Of all the 1989 anniversaries celebrated this year, the one that falls tomorrow will be at once the most bitter and the most sweet. It will be bitter because the demise of communism in Romania was the only revolution of this extraordinary year to entail widespread violence. The Ceausescu regime was not one to cede power without a fight. More than 1,100 people died in clashes, as – while the Western world marked Christmas – did Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, executed by firing squad after a summary trial.
But the revolution in Romania was also, for a brief space at least, the sweetest of all the liberation victories of that year. This was not only because it brought the overthrow of communism up to the borders of the then Soviet Union. It was also because the Ceausescu regime was the harshest and most cruelly arbitrary of any. The country's secret police, the Securitate, had a reputation for ruthlessness even by the standards of their trade. Ethnic minorities and dissenting intellectuals were persecuted. Birth control and abortion were outlawed in the interests of keeping up population numbers, and women were forced to take their pregnancies to full term. One result was the scandal of crowded and neglected orphanages that became a lasting symbol of the Ceausescu regime.
Twenty years on, the euphoria of 1989 has long evaporated in Romania – as elsewhere in the region. History is being re-examined, and there is disagreement about whether what happened then was really a popular revolution or a disguised anti-Ceausescu coup from within the communist elite. As the recent disputed election showed, political divisions remain deep.
Romania still struggles with deprivation and corruption. Discrimination of minorities exists at many levels. But it is no longer state policy. Romania has joined the European Union; it looks west as much as east, and its statute conforms to EU norms, even if its practices do not always match up. However much it still has to do, Romania today is a very different place from the Romania of 20 years ago, and an infinitely better one. It may not be as conspicuous a success story as, say, Poland or the Czech Republic, but it had much, much further to come.