Suzanne Travers & Edward Kanterian
Casting Light on the Long Shadow of Romania’s Securitate
More than ten years have passed since the former communist countries of Eastern Europe embarked on the path of democratic transition. This is a difficult process that necessarily involves confrontations with the totalitarian past. In Romania, one of the main legacies of the communist period and a serious obstacle to democratization has been the shadowy presence of the former secret police, which has continued to play a role in the nation’s politics and economy.
Only recently have attempts to confront this legacy and the role of the secret police borne legal and institutional fruit. A council and law have been established to open secret police files and to prevent former Securitate members from holding political office. Though the country’s recent elections revealed the extent to which Romania is still governed by forces with close ties to the old regime, they also indicated progress in excising the Securitate’s powerful and damaging influence. In addressing the legacy of its secret police, Romania faces questions that arise for any society that has been through war or dictatorship as it attempts to find truth and forge reconciliation.
When Romanian protesters took to the streets in December 1989, overthrowing dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu in the bloodiest of Eastern Europe’s revolts against communist rule, included among the targets of popular loathing – poverty, communism, Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena – was the Securitate, the Romanian secret service that had acted as a political police force under the dictatorship. Like the Stasi and the KGB, its counterparts in East Germany and the Soviet Union, the Securitate terrorized suspected opponents of the regime, using a network of informants and collaborators to foster internalized repression and social mistrust. Founded in 1948 with the aim of ‘guaranteeing the achievement of democracy and the security of the People’s Republic of Romania,’ in practice the Securitate wiped out Romania’s civil society after World War II, killing or deporting an unknown number of victims, estimated at between 200,000 and 1 million. By the time Ceauşescu came to power in 1965, the Securitate had quelled outright opposition to the regime. Under his rule then, the secret service engaged in more subtle repression: widespread censorship, the monitoring and harassment of dissidents, the fomenting of fear, paranoia and mutual suspicion- all aimed at perpetuating its frightening image in the minds of Romanians and keeping them quiet and obedient – in short, to maintain despotic control.
Ceauşescu was of course executed in the revolution, but eleven years later, the Securitate remains a persistent presence in Romanian life, impeding progress towards democracy by maintaining a controlling hand in the nation’s economic and political system. Despite its formal abolition in 1989, many of the organization’s employees were quickly put under the charge of the army and then reconstituted as a successor agency, the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). Thus, the Securitate has continued to function, proving itself adaptable in structure and resistant to attempts to reform it.
Just one indicator of the Securitate’s ongoing influence on present-day Romania has been the country’s difficulty in obtaining NATO membership. The U.S. government has issued repeated requests for Romania to withdraw former Securitate members from the SRI, concerned about the ongoing ties between ex-Securitate and Russia’s KGB. James B. Steinberg, accompanying former President Clinton on his visit to Romania in 1997 as deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, told local journalists “the Romanian secret service is full of ex-Securitate officers whom we cannot offer access to NATO’s secrets.” Such exclusion from NATO has economic consequences for Romania, as membership in the organization would undoubtedly attract more Western investors to a country badly in need of foreign capital.
But the Securitate’s ongoing legacy poses serious problems within Romania as well. Former Securitate officers have remained visible in government and military posts, while others received ‘first dibs’ in the privatization of state-run enterprises or have benefited from illicit activity on the so-called ‘gray market;’ in 1994-95, for example, along with the Ministry of Transport, members of the SRI broke the embargo on oil trade with the former Yugoslavia at great profit to themselves. As then-president Constantinescu put it in November 2000, “The huge wealth accumulated illegally in the last 10 years, and especially in the first six years after the revolution, is not only related to the dramatic impoverishment of the population, but also with Romania’s disqualification as a state of right and order.” Former and current secret police members were involved in the crash of several financial institutions, including last year’s FNI (National Investment Fund) debacle in which 190,000 private investors lost their savings. Government investigators found that most FNI board members were former Securitate or current SRI members, and that they had embezzled huge sums from the fund. Says Horia-Roman Patapievici, a prominent Romanian political analyst, ‘Before 1989 Romania was massively infiltrated and continuously monitored by the Securitate’s people. After 1989, this ‘advantage’ was aptly transformed [with the help of President Iliescu and his aides] into an almost total economic control over society and politics. The Securitate officers do not monitor us anymore; they have become ‘privatized’ and ‘democrats’ and they hold our harness.’
