Reckoning with the Communist Past in Romania: A Scorecard

Lavinia Stan. Europe-Asia Studies. Volume 65, Issue 1. January 2013.

During the first two decades following the collapse of the communist regime, Romania has reckoned with the human rights infringements perpetrated from 1945 to 1989 with the help of a range of official and unofficial, judiciary and non-judiciary, backward- and forward-looking methods pursued by a variety of state and non-state actors. This article summarises the progress registered to date in court trials, lustration, access to secret files, property restitution, the truth commission, rehabilitation of former political prisoners, compensation to victims and their descendants, the opinion tribunal, forensic investigations, rewriting history books, unofficial truth projects and memorialisation.

The transitional justice literature has grown exponentially, but Romania remains an under-studied case, even though several authors have examined de-communisation efforts in that country. Grosescu and Ursachi documented the abundance of court trials dealing with the 1989 revolution and the relative absence of cases related to communist human rights infringements. Stan discussed lustration, court trials and access to secret files, and drew comparisons with other post-communist countries. Andreescu provided a nuanced analysis of key transitional justice legislation. Chelcea), Mates, Stan and Stan and Turcescu analysed the restitution of dwellings and Greek Catholic places of worship. Tanasoiu, Stan, Tismaneanu and Ciobanu examined the truth commission, Ciobanu  investigated the way in which communist history has been rewritten, and Mica looked at public scandals centred on the involvement with the Securitate of prominent post-communist politicians. While presenting the political negotiations that have shaped the Romanian ‘politics of memory’, the formulation and implementation of relevant legislation, the activity of various transitional justice institutions and the positions of different political actors, these studies adopted a piecemeal approach, usually discussing one method in isolation, privileging state-led initiatives, downplaying truth-telling projects launched by civil society groups and covering a limited period of time. Important transitional justice methods—such as forensic investigations, the citizens’ opinion tribunal and the unofficial truth projects—have never been presented in the literature published to date, be it in English or in Romanian.

To address these lacunae, this article summarises the main transitional justice methods adopted from 1989 to 2009, presenting the relevant legislative instruments and providing holistic assessments of the outcomes of each method. A variety of judicial and non-judicial, backward-looking and forward-looking, official and unofficial transitional justice methods are reviewed. These include: court trials, lustration, property restitution, access to secret files, the truth commission, rehabilitation of former political prisoners, compensations to victims and their descendants, forensic investigations, rewriting history books, the opinion/citizens’ tribunal, unofficial truth projects and memorialisation. Methodologically, the article adopts a thematic approach, investigating both the interaction between national and international actors in advancing or stalling transitional justice and the state-society interplay in determining the direction and scope of the ‘politics of memory’. Given space considerations, the article discusses transitional justice related only to the communist past, not to the December 1989 revolution. Note that efforts to reckon with the communist regime and the 1989 revolution have been pursued concomitantly with efforts to address the many crimes perpetrated by the pre-communist pro-Nazi Romanian governments.

During the first two decades of post-communist rule, the country was ruled by the former communists (the Social Democrat Party, Partidul Social Democrat) for 11 years (1989-1996 and 2000-2004), by their political rivals (the Democratic Convention (Convenţia Democrată) and the Democratic Party (Partidul Democrat), later renamed the Democratic Liberal Party (Partidul Democrat Liberal)) for eight years (1996-2000 and 2004-2008) and during 2009 by a government backed by both the Social Democrats and the Democrats. Both the Social Democrats and the Democrat Liberals originated in the National Salvation Front (Frontul Salvării Naţionale), the successor to the Communist Party that ruled Romania from 1945 to 1989. By contrast, the Democratic Convention included as senior partners the National Liberal (Partidul Naţional Liberal) and Christian Democrat Peasant (Partidul Naţional Ţărănesc Creştin-Democrat) Parties that alternatively ruled Romania during pre-communist times. Many leaders of these ‘historical’ parties spent time in prison after Romania became communist in 1945. Overall, the post-communist political elite has had no coherent transitional justice project, maybe because the former communists and their political rivals never saw eye to eye when it came to addressing the recent past. As such, most of the gains registered from 1989 to 2009 were the result of the efforts of individual politicians, who often had to confront their own political parties in order to advance transitional justice initiatives, and of the local civil society, which remained deeply divided between communists and anticommunists, the Romanian Orthodox majority and the ethnic and religious minorities, and Euro-supporters and Euro-sceptics.

