Crisis Management in the Communist Bloc: Romania’s Policy Towards the USSR in the Aftermath of the Prague Spring

Cezar Stanciu. Cold War History. Volume 13, Issue 3. August 2013.

On 21 August 1968, when Soviet tanks were entering Prague liquidating the ‘Prague Spring’, Romanian party leader Nicolae Ceauşescu publicly condemned the intervention as a violation of national sovereignty. Such aggressive attitude lasted only a few days, after which he tried to appease Moscow. This article retraces Ceauşescu’s decisions and motivations in the years 1968-1970, which were aimed at eliminating what he perceived as the risk of a similar intervention in Romania. Also, it answers a fundamental question: did the Soviet-led intervention in Czechoslovakia determine an abandonment of Romania’s policy of autonomy in the Communist bloc?

On 21 August 1968, from a balcony in central Bucharest, Romanian party boss Nicolae Ceauşescu delivered a speech which made him famous at home and abroad. While Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague, liquidating socialism with a human face, Ceauşescu was publicly warning Moscow that he was ready to fight for his country’s independence, if confronted with a similar situation. However, the popularity he gained with this spectacular gesture was not going to defend him against the perils of a potential Soviet intervention. Once the emotion of the moment had passed, Ceauşescu had to find methods and strategies to safeguard his position and appease the Soviets, if he was to remain in power, safe from a similar intervention.

Ceauşescu’s predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, had set the Romanian Communist Party (RCP) on a course for autonomy in the communist bloc for both political and economic reasons. Khrushchev’s reforms and de-Stalinisation threatened the stability of Romanian communist elites while Moscow’s planned reforms at CMEA (Council for Mutual Economic Aid) aimed at integration were also threatening Romania’s industrialisation. Gheorghiu-Dej sought to reduce his regime’s dependence on the USSR, both politically and economically, by identifying economic partners outside the Soviet bloc and increasing his regime’s domestic legitimacy. Ideologically, Gheorghiu-Dej advocated a multipolar World Communist Movement, inspired by Titoist arguments. The RCP’s demands for autonomy were clearly laid out in the Declaration of April, published in 1964, which rejected the idea of a leading centre in world communism and pleaded for a national, specific course to socialism, as opposed to the unique Bolshevik path that was characteristic of the Stalinist era.

At Gheorghiu-Dej’s death in 1965, Ceauşescu assumed this course and went further, benefiting from Khrushchev’s replacement by Leonid Brezhnev and the aggravation of the Sino-Soviet conflict. On several occasions, he argued against Moscow’s self-proclaimed right to impose decisions on other communist parties and continued to safeguard Romania’s neutrality in the Sino-Soviet dispute, a milestone of his predecessor’s policy of autonomy. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was even invited to visit Bucharest in 1966, where he was received with great pomp. Romania’s economic ties with its Western partners continued to expand in the years preceding the events in Czechoslovakia. Moreover, Ceauşescu defied the Soviet Union through his foreign policy by refusing to take Egypt’s side in the Six Day War (as Moscow asked) or establishing diplomatic relations with West Germany.

The basic question in this article is whether or not this policy of autonomy was affected by the Soviet-led intervention in Czechoslovakia. Historians agree that Brezhnev’s decision to intervene in Czechoslovakia was determined by a strong perception that the communist regime was under threat by liberalisation and there was a risk of contagion among other satellite states as well. Such risks did not exist in Romania and Ceauşescu’s policies differed radically from those of Dubček in Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, the intervention was a major blow to Ceauşescu’s policy for the simple fact that it reiterated Moscow’s determination to impose its point of view on other parties and by military means, something that had not been done since 1956.

For Ceauşescu, this was an implicit threat, regardless of Brezhnev’s actual intentions, of which Ceauşescu could not have been aware at the time. The fact that Ceauşescu perceived a Soviet threat to his country and regime is a premise of this study. Historian Dennis Deletant argues in his studies that Ceauşescu did take the risk of a Soviet intervention seriously and acted upon it. In a theoretical study of international conflict, Greg Cashman argues that both Ceauşescu and Tito of Yugoslavia feared that a potential Soviet intervention threatened their policies.

Historiography concerning Romania’s position regarding the Soviet-led intervention in Czechoslovakia focuses primarily on two crucial aspects: the Romanian decision-making process in the days following the intervention, on one hand, and the impact of Ceauşescu’s denunciation of the intervention on Romanian domestic policies, on the other hand. The most notable archival research on Romania’s reaction to the intervention was undertaken by historian Mihai Retegan. His conclusion, to which this study will largely refer, is that Ceauşescu did perceive the intervention in Czechoslovakia as a threat and sought to identify possible allies in case a similar event occurred in Romania. Retegan concluded that, after the Chinese and the Yugoslavs advised in favour of caution, Ceauşescu changed his position from a confrontational stance towards appeasement.

Other authors like Kristen Williams also note a change in Ceauşescu’s political behaviour in the months following the intervention, such as more provocative speech. In a recent study, Williams notes the same shift in Ceauşescu’s attitude as Retegan: he renounced his previous request that the supreme command of the Warsaw Pact troops be held by rotation and on several occasions Ceauşescu reiterated his loyalty to the USSR. But at the same time, Williams also argues that Romania’s retreat was only partial and that its autonomy in foreign policy continued, especially as concerns his neutral stance in the Sino-Soviet dispute.

