In the following days, moral support was followed by material support. Large quantities of food, medicine, clothing, medical equipment, etc., were sent to Romania. Around the world, the press dedicated entire pages and sometimes even complete issues to the Romanian revolution and its leaders.
On December 24, Bucharest was a city at war. Tanks, APCs, and trucks continued to go on patrol around the city and to surround trouble spots in order to protect them. At intersections near strategic objectives, roadblocks were built; automatic gunfire continued in and around Piaţa Universităţii, the Gara de Nord (the city's main railroad station), and Piaţa Palatului. Yet amid the chaos, some people were seen to be clutching makeshift Christmas trees. "Terrorist activities" continued until December 27, when they abruptly stopped. Nobody ever found who conducted them, or who ordered their termination.
Much of that sympathy was squandered during the Mineriad of January 1990 when miners and police, responding to Iliescu's appeals, invaded Bucharest and brutalized students and intellectuals who protested what they described as the hijacking of the Romanian Revolution by former members of the communist leadership under the auspices of the National Salvation Front, in an attempt to suppress any genuine political opposition.
In May 1990, partly due to the National Salvation Front's use of the media and of the partly preserved Communist Party infrastructure to silence the democratic opposition, Iliescu became Romania's first elected president after the revolution, with a majority of 85%. These elections have been condemned as undemocratic by both Romanian traditional parties and by the Western media.
Iliescu remained the central figure in Romanian politics for more than a decade, being re-elected for the third time in 2000, after a term out of power between 1996–2000. The survival of Ceauşescu’s former ally demonstrated the ambiguity of the Romanian revolution, at once the most violent in 1989 and yet one that, according to some, did not cause enough change. Iliescu’s protégé and successor at the head of the ruling ex-communist Social Democratic Party, Adrian Năstase, was defeated by Justice and Truth coalition candidate Traian Băsescu in the 2004 presidential elections. In 2005, the Memorial of Rebirth was inaugurated to commemorate the victims of the Revolution.
The identity of the terrorists remains a mystery to this day. No person has ever been officially charged with committing acts of terrorism, and this fact has raised many suspicions concerning the relationship between the terrorists and the new government.
It is likely that there was an ongoing conspiracy by members of a second echelon of the Communist Party, supported by Moscow possibly since 1982. These conspirators took advantage of the events in Timisoara to begin their drive to power. The claimed "terrorist" activity of those days were likely diversions organised by the same communist party conspirators to scare the population into seeking a "savior" and therefore embrace the "Salvation Front" without looking for new, uncompromised leaders. The Front appeared very well organised and suddenly replaced most revolutionaries pushed forward by the people from the street. Another interesting coincidence is the fall of the communist regimes in all Eastern Europe at about the same time, even if most of the citizens of these countries were very isolated from one each other. The lack of drive for democratic change in 1989 Romania was and is poorly understood in the West. The large majority of the population only wanted a better life and not necessarily democracy or regime change. This explains why Iliescu, a member of the communist party since his youth and who always repeated his socialist ideals has been in power for almost all 1990s decade. The events in 1989 Romania were not a revolution, just a coup d'état.
There are several conflicting views on the events in Bucharest that led to the fall of Ceauşescu in 1989. One view is that a portion of the Romanian Communist Party CPEx (Political Executive Council) tried and failed to bring about a scenario similar to that in the rest of the Eastern bloc Communist countries, where the Communist leadership would resign en masse, allowing a new government to emerge peacefully. Another view is that a group of military officers successfully staged a conspiracy against Ceauşescu. Several officers have claimed that they had been part of a conspiracy directed against Ceauşescu, but evidence beyond their own claims is scant, at best. The latter view is buttressed by a series of interviews given 2003–04 by former Securitate Lieutenant Colonel Dumitru Burlan, Ceauşescu’s long-time bodyguard. The two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
In November 1989, Ceauşescu had visited Mikhail Gorbachev, who asked him to resign: Ceauşescu flatly refused. The question of a possible resignation arose again on December 17, 1989, when Ceauşescu assembled the CPEx (Political Executive Council) to decide upon the necessary measures to crush the Timişoara uprising. Although meeting minutes were taken, and were presented at the trial of several CPEx members, the surviving stenograma (minutes) at the time of the trial were frustratingly incomplete: pages were missing, including the discussion of a possible resignation.
According to the testimony of CPEx members Paul Niculescu-Mizil and Ion Dincă during their trial, at this meeting, just like in Bulgaria and East Germany, two of the members of CPEx disagreed with the use of force to suppress the uprising. In response, Ceauşescu offered his resignation and asked the members of CPEx to elect another leader. However, other members of CPEx, including Gheorghe Oprea and Constantin Dăscălescu asked Ceauşescu not to resign, but to sack those two who opposed his decisions instead. Later that day, Ceauşescu left Romania to visit Iran, leaving the task of resolving the uprising in Timişoara to his wife and other acolytes.
According to one of the recent insider memoirs, following the Timişoara uprising, a group of conspiring Securitate generals took advantage of this opportunity to launch a coup in Bucharest. The coup, allegedly in preparation since 1982, was originally planned for New Year’s Eve, but it had to be redesigned on-the-move, so as to take advantage of the favourable developments. The lead-conspirator, General Stănculescu, was part of Ceauşescu’s inner circle, and he is said to have convinced the dictator to hold the mass rally in front of the Central Committee building, in a plaza that had already been prepared with remote-controlled automatic guns. During Ceauşescu's address, the remote-controlled automatic guns were set to fire randomly over the crowd while agitators would use bullhorns to instigate the crowd with anti-Ceauşescu slogans.
At one point, there was a battle over Otopeni Airport near Bucharest where each side apparently thought the other was fighting on behalf of Ceauşescu. This led to the question of who was shooting at whom, and which side did they think they were serving?
For several months after the events of December 1989, it was widely argued that Iliescu and the FSN had merely taken advantage of the chaos to stage a coup. While, ultimately, a great deal did change in Romania, it is still very contentious among Romanians and other observers as to whether this was their intent from the outset, or merely pragmatic playing of the cards they were dealt. What is clear is that by December 1989 Ceauşescu's harsh and counterproductive economic and political policies had cost him the support of many government officials and even the most loyal Communist Party cadres, most of whom joined forces with the popular revolution or simply refused to support him. This loss of support from regime officials ultimately set the stage for Ceauşescu's demise.