In July, frustrated by his government’s failure to achieve much-needed economic reform, efforts that were blocked by old school communists and ex-Securitate members now working in the PDSR (Social Democracy Party) and PRM (Greater Romania Party) parties or in the economy, President Constantinescu announced he would not seek re-election in formal protest against such widespread corruption and the Securitate’s powerful influence.
The outcome of those elections, held late last year, featured the revival of political forces that can be traced back to the Ceauşescu period, as 65% of the vote was cast for candidates with direct ties to communist rule and the Securitate. These included, for one, Vadim Tudor of the Greater Romania Party, an extreme nationalist candidate who served as Ceauşescu’s court poet and editor of Săptămîna, an infamous weekly magazine and unofficial organ of the Securitate that published excerpts from the security service’s archives with the purpose of defaming Ceauşescu’s enemies. Tudor surprised observers by capturing 27% of the vote in the election, sparking the need for a run-off. Several high-ranking members of the PRM are also former Securitate or SRI members.
The eventual winner of the presidential race, Social Democracy Party candidate Ion Iliescu, is also closely linked to former communist rule. From 1974 to 1979, as a high-ranking communist official, Iliescu directly supervised, among others, a local Securitate department. Iliescu has been president before – he came to power during the December 1989 revolt against Ceauşescu after being backed by a faction of the Securitate no longer in support of the dictator. In early 1990 he was then elected and served as president from 1990 to 1996. Though these days Iliescu paints himself as a democrat’s democrat, many Romanians remember the Securitate-backed intimidation of opposition parties and opposition figures that occurred during Iliescu’s first presidency, in particular several coal miners’ marches that occurred in 1990 and 1991. On those occasions, Iliescu rallied the miners, who were also infiltrated by the Securitate, to march to Bucharest where they attacked protesting students and devastated the headquarters of the democratic opposition.
This return to the past notwithstanding, some elements of the election did represent progress for the development of democratic practice in Romania and contained seeds for challenging the legacy of the Securitate. In spite of its failures at economic reform, Constantinescu’s outgoing government can point to a few achievements, among them the establishment of the CNSAS (State Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives). Under a 1999 law this state council is charged with investigating the Securitate archives for evidence that current candidates for political office collaborated with the former secret police. In the weeks leading up to the elections, this council found that 38 candidates had ties to the Securitate; they were consequently asked by their parties to withdraw from their respective races.
The law opening the Securitate archives and establishing a council to administer them is significant because it offers one way for Romania to address the Securitate’s ongoing presence in its political life. Addressing this presence means both confronting in a critical way the state’s totalitarian past and striving to keep persons with formal links to the Securitate out of current politics. The implied justification for this condemnation is as follows: post-1989 Romania was founded on a revolt against pre-1989 Romania, and as such, the new state was conceived of as democratic and constitutional, in explicit opposition to communist and totalitarian rule. The institutions of the Ceausescu era, in particular the Securitate as well as its members and collaborators, are therefore considered ‘unconstitutional’ in the sense that they belonged to an undemocratic regime.
Other former communist countries such as Czech Republic and Hungary passed similar laws, known as lustration, as part of their transitions to democratic rule. These laws, though varied, generally enable the screening of political candidates, restricting persons who held certain positions in the communist regime, or who appear in archived records of the secret police as a collaborator or employee, from holding public office. None of these laws, the Romanian included, are concerned with prosecuting individual secret police members or collaborators for crimes they committed under the old regime. Rather, the laws aim to keep these persons out of current democratic politics, thereby diminishing their caustic influence on present-day political life.
The Czech and Hungarian laws, as well as that of the former German Democratic Republic, were passed within a few years of those countries’ overthrow of communist rule. Yet despite the fact that the Securitate had been one of the most powerful and repressive secret services’ in the region, in Romania laws forming the CNSAS state council were only passed in December 1999, and then with difficulty. A version of the lustrace law was proposed as early as 1990 by George Serban, then serving in Parliament as a member of the Democratic Party — under that bill, any person found to have been involved with the Securitate would have been prohibited from holding public office. At the time, the newly elected President Iliescu and his parliamentary supporters from the National Salvation Front rejected the law outright, showing no interest in opening the archives nor in cleansing the country’s political life of the Securitate. Instead, Iliescu formed the SRI, allowing over 60% of former Securitate members to join the new service. Iliescu also named former Securitate head Virgil Măgureanu, his anti-Ceauşescu ally, as SRI chief.
