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Monday, 11 December, 2000, 16:56 GMT
Profile: Ion Iliescu
Ion Iliescu
Iliescu wants Romania to join the EU, but with "dignity"
By Jan Repa

Seventy-year old Ion Iliescu doesn't like to be reminded of his Communist past.

"I have always been a democrat who had nothing to do with the dull-witted actions of Communism", he claimed recently.

The son of a pre-war communist, Mr Iliescu joined the Union of Communist Youth at the age of 14, and rose through the ranks.

Like thousands of other trusted students, he was sent to Moscow for further training in the early 1950s, where he claims to have been on friendly terms with the future leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nicolae Ceausescu
Ceausescu: His downfall proved to be an opportunity for Iliescu
As a senior official of the Union of Communist Youth, he oversaw reprisals against students expressing support for the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

In 1965, Mr Iliescu was appointed candidate member of the Communist Party Central Committee and head of its agitation and propaganda department.

The same year, his patron, Nicolae Ceausescu, became party leader.

Three years later, Mr Iliescu became a full member of the Central Committee and candidate member of the party's inner ruling circle - the Political Committee.

It was the summit of his Communist Party career.

Golden opportunity

Quite why Ceausescu turned against him is unclear. Perhaps he spotted a potential rival.

Mr Iliescu himself says he became disgusted with Ceausescu's blatantly nepotistic regime and his unwillingness to implement reforms.

Man selling laces
Romania is one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe
The turning point, he says, came in 1971, when Ceausescu toured the Far East, becoming fascinated by the North Korean dictator, Kim Il Sung.

Demoted to a succession of regional party jobs, where he struck one American acquaintance as a "roll-up-your sleeves manager type", Mr Iliescu ended up in 1984 as the director of a technical publishing house.

The 1989 Revolution, which overthrew Ceausescu, proved to be his opportunity.

Protest crusher

Already tipped by disaffected elements in the Communist Party - and possibly by Moscow - as a possible future leader, Mr Iliescu emerged as head of a newly formed National Salvation Front, becoming interim president in December 1989.

Elected president by a landslide the following year, Iliescu soon showed his teeth - by condoning the busing of hundreds of miners to the capital, Bucharest, to crush protests by students and opposition forces.

The following year, the miners returned, to topple the government of his former ally and prime minister, Petre Roman, who was seeking to accelerate reforms.

Nevertheless, Mr Iliescu won the subsequent elections in 1992 on the second ballot and, for the next four years, presided over a coalition government of his old National Salvation Front - renamed the Party of Social Democracy - and nationalist extremists.

Membership with 'dignity'

Mr Iliescu's period in power was marked by widespread corruption and a failure to implement much needed economic reforms.

The centrist coalition which replaced his administration in 1996 also failed to take the country forward, expending much time and effort in internal squabbles.

Mr Iliescu has been wooing Romania's poor and disadvantaged - including the industrial working class.

But he has also attracted votes from centrists, desperate to keep out the far-right candidate, Corneliu Vadim Tudor.

Mr Iliescu says he wants Romania to join the European Union - but "with dignity".

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See also:

11 Dec 00 | Europe
Iliescu wins Romania election
28 Nov 00 | Europe
Romania's far-right contender
27 Nov 00 | Europe
Election polarises Romania
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