This study continues Retegan’s and Williams’s assessments, centred on the question: how far did appeasement go? Did it involve abandonment of Ceauşescu’s policy of autonomy or was it just a strategic retreat? My article will provide a response to this question by carefully observing the course of Romania’s policy towards the USSR during the following two years and drawing on recently declassified and mostly unpublished documents from the RCP archives. A complete answer to this question is beyond current research possibilities, given the fact that not all archival documents are available, but I argue that the documents available so far can provide an illuminating version of events.

The hypothesis of this article is that Ceauşescu did not abandon his policy of autonomy in the years following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. He pursued a steady course of appeasement not only in late August 1968 but in the following two years as well, by limiting his gestures of defiance and by trying to convince the Soviets of his loyalty to Moscow and the Warsaw Pact. Nevertheless, appeasement did not involve the abandonment of some basic principles of Romania’s policy of autonomy, such as neutrality in the Sino-Soviet dispute. This hypothesis shall be demonstrated by the description and analysis of Romania’s policy towards the Soviet Union in the years following the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia. For the purpose of this study, the understanding of ‘autonomy’ shall be limited only to the field of foreign policy, meaning Romania’s self-proclaimed right to make decisions and pursue interests that were not coordinated with or accepted by Moscow.

The Narrow Margin of Autonomy

The RCP leadership, including Ceauşescu, found out about the intervention itself through a telephone call made by a Romanian press correspondent. Romania was not invited to take part in the intervention and had virtually no information about what was going to happen. During the early morning of 21 August 1968 the Permanent Presidium and the Political Executive Committee – leading bodies of the Central Committee of the RCP – were summoned to an emergency meeting. The first decision was crucial and was made instantly: Romania was going to oppose the intervention and condemn it in the strictest terms. To support this decision, the party Central Committee was also invoked in an extraordinary meeting, as well as the Grand National Assembly, the legislative body.

Ceauşescu proposed that a declaration be adopted continuing Romania’s position and showing, in his words:

the necessity to take all measures to ensure Romania’s security and to express our party’s position that nobody, in any way, can assume the right to interfere in other country’s internal affairs, and does not have any justification to address a certain group, that only the party and the government and officially chosen organs bear responsibility, that the Central Committee and the Government call the entire people to defend Romania’s territorial integrity and to reject any interference in our country’s domestic affairs. We should consider informing members of the United Nations of this declaration.

Ceauşescu’s approach left a distinct impression that he feared a similar intervention directed against his country, as argued by Deletant. But this impression was widespread among members of the Political Executive Committee, as became apparent from other statements supporting Ceauşescu’s suggestion. Alexandru Bârlădeanu, one of Gheorghiu-Dej’s right-hand men in his opposition to Khrushchev years before, said:

I think that what happened last night in Czechoslovakia unmasked a series of affirmations that were looking to benumb the Socialist countries. This is a great power and, if you oppose it, the same calamity awaits you too. It awaits anyone who thinks this way and especially us. I consider that the measures proposed here by Cmd. Ceauşescu represents a first line of defence in what concerns the interests of our party and our people. By doing this, we not only defend our interests, but we also defend the idea of Socialism worldwide. What happened in Czechoslovakia throws Socialism 20 years behind and compromises the ideas peoples fight for, the ideas of Socialism.

Bârlădeanu’s words show clearly that a threat of foreign intervention was considered real and imminent.

In the weeks and days preceding the intervention in Czechoslovakia, the party leadership had received numerous clues from the secret services regarding possible military operations against Romania. On 5 August, the Council of State Security, using espionage sources, informed the party leadership that Soviet troops were being concentrated near the Romanian border. Similar information concerned the concentration of troops near the Romanian-Hungarian border; counterespionage sources indicated an increasing Soviet interest in Romania’s military capacity. What seemed at that time to be merely intimidation gained a different significance after what happened in Czechoslovakia. Fully aware of the fact that Romania did not have a reasonable chance to resist an invasion by itself, Ceauşescu’s first reaction in the field of foreign policy was to look for potential allies.

On 23 August, Romania was celebrating its National Day and intense preparations were underway in Beijing as well. In light of recent events, premier Zhou Enlai announced his presence at the festivities organised by the Romanian embassy in China, surrounded by a large delegation of military officials. The Chinese Politburo had discussed Romania’s situation, and Mao himself agreed for Zhou Enlai to come to the Romanian Embassy and deliver an encouraging speech. But in his private conversation with Romanian ambassador Aurel Duma, the Chinese premier was sceptical of his country’s capacity to help Romania much. He did express his country’s most determined support for Romania and Beijing’s willingness to contribute to a potential Romanian resistance including by military means, but he was not very confident of the difference it would make in the battle. His advice was that Romania should seek reconciliation with the Soviets, without necessarily giving up its principles. Trying to defuse the tensions, Zhou Enlai thought, was the best choice given the geographical and military circumstances of Romania’s relationship to the USSR.

Geographically closer and in a similar position to Romania was Yugoslavia. Marshall Tito had also condemned the Warsaw Pact invasion in Czechoslovakia, and his country was the only neighbour Romania had that was not a Warsaw Pact member. In case military circumstances would have demanded it, Yugoslavia was the only available gateway both for an army retreat and purveyance. In a recent work, author Dejan Jović emphasised the fact that Tito and the Yugoslav leadership were indeed afraid of a potential Soviet intervention in Yugoslavia as well. Such a fear existed to varying degrees since the outbreak of the Stalin-Tito rift, but it reached its peak in the summer of 1968.