Several general patterns characterise the Romanian post-communist transitional justice effort. First, the country adopted most transitional justice programmes with some delay compared to its neighbours. For example, Romania was the last country in the region to enact lustration in 2006 and it also passed property restitution legislation more than a decade after Central European countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (Allen). Second, official transitional justice efforts have addressed the December 1989 revolution well before they addressed the communist crimes of the 1945-1989 period, perhaps because the crimes of the revolution were more recent, the victims were more impatient and vocal, the revolution was perceived as more gruesome than the long-forgotten communist crimes, and many politicians benefited personally from the advantages granted to revolution participants. Third, during the 1990s the sharp rhetoric dividing left-wing politicians opposed to redressing communist crimes and right-wing politicians calling for court trials, lustration, property restitution, rehabilitation and compensation did not translate into different policy options, as the anticommunist camp proved reluctant to adopt resolute transitional justice methods once it secured a solid parliamentary majority. The presence of former communist secret agents and party leaders explains the reluctance of pro-democrat formations to support full disclosure of the truth about 1945-1989.

Fourth, the political class has generally acted as a deterrent to, and the civil society as a promoter of, reckoning with the past. For example, although first proposed by civil society groups in early 1990, lustration was adopted by parliament only 15 years later (Stan). Divided between historical parties, associations of former political prisoners and revolutionaries, civic and elitist intellectual groups (Grosescu), religious denominations and groups inimical to the process of reckoning with the communist past (Stan), the Romanian civil society groups have been unable to speak with one voice and to propose a coherent and comprehensive transitional justice plan, often seeing other non-state actors as dangerous competitors rather than potential collaborators. Fifth, communist human rights infringements have been addressed mostly by non-judicial methods (the truth commission, the citizens’ tribunal and memorialisation), since the statute of limitations, the old age and health problems of the defendants, and lack of clear evidence of wrongdoing have prevented the judiciary from hearing relevant cases (Grosescu & Ursachi). Sixth, official truth-telling initiatives pursued by state agencies have generally been perceived as more legitimate than unofficial truth projects proposed by civil society, even when the former have been as politicised and incomplete as the latter. For instance, the information on Securitate agents released by the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives has been seen as more credible than the information released by the unofficial Armageddon 7 (Armaghedon 7) (see below), although the Council’s collaboration verdicts have often proven to be inaccurate, partial and provisory by either the press or the courts.

Seventh, in Romania, as in most other post-communist countries, the transitional justice agenda has been driven primarily by domestic, not international, factors. Since the revolution of December 1989 was brief, no international court similar to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was created to deal with its crimes. Romanian politicians have often claimed that the pursuit of transitional justice was in line with European values, but European integration, writ large, has played a role only after 2000, that is, one full decade after the collapse of the communist regime. This delayed involvement was limited to small financial grants offered by the European Commission’s Active European Remembrance programme to memory projects related to education and public outreach (Gledhill). The European Court of Human Rights has accepted a large number of property restitution cases filed by Romanians, but its rulings have yet to convince Romanian authorities to overhaul the legislation. Last, the extreme politicisation of transitional justice and its instrumentalisation by political actors for electoral gains have delegitimised efforts to uncover the truth about the recent past and prompted public disinterest toward the process. A 2010 opinion poll revealed strong nostalgia for communism, disinterest in reckoning with the communist past, and a lack of knowledge about communist human rights infringements (Stan).

The Challenge of Competing Pasts

In Eastern Europe, 1989 was important because it allowed former communist countries not only to build democracy and a free market economy, but also to reassess their recent dictatorial past. In Romania, that past related both to the communist regime of 1945-1989 and the revolution of December 1989. To use the terminology proposed by Tina Rosenberg , repression was ‘deep’ from 1945 to 1964 and in December 1989, when many people were murdered, but ‘wide’ during the late 1970s and the 1980s, when large segments of the population were placed under surveillance. By 1964, the pre-communist elites had been killed, along with thousands of peasants who opposed the collectivisation drive, students and army officers who stood up to the authorities, and clergy and laypeople who refused to convert or to give up their faith (Budeanca & Olteanu; Deletant; Stanescu). At the same time, a number of leaders were imprisoned and/or killed during the ideological battles that engulfed the small, divided and unpopular Communist Party, which established control over the country with the help of Soviet troops (Levy; Tismaneanu). After Nicolae Ceausescu became the country’s new leader following the death of the Stalinist dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in 1964, widespread repression was replaced by surveillance and more subtle psychological terror that affected victims drawn from among those who sought to illegally cross the border to the West, transform communism into ‘socialism with a human face’, restore democracy and human rights, oblige communist leaders to obey international conventions protecting fundamental freedoms and criticise the communist leaders, policies and ideology (Deletant; Rady; Stan & Turcescu).

