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Wednesday, 22 December, 1999, 05:45 GMT
Romania's bloody revolution
By BBC European Affairs Analyst William Horsley
Ten years ago, the idyll of the peaceful revolutions against communism across eastern Europe was rudely broken, as Romania suddenly descended into anarchy and bloodshed.
On 22 December 1989, Romania's communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in a violent revolution and fled from the capital, Bucharest. Three days later, he and his wife Elena were executed by firing squad. It was the last of the popular uprisings against communist rule in eastern Europe that year.
Two days later, video pictures of their summary trial and execution were shown on television in Romania and around the world. Ten years on, conspiracy theories still abound, suggesting that many of the key events were stage-managed by enemies of democracy - that the Romanian revolution was not a revolution at all, but rather a coup d'etat.
For his 24 years as communist party leader - 21 of them as Romania's president - Nicolae Ceausescu kept up a reign of fear, suppressing all opposition with the help of the brutal secret police, the Securitate, with the largest network of spies and informers in Eastern Europe.
At home he encouraged an extreme kind of personality cult among the population. He skilfully exploited his policy of independence from Moscow within the communist bloc to bolster his position at home and abroad.
He was feted in the White House, in Buckingham Palace and in China's Great Hall of the People.
Ceausescu was a master at playing off the world powers against each other during the Cold War. But when Gorbachev's perestrioka reforms took hold, and one by one the countries of the Warsaw Pact claimed their freedom, his world fell apart.
His downfall came as a result of his violent overreaction to public unrest over local issues such as food shortages, in December 1989.
It began on 15 December with demonstrations in the western city of Timisoara against the harassment of a dissident ethnic-Hungarian priest, Laszlo Tokes.
These soon swelled into a mass protest, in which slogans like "We want bread" soon turned into "Down with Ceausescu".
Ceausescu was away on a visit to Iran at the time, but when he heard of this open challenge to his power he is said to have gone into a blind rage.
He railed against what he thought was a plot against him, orchestrated jointly by the Russians and the Americans. He denounced the army and Securitate generals who had ignored his orders to shoot protestors, and personally ordered troops to fire on the Timisoara demonstrators.
On 17 December they did so, and initial reports suggested many hundreds had been killed. In fact the number of dead was probably fewer than 100, but mass protests quickly spread to many cities, including Bucharest.
Ceausescu sought to restore his own authority on 21 December by stage-managing a show of support for his government, as he had often done before, in Bucharest's main square. But the ploy went disastrously wrong when the crowds interrupted his speech, jeering at Ceausescu live on television.
Parts of the army as well as the Securitate, which had been built up as Ceausescu's private army, were still loyal. But Ceausescu's fate was sealed when senior army generals as well as communist party figures turned against him.
Amid bloody street battles on 22 December, an angry mass of people stormed Ceausescu's offices. He fled by helicopter, but was seized outside the city. In a summary court martial held in secret, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were accused of ordering the deaths of 60,000 people, and on Christmas Day they were shot "like dogs".
Anti-Ceausescu forces within the power elite made sure the couple was swiftly put to death. And when pictures showing their dead bodies, riddled with bullets, were broadcast, the street protests subsided.
Within a few days the so-called National Salvation Front, headed by a then little-known communist figure Ion Iliescu, had assumed power and announced the abolition of the one-party system. Iliescu and his allies were to stay in power until 1996.
But rather than carrying out through democratic reforms, successive Romanian governments blocked attempts to prosecute those responsible for the bloodshed of 1989; while much economic power stayed in the hands of shadowy figures from the old regime.
For the past three years Romania's rulers have been committed to democratic change, and a faltering process of democratisation has gone forward.
Recently many of the extravagant gifts the Ceausescus received from world leaders were auctioned off to the public, to try to dispel memories of their megalomaniac rule.
But their dark influence has proved so strong that 10 years after their deaths, the people of Romania are still trying to overcome the legacy of mistrust and secrecy of the Ceausescu years.
Links to other Europe stories are at the foot of the page.
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