Commentary: Anniversary Offers Romania's Lessons to World on Winning Freedom

George Cristian Maior

It was a winter day, sunny but very cold. Christmas was fast approaching (it was Dec. 22) and, even under communism, it had remained the most important holiday for Romanians, even if the nominally atheist regime had replaced the too-religiously aligned Santa Claus/Father Christmas with the more ideologically correct "Father Forst".

I was on a train, on the way home to my family, in the Transylvanian city of Cluj-Napoca. I had just heard rumors that people had risen against Nicolae Ceausescu and his regime. And I was worried: the rumors mentioned many dead, victims of Ceausescu's security forces. Some of them had been students like me, others were workers or intellectuals. Citizens of a great and beautiful East European country. Romania. A country which had remained the last redoubt of communism in its region, after the walls separating East from West had already collapsed. In Germany, that had happened literally, with the Berlin Wall. In Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland the transition had been relatively smooth, with the so-called "Velvet Revolutions."

Suddenly, on the crowded train, with old and decrepit cars, grimy and without heating, with people huddled together silently, with forlorn and expressionless faces, in compartments and corridors, a brave soul started shouting: "The dictator fled! I'm telling you, he ran away! We are finally free!" People, afraid of the communist secret police (the infamous "Securitate") were understandably reluctant to express themselves. It could very well have been a provocation. The silence became even more deafening. But, a few minutes later, an old portable radio, volume turned up to the maximum by someone, broadcast a chorus of enthusiastic revolutionary voices: "Dear citizens, the dictator has fled!"

An explosion of spontaneous joy followed. People were shouting "Freedom!" "Down with the dictator!" and, maybe more significant, "Down with communism!"

On the streets of the big cities such as Bucharest, Timisoara and Cluj, but also in the smaller towns and even remote villages, "Freedom!" and "Down with communism!" were the recurrent refrain of this national revolt. And the masses of people that rose up then -- students, workers, farmers, young and old alike -- expressed themselves poetically, but with great eloquence and force: "It's liberty we love! It's either winning or dying!" And just to make everything clear: "Down with communism."

Every revolution finds its rallying cry. Then, it was freedom, in existential opposition to communism. Freedom, even at the ultimate price.

This was the disgraceful and bloody collapse of Europe's most repressive communist dictatorship. More than a thousand Romanians lost their lives in the battle with forces loyal to the old regime. Sadly, sometimes those deaths occurred in depressingly absurd circumstances. The grim communist experiment in Romania finally came to an end after nearly half a century, with the sentence and Christmas Day execution of Ceausescu and his wife, following a trial that some considered questionable and others necessary. The Iron Curtain that divided Europe had ultimately fallen.

[MORE: How the Fall of Communism in 1989 Reshaped Europe]

For a while, for strategic reasons, Ceausescu and his regime had been the darlings of the West, including the United States. After opposing the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and making several more gestures of independence from Moscow, Ceausescu was in a position to receive U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in Bucharest, visit the White House and meet President Jimmy Carter, or take a much-publicized royal carriage ride with Queen Elizabeth. Many in the free world believed that such (apparent) openings could create a breach in the Soviet bloc and fracture the communist monolith in Eastern Europe.

This was not to be. Ceausescu's external outreach was not followed by any internal reforms, political or at least economical. On the contrary, his dictatorship became ever-more rigid and harsh. Social and economic life became virtually unbearable in the 1980s. Politics, in its broadest classical sense that would imply a minimum of competition between visions, was confiscated by a tiny clique, centered on the absolute ruler's family.

As the 80s began, staple foods such as sugar, flour and cooking oil was rationed. People were issued ration cards, quite similar to those used during wartime. Huge lines appeared whenever the poorly supplied state shops had in stock luxuries such as meat or salami. This happened at ever more rare intervals, however.

In its paranoid obsession with liquidating Romania's external debt to the international financial institutions, the Communist Party also rationalized household electricity. Whoever visited Bucharest in the 80s would often see a bleak, frozen and somber city, even in the early evening hours. Schools and hospitals were cold, damp and moldy, but the country's only TV channel, which had reduced its broadcast time to only two hours per day, glorified the "unsurpassed successes" of advancing socialism.

Across this desolate landscape, the ever watchful "Securitate," the state surveillance and repression apparatus, took great care to prevent or suffocate any form of real dissent. The size and scope of its monitoring network was truly unprecedented. Freedom of speech had been eliminated. The right to free movement was severely curtailed and government-issued visas were required for any trip abroad. Obviously, any talk of political rights (the kind historically considered "natural") was out of the question.

Thirty years have passed since the implosion of this terrible experiment which indiscriminately affected Central and Eastern Europe, imprisoning it in a totalitarian ideology instituted by force. Even in this context, Romania's dictatorship stood out through its intensity and absurdity. But for decades the country shared its "geopolitical prison" with Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (today's Czechia and Slovakia), Bulgaria or (now the former) Yugoslavia. The Baltic States had an even worse fate, being forcibly incorporated in the Soviet Union and regaining their long-sought independence only after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The scale of human suffering and the profound changes Europe underwent -- both during and after the fall of communism -- highlight the importance of serious reflection, today, on the remarkable "historical leap" that all these states, nations and peoples have made in just 30 years.

The three decades passed since 1989 are a shorter interval than that in which communism ruled as an absolute "state religion." Yet, in this relatively short time, democratic institutions and market economies were rebuilt, new constitutions were adopted, and successive cycles of free elections consolidated a framework of political pluralism. After enormous efforts, these states joined NATO and the European Union, bringing to these organizations new energy, but also a healthy dose of realism rooted in the memory of their own tragic history.

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Today, Central and Eastern European states contribute to the security of a reunited Europe, steadfastly watching over its borders from the Baltic to the Black Sea and projecting stability to volatile regions. They are unwavering supporters of the Trans-Atlantic partnership, precisely because they understand its importance in safeguarding the freedom and democracy they fought for so long to achieve.

As the region emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, it also reconnected to the world -- not just politically, but economically, intellectually and culturally. Remarkable resources of intelligence, talent and creativity, previously stifled in a dogmatic communist prison, now could be used to their full potential. On that cold and grimy train in 1989 I could not have imagined that the city I was so eager to get home to would one day be known as the "Romanian Silicon Valley" (or that Romanian specialists and entrepreneurs would be rising stars in the original Silicon Valley, for that matter).

It's true that it has not been an easy trip and, across the region, the image is not always perfect. After all, an anniversary must also be a moment of honest stocktaking -- the good and the bad. Some rightly ask themselves "What went wrong?" when witnessing certain authoritarian and illiberal tendencies, the difficult fight with corruption, or the choice of many young and educated people to build their future in more prosperous areas of Europe. Perhaps, sometimes there was too much hesitation in assuming painful but needed reforms. Often the rhythm of reform was too slow. And certainly the difficult transition has made an obsolete kind of nationalism or misleading populism more tempting for some.

After 30 years, the broad picture has both light and shadows. For many, it's difficult to draw a line and pass a final verdict, especially since the process is still ongoing. I firmly believe that things are moving in the right direction and that the good overwhelmingly outweighs the bad. The now-free citizens of what used to be "the wrong side of the Iron Curtain" will never again be deceived by communism or its meandering ghosts.

In 1989, this totalitarian ideology received a devastating blow from people unafraid to give their lives for their freedom. And I think we owe it to those who paid the ultimate price in that chaotic and bloody December 30 years ago to respect and give meaning to their sacrifice. It is up to us to protect and uphold their legacy.

His Excellency George Cristian Maior is Romania's ambassador to the United States.