Political prisoners were moved to forced domiciles and then permitted to return home, dissidents and critics of the regime were declared mentally insane, while Ceausescu emphasised the unity of the people around the Communist Party, along with Romania’s rapprochement with the West and independence from Moscow. This liberalisation did not last for long. By the late 1970s Ceausescu had tightened his grip over the party-state, initiating policies designed to ensure his unchallenged supremacy over Romania. Food supplies were rationed by the party-state, traditional villages were destroyed in the systematisation drive, foreign debt was paid back by exporting everything that the country produced, a new antireligious campaign was launched, censorship and the cult of personality were extended, and outspoken citizens were strictly monitored (Linz & Stepan; Ratesh). Surveillance was conducted by the feared Securitate, the secret political police, which opened correspondence, eavesdropped on phone conversations, bugged homes and workplaces, and followed its victims around the clock (Oprea; Tanase). Full-time secret officers with military rank recruited countless part-time informers, drawn from all walks of life and charged with identifying and monitoring the victims’ political opinions, work habits, family life, and personal likes and dislikes. The information gathered in this way was compiled in an extensive secret archive that, by 1989, included over two million files on victims and informers (Stan).

The only country to exit communism by means of a bloody revolution, Romania experienced renewed repression in December 1989, when the communist authorities decided to quell peaceful popular street revolts in the major cities of Timisoara, Bucharest, Cluj and Sibiu with the help of the army and Securitate troops. The official death toll of the first ever televised revolution stood at 1,104 dead and 3,352 wounded for the period starting on 17 December 1989, when the Securitate opened fire on protesters in Timisoara, and ending on 10 January 1990, when the last shootings took place in Bucharest (Hall; Roper; Siani-Davies 2005). Most casualties occurred after Ceausescu fled Bucharest on 22 December at noon, a fact some took to suggest that the new ‘revolutionary’ leaders were to blame for most of the killings. To date, it has still to be established exactly who carried out the shooting of demonstrators and who gave the order to do this. Still unanswered questions also relate to the significant discrepancy between the small number of those hurt in the shootings and the large number of revolutionaries, heroes and martyrs officially recognised as active participants in those events, although the revolution affected only a select number of large cities, not the small towns and villages. By 2008, some 20,000 individuals had received official certificates attesting to their direct participation in the 1989 street demonstrations. The number included both ordinary citizens who raised their voice against Ceausescu and army/Securitate members who repressed protesters. Ironically, prominent leaders of the revolutionary National Salvation Front Council, who possibly masterminded some of the crimes carried out in December 1989, were among the officially recognised revolutionaries.

The communist regime was Stalinist to the very end and the revolution was the bloodiest in the region, but post-communist Romania experienced no resolute break with the past and no real replacement of its communist elites. During the 1990s, second-echelon communist leaders controlled the new political system, while communist-era managers controlled the new economy. Ion Iliescu, one time collaborator of Ceausescu, became the first post-communist president, while Petre Roman, the son of long-time communist leaders, was appointed prime minister of a cabinet staffed mostly by former communist dignitaries. In total, 48% of all members of the first post-communist legislative term had occupied political positions before 1989, while ‘survey data from the fourth legislative term in the post-Ceausescu era show that five out of six members of parliament were registered as [Communist] party members before 1989’ (Ilonszki & Edinger, p. 153). Since 1989, known communist dignitaries and secret agents have retained significant political clout, occupying a range of top government positions and successfully promoting their close relatives, friends and clients to positions of power and responsibility.

Court Trials

Only a handful of the post-1989 trials have related to communist crimes. The most notorious was the trial of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena Ceausescu, hastily conducted on 25 December 1989 by an ad hoc military ‘people’s tribunal’ that handed down the death sentence after less than two hours of deliberation. Ceausescu stood accused of genocide and undermining state order during the 1989 revolution, as well as the destruction and neglect of industrial property and undermining state economy during his 25-year-long despotic rule. He was faulted for refusing ‘to dialogue with the people’ during his leadership, appearing in public ‘dressed luxuriously, at a time when ordinary people had their salami rationed to 200 grams per day’, orchestrating starvation and ‘genocide against the Romanian people’, denying central heating and electricity, and most importantly ‘enslaving the Romanian spirit’. The trial was affected by significant procedural and substantial flaws reminiscent of the Stalinist purges (Hodos). The judges knew in the morning that Ceausescu had to be executed by afternoon (Sararu & Stanculescu); no hard evidence was produced to substantiate the claim that Ceausescu was the only, or the primary, state dignitary responsible for the loss of human lives before or during the revolution; the number of casualties cited as proof of Ceausescu’s repressive policies (60,000) was grossly inflated and unsubstantiated; Elena’s guilt of intellectual fraud did not warrant the death penalty, making her punishment disproportionate to her crimes; and the two defendants were granted neither a strong defence (as even their defence counsellor accused them of crimes) nor the right to appeal (as the death sentence was carried out by firing squad only minutes after the improvised military court handed it down).

