An Unclean Spirit

I nearly fell out of my chair yesterday evening when I saw on Czech television that the parliament was considering amending its lustration laws after Marta Semelova, a member of the Communist party, had introduced an amendment to that effect. The good news is that it looks highly doubtful that her measure will be adopted by the parliament but it still gave me a bit of a fright.

Lustration is a special word invented to describe the process of barring former high-ranking Communists and members of the secret police from office after a (European) Communist country transitioned to democracy following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It should be noted that lustration has nothing to do with (possible) criminal convictions of former Communist officials (which is a separate issues) and only focuses on preventing them from acquiring positions of political power.

The Czech Republic (which was then Czechoslovakia) passed its lustration laws in 1991. Originally these were set to expire in five years (the law applied equally in CR and Slovakia after they became two separate countries in 1993) but they were renewed several times until finally in 2000 they were made permanent.

If you can understand Czech, I highly recommend this article in which historian Pavel Zacek discusses the history of lustration laws in his country. He sums it up beautifully (my translation) this way:

[When the lustration laws were first enacted in 1991] we were quite specific about what we wanted, that specific servants of the former [Communist] regime would be legally weaned from power.

That word “wean” (Ro: intarcat) is perfectly apt, as Czechoslovakia faced the exact same problem that Romania did in those first early years after the end of Communism. After decades of a one-party dictatorship, almost everyone in authority was a Communist and so had to be forced to relinquish their power via legal means (lustration). The Czech Republic today is therefore composed of a government without any former officials of the Communist regime, but still democratic enough to have members of the parliament belonging to the Communist party.

Unfortunately, lustration in Poland didn’t go as well. In 1992, the parliament passed a lustration law but it was declared unconstitutional and a new lustration law wasn’t passed until 1996. Since then there have been several rather severe problems relating to faked Communist-era dossiers, referred to as Falszywka, and several court rulings have severely watered down the lustration laws in that country.

Romania, on the other hand, has never successfully passed a lustration law.

And in the synagogue there was a man who was possessed by the unclean spirit of a devil, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Leave us alone!”

–Luke 4:33-34

The revolution began in 1989 and officially ended on December 25 when a kangaroo court pronounced Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena “guilty” and then shot them to death in Targoviste. A hasty coalition of politicians and dissidents formed the National Salvation Front (FSN using the Romanian acronym), headed by long-time Communist member Ion Iliescu, which then seized power “temporarily” and promised democratic elections for May 1990.

At the end of 1989, a document was written called the “Proclamation of Timisoara” (full text in Romanian here) and was widely publicized in the media. Section 8 (called Punctul 8 in Romanian) officially called on the future democratic government to pass a lustration law.

Originally the FSN told the Romanian people (via TVR, the only television station in existence at that time) that they were just a caretaker government and would not be running in the May 1990 elections. When Iliescu changed his mind, the bulk of dissidents, writers and other non-Communist apparatchnik members immediately resigned from the FSN in protest.

A peaceful demonstration began in Bucharest on April 22, 1990 (exactly four months after the 1989 Timisoara protests began) to call on the future democratic government to pass a lustration law. Two days later, Emil Constantinescu, then the president of the University of Bucharest, allowed the protestors to use the university’s balcony to address the growing crowds.

On April 24, Ion Iliescu called the protestors “thugs” (Ro: golani), a term which the protestors adopted as a badge of honor and thus the protests began to be referred to as the Golaniad. What is scary is that the wording of Iliescu’s denunciation of the “Golaniad” is almost identical to the denunciation Nicolae Ceausescu made on December 21, 1989 about the protestors in Timisoara. In 2013, B1TV found film clips of both speeches and you can see them side-by-side here.

Besides calling for a lustration law, the protestors of the “Golaniad” also demanded access to state-run media (especially TVR) for members of all political parties. Iliescu refused this demand as well, allowing only FSN candidates to appear on TVR and thus in the May elections the FSN handily won 263 seats while second-place UDMR (Hungarian party) got only 29. You can see the entire breakdown of the results here, noting that literally 50+ parties ran in those elections and surprisingly the “Democratic Union of Romanian Gypsies” garnered enough votes to get one seat in the parliament.

After the FSN won the elections on May 20, 1990 they showed no interest in passing a lustration law and so the protests in Bucharest continued. Iliescu specifically would’ve been barred from office under any lustration law as he was a powerful member of the Communist party longer than even Nicolae Ceausescu (a subject which I will address in-depth at a later time).

