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Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 12:04 GMT

Wounds that refuse to heal

Romanian coal miners are one group dissatisfied with the government

By BBC correspondent Nick Thorpe

Romania is approaching the tenth anniversary of its Christmas 1989 revolution, a divided and dissatisfied country.

Communism - the end of an era
A centrist coalition government, elected with great hopes in November 1996, has failed to deliver on most of its promises of economic reform, and uncovering the truth about the revolution. But the prospect of the return to power, in next year's elections, of the Social Democracy Party of Romania (PDSR) , which ruled from 1990 to 1996, with its extreme right-wing allies, alarms many in Romania and abroad.

During the 1980s, few believed there could ever be a revolution in Romania. As Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union, and first Poland then Hungary took a reformist course, Romanians compared themselves to 'mamaliga', a thick, porridge-like pudding, incapable of ever 'exploding'. The influence of the feared secret police, the Securitate, seemed to be everywhere.

[ image: Ceausescu was overthrown by a popular uprising]
Ceausescu was overthrown by a popular uprising
People survived the abject poverty and international isolation of the last years of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu - who ruled from 1965 to 1989 - with a diet of jokes, and alcohol, but very little open political dissent.

But an unlikely chain of events led to a popular uprising against Ceausescu's rule. In autumn 1989 a Lutheran pastor belonging to the Hungarian minority, Laszlo Tokes, defied the authorities in the western city of Timisoara and was threatened with arrest by the Securitate. A small group of Hungarians trying to protect the pastor were amazed to see local Romanians join their protest.

The crowd swelled, and began to march on the city centre, chanting anti-government slogans. The army opened fire on the demonstrators on the steps of the Orthodox cathedral. Many were killed.

What happened next remains the subject of fierce controversy in Romania. The simplest version of events is that news of the Timisoara massacre spread across the country, and led to similar protests in other cities. The army then changed sides, and joined the people on the barricades. A National Salvation Front was established. And after several days of violent street battles with secret policemen still loyal to the dictator, Nicolae Ceasescu and his wife Elena were caught, tried, and executed by a revolutionary court on Christmas Day, 1989. More than a thousand people died in the fighting.

Most controversy still surrounds the role of the secret police and the army. Many people refuse to believe there was a revolution at all, and refer instead to a 'coup' orchestrated by one wing of the Securitate. The leader of the National Salvation Front, Ion Iliescu, went on to be elected president. Years of protests followed, especially by students who felt their revolution had been stolen by 'ex-communists' like Iliescu.

Inexperienced politicians

One of the main election promises of the Democratic Convention, a loose coalition of centrist parties which won parliamentary and presidential elections in the autumn of 1996, was to clarify exactly what happened. Throughout the 1990s, the past continued to poison the present.

But the lack of experience of the politicians of the Convention, led by the National Peasant Party - Christian Democrats - as well as the enormity of their task, has crippled the government's ability to tackle the country's problems.

Simmering industrial unrest climaxed with a march of coal miners from the Jiu valley mining area, on Bucharest. After violent clashes with police, a deal was finally struck with the miners, but not before the government, and democracy itself, looked badly shaken. The miners' leader, Miron Cosma, was later arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for his part in organising two earlier miners' attacks on the capital, in 1990 and 1991.

Another trial in 1998, of two army commanders, found both guilty of ordering their troops to shoot at demonstrators in 1989, and the men received long prison sentences.

Despite continuing loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Prime Minister Radu Vasile's government looks increasingly besieged. But Mr Vasile is firmly resisting opposition calls for early elections. An invitation from Brussels to Romania, alongside Bulgaria and four other countries, to start negotiations on European Union entry next year, was the first glimmer of hope for the government for a long time. But the EU have attached strict economic conditions.

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