Four other court cases related to communist crimes and perpetrators. The trial of the killers of Gheorghe Ursu, an engineer who wrote critically about the communist regime in his journal during the 1980s, and the ‘Bus Trial’, which referred to the suspected killing by the Securitate of young people arrested for hijacking a local bus, were brought to completion. Notorious torturers Alexandru Draghici and Gheorghe Craciun died before the courts could find them responsible for their crimes, perpetrated mostly during the 1950s (Grosescu & Ursachi). These court proceedings were also afflicted by problems: the statute of limitations had lapsed for some crimes before the sentence was handed down, some of the accused were old persons in poor health, others avoided prosecution by leaving the country, while the young victims in the ‘Bus Trial’ were as much victims of the Securitate as perpetrators of terrorist acts (Stan). More importantly, none of these cases addressed the most gruesome and recent communist crimes or convicted the most notorious individuals who masterminded (the Securitate and the Communist Party leaders) or executed (the Securitate prison guards) those crimes. The continued political clout of former communist decision makers explains why, after 1989, the courts have refused to hear cases dealing with communist crimes on the grounds that those crimes could no longer be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations, although the statute of limitations should not have included the 1945-1989 period, when crimes of the communist authorities could not be condemned.


Emergency Governmental Ordinance no. 16/2006 introduced confession-based lustration in Romania, and entrusted the National Council for the Study of Securitate, an independent governmental agency created in 2000, with the task of verifying personal statements signed by public office holders and detailing their past collaboration or non-collaboration with the Securitate. The final verdicts regarding public office holders and electoral candidates were to be published in the state gazette, Monitorul Oficial. At that point, if the published verdict differed from the personal statement (presumably because the statement denied, whereas Monitorul Oficial certified, collaboration), the Council notified the Supreme Court of Justice, as the act of offering a false declaration led to loss of public office. The ordinance affected only politicians who occupied public offices at the time when the ordinance came into effect and those who sought future appointments, not those who had discontinued their political careers by 2006.

As lustration depended on a highly corrupt, politically tainted and notoriously inefficient judiciary, those identified as former Securitate agents represented a small fraction of all secret agents active in post-communist politics. Only in cases where politicians could be shown to have provided false statements could they lose their public office, but the incentive to misrepresent the past was cancelled out by the fact that statements were not made public. Because of these reasons, lustration affected nobody during 2006 and 2007. Although none of the 2,958 secret agents whose names had been published in Monitorul Oficial by late 2007 were removed from public posts, lustration was bitterly contested by a number of politicians, mostly drawn from the Communist Party successor formations. The most fiercely opposed to lustration was Dan Voiculescu, the wealthy leader of the Conservative Party, unveiled by the National Council as the former secret agent ‘Felix’ on the basis of a number of Securitate documents. Rather than acknowledging his tainted past and repenting for it, Voiculescu contested the verdict in court and at the same time asked the Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of the lustration legislation. In 2007, in a controversial ruling widely seen as politically motivated, the Court found the Emergency Ordinance 16/2006 unconstitutional, invalidated all verdicts handed down up to that moment, and threatened to shut down the Council completely. To avert this possibility, the cabinet of Liberal Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu extended the Council’s life by limiting its mandate to storing the secret documents and granting citizens access to their files, and permitted the courts to decide who was (or was not) a former Securitate secret agent. The Council barely survived, at the cost of halting the entire lustration process.

Property Restitution

Opinions have been divided over the restitution of over 240,000 dwellings and countless small businesses, land plots, art works, jewels, churches and other assets confiscated, nationalised and expropriated with no just compensation by the communists for individuals, organisations and communities (Stan). Centre-right politicians have sided with initial owners, arguing that restitutio in integrum (complete restitution in kind) was the only way to redress communist injustice, whereas centre-left politicians have sided with the tenants who occupied nationalised homes, supporting financial compensation in lieu of restitution in kind. Many of the politicians, judges and police officers living in nationalised dwelling have opposed property restitution out of personal interest. The lack of political will to address the problem adequately and fairly, the arbitrary reversal of definitive court orders by a political figure such as the Prosecutor General through the controversial recurs in anulare (annulment) procedure, the constant interference of politicians (especially President Ion Iliescu) in court cases, and subsequent governments’ refusal to adopt pro-restitution legislation have persuaded Romanian homeowners to lodge complaints with the European Court of Human Rights. Since 1999, the Court has awarded most owners their houses and has asked the Romanian government to uphold the constitutionally protected right of property, but it was only in 2005 that the Property Fund was created to compensate initial owners. Law 247/2005 allowed the Property Fund to offer shares only to owners of abusively confiscated property who had received no just compensation for their loss and whose property could not be returned in kind (either because it had been destroyed or sold to tenants and third parties). From the beginning, the Property Fund has been affected by public scandal and mismanagement, and was vigorously contested by the owners, who must wait 10-31 months to have their former ownership right recognised by four different governmental agencies before the Fund can disburse compensation (Straut).

