Reflections 30 Years after the Dissolution of the USSR The impact of political changes in the Soviet Union on the Bucharest regime in the last years of the communist era
This article evaluates the impact of political changes in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1980s on the external and internal situation of the communist regime in the Socialist Republic of Romania. We contend that the outward opening policy launched by Mikhail Gorbachev cancelled the usefulness of the Ceausescu regime to the West after 1985. In this context, the cooling of relations with the West, added to the frosty pre-existing relationship with Moscow, led to the external isolation of the communist regime in Bucharest and to a worsening domestic economic situation. Thus, the loss of both support blocs (Western and Eastern) coupled with the poor domestic situation precipitated the collapse of the indigenous national-communist regime.
The Romanian transition from communism to post-communism has experienced a pattern of its own, characterized by late developments and unexpected violence compared to similar transitions in other Central European countries. The explanations agreed by most analysts for this phenomenon circumscribe different sets of socio-structural, historical-economic, geopolitical and geo-cultural arguments. Boia (2001), Cioroianu (2018) and Naumescu (2018) consider that the peripheral positioning of Romania in relation to the Western epicentre has played a role in all of the delays and historical gaps in Romania, including the way in which local communism ended. Neumann (2010) assigns an essential role in shaping the Romanian transitions to the local cultural particularities. Deep rurality, the absence of an additional economy and alternative subsectors (Neumann, 2010; Verdery, 1991) have contributed to the inertia of the local social body in the face of change, compared to the situation in Hungary, the Czech Republic or Poland. In this sense, Heinen (2010) explains indigenous passivity on the account of the poverty of liberal traditions; this socio-cultural vacuum was easy to fill with the ethnocentrism of the ‘70s-’80s, which even managed to marginalize Marxism (Neumann, 2010), but which accompanied the system crisis that led to the violent collapse of the national autarkic communist regime in Bucharest.
The thesis that we support here states that the reforms and the opening launched by Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985 annulled the useful potential of the Ceausescu regime to the West as it had been configured in the previous stage. The strange corollary of this hypothesis is that Bucharest’s recalcitrant attitude towards Moscow since 1964 hampered the end of communism in Romania, while the obedient attitude towards Moscow of the other socialist countries in Central Europe facilitated the faster elimination of communism in the late 1980s.
Therefore, the second half of the Romanian communism regime (1964-1989) can be placed in time according to this immutable landmark: the 1985 moment in the USSR. The event highlighted the roadmap for subsequent local events, with two distinct stages: the interval 1964-1985 and the interval 1985-1989.
The stage of the independent opportunism of Bucharest (1964-1985)
After exercising obedience to the USSR during the period of the Romanian People’s Republic, the communist leadership in Bucharest decided starting in 1964 to change the philo-soviet political line officially practiced until that time. The tendency was gradually accentuated after 1965 and especially after the display of anger of the leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1968 towards the Soviet intervention in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The aforementioned attitude revolved around the ideology of national communism and a certain Romanian singularity within the Eastern bloc, translated to a discordant note in relation to the other Eastern partners remaining faithful to the Moscow line.
The dissidence in question managed to bring significant benefits to Bucharest in the coming years. Thus, the Socialist Republic of Romania (SRR) received access to certain Western technologies, loans under favourable conditions, commercial facilities, and the leading couple (Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu) benefited from the highest level of attention and protocol in relations with the West. At the same time, the Western media became less critical of the internal situation in the SRR compared to the attitude towards the other communist countries.
The West was interested in cultivating and exploiting any possible breach that appeared in the socialist camp, and the singular attitude of the Ceausescu regime after 1965 became a exploitable opportunity for them. Basically, the entire range of facilities offered to the Bucharest regime must be seen as a price that the West was willing to pay for maintaining the desired breach in the Eastern bloc. Bucharest seemed to be the horse which the Occident had decided to bet on in the Cold War race…
Conscious of this fact, the Romanian communist government tried to play by the rulebook of speculative duplicity, by which it attempted to obtain the much sought-after international benefits without altering the dogmatic essence of the communist practice in the internal public life. In other words, Nicolae Ceausescu wanted to build communism with the capitalists’ money, that is, a kind of narrow trickery of the civilized world. Undoubtedly, the West quickly understood the duplicitous game of Bucharest, but in the tense context of the Cold War any possible breach mattered, so the Western decision-makers could not afford to give up this “weapon” represented by the uniqueness of the Ceausescu regime. And the Ceausescu regime understood and exploited this. Everything went smoothly for the SRR government until the change of power in the USSR occurred in March 1985. From that moment, the beginning of the end started for the Ceausescu family regime and for the Romanian national communism.
