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In a Balkan Land, the Bonfire Finally Takes Hold--With a Vengeance : Romania: The last to rise may face more violence in days and months to come. But that should not cloud the fact that the revolution is complete.

December 24, 1989|CHARLES GATI | Charles Gati is a professor of political science at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. His latest book, "Soviet-East European Relations in Transition: Beyond the Brezhnev Doctrine," will be published by Indiana University Press in March

The last domino has fallen in Eastern Europe. Nicolae Ceausescu, the last and by far the worst Stalinist dictator in the Warsaw Pact, is gone. The Romanian people, who have not rebelled against their various rulers since 1907, were the last to rise to complete the East European revolutions of 1989.

The revolutions that have swept the region like a bonfire this year were all peaceful elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In August, Poland installed a largely non-Communist government. This past fall, democratic forces entered the political arena in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. A more reform-minded, though far from democratic, leadership has gained the upper hand in Bulgaria. And in Hungary, where it all began with the removal of the Communist old guard in 1988, completely free elections are scheduled for March. None of these countries have experienced any violence so far.

Romania is different. If unconfirmed and fragmentary reports from the scene are to be believed, thousands of people have lost their lives. And troops loyal to the Ceausescu family--both in the military and in the Securitate, the dreaded political police--refused to step aside.

Why the Romanian revolution was as violent as it was and why it occurred as late as it did can be explained by two reasons.

One is that the Soviet Union, which removed its military forces from Romania in 1958, had less influence over the course of events in that country than it did elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact. Moscow could not prepare for a gradual transition from Ceausescu to a Gorbachev-like, reformist leadership.

The other, related reason is that there were no obvious alternative sources of power on the Romanian political scene to the Ceausescu family. As a result, there was no domestic force to which the rebellious people could easily turn for guidance.

While Romania is in flux, there are unusual dangers ahead. There have been persisent reports that Romania was developing chemical weapons in recent years. It is a fact that at various international forums, Bucharest has always strongly opposed chemical disarmament. In addition, there were even some unconfirmed reports earlier this year that a few nuclear-tipped missiles were under construction as well.

If these reports are true, the most pressing, and indeed historically unique, question now has to do with the existence of appropriate controls over these weapons. The world has never had to deal with a country possessing nuclear weapons and experiencing a civil war.

But even if the reports are untrue, there's likely to be more violence in the days and weeks to come. The Balkans are not Central Europe; Romania is different from Czechoslovakia. Revenge against the Ceausescu family and their most-hated supporters may be played out on the streets, not in the courtrooms. Conversely, if forces loyal to Ceausescu were to gain the upper hand in Bucharest or elsewhere, their brutality against the Romanian people cannot and should not be doubted.

Yet, when all is said and done, the very real danger of further violence should not be allowed to obscure the good news. Another corrupt dictatorship has collapsed. On Friday, a group of brave demonstrators showed up in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, praising the cause of freedom and democracy. If all goes well, another country in Eastern Europe--the last one in the Warsaw Pact--will also embrace our values in the new year.

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