Romania prolongs its nightmare: Iliescu's re-election proves there is nothing inevitable about transition from Communism to democracy, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
After decades of living under one of the most cruel Communist systems, Romanians have just reconfirmed Ion Iliescu, a noted member of the former regime, as their president. The division between democrats and neo- Communists in Eastern Europe is now clear enough, but Iliescu's nasty brew of populism and nationalism may yet prove intoxicating elsewhere, particularly in the rest of the Balkans.

The Romanian revolution of 1989 did not spring from years of dissidence; it was a rebellion born out of desperation, and President Iliescu remained in power precisely because he was able to redefine the revolution to suit his needs. Real political change remained confined to appearances rather than realities.

For more than two years, Eastern politicians preferred to ignore Communism's bitter harvest (a new class of 'urban peasants' dislocated from their traditional societies by forced industrialisation, and alienated in the ghastly city tower blocks). They persisted in believing that democracy was merely a system of government, rather than a way of life; and they thought that democratic institutions could be established simply by drafting model constitutions.

Iliescu is not a Czech or Polish intellectual, and he was not swayed by such niceties: three times in two years at his behest miners dispersed demonstrators and attacked the headquarters of political parties. Nevertheless, Romania today is not the old dictatorship: Iliescu realised that previous restrictions could be removed without endangering strong political control, provided that a few basic ingredients were maintained.

The first is fear: fear of the past. For the many who had done nothing more than join the Communist Party and mouth the requisite slogans, it was enough for Iliescu to suggest that all those who had been party members would be persecuted if the opposition won power. Fear extends to the future as well. The opposition parties promised radical economic reform; Iliescu pointedly reminded the electorate of what this might mean in practice. Romania's industrial workers and peasants, who suspected that they would become unemployed and unemployable, opted for the comforting certainty of equality in penury.

Iliescu's second method of political control, similar to that applied in Serbia by Slobodan Milosevic, is the deliberate encouragement of ethnic hatred. Clashes between ethnic Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania during 1990 have been used as an excuse for reviving the security services, and Iliescu's press pours out a constant tirade of accusations against opposition leaders suspected of being Hungarian 'agents'.

Romania also has anti-Semitism without Jews, in the shape of one parliamentary party devoted to 'cleansing' political life of 'alien' elements. Petre Roman, Iliescu's first prime minister, was forced to publish his birth certificate in order to dispel 'accusations' that he was a Jew.

The gloss on the edifice is provided by the manipulation of democracy's formal mechanisms, and it is here that the West's flawed policies have served Iliescu well. Having asserted immediately after assuming power that a multi- party system of government was 'an outdated concept', the president was eventually persuaded to hold elections.

Edwina Currie and Roy Hattersley, who flew in to observe the polling in May 1990, saw old ladies and cheerful peasants freely casting bits of paper into boxes, and pronounced the ballot as fair. But it transpired that the total tally of votes cast exceeded by one million the number of people on the electoral roll.

During the elections just held, the British government - as holder of the presidency of the European Community - spread its observers in the Romanian countryside and closely monitored the proceedings. Again, the elections appear to have been fair. Yet doubts persist about the counting process at the central level, where most foreign and Romanian observers were excluded.

No fewer than 13 per cent of the votes cast were declared invalid, and more than 10 per cent of all Romanians appear to have voted away from their places of residence. While the latter could be explained by the existence of incomplete electoral rolls, the number of invalid ballots vastly exceeds comparable figures in other democracies. All the Western observers may have managed to do is to bestow a mantle of respectability on a still deeply flawed electoral process.

For Eastern Europe's other leaders, Iliescu remains a nightmare destined to be dispelled by Romania's seemingly inevitable democratic dawn. It is a comforting thought, but probably a wrong one. Romania is the best proof that there is nothing inevitable about the transition from Communism to democracy. The country's immediate future looks grim. At best it will function as a Latin American-type authoritarian state, with crumbs of a private economy glued to a vast, state-owned industrial sector through the traditional ties of patronage and graft; a country where people can speak their minds, but are unlikely to be heard.

And there is worse to come: yesterday Iliescu mentioned the possibility of temporary 'exceptional measures' to reinforce 'order'.

The intellectuals of Eastern Europe, who believed that democracy could be taught from above, should heed Romania's example. Democracy, toleration and restraint must start from below, and should never bypass the masses of workers and peasants who, through no fault of their own, will be worst hit by any economic reform. If this task is ignored, many more Iliescus will be waiting in the wings throughout the region.

The writer is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.