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Why Ceausescu Fell

His silent war against the Romanian people backfired

THE end finally came for Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu. Literally scared out of office by an angry population which no longer feared his bullets, the fleeing tyrant and his wife were eventually captured, arrested, and executed after a secret trial. Genocide was the first of several charges leveled against the deposed leaders by the military tribunal. Less than two weeks ago Ceausescu's dictatorship seemed immune to Eastern Europe's political upheaval. Now, new questions arise in light of the widespread violence which accompanied the end of this Stalinist regime.

Why was Ceausescu willing to wage open warfare against his people? And why would Romanians risk death rather than see his rule continue? The answers must be found in the silent war Ceausescu waged against his subjects for the last seven years.

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This silent war dates back to 1982, when Ceausescu implemented severe austerity policies designed to retire the nation's foreign debt by 1990. Why so quickly? The Romanian dictator had witnessed Warsaw's near default on its large foreign debt. Poland's subsequent economic collapse convinced Ceausescu that his regime had to avoid this scenario at all costs.

Three elements drove him to this drastic conclusion.

First, a debt crisis would force the self-proclaimed ``Genius of the Carpathians'' to admit his economic mismanagement.

Second, such a crisis would cause Ceausescu's regime to lose credibility among the already hard-pressed workers. The ever-vigilant dictator could not allow a Romanian version of Solidarity to develop.

Finally, Ceausescu abhorred the idea of Western financial institutions gaining leverage over Romania's economy. The despot had spent years reducing Moscow's influence, and was not about to have it replaced by Western meddling.

Like his brash anti-Sovietism of the late 1960s, Ceausescu again cloaked his policies in the guise of defending Romania's sovereignty. But the cruel and uneven nature of his austerity program meant that ordinary Romanians were paying for the leader's paranoia with their lives.

Bucharest rapidly reduced its foreign debt over the 1980s, but the extreme rationing of food, basic amenities, and energy created virtual wartime conditions. Exiled dissident Mihai Botez estimates that at least 15,000 Romanians died annually from starvation, cold, and shortages.

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Romania was rich enough to provide all these basic requirements, but Ceausescu chose not to do so. Instead, the debt was finally retired earlier this year.

Not everyone suffered these shortages equally. Ceausescu's ruling clan continued to live like modern-day Roman emperors, awash in luxury and decadence. The autocrat also kept his dreaded security police well-paid so they would be willing to crush dissent wherever it arose.

After overseeing the economic strangulation of the Romanian people for seven years, it was not surprising that Ceausescu ordered the Timisoara massacre. What was another 4,000 dead to a tyrant who had already sacrificed 20 times that amount?

Similarly, when the security troops fought on like desperate gangsters after the regime's collapse, they were well aware of the people's deep anger over their long history of oppression.

It was an anger so great, that when faced with their eighth straight winter of this silent war, Romanians were ready to choose death over Ceausescu. The turning point of the popular uprising occurred when military leaders realized that the people could be pushed no farther.

With Ceausescu's downfall, Romania faces severe tests in the weeks ahead. The No. 1 task of the newly formed opposition, the National Salvation Front, is to contain the potential for continued violence.

The anger resulting from Ceausescu's silent war must be properly channeled in order to avoid a long and ugly backlash. An orderly and fully disclosed trial for Ceausescu would have gone a long way in releasing some of this pressure.

It is a good sign that the National Salvation Front is led by political figures - such as the interim president, Ion Iliescu - who, because of their past dissent, fell out of Ceausescu's favor many years ago. Their social stature will be instrumental in promoting new government policies which address Romania's present problems rather than dwell on its past.

Ceausescu subjected his people to any sacrifice necessary to maintain his absolute power. The end result was a nation isolated abroad and economically crippled at home. While the isolation has ended, the economic damage remains.

Both East and West have declared their readiness to aid in Romania's economic recovery. But both sides must also continue to be patient with Romania. It is a country coming out of a long and brutal conflict. While open warfare didn't break out until last week, Ceausescu's silent war had been claiming victims for years.

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