The stage of the uselessness of the anti-Soviet rebelliousness and the collapse of the national-communist regime in the Socialist Republic of Romania (1985-1989)
The launch of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies in April 1985 led to a gradual decline of the Western interest in the dissidence of Bucharest within the Eastern Bloc. The coming to power of “liberal dissent” in the eternal fortress of communism had made the breach in Bucharest less and less useful. Basically, the independence of the Ceausescu regime lost its value for the West with the diminishing Soviet danger. In this context, the anti-Soviet attitude of the Romanian government lost its value and could no longer ensure the sustainability of the national-communist regime in Bucharest.
To highlight the model of the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in its last stage, we used a set of representative proxy variables to illustrate the external and internal situation of the SRR in the last years of the local communism. Thus, for the size of the external situation, we have taken into account the date of Ceausescu’s last official visit to the West, respectively the date of the last official visit of a Western head of state or government in Bucharest. For the size of the internal situation, we used as a proxy the series of annual production values in the different branches of the national economy. The comparative interpretation of the mentioned data in relation to the date of the initiation of the reformist policies of Mikhail Gorbachev (Table 1) strongly highlights the causal relationship that led to the collapse of the communist regime in Bucharest.
The results obtained confirm the working hypothesis that the political relaxation in the Soviet Union after 1985 cleared the need for the unique attitude of communist Romania. Indeed, externally the West had no reason to support the regime in Bucharest since it could negotiate directly with Moscow. This fact has had direct consequences on the external relations of the regime and on the internal economic performances. In this sense, we note the almost perfect temporal convergence between the date of the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev (1985), the date of the last official reception of Nicolae Ceausescu in the West (1984), the date of the last high-level Western visit to Bucharest (1985) and the peak years of industrial productions by economic branches (1984 and 1985).
Basically, after 1985 the West froze the privileged relations with the Socialist Republic of Romania, which had by now become useless, and stopped the economic and financial assistance granted until then to Bucharest. The Ceausescu regime was no longer the favourite stallion on the Western betting exchange… This resulted in a more severe isolation of communist Romania from the international scene and the decrease of the internal industrial production in all branches of the national economy after 1985. Thus, the interval 1985-1989 set the stage for the inevitable internal and external decline, preceding the 1989 collapse.
The communist regime in Bucharest – always at odds with the surrounding world
During the whole period after 1964, the indigenous communist regime proved to be always in contradiction with the current context. Between 1964 and 1985, when all the other Allied communist states were following the dogmatic line of Moscow, Bucharest was passing as a reformist; after 1985, when the other neighbouring communist states followed the same line as Moscow, but on the path of reforms this time, Bucharest stubbornly remained set in its dogma. The rigidity, grandeur and incompetence of the ruling couple led to this position against everyone else and generated the most difficult situation at the end of the communist regime compared to the surrounding countries.
Paradoxically, the alignment with Moscow of the other Central-Eastern states has done them more good than long-term harm, while even more paradoxically, Bucharest’s opposition to Moscow has brought Romania more liabilities than advantages. Thus, following the pro-soviet line, the other communist states accepted reforms after 1985 which led to a peaceful dissolution of communism and a relatively quiet transition to post-communist democracy. In Romania, however, refractory to the Soviet reforms after 1985, it was necessary to stage another scenario for the dismantling of the regime, which we all now know, much more violent and barbaric than in the other Central-European societies.
Lessons learned from the recent past
We must admit that Romanians have always had a hard time learning from the lessons of the past and from their own experiences. But, most of all, they always forgot about them. We have, it seems, a somewhat partial and selective collective-identity memory, or as they say, we learn hard and forget easily.
However, for our future collective advantage, it is good to note a few topics as lessons learned from the recent past, namely:
- showing appreciation for the truly competent segments should be a national priority, in order to avoid situations in which the short-term compromise can make it possible to ascend in decisive positions of retrograde or incompetent elements, such as the Ceausescu family and their obedient ones, which have kept the country away from the possibilities of a natural transition;
- Romania must avoid, at any cost, being placed in the counter-position or in divergent or duplicitous positions with its allies / partners, as chasing more than one rabbit risks making you lose all of them in the end, as happened to the national-communist Romania in the ’80s.
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