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Breaking with Precedent, a Nation Fights its Past : Romania: Historical precedent makes this country different from its neighbors. But Western pressure can keep it from reverting to the past.

June 24, 1990|Petru Popescu | Petru Popescu writes novels and movies in Hollywood. "Amazon Beaming," his next book, will be published by Viking. He is writing a book on the Romanian revolution.

It seems that everywhere in Eastern Europe change is continuing smoothly. In Romania, it is boiling over. Last week, the Bush Administration refused to send an envoy to the presidential inauguration of Ion Iliescu due to his crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Just last December, Romanians bathed in the admiration of most of the world when they toppled long-time dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In contrast to the relatively peaceful fall of communist regimes elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the lesson in Romania was that communism can fight to the end, and leave a vigorously regenerative legacy.

Today, at the cost of more blood, Romania offers a refresher course. The instincts and reflexes of communism are alive and well and seem to have inebriated Iliescu's team. For seven weeks, he refused to meet with the protesting university students because he was building a dossier against them. He needed a public enemy to govern by power.

Bucharest is buzzing with theories on why he decided to smash the demonstrations. One is that the army and police, distancing themselves from Iliescu, left him no choice but to call in other forces, namely coal miners. Another claims that Iliescu did not disband the securitate , the secret police, because he knew he would need it down the road. A third theory argues that the Romanian leader had tripled the miners' salary to create a suicidally loyal personal guard. The last he achieved. The entrances of mine shafts are now decorated with two portraits: the Virgin Mary and Iliescu.

Other theories portray the new Romanian president as an innocent surrounded by evil aides, who ordered the crackdown. Still others depict him as a godsend and the students as hirsute punks who could never run an independent TV station, their chief demand.

Is Iliescu diabolical or angelic? The answer lies in how truly different Romania is from the rest of Eastern Europe.

For virtually six centuries, one-man rule was all Romania knew. The Turks controlled most of the country until 1877. Austria-Hungary occupied Transylvania until 1918. All Romania was reoccupied by the Soviets in 1944. These occupations fostered a political paternalism unequaled in Europe. For most Romanians, the country's politics were always decided far away in Constantinople, Vienna or Moscow. They learned that all they could hope for was a more humane new master, whose appointment they never determined, whose intentions they could only guess.

Iliescu's electoral campaign seemed to trade in this political tradition. In villages and small towns unpurged of the old party and securitate apparatus, only one candidate was publicized--Iliescu. Is it surprising that he got 80% of the vote?

By contrast, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary were experimenting with various forms of elective and parliamentary rule as early as the Turkic conquest of Romania. Decorum in politics was a reality; dissent not an insult or a form of treason. The political checks and balances functioned long enough to enable the citizens not to fear for their livelihood, or their lives, if they expressed a different view.

Without any such democratic tradition, Romania was especially vulnerable to totalitarian communism. Poorly trained, unskilled workers fully realize they would not long survive in a true market economy. The peasants are easily manipulated because they fear for their livelihood, as were their ancestors. They would be satisfied if a regime simply let them breathe a little.

But the intelligentsia, the students and urban classes want more than breathing room. They criticize the regime's slowness and lack of openness, which angers the regime. The "miners" appear. The reflexes of communism twitch in the country's veins like the vampire in his coffin.

The students' demand for a communications outlet was pivotal, and the government's refusal to grant it--especially a government comfortably elected--is deeply worrisome. The miners who savagely beat them almost certainly were coached by securitate agents. The nascent alliance between workers and intelligentsia will deteriorate.

Is Romania to suffer under another Ceausescu?

One thing has changed. Romania is now important to the world, whether Iliescu realizes it or not. He cannot yank Romania back from the community of nations. Romania has become a sort of moral reference point. It is the place where the straw broke the camel's back, and the ultra-docile camel reared.

The Romanians, having deposed Ceasescu, find the new leaders, by comparison, small potatoes. Things cannot go back to what they were. But the fear of such a return is perhaps the best protection.

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