Ceauşescu asked Tito for a secret meeting on 24 August in order to explore his neighbour’s intentions. Ceauşescu explained to his Yugoslav counterpart the nature of the information which entitled him to presume that a military intervention in Romania was possible and asked about Yugoslavia’s position. Emil Bodnăraş, an influential member of the party leadership, explained Romania’s calculations to Tito: ‘considering the way things were done in Czechoslovakia, we don’t exclude an overnight intervention against us. An adventure is an adventure. Our decision is clear, as Cmd. Ceauşescu explained: armed fight against them. […] In case of an attack against Romania, three borders will be attacked… We only have one front open – Yugoslavia. […] And, because things may happen unexpectedly, we need to know if we can count on your support to maintain this corridor open.’

Bodnăraş also tried to convince Tito that, in such a case, it would be unlikely for the invading troops to stop at Yugoslavia’s border. Yet, Tito proved to be very cautious, probably because he did not sense the threat as critically as the Romanians. He did assure Ceauşescu of his support both for a retreat of the Romanian army and for supplying Romania with whatever necessary in case of war. But, he added, should the Romanian army have to retreat onto Yugoslav territory, it would have to lay down its weapons. On Yugoslav territory, Tito said, the Yugoslav army will fight. It was less than Ceauşescu expected, but Tito’s further advice was in favour of moderation and reconciliation:

I think it would be better if you used, as much as possible, a positive stand, as a Socialist country, in what concerns the relations you want to have with Socialist countries, in such a way as to allow nobody to claim that you have a negative behaviour, to create a pretext for something. You must reiterate that you remain faithful to the Warsaw Treaty, without pointing out the need for improvements right now, so that you would leave them without pretext, no pretext for them to take such measures. We know that Bulgarian, Hungarian and the Soviet press will fabricate all sorts of things. But you must proceed in such a way as to show in your press that nothing they write is true, that you want to remain members of the Warsaw Pact and that whatever they intent to do is not determined by Romania’s misdeeds and you should also show clearly their purpose to enslave your country.

As the emotions of the moment were slowly fading away, it became more and more clear for Ceauşescu that reconciliation and de-escalation of the crisis were his only reasonable options. Signals from the West were also negative: as concerned as they may have been, Western countries were far from willing to intervene to help Romania, with anything other than encouraging statements. Romanian historian Mihai Retegan, relying on extensive archival research, considers that the change in Ceauşescu’s behaviour appeared right after his meeting with Tito. On 25 August 1968, he presided over another meeting of the Political Executive Committee in which he presented his discussion with Marshall Tito; right before that, he met with Soviet ambassador A.V. Basov. On 23 August, the RCP had addressed a letter to the communist parties of the five intervening countries, asking for a meeting to discuss the situation in Czechoslovakia and obviously condemning the invasion. The Soviet reply was delivered immediately after Ceauşescu’s return from his meeting with Tito.

The letter had a particularly harsh tone, with implied threats:

in haste and profoundly wrong you have labelled the internationalist action of the Socialist countries as intervention. […] We decisively reject the distortion of the principled position adopted by the Soviet Union and other Socialist countries and we cannot ignore the unhealthy commotion in Romania in regard to the intervention. […] We would like to express our hope that, in order to prevent the deterioration of Romanian-Soviet relations and the deterioration of Romania’s friendship with other Socialist countries […] you shall draw conclusions based on the real situation and also undertake the necessary steps deriving from such conclusions.

After receiving the letter from Soviet ambassador Basov, Ceauşescu exculpated himself with a note of affected reproach. He assured Basov of his willingness to maintain good relations with the USSR and the other Socialist countries and expressed disappointment that his position was erroneously understood in Moscow. Ceauşescu reminded Basov that all his statements and declarations published in the previous days contained references to Romania’s friendship with the USSR, which was true, but somewhat conventional in all such texts. He also reproached the Soviets for not discussing the situation in Czechoslovakia with him too, if indeed it was a counterrevolutionary situation and asked Basov to convey his reassurances of friendship to Moscow. The Executive Committee convened shortly after Ceauşescu’s meeting with Basov in order to decide upon the official written response to the letter received.

In reference to the Soviet letter Basov handed him out, Ceauşescu bluntly said: ‘the letter contains a lot of absurdities but I don’t think it’s useful to start discussing this now because it wouldn’t help. We should only point out that, in what concerns our attitude regarding Czechoslovakia, our assessments differ, but we should act in the direction of overcoming this’. A response letter was written in that spirit and it was handed to Basov the next day. It emphasised in numerous phrases Romania’s loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and its determination to develop friendly relations with the Soviet Union, in spite of existing divergences. Romanian discourse of foreign policy had already changed its emphasis from bellicose declarations of armed resistance to assurances of friendship and loyalty. As Retegan noticed, this was the beginning of a long and sinuous road to appeasement, which shall be described and analysed in the following parts.

