The repressiveness of the Romanian regime was legendary, even compared to other countries of the Eastern bloc.
Denis Deletant, one of the most knowledgeable scholars on the Romanian Securitate, distinguishes two stages of police terror in Romania: first, the elimination of opponents in the drive to consolidate power (1945-1964); and second, the assurance of compliance once revolutionary change had been effected (1965-1989).
The first period was extraordinarily brutal. It is estimated that by the early 1950s some 180,000 people were interned in camps scattered around the country. A so-called "re-education" programme, where inmates were forced to torture each other, seeks its equivalent in the dark histories of Communist Europe.
After 1964, it was fear rather than terror that marked Romanian society. Deletant points out that the Securitate's manpower was far smaller than the population believed. According to available records, it totalled close to 5,000 people in 1950, rising to 15,312 in December 1989. This did not include security troops, which accounted for an additional 23,370 men. This brings the total figure to 38,682. For comparison, the East German Stasi employed 95,000 people, of whom 16,000 were security troops. However, the number of "informers" of the Stasi was put at about 100,000, while the respective figure for the Securitate was "in excess of 400,000".
One of the consequences was that unlike in Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia, internal resistance to the regime in Romania was very limited. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi wrote:
"In November 1989, Romania had only a few, isolated dissidents. In fact, some were actually former communists. However, political mobilization had attained unprecedented levels: by 1989, Romania had 4 million party members, a third of the adult population, more than double the average percentage in the Soviet bloc.
"While in the Universities of Ljubljana or Warsaw many faculty members were not party members, not one student could register for a PhD program in Romania by the late 1980s without a PCR membership card. The entire faculty were party members. Clearly, the party membership card had become a sort of driving licence, a convenience tool.
"The 1980s brought a tremendous deterioration of life standards, with the collapse of heating systems and shortages of basic goods, putting Romania in a specific situation: no organized opposition, a huge party, but widespread hatred of Ceausescu's regime, even among its own party members. Listening to Radio Free Europe, which was forbidden, was the only, but generally widespread, act of opposition."
One of the reasons for this was of course the outstanding repressiveness of the regime. Regime critic Mihai Botez said in 1989:
"People often ask me why the Romanians are not more courageous. I am not making apologies for the average Romanian but I'd like to say that opposing the evil regime is often not a matter of mere courage but also of a cost-benefit analysis.
"A lot of my colleagues from the university often say: 'Let's suppose we'll speak out. We'll criticise. What will be the result? I will be expelled from the university, sent into internal exile or forced to leave the country. The consequences of my actions for the system will be nil. The system is very well organised to resist my challenge. An the West? It's practically not interested in us. For years, nobody in the West cared about the internal problems of Romania."
Romania was the first country in the Eastern bloc to establish diplomatic relations with West Germany in 1967. It did not sever diplomatic ties with Israel after the Six Day War. The most forceful affirmation of independence from Soviet dictates, however, was Ceausescu's refusal to participate in, and his condemnation of, the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. This made him popular with the West, but it did not mean that his regime became more liberal.
Botez is critical of the role of the West:
"For years, dissidents, people like me, were perceived as enemies of the West because they were trying to distance President Ceausescu, this golden boy of the West in the Soviet camp, from the US. When David Binder, probably one of the most influential Western journalists writing on Eastern Europe, came to Bucharest, I met him in the house of an American diplomat.
"He said some quite unpleasant things, such as 'who are you? What do you mean by Romanian dissidents? What do you mean by Romanian civil society? In the Balkans, such things never happen. We prefer to speak to people who represent 'real things', like Mr Ceausescu. At least he has power.
"The West, directly or indirectly, helped Ceausescu and discouraged the opposition. Don't forget: three presidents of the United States, three presidents of France, the Emperor of Japan, the Queen of England and a lot of other important people expressed their admiration for Romanian policies and Romania's independent course. It is very difficult for the internal opposition to criticise and to fight a policy that is perceived as successful by practically everybody in the world."
There was indeed a period of Western courtship of Ceausescu. In 1969, US president Nixon visited Romania. A return visit by Ceausescu followed in December 1970. Romania was admitted to GATT in 1971 and, in 1972, to the IMF and the World Bank. Romania received preferential trading status with the European Community in 1973 and most-favoured-nation status with the US in 1975.
The West's interest in Romania was to use it as a tool against Russia. Dissidents did not fit this purpose. Only after Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in 1985 did Western support of Ceausescu start to fade.
Only a limited number of Securitate officials were tried after the fall of the Ceausescu regime. According to Deletant, twenty-five members of the Politburo and the Central Committee, along with eleven Securitate and militia generals were brought to trial for the bloodshed in 1989. For the events in Timisoara, twenty-nine leading figures in the Communist Party, the Securitate and the militia have been convicted of 'incitement to murder'. Iulian Vlad, the Securitate chief, was sentenced to 9 years imprisonment for "complicity in genocide", but released on parole in December 1993. Other Securitate chiefs were sentenced in May 1991 to between 2 and 5 years imprisonment for "illegally detaining" and "abusively interrogating" an unspecified number of protesters. The former Minister of Interior, Tudor Postelnicu, was tried on a genocide charge and sentenced to life imprisonment on 2 February 1990.
Many others found employment in the new state security structures. Many also went into business and – thanks to their excellent contacts – became highly successful and rich (see the portrait of Radu Tinu). A State Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS) was finally set up in 1999. Despite a number of difficulties, including initial resistance from the state security apparatus to hand over the Securitate files, as well as the "disappearance" of an estimated 39,000 files, the agency – through its disclosures – has had an impact. In recent elections, most of those candidates identified by the CNSAS as Securitate collaborators withdrew their candidacies or were asked to do so by their parties.
The legacy of the communist regime, particularly the Securitate, is a heavy burden to carry for Romanian society. The process of dealing with it is far from finished, but – as in other countries with dark pasts – it is likely that this will only be fully possible with the post-communist generation. Its members, however, associate the Securitate regime primarily with a distant past in which they have played no part. For the moment, Romania's young generation prefers to look into the future, and not into the past.