Romania's poverty drives nostalgia for late Communist dictator Ceausescu

October 09, 1994|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

BUCHAREST, Romania -- It was a swift operation. Admirers of Nicolae Ceausescu placed a tombstone on his previously unmarked grave and attached the late Communist dictator's photograph to the Orthodox wooden cross.

"You were and you will remain the greatest hero of the Romanian nation," the inscription reads. "Even blamed, your memory will live on in the legend of our country."

At the time of the Christmas Revolution of 1989, Romanians were determined to exorcise the spirit of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. They were quickly executed, their bodies were secretly buried, their misdeeds were laid open. The couple, it was said at the time, personified evil.

But the heady push for democracy has sputtered to a crawl. Fundamental reforms -- including the privatization of industry, restitution of property, creation of a stock market and free exchange market -- are still in the planning stage. The country is in the midst of a series of strikes and protests organized by labor unions, farmers and opposition parties to protest low pay and triple-digit inflation.

Ceausescu's grave in Bucharest's Ghencea cemetery is in part a symbol of disaffection with poverty, unemployment and economic dislocation. Fresh flowers and candles placed by pilgrims also speak eloquently about a nostalgia for the dictator.

"He was the only one who loved the poor," said an old woman begging for money near the grave.

An elderly mourner added: "He was a good man, he fought for his country, not like the present leaders. It was an injustice, what was done by killing him."

But Elena Ceausescu seems to remain a pariah in the popular mind. Her grave in another section of the cemetery remains unmarked. When admirers of Nicolae Ceausescu gave him a tombstone last month, they placed a similar stone on her grave. But it has been broken in two.

"She was a horrible person," said a young engineer eating ice cream in the city's Union Square. "I also hated him when he was alive. But he's done some good things. I like this area."

Union Square is the heart of the new Bucharest. A large section of the old city was razed to make way for the monumental three-mile-long Union Avenue (formerly Victory of Socialism Avenue) flanked by huge buildings with magnificent arches. The avenue is deliberately wider and longer than Paris' Champs-Elysees, with a row of fountains in the middle and Ceausescu's magnificent white marble palace sitting atop a small hill at the end.

Like Hitler planning to redevelop Berlin into Germania, Ceausescu personally supervised the whole process from its inception in 1984.

But Hitler was a modest man compared with Ceausescu, whose palace is one of the largest ever built in history. It is the world's second-largest structure, after the Pentagon in Washington, and surrounded by five government buildings, including the Defense Ministry and the Palace of Science, all built on a monumental scale.

But Ceausescu nostalgia is driven more by Romania's poverty ** than a desire for more urban redevelopment.

The new view of the past also is accompanied by new political organizations. A new Communist Party of Romania was formally registered last month, its headquarters in the western coal-mining town of Tigru Jiu.

The new party is planning Ceausescu's rehabilitation at its next congress.

"Everything done under Ceausescu was done through the will and the word of the Romanian people," said one of its activists, Longin Modar.

An organization in Bucharest calling itself the Romanian National Rebirth Party was behind the effort to turn Ceausescu's grave into a place for pilgrimage. One of its founders, Lucian Vasilescu, described Ceausescu as the champion of working men and women "who sacrificed himself for the welfare of the people he loved."

But all this is hardly a threat to President Ion Iliescu, a former Ceausescu favorite and senior official whose career had been sidelined in the 1980s (one rumor has it that he fell foul of Elena).

Mr. Iliescu was elected president with more than three-quarters of the vote in May 1990. Since then he has reintegrated members of the old nomenklatura, the Communist ruling class, into the administration. Only one of Ceausescu's 30 top aides remains in prison. All the dictator's relatives have been set free.

But Mr. Iliescu's overwhelming majority was seriously diminished 1992 parliamentary elections, forcing him to rely on a minority left government headed by Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu.

The fractured opposition has moved to impeach Mr. Iliescu for telling local government leaders to ignore court rulings favoring the return of private property seized by the Communists five decades ago. At stake are more than 200,000 buildings.

Mr. Iliescu has dismissed charges that he violated the constitution by meddling in court decisions. Nor is there much chance that the impeachment move could succeed.

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