Appeasement: Renegotiating the Limits of Autonomy

Tito’s advice to Ceauşescu on 24 August 1968, as well as Ceauşescu’s change of attitude, did not imply a decline in Romanian-Yugoslav cooperation. Secret documents available in the RCP archives prove that both sides maintained close relations in the months following the intervention in Czechoslovakia, consulting each other on numerous occasions with regard to their relations with Moscow. Matthew J. Ouimet also argues, in a study about the Brezhnev doctrine, that events in Czechoslovakia contributed to an increasing Romanian-Yugoslav approach, aimed at preventing further consolidation of Soviet positions in the Balkans.

The first meeting between Ceauşescu and Tito which took place after the tense days of August 1968 occurred in February 1969. The two leaders discussed various issues concerning their bilateral relations, the evolution of world politics, and matters of domestic policy which were of interest to both. The transcript of the meeting has an appendix though, a ‘Secret Note’ put together by a Romanian translator. The note reveals that, after the official discussions, Tito requested a private meeting with Ceauşescu, in which the only other participant was the above-mentioned translator.

According to the document, Tito appeared to be acutely concerned about certain Warsaw Pact manoeuvres scheduled to take place in Romania during 1969. He asked Ceauşescu to confirm if such manoeuvres were indeed scheduled and, moreover, the Yugoslav leader was particularly interested in knowing if such manoeuvres were to take place near the Romanian-Yugoslav border. Ceauşescu did confirm the news but explained that the operations had been scheduled to take place in Romania long before the events in Czechoslovakia and assured Tito that troops were not involved, only officers. Furthermore, Tito presented Ceauşescu with some of the defensive measures adopted by Yugoslavia in the aftermath of August 1968, especially the formation of armed civil guards, estimated at approximately 600,000 people. He explained that a top priority of the Yugoslav government was to be able to produce all arms and ammunition needed by its army of civil guards and large investments in the military industry were under preparation to that effect.

At this point, Tito brought up a proposal for Romanian-Yugoslav cooperation in the field of military industry. Tito inquired about Romania’s progress in trying to obtain a licence from the West for producing a supersonic military aircraft. Neither country had the capacity to produce such aircraft at that time. Tito suggested to Ceauşescu that the two countries should try to buy a licence together from France and produce the aircraft in cooperation. Ceauşescu immediately agreed and both leaders decided that orders would be issued in that sense to Romanian and Yugoslav Ministries of Defence. Regarding relations with the USSR, Tito explained that he had done everything possible to normalise relations with Moscow and avoid ‘provocation’. Ceauşescu confirmed that Romania was following a similar course. Tito and Ceauşescu agreed in the end that it was to the benefit of both parties to have such meetings more often, either official or otherwise. But all these agreements were hidden from the press.

The Romanian leader was interested in maintaining a low profile in the months following the events in Czechoslovakia, and he did so, at least when it came to public statements or spectacular gestures of foreign policy. Nevertheless, he was headed for another collision course with Brezhnev sooner than he may have wished. The USSR was keen on enlarging the command attributes of the Warsaw Pact Organisation, in order to make it more efficient. Ceauşescu agreed with such proposals on the condition that deployment of troops on foreign territory was to be done only with the consent of national governments. A new session of the Political Consultative Committee of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) convened in March 1969 to discuss these issues.

But at the time the session was convened in Budapest, a new unexpected challenge had risen: armed conflicts at the Sino-Soviet border. A milestone of Romania’s autonomy in the communist bloc was its neutrality in the Sino-Soviet dispute and Ceauşescu could not accept being dragged into an official denunciation or condemnation of Mao, as happened with Tito before. Just like with Czechoslovakia, it would have created a dangerous precedent for himself. Ceauşescu’s predecessor, Gheorghiu-Dej, when confronted with similar situations during his divergences with Khrushchev over specialisation at CMEA, used a particular strategy: superior organs of party leadership would decide on a very limited mandate for the delegation meeting the Soviets. Later, when the delegation met the Soviets, it would simply argue that it did not have a mandate for discussing a specific topic. That was exactly Ceauşescu’s strategy in March 1969.

At a meeting right before Ceauşescu’s departure for Budapest to meet Brezhnev, the Political Executive Committee voted to sign the WTO reform documents in the form agreed at previous negotiations As for China, János Fazekas, an old member of party leadership, expressed it best in the meeting: ‘Our delegation should not interfere in relations between China and the Soviet Union. As for the border incident, the devil knows whcih one of them started it.’ In Budapest, Ceauşescu did sign all the documents on WTO reform, but as he had expected, Brezhnev put forth the issue of China, asking for a common denunciation of its aggression’ against the USSR. Ceauşescu refused to accept any declaration on that topic, as he recounted back home:

They said: but how can we return home and tell our Politburo that we came here and did not discuss this issue? We have information that the situation changes every two hours [at the Sino-Soviet border], that [name missing in original] assumed command of the troops, that he mobilises agricultural divisions and so on. Why should we keep discussing the Federal Republic of Germany … I can spit on the FRG, but China is the main danger…

Brezhnev finally gave up the Chinese issue for the sake of saving the meeting and the progress it marked in WTO reform. As for Ceauşescu, it was another victory, but one he did not actually need. At the time, he was striving to appease Brezhnev and prove his good intentions to the Soviets, so a confrontation like this was something he tried to avoid. But the fact that he did not waver from his position, in such delicate circumstances as those following the events in Prague, proves his determination to maintain the basic lines of his policy in spite of the risks.

