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To Romania the 1989 revolution came last

By Alex Chirmiciu

© Creative Commons/ Denoel Paris

When communism collapsed in Romania, I had just entered high school at an age when one starts to become aware of politics. Looking back, I can see that, for my home country, the whole of 1989 was an incredibly exciting political year with a clear crescendo and a peak in the months of November and December.

Information was very difficult to obtain for us; I remember listening secretly to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America at a very low volume and very poor quality reception. Foreign broadcasts were jammed and listening was heavily punished. But these were our only sources of credible information, although compared to what we have access to in today’s internet age even this was a fragmented and incomplete depiction.

November was very eventful - the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and then the change of government in Bulgaria – it all seemed very close, yet still very far from Romania, where state and party leader Nicolae Ceaușescu was re-elected secretary general of the communist party in November. Yet only a few days later, on 15 December, it all exploded in Timișoara and this was followed by ever growing mass protests in Bucharest that finally led to the toppling of the regime on 21 December.

The first immediate change we felt was the liberation of the local media. Suddenly watching state TV, which for decades had been a despised, loathed and ridiculed propaganda tool, became de rigeur. More than just being a way of obtaining information, watching TV became a means of emotionally taking part in the dramatic events, especially for the vast mass of people living outside the large urban areas.

My family, for instance, lived in a town which had witnessed only limited protests, so the free media was crucial for us. It was not the accuracy that counted (and we learned many facts about the things that happened right before our eyes only years later), but the access to uncensored information and opinions which was crucial. Once the uniformed world view was smashed there was no way of putting it back together.

The first changes occurred right after the fall of communism: Christmas became a public holiday, not just a private family holiday; the school curriculum was purged of the worst excesses of communist ideology; international travel was no longer restricted and people, especially the young, very quickly lost the fear of speaking their mind. The consumer economy arrived later and took most of the next decade to take root, particularly outside of the main urban centres.

Although we all hoped and expected sudden overnight changes, looking back on the events of this historic period we see that political and economic transformation is a long process, which is clearly not completed yet. It proved very difficult to build a solid political class, an independent media and a competitive economy.

The legacy of communism, which had shattered trust in people and society, was soon evident in institutional weaknesses that degenerated into corruption and many other forms of distortion in the economy and politics both of Romania (and the wider region). It was only in the 2000s that these challenges started to be addressed properly.

On a personal level the past 25 years have been quite a journey. When the revolution happened in 1989 voting was still some years away for me. I first cast my vote in Romania’s general elections in 1996 and by then the key question had become how to turn the country quickly towards the West.

After completing my undergraduate degree in Romania, I embarked on postgraduate studies in economics abroad which genuinely opened my mind professionally and politically. They also made me realise how slow societal change is and how difficult it is to find policy solutions for the transition of the economy and, arguably even more importantly, the political system.

As a citizen, I understand that change is incremental. As a person, I am grateful that I have lived through the most exciting time of modern history. This has been a fairy tale, but many challenges remain and a lot of hard work still needs to be done

Alex Chirmiciu is a Senior Economist for the EBRD

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