In 2009, the Council of Europe drew attention to the absence of restitution or compensation for communist-era nationalised property in Romania. The following year, the European Court of Human Rights launched a pilot-judgment procedure in response to Romania’s lack of progress in resolving the property restitution issue, and the 1,500 nearly identical cases that Romanian owners had lodged with the Court by late 2009 (European Court of Human Rights; Udişteanu 2010). The pilot-judgment procedure signalled that the European Court judges had identified structural legal problems that gave rise to repeated violations by Romania of the European Convention of Human Rights. In October 2010, the Court further decided to adjourn the examination of cases lodged by Romanian owners for a period of 18 months, pending adoption by Bucharest of measures streamlining and simplifying property restitution procedures and providing adequate redress to all those affected by the reparation legislation. This procrastination has worked against the interests of individual owners, many of whom are elderly persons lacking the financial means to continue the legal fight. At the same time, non-compliance on the part of the government could lead to Romania’s exclusion from the Council of Europe. Over 63,000 property return claims were lodged with the National Agency for Property Restitution, the central governmental agency mandated to recognise restitution demands, but only 4,000 of them had been resolved by late 2010 (Ciocoiu).

The Romanian government has been equally reluctant to recognise the rights to property restitution of organisations and communities. Its refusal to mediate effectively between the Greek Catholic Church of Transylvania, which lost its property after being dismantled in 1948, and the dominant Romanian Orthodox Church, to which communist authorities transferred the confiscated Greek Catholic places of worship, meant that throughout the 1990s many Greek Catholic congregations had to conduct services in parks and on streets, even in localities where the village church was not used by the local Orthodox faithful (Stan & Turcescu). The Romanian state has refused to order the return of churches, instead encouraging the Greek Catholic congregations to build new places of worship, sometimes with government financial aid, but most often with the help of private donations. In turn, the Orthodox Church has opposed the return of Greek Catholic property, on the grounds that the churches slated for restitution belonged to the Orthodox congregations (and thus neither the government not the Orthodox Patriarchy could give them away) or had been built by the Orthodox Church only to enter into Greek Catholic possession after that church was formed in 1700. In 2009 and 2010, after years of bitter dispute with their Orthodox counterparts, two Romanian Greek Catholic congregations asked the European Court of Human Rights to recognise their property right to places of worship used by the Orthodox Church. In both cases, the European Court sided with the Greek Catholic eparchy against the Romanian government (European Court of Human Rights, b).

Access to Secret Files

Law 187/1999 on Access to Files and Exposure of the Securitate as Political Police allowed Romanian citizens to request access to the secret files compiled on them by the communist political police, and leaders of political parties, organisations, institutions and the press, as well as interested citizens, to ask for information on public figures. The extant secret archive, which includes documents in hard copy, microfiche and video format, consists of 25 kilometres of files on victims, four kilometres on informers, and another six kilometres of files dealing with denunciations (Stan, p. 56). The archive could be even larger, since it is unlikely that the Romanian Securitate produced only one-fifth of the East German Stasi‘s output when it had to monitor a population of about the same size. Only hard-copies are made available to the general public. An unspecified number of sensitive files continue to remain out of reach, being housed with the Ministries of Justice and the Interior and the External Information Service, heir to the Securitate‘s foreign espionage division. A very limited number of files related to foreign espionage have been made public, because successive Romanian governments have continued to hold the view that the opening of these files would significantly affect national interests by exposing hard working agents who have continued their secret activities after 1989. Both victims and informers can see their files and obtain copies of them from the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives, the legal custodian of the Securitate archive.

During its first six years of activity, the National Council only had indirect access to Securitate files, most of which continued to be housed by the Romanian Information Service in its out-of-reach military units. However, in 2006 over two million files, including those of numerous post-communist political luminaries, were transferred to the Council at the request of Democrat-Liberal President Traian Basescu. The move greatly improved file access. By late 2006, the Council had received over 17,000 requests for file access, and resolved 11,000 of these, either by making the file accessible or by announcing to the petitioners that no file was found in their name (Stan). As in other Eastern European countries, the names of third parties mentioned in the files are blanked out. In addition, until 2007 a decision of the National Council leadership kept under lock the files of leaders of religious denominations present in Romania. While journalists and historians have accessed the secret archive, and have published collections of secret documents and critical analyses, the public has been disinterested in file access, as evidenced by the very small number of access requests received by the National Council.

Truth Commission and Official Condemnation

Romania is the only post-communist country besides Moldova and the Baltic states to create a presidential truth commission. In 2006, President Traian Basescu set up the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania to document communist crimes in a scientific and systematic manner. The Commission consisted of 18 members helped by 21 junior experts who together wrote the report under the direction of the Commission chair, political scientist Vladimir Tismaneanu. Based on the Commission’s final report, the president officially condemned the communist regime on 18 December 2006, two weeks before Romania joined the European Union. In its more than 650 pages, the report discussed the role and activity of key communist institutions, the methods and characteristics of repression and the individual actors involved with the Romanian communist regime, in an attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of communist crimes (Tismaneanu et al).