Ceauşescu soon had a favourable opportunity to resume his appeasement policy. The Romanian minister of foreign affairs, Corneliu Mănescu paid a visit to Moscow, in April 1969. Mănescu had the complicated task of convincing the Soviets that Romania was still a faithful ally and was indeed interested in overcoming differences. He had meetings with key decision-makers in Moscow, including Brezhnev, premier Alexei Kosygin and foreign minister Andrei Gromyko.

Mănescu’s mission was also difficult because of his position: he was not a key member of the RCP leadership and all his interlocutors understood that. Nevertheless, as a minister of foreign affairs, he was familiar with technical aspects of bilateral relations and therefore had the opportunity to make a long and optimistic description of the progress achieved in Romanian-Soviet relations over the past two decades, in fields like the economy, culture, and consular relations. Repeatedly he insisted on the special character of Romanian-Soviet relations, as if trying to convince his counterparts. Gromyko was much more reserved. He spoke in general terms about Romanian-Soviet relations, mentioning that there was room for improvement. Invited by Mănescu to visit Romania, he accepted with hesitation but refused to provide a date, just as he did regarding a potential visit by Brezhnev.

But Mănescu’s most important meeting in Moscow was the one with Brezhnev, on 9 April 1969. Talking about the fight against imperialism, Brezhnev pointed out with great emphasis how valuable the unity of worldwide communism was in his view and the way imperialists profited from divergences in the communist bloc. Concerning the Chinese problem, Brezhnev openly condemned Romania for not taking an active stand regarding the border incidents. And once the reproaches started, he shared some of his impressions on Romania’s foreign policy with Mănescu, as a message to Ceauşescu. Brezhnev said:

Personally, I think there is too much insistence in your country on sovereignty, independence, non-interference, as if someone would attack Romania. I understand if you mention it once, but not if you repeat it all the time, like a prayer. People will start wondering: What is with them? Who is attacking them? It does not bother anyone in itself. You can say it a thousand times. But I do not know what is behind this insistence, are the Romanian friends afraid that the USSR would like to attack Romania? Do Czechs, Hungarians, Bulgarians attack you?

With a gracious twist of words, Mănescu told Brezhnev that Romanians care for their sovereignty so much because it was obtained with difficulty, through socialism, but he also reassured the Soviet leader of Romania’s friendly intentions vis-à-vis the USSR. Regarding China, Mănescu pointed out that his country’s position was far from being in favour of the Chinese, but only equidistant and, as a proof, he invoked the fact that Romania had never taken China’s side in the dispute. The conversation ended with Mănescu’s reiterated promises of loyalty and friendship for the USSR.

The mission can be considered a success: Mănescu went to Moscow with a message of reconciliation and Brezhnev accepted it. His promises that the Soviets did not intend any aggressive manoeuvre against Romania were an implicit acceptance of the status quo: if Romania was not willing to go any further with its opposition, neither was the Soviet Union. For Ceauşescu, this was a good premise for a future reconciliation which did not involve a renunciation of principles.

As momentous as Mănescu’s visit may have been, it was only a preparation for the party leader’s visit. Ceauşescu and Brezhnev had met several times after the Soviet-led intervention in Czechoslovakia, but on ceremonial occasions, where the main topic was not the relations between the two countries. Ceauşescu went to Moscow to take a symbolic bow and to confirm Mănescu’s message of appeasement, especially after the new episodes of opposition in the spring of 1969. Ceauşescu was accompanied by premier Maurer and was well- received, according to all rules of protocol, but his encounter with Brezhnev was tumultuous. Brezhnev openly criticised Ceauşescu for his position on several key international issues, including the Six Days War and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the FRG, considering these as signs of separation from the communist bloc’s foreign policy. According to Ceauşescu, Brezhnev also tried to imply that such positions represented a departure from the principles of Marxist-Leninism.

Ceauşescu vehemently denied all these allegations and tried to convince Brezhnev of his loyalty, just as Tito had advised a year before. It was probably the first time after August 1968 when the two party leaders discussed the situation in Czechoslovakia, openly, face to face. Ceauşescu tried to pose as a betrayed friend, as he recounted at home, a few days later:

We told them: you had five meetings [prior to the intervention in Czechoslovakia]. Why were the Romanians not invited to participate? They were after all members of the Political Consultative Committee. Romania should have been called, to listen to opinions, to establish common measures; maybe we could have found another solution. Guilty are those who did not call. And later, you say: why did we not wait and judge, but we did not receive any of your documents. […]But what did I say to your ambassador the next day after you entered Czechoslovakia? I even sent you a letter; I asked for a meeting. Why did you not agree?

Ceauşescu continued in this tone, reproaching Brezhnev for measures like stopping the exchange of tourists or mobilising troops at the borders, especially military manoeuvres undertaken at the Romanian-Bulgarian border. In turn, Brezhnev reproached the defensive measures adopted by Romania domestically and excessive references to ‘sovereignty’ in public discourse. He asked the same question to Ceauşescu: is the USSR threatening Romania’s sovereignty? Such a dialogue could not bring them to any particular decision, but what it revealed was the mutual desire for overcoming differences by establishing clear limits. Practically, each side was justifying itself through the other’s mistakes, and this was an implicit exculpation.