Between 1990 and 1996, the government made no efforts to open the archives or address the Securitate past, apart from the publication of selected Securitate protocols. These were contained in five books that detailed, among other things, the pre-1989 monitoring of some writers and intellectuals; they contained no information about secret police terror or its perpetrators and did nothing to identify former Securitate officers. On the contrary, the books tried to justify the existence of the communist state and the Securitate as having served ‘the nation’s interests.’ When Şerban again put forth a lustrace law in 1996, still under Iliescu’s presidency, the law was overshadowed by Romania’s increasing economic woes, received little attention, and was again rejected in parliament.
In 1997, however, after Constantinescu’s election, a former dissident and member of the Peasant’s Party, Ticu Dumitrescu, proposed a new lustration law that would not only open individual citizens’ personal files, but would also publish the names of all Securitate collaborators and forbid all former Securitate members access to official government positions. Only in the former German Democratic Republic were citizens given such access to their own secret police files. Hearings on the law began that year but were slowed by the refusal of members of some parties to show up at these meetings. Opponents indicated that the proposed law was too strict, perhaps fearing the effects of its application on their own political careers, but also predicting turmoil and upheaval at such digging through the past. During the course of the debate, Dumitrescu’s proposal was changed and the power and scope of the law was weakened. Though citizens’ personal files would be opened upon individual request, the files of current secret service officers were to be kept closed for thirty years, thereby protecting the large number of ex-Securitate members who continued to serve in the SRI. In this gutted form, the law passed in 1999, provoking its proposer Dumitrescu to call it ‘the law of covering up the Securitate,’ not ‘of uncovering it.’
As passed, the law does allow the CNSAS council to make public the names of the former employees or informants of the Securitate, especially if those persons play a current political role or are running for office. The council is also allowed to decide whether certain activities described in a particular document constituted collaboration with the Securitate, and is committed to entering information from the archives into the congressional record of the Romanian parliament. Rather than barring those with Securitate ties from holding political office, the law leaves it to political parties and, ultimately, to voters, to decide these persons’ political fates. It is for this reason that CNSAS director Gheorghe Onisoru calls it, somewhat defensively, ‘a moral law.’ Importantly, the law also provides provisions for appeal by individuals who dispute the council’s charges against them and outlines their rights in their defense. This means that the law can also be used to defend candidates from false allegations of Securitate ties by proving their innocence. In the recent national elections, many of the 38 candidates whose names surfaced in the archives either resigned their candidacies voluntarily or were asked to do so by their parties, suggesting that the information contained in the archives has had some success in serving the law’s intended mission.
Still, fulfilling the law’s mandate and developing the CNSAS council have so far been difficult, sometimes cumbersome processes. Though the council is the legal owner of the Securitate archives (as well as of the files of the former military, justice department, and communist party), much of this classified material remains in the possession of the SRI, which has proved reluctant to give it up. This is little wonder, given the basic conflict of interest that arises from the CNSAS’ objective of identifying ex-Securitate members, and the heavy composition of ex-Securitate members in the SRI’s membership. Last June CNSAS issued an official complaint about the SRI that claimed the service was not only denying access to important files, but also altering certain files before handing them over to the council. Files on both the leading presidential candidates, Tudor, and Iliescu, are not available – disappeared from the SRI archives in the former case and presumed destroyed in the latter, given the customary periodic destruction of classified files among high-ranking members of the communist party before 1989. Notably, the SRI also has veto power when it believes a file contains information related to current national security, and in those cases has legal authority to retain the files. (The president does have ultimate power to intervene in such cases.) Though the CNSAS recently made the shocking discovery that several ex-Securitate officers are members of the new parliament, the council could not publish their names because they continue to serve as undercover agents for the SRI and national interests would arguably be at stake in exposing them.
From a logistical perspective, there are some 35 km of files scattered in institutions across the country, although by the SRI’s own estimates as many as 39,000 files seem to have ‘disappeared’ from the archives soon after the revolution. As in the cases of Tudor and Iliescu, these missing files of course mean that other candidates with Securitate ties may also evade CNSAS investigations. Sufficient funding for the council is also a concern. Initially backed by its board members, who include such reputable intellectuals and former dissidents as Patapievici, poet Mircea Dinescu, and former foreign secretary Andrei Pleşu, the CNSAS council now has an annual budget of $2 million. This figure may be compared to the $200 million budget of the Gauck Authority operating in eastern Germany under a similar mandate. (The CNSAS in fact has a partnership with Gauck which entails the transfer of knowledge and computer equipment.) Technically part of Romania’s Ministry of the Interior, the CNSAS council will now depend on President Iliescu’s government for this small budget.