After 52 days of continuous demonstrations by the people, Ion Iliescu called in coal miners to use force against the peaceful protestors, an event now called the Mineriad. Several protestors were killed and hundreds injured but Iliescu’s tactics were successful as the numbers dwindled until in August 1990 the demonstrations ended. If you’re interested in reading a lengthy, in-depth analysis of the 1990 protests (in English), click here.

You can't polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter
You can’t polish a Communist turd but you can roll it in glitter

In 1996, Iliescu’s term as president came to an end and the former university professor Emil Constantinescu was elected president. Although he is largely forgotten today, during his presidency he created the CNSAS or the “National Council to Study the Securitate [Communist-era secret police] Archives”. The names of former high-ranking members of the Communist regime were a matter of public record but all lustration laws require the use of secret police files in order to identify former collaborators and agents. Thusly, the CNSAS was created as a precursor to enacting lustration laws in Romania.

Unfortunately, by then it was too late. The entire upper echelon of Romanian politics (and their rich “businessmen” backers) was dominated by former high-ranking Communists and Securitate snitches, who had no interest in passing a lustration law which would “wean them from power”.

In 1996, a member of the PNL, Bogdan Olteanu, was elected as the “Speaker” of the lower house of parliament. As he was born in 1971, he was far too young to have been involved in the Communist-era regime and thus brought a fresh optimism to the government. As he was also a close ally of then-PM Calin Popescu Tariceanu (who was the godfather of Olteanu’s child), when Olteanu started talking about the parliament passing a lustration law, it seemed like it might finally happen.

Unfortunately for Romanians who wanted an honest government, the entire issue of lustration backfired heavily when several leaks of Securitate files were reported in the media. The head of the PC party, Dan Voiculescu, was outed as a high-ranking informer who had been given the codename “Felix”. Voiculescu in 2014 still owns a large media conglomerate (which pushes his political agenda) and is a member of the ruling USL coalition, so he managed to escape largely unscathed from the scandal.

Less fortunate was then high-ranking PNL member Mona Musca, who was revealed to have been spying on foreign students for the Securitate when she was a university professor in the 1970s. Musca denied the charges but the damage was already done. Not wishing to expose more members of his PNL party, PM Tariceanu effectively quashed any future possibility of the parliament passing a lustration law.

Furthermore, there was a huge scandal (link in Romanian) in 2006 inside the CNSAS itself when then-PD leader Emil Boc nominated an ally of President Basescu, Corneliu Turianu, to the board of directors. The head of the CNSAS, Claudiu Secasiu, vowed to resign if Turianu’s nomination was not withdrawn. Secasiu repeatedly made public statements that Basescu had been a collaborator with the Securitate but that key files to prove this had been withheld from the CNSAS at Basescu’s orders.

The board that runs the CNSAS is composed of nominees selected directly by the political parties currently in power in the parliament. Therefore the nomination of Turianu was essentially a proxy fight between Basescu’s PD (now PDL) party and Tariceanu’s PNL party, which ultimately ended up severely weakening the CNSAS’s resolve to publish information about former Securitate collaborators.

Also in 2006 was the first formal condemnation of the former Communist regime by the government. When Basescu read this statement to the parliament, the PRM (lead by former Communist Corneliu Vadim Tudor, who once referred to Nicolae Ceasescu as the “sun in the sky” in one of his poems) and the PSD (then under the leadership of Mircea Geoana but also including Victor Ponta) behaved abominably, whistling and shouting in an attempt to drown out the president’s remarks. Titus Corlatean, currently the Foreign Minister of Romania, then went down to the American Embassy in Bucharest and outright lied, saying that the PSD had been “unable” to stop the jeering and shouting due to fear for the “personal safety” of (PSD member) Nicolae Vacaroiu, who was then head of the Senate and could’ve called the parliament to order.

An extensive, 663-page report on the crimes of the former Communist regime was also published in 2006, which you can read in the original Romanian here (PDF) and it names Ion Iliescu (among others) as having caused enormous damage and suffering to the Romanian people. Alas, no one read the report and Iliescu comfortably remained in his position as a senator in the PSD party.