The Commission was an academic, history commission that had extensive access to previously unavailable Communist Party and Securitate archives, but had no subpoena powers to compel testimonials from perpetrators and no reconciliation in its mandate (Stan). As such, the Commission conducted no public hearings or visits to former detention centres, organised no outreach programmes to publicise its activity and conclusions, and based its final report exclusively on secret documents and already published materials. While the Commission successfully compiled its final report and submitted it to the president at the end of its six-month mandate, all but one of its final recommendations were disregarded by the Romanian government and political elite. The Commission had very little international impact and was vehemently and often unjustly contested in Romania (King; Tanasoiu; Tileaga). The official condemnation of communist crimes failed to extend the lustration programme to all former communist decision makers, as anticipated by the civil society groups that proposed and supported the creation of the Commission. In fact, less than 18 months after President Basescu officially condemned communist crimes, the country’s limited lustration programme was discontinued (see above).

Rehabilitation of Former Political Prisoners

In 2009, parliament adopted Law 221 on Politically Motivated Sentences and Punishments Handed Down from 6 March 1945 to 22 December 1989, which provided for the rehabilitation of former political prisoners condemned for opposition toward the communist regime. Rehabilitation consisted of striking the criminal record of the applicants, and recognising their active opposition to the communist regime and their suffering at the hands of the old regime. The rehabilitation scheme extended to those who were sent to labour camps or were assigned forced domicile by the Securitate or the militia, but not to those condemned by the communist authorities for racism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism (a category that includes the members of the inter-war fascist Iron Guard (Garda de Fier) organisation). There are, as yet, no official estimates of the number of people who qualified for or were granted rehabilitation.

Compensation for Victims and Their Descendants

Decree-Law 118/1990 on Granting Some Rights to Persons Politically Persecuted by the Communist Dictatorship was the first post-communist piece of legislation in Romania to grant compensation to victims of communist repression. According to the Decree-Law, each year a person had spent in jail, forced domicile, labour camp, arrest, psychiatric ward or forced deportation during the 1945-1989 period was recognised as equivalent to 18 months towards the calculation of pension rights. In addition, victims were awarded monthly compensations of 300,000 Lei (around $10) for each year they spent in jail or in deportation camps. That sum was halved for communist-era victims who spent time in psychiatric wards or in forced domicile. In addition, victims qualified for a range of benefits, including tax exemptions, free use of the public transportation system, priority medical treatment in state-owned clinics and hospitals, 12 gratis train rides a year, free yearly treatment in a state-sponsored health resort, free use of telephone lines and a free cemetery plot. Citizens could receive compensation regardless of whether they resided in Romania or abroad. The Decree-Law was seen as unsatisfactory by most communist-era victims, who suggested that the low compensation levels were inadequate and unable to cover their basic needs.

Law 221/2009 provided compensation for the moral prejudice resulting from imprisonment and the loss of property confiscated as a result of the sentencing. Both victims and their surviving spouses and children qualified for this kind of financial compensation. As the law did not specify an upper limit for compensation packages, both the victims and the courts overestimated the level of compensation that the impoverished Romanian state could afford. Shortly after the law was adopted, former political prisoner Ion Diaconescu asked for as much as €18 million in moral damages for spending 15 years in prison, two additional years in forced domicile and eight other years being persecuted by the communist authorities. After deliberations, the courts awarded Diaconescu only €500,000, but the Romanian government chose to petition the Constitutional Court against Law 221/2009, rather than comply with the court verdict and pay the compensation. In October 2010, the Constitutional Court declared the law’s compensation provisions as unconstitutional, since they entitled former victims and their surviving relatives to equal compensation levels (although the relatives were only indirectly affected by repression) and failed to cap individual compensation entitlements at a reasonable level comparable to those enacted in other post-communist countries (Constitutional Court). In response to the decision, the government limited compensation packages to €10,000 per person (Urban 2010).

Forensic Investigations

Exhumations have been carried out in collaboration with the Military Section of the Supreme Court under the aegis of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes until 2009, and of the Centre for the Investigation of Communist Crimes since then. In 2006 and 2007, the Institute worked in the paupers’ cemetery next to the former communist political prison in Sighet, tried to locate the forced labour colonies in Insula Mare a Brailei (the Big Island of Braila), exhumed the remains of six people shot in 1950 in Bistrita-Nasaud for refusing to be drafted into the army and established that Securitate troops killed Iosif Orsa in 1950 (Corlatan). In 2009 and 2010, the remains of 10 anticommunist resistance members killed by the Securitate in Bistrita-Nasaud, Hunedoara, Cluj and Salaj from 1949 to 1952 were uncovered (Centrul de Investigare a Crimelor Comunismului). In 2011, the Centre located near the former communist prison in Aiud the remains of writer Mircea Vulcanescu, killed in 1952 (Padurean). These efforts to locate former graves, unearth the remains of victims and establish the cause of death and those responsible for it have been presented in a travelling exhibit titled ‘Common Denominator: Death’, a book (Bran) and a film (Bran & Mercier).

