Ion Iliescu's visit to New York took Romania-watchers by surprise. Ostensibly, his objective was to participate in the U.N. children's summit. However, the Romanian president addressed the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday, outlining Romania's policies and taking pains to assure the West that here spoke a partisan of real and undoctrinaire democracy.
In the context of Romania, the most hesitant and yet boisterous of all the fledgling East European democracies, Iliescu, now 60, is himself unique. A former party activist who was secretary for youth in 1968, he quarreled with Nicolae Ceausescu at the time over the tyrant's ever-shrinking tolerance for experiment. As a result, he was vengefully kept in minor positions for almost 20 years--until he emerged at the fore of the popular explosion that overwhelmed Ceausescu last Christmas. That curriculum assured him of two constituencies, as loyal as they are opposed: those who fear him as an ex-Red, though now publicly repentant; and those who praise him as the past and current reformer.
In May, Iliescu was elected president with 85% of the popular vote. But, almost immediately, his record was spotted by the "miners' affair": After weeks of anti-government demonstrations in Bucharest's University Square, workers loyal to Iliescu's party arrived in Bucharest to confront the demonstrators, most of them young. Violence on both sides resulted in at least six deaths. A direct effect of the events was the temporary suspension of loans to Romania by the United States and the European Community.
Meanwhile, the nation's economy is in deep crisis. There are big shortages and vast stoppages of work. In Transylvania, there have been bloody clashes between Romanians and ethnic Hungarians. Rumor has it that ex-members of the sinister Securitate, the special police, are inflaming the passions and sabotaging even a government perceived as too slow about change. Fair or not, the impression created is that communism, like the vampire in the Romanian legend, is not quite dead in its coffin.
Iliescu obviously came to the United States to try to dispel that impression. Twenty years ago, Iliescu was a beacon for a hopeful youth. Then the beacon was forcibly extinguished. Now, he seems vigorous but weathered. Iliescu has a sense of humor, a rare thing among Romanians. Married but childless, he dotes on his nephews and nieces.
Question: We have read much and seen much about Romanian children suffering from AIDS, due to transfusions with infected blood performed under the Ceausescu regime. Is AIDS contained in Romania, or is it threatening to become an epidemic?
Answer: It's not an epidemic, we only have a few hundred cases. However, it is the most tragic of Ceausescu's legacies. Child care in his time was minimal. One of the first measures we took as a provisional government was to raise the salaries of the staff working in hospitals with AIDS patients.
Visiting two such hospitals, I met some young English men and women working there as volunteers, an example of European cooperation which the Romanians are experiencing as a total novelty.
Q: Unfortunately, nine months after the revolution, the country still looks fratricidally divided. Why is it that in Romania confrontation rather than dialogue seems to be the way of doing things?
A: To answer that, I'd like to ask the readers of the Times to make an effort of imagination. Whatever horror stories they heard about the Ceausescu era, they should multiply them by four. Thus they might get a more accurate picture of how degraded the country was before the revolution.
The problem with Ceausescu's regime was that it punished any and all attempts of the system to reform itself from inside. The cork was pushed in so hard that only an explosion could throw it out again. The explosion happened, but it brought out with it a lot of extremism. At this point, a lot of people are both paranoid and angry, and the economic crisis keeps them so. Romanians are clashing with Hungarians, the young protest loudly against the old apparatus, demonstrations turn into fights and panics.
It's an unfortunate state of affairs, but however much we are suspected of not having lost the reflexes created under communism, we don't have any brutal or even substantial powers to use. There are a hundred registered political parties, and many people with a short fuse. We are constantly trying to appease our critics, and feel in some measure disoriented.
Q: A few months ago, one TV detective series featured villains who were Securitate agents loose in America. Hollywood's rogues' gallery used to cast Romanians as vampires; now it casts them as Securitate. Joking aside, where are the members of the Securitate now? Are they out of work, doing other things, in hiding? Do they still have weapons?