Constantin Dascalescu

Ceausescu's last and most obedient prime minister

Constantin Dascalescu, politician: born Breaza, Romania 1923; Prime Minister of Romania 1982-89; died Bucharest 15 May 2003.

The last of the four prime ministers to serve President Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's Communist-era dictator, during his 24-year rule, which ended in his overthrow and execution during the revolution of 1989, Constantin Dascalescu was also, by common consent, the most obedient and loyal of Ceausescu's heads of government. Unlike his three predecessors who, either through seniority or personal achievement, felt confident on occasion to express their own views to their president, Dascalescu - who owed his rise entirely to Ceausescu - never risked the slightest confrontation with the Conducator (the title - equivalent of Führer or leader - that Ceaucescu had conferred on himself).

Dascalescu's position also differed from that of earlier prime ministers who had been, in their own time, answerable directly to Ceausescu. But, by the time Dascalescu assumed the premiership in 1982, Ceausescu had instituted what was, in effect, rule by the presidential couple. It was his wife, Elena, the first Deputy Prime Minister, who was really in charge of the government. Dascalescu's main task was to carry out - and, where possible, anticipate - her instructions.

Constantin Dascalescu was the embodiment of the faceless official. In the words of Professor Silviu Brucan, one of the first former insiders to denounce in public the Ceausescu regime,

If you wanted to write a play in which a servile politician was the main character, Dascalescu would be your hero. Except that he was not a politician at all, but an apparatchik.

After studies that included a stint in the Soviet Union, Dascalescu began his political career through the Romanian Communist Party (RCP) structures in the Black Sea region of Galati, where he served as the area's First Secretary from 1965 to 1974. He was spotted by Ceausescu at the 1969 RCP where Dascalescu delivered a personal attack on Gheorghe Apostol, one of the veteran politicians Ceausescu wanted to remove from the leadership. By all appearances, Dascalescu had been put up to the job by Ceausescu's circle. In any case, from then on he became Ceausescu's trusted associate.

Dascalescu earned swift promotion to the RCP's governing institutions in Bucharest, taking over responsibility for the Department for Party Organisations in the late 1970s. Then in 1981 he was entrusted with the unusual task of reading out a letter from Ceausescu to the Romanian Writers' Union whose members were refusing to elect some of the authorities' nominees to the union's leadership. It was a case of Dascalescu's acting as his master's voice, and his reward was promotion to the post of Prime Minister.

Prime ministers in Communist-ruled countries were usually entrusted with implementing economic policy, a task for which Dascalescu would have been little suited even in relatively normal circumstances. But Romania in the early 1980s was facing appalling economic prospects after Ceausescu's policies of forced industrialisation, reliance on increasingly expensive energy imports and his megalomaniac projects had brought the country to the brink of financial collapse.

Romania was heavily indebted to Western governments and banks; but, instead of rescheduling the outstanding loans, Ceausescu embarked on a course of self-reliance to pay back everything the country owed. The result was a catastrophic decline in the already low standard of living as consumption at home was severely cut back so that the resulting export surplus would generate the income for debt repayment.

Although Dascalescu had little, if anything, to do with formulating this policy, he became one of its most prominent executors. He became associated in the public mind with the ensuing shortages of food and other basic commodities, frequent power blackouts and lack of fuel for heating in winter. He was also Romania's main spokesman at annual gatherings of the Communist economic bloc, Comecon, where during the second half of the 1980s he regularly rejected, on Ceausescu's behalf, attempts by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, to institute reforms and create a common market within the bloc.

When discontent finally erupted into street protests in the north-western town of Timisoara in mid-December 1989, Dascalescu was sent there to negotiate. But he seemed to lack a clear mandate from Ceausescu, who was away on a visit to Iran, and his actions were contradictory. First he refused to talk to the protesters, whom he denounced as hooligans; later he changed his mind, and also ordered the release of 150 people who had been detained. At one point he promised to consider the demonstrators' demand for an end to repression and the introduction of free elections, but then he left abruptly when Ceausescu made an uncompromising speech in a broadcast to the nation on his return from Iran.

From then on the days of the Ceausescu regime were numbered. Those final days were not without an element of farce. When, at a meeting of the leadership, Ceausescu announced that he was resigning, and then in a histrionic gesture began to walk away from the rostrum, Dascalescu was among those who begged him to stay, in his case with the words: "No, no, no, Comrade Ceausescu, you can't do that . . . Don't leave us!"

Ceausescu stayed, but only for a few more days, until he fled by helicopter as revolutionaries were about to storm the RCP headquarters on 22 December. Dascalescu stayed in office for three further days, until Ceausescu and his wife were executed following a summary trial. He tried, improbably, to stay in office and form a new interim administration, but, when one of his aides addressed the crowds below to ask if Dascalescu should stay on as Prime Minister, thousands below yelled in unison, "No."

Minutes later, Dascalescu's last act as head of government was to sign a decree releasing all political prisoners and those detained during the anti-government demonstrations. In 1990 he was put on trial, along with the entire membership of Ceausescu's last Political Executive Committee, the RCP's top institution, for his involvement in the bloody crackdown on the protesters. But Dascalescu escaped lengthy imprisonment when he was released on grounds of poor health - to spend his final years in obscurity.

Gabriel Partos