At the end of 2006, Basescu visited the CNSAS to “ensure” that all Securitate files had been delivered as required by law. Unfortunately, Claudiu Saftoiu, then the head of the SIE (Romania’s equivalent to the CIA) stated that 27,000 files could not be transferred to the CNSAS because they contained “sensitive” classified information. Saftoiu later became a “journalist” working for a newspaper controlled by Dan Voiculescu and in 2012, when Victor Ponta became prime minister, Saftoiu was awarded the position of director of TVR, the state-run television network.

In January 2008, the Constitutional Court (CCR) ruled that the law which had created the CNSAS was unconstitutional because CNSAS publications were a form of “collective blame” and thus not permitted. The PC (Voiculescu’s party), the PRM (Corneliu Vadim Tudor’s party) and the PSD (Ponta/Geoana) then praised the court’s finding. CNSAS board member Mircea Dinescu noted that the CCR finding came years after the institution was created and suspiciously after the CNSAS began investigating high-ranking judges, including members of the CCR itself.

The CNSAS continues to exist today but it has effectively been defanged and no longer has any substantive role in Romanian society.

And although no one but me remembers it today, during the 2009 presidential election, PNL candidate Crin Antonescu promised to pass a lustration law if he won the election. Antonescu came in third (behind Basescu and Mircea Geoana) but is now part of the ruling USL coalition.

On May 19, 2010 the Romanian parliament finally approved its first-ever lustration law. The proposed law, which had first been drafted under Olteanu (who since moved onto greener pastures as deputy governor of the Romanian central bank) was finally passed, although in a much weaker form than either in Poland or the Czech Republic. The lustration law, as written, would only have been in effect for five years. Anyone who had been a former Securitate officer or informer or high-ranking member of the Communist regime could continue in office, but would be barred from re-election until the five-year ban was over.

Sadly, even this watered down version didn’t last long as the CCR ruled it unconstitutional. Bizarrely, the CCR also stated that a lustration law “wasn’t needed” as the Communist regime had been over for more than 20 years. You can read a detailed analysis in English of the CCR’s findings on the lustration law here (PDF), which ends with this sad note:

Some of the judges at the CCR might themselves fall under the restrictions of this law due to the positions they held during the communist regime. This is one of the ironies of every post-totalitarian regime.

Finally, in the waning days of the Boc government in early 2012, the parliament once again passed a lustration law. Shortly thereafter, the CCR struck down the law again as unconstitutional. Two months later, Boc resigned and Victor Ponta came to power. His ruling USL coalition (which includes both Antonescu and Voiculescu) have shown zero interest in passing a lustration law.

While Iliescu and the PSD, along with the PRM and PNL, have been portrayed here as largely responsible for blocking a lustration law for the past 25 years, and Basescu and Emil Boc largely in favor of one, it should be noted that any lustration law would affect them as well. Basescu was a member of the FSN and president Emil Constinescu has gone on record saying that Basescu was a “high-ranking” member of the Communist party, which differs from Basescu’s self-portrayal of his membership in the Communist party as only a technical necessity during his (Basescu’s) naval career.

Furthermore, despite his affable personality, Emil Boc would also likely be barred from office under any lustration law due to the fact that he was previously the head of the Cluj branch of the Union of Communist Students and benefited heavily from that position. He also once wrote an article in the official Communist newspaper (Scinteia) praising “our beloved leader” Nicolae Ceausescu.

Nearly every single powerful politician in Romania today, from all parties, could be barred from office if a lustration law were ever successfully passed and I have to wonder just how much things would be different in this country if it had successfully divested itself from these Communist-era leeches right from the beginning, as the Czech Republic did.

What makes it all the more tragic is that there were intelligent and capable Romanians who could’ve led this country in the post-1989 transition to democracy, men and women who had never been tainted with their connections to the old regime.

I am talking about heroic women like Doina Cornea, who risked her life by openly standing up to the Communists. I am talking about Cicerone Ionitoiu, who survived more than 10 years of torture in Communist prisons. I am talking about men like Alexandru Zub, who spent six years doing hard labor for daring to stand up to the regime. Why weren’t these men and women given the chance to lead Romania to freedom? Why wasn’t the brilliant playwright Eugene Ionesco given a chance?

Instead, this country was saddled with all of the same old tricksters, liars, murderers and thieves that it had under the Communist regime, simply given new names and new parties and new forms of propaganda that sounded like democracy and justice and equality under the law but was just the same old rotten package of stifling dissent while granting free reign to an elite cadre to plunder this country’s resources, money and power for their own personal profit while millions of its citizens drown in a morass of privation and poverty.

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