These efforts to set the historical record straight and provide closure to the surviving relatives of the victims of communist repression have been conducted with very little financial and logistical support from state authorities, which have shown little willingness to take the lead and devise a comprehensive plan for exhumations. While some village mayors and local police officers have demonstrated willingness to extend a helping hand to the forensic archaeologists conducting the exhumations, there has been very little coordinated effort on the part of the authorities to facilitate the exhumation programme. As such, exhumations continue to be conducted by small teams of volunteers who have limited funds at their disposal.

Rewriting History Books

Until late 1989, history textbooks used in the university and the pre-university education systems reflected Ceausescu’s nationalist communism and exacerbated personality cult, and talked of the ‘”golden era” of Romanian history, a series of glorious battles culminating in the victory of the Communist Party and Ceausescu’s leadership’ (Ciobanu, p. 59). By recognising a new set of historical leaders, events and interpretations, the communists fabricated narratives from which other points of view were dismissed as ‘imprecisions’ (Paraianu), and in which history unfolded as the ‘victorious class struggle against the class enemy, and the concept of the socialist system as the inevitable end of history’ (Ciobanu, p. 58).

As many communist perpetrators and nationalists retained their political influence after the regime change, during the early 1990s historians were reluctant to recalibrate history textbooks and rewrite the historical canon. From 1998 to 2000, the Ministry of Education launched a major initiative to rewrite history books, as part of a larger reform drive designed to bring the Romanian education system more in line with those in EU countries (Paraianu). The textbook rewriting aimed to critically assess communist repressive policies; reflect the contribution to state- and nation-building of ethnic and religious minorities; remove unsubstantiated claims, slogans and propaganda; present alternative and critical viewpoints; and describe the plight of the victims of communist repression. Since 2000, teachers have been able to choose from a number of textbooks approved by the Ministry. However, the history textbooks have been criticised by those historians who built their careers under communism and uphold an outdated view of historiography that sees attempts to critically assess historical events, actors and actions as acts of treason undermining the sovereignty of the Romanian state and questioning the territorial rights of the Romanian nation. The history textbook reform preceded the reform of history as an academic discipline. As such, Romanian historiography has remained afflicted by ethnocentrism, parochialism and the prevalence of political history, as well as an acute lack of self-reflection and theoretical and conceptual frameworks of analysis (Murgescu).

Opinion Tribunal

Frustrated with the incapacity and unwillingness of the Romanian judiciary to organise a Nuremberg-type trial that would condemn communist crimes, civil society groups organised an opinion tribunal on 7 September 2006 in Cluj-Napoca. This domestic tribunal, resembling citizens’ tribunals organised in other parts of the world (Klinghoffer & Klinghoffer), was composed of nine former victims of communist repression representing different Romanian counties, counsellors for the prosecution and the defence, and 150 audience members who acted as jurors. The communist regime, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity (including premeditated murder, extermination, forced deportation, arrests, torture, disappearances and persecution), was found guilty of all crimes after the prosecution presented, and the court discussed, a summary of communist human rights abuses (Curtea Penala de Condamnare Juridico-Morala a Crimelor Regimurilor Comuniste). The opinion tribunal had little public echo either inside or outside Romania, being disregarded by the general population, the political elite, most of the press and the main associations representing communist-era victims. In a country where the livelihood of almost half of the population depended on the Communist Party (Boia)—and after 1989 the communist elite has retained public positions of power and responsibility—most citizens have remained reluctant to condemn a regime from which they had benefited. In addition, former communist-era victims have argued that the Romanian post-communist state, as legal successor to the communist state that perpetrated those atrocities, should acknowledge responsibility for past crimes through its regular courts, the only ones capable of rendering justice. Until now, the judiciary has ignored these demands, pointing to the statute of limitations applicable to these cases. It is unlikely that the ‘trial of communism’ anticipated by civil society will ever be heard by any Romanian court of justice.