Adequate staffing of the council is an issue as well – the one hundred staff members charged with investigating the archives before the December elections were given just one month of training. Such questions of funding and staffing highlight perhaps the largest obstacle of all, mastering the huge amount of material to be combed through in a relatively short amount of time. To that end, staff members must concern themselves with the problem of how to filter the archives for relevant information and with how to decide what constitutes this category in the first place.
That such legal and logistical issues have hampered CNSAS’ effectiveness is clear in post-election criticism of the law and the recent case of a newly appointed high-level official in Iliescu’s administration, Ristea Priboi, who passed two CNSAS checks before the elections but in February was found to have worked for the Securitate. In the wake of the elections, critics have maintained that the law is inadequate to differentiate between victims and collaborators of the communist era. For example, Liberal party members Mircea Ionescu-Quintus, president of the Senate under Constantinescu, and Alexandru Paleologu, both of whom were among the 38 candidates found to have Securitate ties before the election, argued that though they had carried out minor services for the Securitate at one time, they had served and suffered in communist prisons during the dark period of repression in the 50’s and 60’s. At the same time, they noted, ‘collaborators’ deeply embedded in the communist system such as Iliescu and dozens of others managed to emerge with totally clean shirts. Quintus and Paleologu decided not to withdraw their candidacies and were subsequently elected into the parliament. Though the ‘moral’ appeal of the law remained largely intact because it enabled Romanian voters to pass judgment on these candidates’ political pasts, some council supporters worried that their seemingly justified decision not to withdraw might establish a precedent for less innocent collaborators.
A similar precedent may already have been established by the recent case of Ristea Priboi. Despite two attempts to check his files, CNSAS was unable to confirm Priboi’s Securitate ties before the election, and he was appointed to control the country’s foreign intelligence agency under Iliescu. But after a member of the Liberal Party charged Priboi with Securitate involvement, Iliescu’s Social Democracy Party admitted in February 2001 that Priboi had worked previously for the Securitate’s foreign intelligence branch, where he supervised a department in charge of spying on the US. Priboi, who after 1989 kept his job at the foreign intelligence, is also suspected of involvement in the 1981 bombing of the Munich headquarters of US funded “Radio Free Europe,” a major Securitate foe. Although the case has stirred huge controversy, Priboi is firmly backed by Tudor and by prime minister Adrian Nastase of the Social Democracy Party who furiously expressed support for his long-time advisor as long as no proof exists that Priboi was directly responsible for any ‘damage.’ Moreover, Nastase downplayed the recent scandals regarding the involvement of ex-Securitate members in politics by calling them ‘internal political games’ of no relevance whatsoever. In defending Priboi, his backers have come to interpret the law, which condemns every collaborator or employee of the Securitate, as applying only to collaborators and not to former officers. Without a strong commitment from politicians as well as voters, the ‘moral law’ may turn out not to be a law at all.
Be this as it may, in spite of its limitations it is undeniable that the council’s work has led to increased public attention on the Securitate question. Just recently, accusations similar to the ones against Priboi have been raised regarding the nominations of the new head of the SRI and the new defense secretary. The fact that the Priboi case and others have provoked a discourse that is anchored on a state council and not merely on debates led by a few intellectuals and journalists, as had been the case, should be seen as a step in a gradual healing process. The obstacles the council faces should not obscure the fact that the mere existence of this law and the CNSAS is an achievement. Just as the council contributes to diminishing the influence of the Securitate in Romanian political life, the CNSAS also aims to contribute to the country’s renewal of democratic practice and civic culture, replacing one brick in the structure of Romanian civil society that the Securitate helped destroy. It will continue to do so, though so far there is not much indication the new president will help. Unsympathetic to the issue of the archives during his previous term, it appears Iliescu will not deal with the Securitate’s legacy and the council very differently this time around. During a press conference shortly before the elections he called the board members of the CNSAS ‘disabled losers’. Yet if he is to be the true democrat he now claims he is and if he wants his country to be taken seriously by the Western alliance, he must forge not only economic reforms but also what Germany’s Joachim Gauck called ‘the therapy of memory,’ the attempt of a former communist society and its institutions to address and resolve the ongoing legacy of a shadowy political past.