Ceauşescu’s conclusion indicated the limits set between the two:

[W]e went to dinner, along with other members of the Politburo, and Brezhnev made a toast and explained in a few words that discussions were honest, that we have the same interests, and that generally we came to terms, although in the Czechoslovak and Chinese matters the positions remained different. I also made a toast and I said that indeed discussions were open, civilised, without measures and without threats.

The meeting marked a step forward for Ceauşescu’s appeasement policy: he implicitly guaranteed Brezhnev that Romania was not going to leave the Warsaw Pact and remained faithful to its alliance with the USSR, which was exactly what Brezhnev needed to hear.

The progress attained by Ceauşescu in his policy of appeasement soon met with new obstacles. An international meeting of communist and workers’ parties was a project to which Brezhnev was very devoted, especially given Moscow’s growing difficulties with China. One of Brezhnev’s key priorities in foreign policy was to restore the USSR’s position as a credible superpower, after this status had been seriously affected by Khrushchev’s adventurous initiatives. The most significant impediment to this was China, which exerted a negative influence on two fronts: firstly, it challenged Moscow’s position in the world communist movement and questioned Moscow’s right to predominance; secondly, it undermined Soviet efforts to achieve international détente, condemning Moscow for complicity with the “imperialists”. Brezhnev’s plan was to organise an international conference of communist parties that would condemn and denounce China, thus proving the Moscow-led unity of world communism. Such a conference was exceedingly inconvenient for Ceauşescu, because it compelled him to oppose Moscow, at the least convenient time.

The conference was scheduled to convene in Moscow in June 1969. In 1967 and 1968, two other preliminary conferences were held in order to prepare for the large meeting in Moscow but Romania had refused to take part in the first of them. Ceauşescu summoned a Central Committee plenum in late May 1969 to discuss the mandate of the Romanian delegation that was going to participate. The delegation was to be led by Ceauşescu himself and Paul Niculescu-Mizil, chief ideologist of the RCP and the author of Ceauşescu’s famous balcony speech of August 1968. A plenum of the Central Committee was a strategic manoeuvre from many points of view: making every CC member agree to the decision prevented potential opposition and splits, but it also offered a good pretext for resisting pressures in Moscow.

The plenum voted for a mandate presented by Niculescu-Mizil, consisting of several points. The first and most important was the interdiction to participate in discussing or condemning another party’s activity. Also, the delegation was forbidden from agreeing to any document that involved interference in another country’s internal affairs. Apart from these interdictions, the mandate asked for the delegation to support active measures of détente and the withdrawal of foreign troops from other countries’ territories. In Moscow, Ceauşescu could have easily argued that he did not have a mandate from the Central Committee to discuss or sign anything else, which is exactly what he later did. Nevertheless, his presence in Moscow was a sign of appeasement.

The meeting took place between 5 and 17 June 1969, without any major incidents. At the previous preparatory meeting which took place in Budapest, the Romanian delegation had left the conference in the middle of the talks to protest against the Chinese issue being brought up. In June 1969 in Moscow, Brezhnev himself brought up the Chinese issue again, during the first meeting of the participants. Ceauşescu took the floor and protested, arguing that the issue was not on the agenda and that he did not have a mandate from the Central Committee to discuss it. He did not leave the meeting, but nor did Brezhnev insist on pursuing the issue. Another incident occurred when the representative of the communist party in Paraguay condemned China in his speech, causing another protest from Ceauşescu. The Romanian delegation decided once again to stay, as a sign of good faith by Ceauşescu towards Brezhnev.

After the Paraguayan intervention, the Chinese issue was not brought up again. Practically, Brezhnev was testing Ceauşescu’s determination to maintain his neutrality and Ceauşescu chose to confirm it in a less noisy manner. Once again, the outcome was the preservation of the status quo in bilateral relations. Ceauşescu stayed and signed the final declaration of the meeting, which called for unity in the world communist movement. But at the same time, the text of the declaration did not mention China. Richard Wich argues that the declaration was an implicit victory for Ceauşescu, who had the chance to influence the text so as to avoid condemnation of China or similar accusations directed against other parties, such as ‘deviation’ or ‘nationalism’. Had Ceauşescu been absent, Wich suggests, the text could have been written in a different manner. When he returned to Bucharest, Ceauşescu was under the impression that he had managed to save his delicate relationship with Brezhnev, but the ultimate test was going to be the Soviet leader’s visit to Bucharest.

In August 1969, precisely one year after the famous balcony speech, Brezhnev was expected to arrive in Bucharest to take part in the 10th congress of the RCP. The Soviet leader’s visit to Bucharest was interpreted by Ceauşescu as a signal that his appeasement policy had succeeded. Brezhnev’s presence in Bucharest was of overwhelming political importance to Ceauşescu as proof that the Soviets did not have aggressive intentions vis-à-vis Romania and that the tensions of August 1968 had been overcome. But in July 1969, newly elected American President Richard Nixon informed the Romanian government, via official channels, that he was planning a visit to Romania.

Romania was important in American foreign policy for several reasons: encouraging anti-Soviet attitudes among the satellites served the USA’s interests, and Romania’s attempts at mediation in the Vietnam War were useful. But in the end, neither of these factors justified such a momentous decision: Romania was going to be the first Warsaw Pact country ever to be visited by an American president and the weight of this step exceeded Romania’s importance in American foreign policy.

American historians Joseph Courtney and Bruce Harriton, in their comprehensive study of American-Romanian relations, identify one basic cause for Nixon’s decision: his failure to persuade the Soviet Union to assume a more active role in the Vietnam War issue. The United States placed great hope in the role Moscow could play in persuading the North Vietnamese to accept negotiations, but Moscow’s ability to achieve this was rather limited. Chinese opposition to a negotiated solution in Vietnam and the influence China exerted on the North Vietnamese leadership seriously limited the possibility of effective intervention by the Soviet Union. According to Courtney and Harriton, when Kosygin bluntly told the Americans in May 1969 that Moscow was not willing to go further in pressuring the North Vietnamese to enter into negotiations, Nixon decided to accept the Romanian invitation, just to ‘tweak the nose of the Russians’.

Ceauşescu had to postpone both the 10th Congress and Brezhnev’s visit because Nixon was only able to come in early August. At that moment, overwhelmed by the significance of such a visit, Ceauşescu either misunderstood or ignored the fact that postponing Brezhnev’s visit at the last minute for Nixon’s sake was ultimately regarded as an offence by the Soviet leader. Although a major success in foreign policy, Nixon’s visit was at the same time a setback for Ceauşescu’s appeasement policy.

During official discussions, Nixon clearly pointed out that his visit was not aimed at endangering Romania’s relations with other countries. As Ceauşescu correctly understood, Nixon was practically telling the Romanians that they could not expect help against the USSR. So, in relation to the Soviet Union, appeasement appeared again as the safest option. The two rounds of discussions held by Nixon and Ceauşescu did not bring anything new to bilateral relations, but they did help to clarify certain aspects. Beyond this, it was a great success for Ceauşescu, helping to consolidate his image and prestige both at home and abroad.

But his prestige was not enhanced in Moscow. Brezhnev felt insulted by Ceauşescu’s gesture and refused to travel to Bucharest to take part in the 10th Congress. During the next year, it became evident that Nixon’s visit compromised Ceauşescu’s appeasement efforts and new assurances of loyalty were needed in order to save the situation again. In his report to the Congress, Ceauşescu pointed out that, although various communist parties had differences of ideas, that should not prevent peaceful cooperation between them. That was obviously a message for Brezhnev, but Ceauşescu made sure the message would be unmistakable, as he added: ‘many years ago, our party considered a mistake the fact that, in the past, it took part in blaming and condemning other communist parties and that is why a decision was made not to follow such a line anymore.’

The resolution of the Congress stated that the RCP would continue to pursue a policy of friendship and cooperation with all communist parties in the world and that the unity of world communism could only rely on mutual respect and non-interference. The Communist party of the Soviet Union was represented by a modest delegation led by a virtually unknown secretary of the Central Committee, K.F. Katushev. During a private meeting Ceauşescu had with Katushev, he expressed his regret for the fact that Brezhnev could not come to Bucharest and his willingness to overcome all obstacles in Romanian-Soviet relations.

Katushev bluntly told his host that the atmosphere in Romanian-Soviet relations made reconciliation difficult, and he especially mentioned Ceauşescu’s anti-Soviet rhetoric related to the events in Czechoslovakia. Counterattacking, Ceauşescu himself reproached, as he had before, that Romania had not been consulted when the intervention was decided. But again, Katushev was very acrimonious:

If we had discussed it with you, would you have accepted to participate as the sixth country in this action? […] The reaction you had – your speech, public meetings, propaganda, and certain practical and theoretical measures that you took for defence, created a certain impression among sections of your people […] I noticed that when these things were being emphasised, all eyes in the hall looked at me.”

Moscow accused the Romanians of cultivating an anti-Soviet spirit, and Ceauşescu understood that more assurances of loyalty were required. In the following months, he resumed his policy of appeasement after the setback suffered in the summer of 1969. In December 1969, Ceauşescu and Brezhnev met in Moscow, during a meeting of party leaders dedicated to the issue of European security, but their meeting was rather cold.

Ceauşescu made another symbolic bow to Brezhnev, expressing his regret for the fact that Romanian-Soviet relations had stagnated and mentioned that there was room for much improvement. He even mentioned delays in Soviet deliveries of raw materials for Romanian industry, as well as other delays in signing some vital documents like the Treaty of Friendship or a trade agreement that would cover a timespan of several years. Brezhnev suggested that a Romanian government delegation visit Moscow to discuss these matters, which Ceauşescu accepted on the spot. Ceauşescu also asked Brezhnev to establish the date of such a visit, but the Soviet leader demurred, pretending to be very busy at that time. At the end of the meeting, he bitterly remarked that problems like those described by Ceauşescu usually occur when one party or another does not respect its commitments and the principles of friendship.

According to the transcript, Ceauşescu did not insist. In the following months, the Romanian party leadership reached the conclusion that Brezhnev was keen on avoiding meetings with Ceauşescu, and especially a visit to Romania. Ceauşescu travelled to Moscow again in April 1970 for Lenin’s anniversary and on that occasion he thought he had managed to convince Brezhnev to visit Bucharest sometime during the next month in order to sign the long-delayed Treaty of Friendship. But shortly before the date of the visit, Brezhnev cancelled, inviting a Romanian delegation to Moscow instead. Ceauşescu accepted, although it seemed rather unusual from a diplomatic point of view.

Ceauşescu therefore returned to Moscow just weeks after his previous visit to discuss the state of Romanian-Soviet relations with Brezhnev. The Soviet leader was extremely harsh, presenting Ceauşescu with a whole set of accusations, starting with Nixon’s visit to Bucharest as Ceauşescu recounted later:

[T]hen he moved to Nixon’s visit, saying that it was nothing but a provocation against progressive humanity. Now, when there is a war going on in Vietnam, when the Americans do this and do that in Vietnam, we welcomed them, and we did that on the eve of the party Congress, and we had even postponed the Congress for this visit. In such a situation, how could he have come to Romania.

Brezhnev challenged Ceauşescu by saying that if Romania wished to leave the Warsaw Pact, it should just say so. Ceauşescu was not so naïve as to fall into that trap, so he vehemently denied it and reassured Brezhnev of Romania’s loyalty to the USSR. In reference to Romania’s relations with the West, Brezhnev added:

[M]aybe Romania wishes to obtain some economic advantages by raising all these problems. It had better say so. […] [S]ome in the West are hoping for a Western-oriented evolution of Romanian policy. Romanians should appreciate the Soviet Union’s patience in this matter.

Ceauşescu denied all accusations and also used a counterattack strategy: was Moscow not negotiating with the Americans too, he asked Brezhnev, without informing the Romanians? When talking about anti-Soviet measures, Brezhnev brought up the Russian-Romanian Institute in Bucharest, which had been dissolved some years before. Ceauşescu replied by asking if there was a similar institute in Moscow, which obviously there was not. In the end, Brezhnev agreed to visit Bucharest in July 1970 in order to sign the treaty, which represented a partial success for Ceauşescu.

But in July 1970, Brezhnev postponed his visit again, pretending he was ill. There was much talk in the RCP leadership of whether to delay the signing again or to accept Brezhnev’s suggestion that the treaty be signed by Kosygin. After much deliberation, a decision was made to accept the suggestion and sign the treaty after all.

The treaty was signed in early July 1970. The text contained long and numerous references to sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs, which Moscow accepted. But Brezhnev’s absence, as party leader, and his substitution by Kosygin, a government leader, reflected the status of Romanian-Soviet relations: relatively positive at state level and relatively negative at party level. It expressed the limits of Brezhnev’s acceptance for Ceauşescu’s policy and the fact that, if military intervention against Romania was not an option for the Soviets, the fact did not imply agreement for Romania’s course of autonomy.

Conclusion

This article followed the evolution of Romania’s policy towards the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, with the aim of establishing its impact on Romania’s policy of autonomy within the communist bloc. Its premise was that the Romanian party leadership perceived the potential risk of a similar intervention against Romania. Mihai Retegan has demonstrated that in the days following the intervention, Ceausescu made a decision to pursue appeasement with Moscow in order to reduce the risk of aggression. That decision was determined mostly by Romania’s apparent inability to identify allies willing to offer full support in case of Soviet intervention, with special reference to Yugoslavia.

The basic question of this study was whether appeasement aimed at removing the risk of an intervention involved the abandonment of Romania’s policy of autonomy within the communist bloc. A study of Romanian party documents from the years 1968-1970 illustrates that Ceauşescu did not in any way renounce the policy of autonomy for reasons of appeasement but instead chose a dual policy. On one hand, he strived to demonstrate Romania’s loyalty to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact by either symbolic gestures, such as statements of friendship and reassurances, or political gestures, such as limiting manifestations of opposition and accepting Soviet demands on certain issues. On the other hand, the core principle of Romanian autonomy was continuously pursued in its foreign policy, without major changes.

Ceauşescu’s policy of appeasement included repeated visits to Moscow, where promises of friendship and loyalty were made on several occasions, participation in the international meeting of communist and workers’ parties which took place in Moscow in 1969, repeated invitations to Brezhnev to visit Romania, and abstaining from anti-Soviet declarations or gestures. Yet during this entire period, documents reveal that Romania continued to maintain its neutral stance in the Sino-Soviet conflict, as well as its active policy towards the West. In spite of repeated gestures meant to convince Brezhnev that Romania was not a threat to Soviet interests, Ceauşescu often found himself in the position of further provoking Moscow, as was the case, for instance, with his opposition to a denunciation of China by a communist conclave. Documents illustrate that such episodes were not deliberate, but resulted logically from maintaining a neutral position in the Sino-Soviet conflict.

In conclusion, Ceauşescu’s policy of appeasement, which can be traced back to his first meeting with Tito on 24 August 1968, did not involve the abandonment of Romania’s policy of autonomy in the communist bloc. Romania’s policy towards the Soviet Union between 1968 and 1970 can best be described as a dangerous game, with numerous oscillations, which aimed at two apparently contradictory goals: convincing the Soviet Union that a similar intervention in Romania was not necessary and at the same time continuing the very course of policy which made such an intervention possible. Despite the initial aggressive condemnation of the intervention followed by a strategic retreat, Romania’s policy of autonomy in the communist bloc was not altered significantly in its substance, but rather slightly in its form. At a more general level, another conclusion derives from this assessment: this case study proves that the Soviet-led intervention in Czechoslovakia (and the Brezhnev doctrine) did not manage to contain centrifugal forces that were manifesting themselves within the communist bloc.