Unofficial Truth Projects

Immediately after the 1989 regime change, civil society groups called for the public identification (and prompt removal from public life) of former full-time officers of the Securitate and part-time informers, considered responsible for communist repression alongside the Communist Party leaders who masterminded it. Those calls remained unanswered until 2000, when the National Council for the Securitate Archives was mandated to make those names public by publishing them in Monitorul Oficial. Until 2006, the Council’s indirect access to the secret archives and the government’s decision to keep a large number of files closed for reasons of national security greatly impeded the public identification of former perpetrators. From 2000 to 2009, the Council named only 955 of the estimated 13,275 officers and 2,003 of the more than 480,000 informers who had worked for the Securitate (Stan). At this rate of disclosure, it would take the Council over 130 years to name all former officers and 2,400 years to identify all secret informers.

In response to the perceived refusal by political elites to disclose the names and activities of all the secret agents, and the National Council’s failure to fulfil its mandate within a reasonable time period, civil society representatives took matters into their own hands. Starting in 2001, a series of anonymous and controversial emails were distributed to the press for publication under the general title ‘Armageddon’ (Armaghedon). On 28 March 2002, Armageddon 7 created a public scandal by disclosing the names of former Securitate officers who held key posts in post-communist intelligence services, protection and guarding firms, and financial institutions (Foreign Broadcast Information Service). The email reached the press at a time when Romania was about to join NATO, an organisation which, local journalists argued, had called for the vetting of former Securitate ‘dinosaurs’ from the country’s intelligence services as a pre-condition of accepting the country as a member state. While the source and author of Armageddon 7 remained unknown, rumours had it that the list originated with Marius Oprea, the historian reputed for his work on the Securitate and the exhumation programme. Oprea was also a close collaborator of Constantin Ticu Dumitrescu, the former political prisoner who almost single-handedly promoted Law 187/1999 that granted Romanians access to secret archives and called for the public identification of former secret agents from among post-communist public figures. The Ministry of Interior and the Information Service did not confirm or disconfirm the accuracy of the list.

While meant to provide Romanians with irrefutable proof of the continuity between the Securitate and the post-communist political, economic and security elites, Armageddon 7 failed to stir public debate about communist crimes, the nature of communist repression and the role of the Securitate in the infringement of human rights. This was because some called for the newly created National Council to be given time to fulfil its truth-telling mandate and also because the disclosed list included inconsistencies that called into question its accuracy. For example, of the 287 names disclosed, 25 were only partial names. Aside from the most recognisable names of former Securitate agents, the identity of those listed in Armageddon 7 was difficult to make out, since many names were among the most common in Romania and no further details, like the birth place or current place of residence, were provided. In a handful of cases where only the family name was listed, it was even difficult to make out the person’s gender.

Armageddon 7 is not the only unofficial truth project developed in Romania. A 16-volume Dictionary of Victims of Communist Terror (Ionitoiu 2000-2010), including information painstakingly compiled by former political prisoner Cicerone Ionitoiu, was published between 2000 and 2010. The Dictionary includes basic information identifying over 100,000 people who were arrested, tortured, jailed and killed during the 1945-1989 period and describes the conditions under which they suffered the wrath of the communist authorities. By its very nature, this monumental work is incomplete, as only limited information is provided for some victims, in some cases only their names (Braileanu). The Civic Academy, Memory and Aspera foundations have also sponsored oral history projects collecting information from survivors of communist repression and making it available in print or electronic format.


Post-communist Romanian governments have quickly removed the symbols of the communist regime by destroying the portraits of Ceausescu which used to adorn every classroom and institution hallway, removing communist symbols (such as the hammer and sickle, the coat of arms of the Communist Party, the Communist Youth League and the Romanian Socialist Republic, as well as the communist flags) and the statues of Ceausescu, Lenin, Stalin and other communist leaders from public squares, train stations and public parks, renaming streets, public squares, institutions, schools and localities, and closing down museum sections and exhibitions related to the communist regime and its leaders. At the same time, however, post-communist authorities have been much slower in constructing memorials and monuments celebrating the victims of communist terror. This is why civil society has taken upon itself the task of memorialisation.

Since 1989, groups of former political prisoners and civic-minded intellectuals have been instrumental in erecting monuments and mausoleums dedicated to anticommunist events and individuals. Very few of these projects received financial support from the Romanian government. With financial backing from the Council of Europe, the Civic Academy converted the former Sighet political prison into a museum housing a summer school for students and publishing yearly volumes of historical research and previously unavailable documents. Parts of the Ramnicu Sarat and Gherla political prisons have also been opened to the public. By 2004, different branches of the Association of Former Political Prisoners had erected a total of 73 monuments, memorials and crosses dedicated to those who fought against communism, posted eight commemorative plaques in Paris, France and in seven different Romanian towns on buildings that used to house local headquarters of the Securitate, political prisons or forced labour camps, and transformed into museums four different houses and apartments where persons known for their opposition to the communist regime used to live (Stan). Statues of well-known anticommunist opposition leaders, like Corneliu Coposu and Iuliu Maniu, have been erected in Bucharest, Lugoj, Satu Mare and some other localities.

In 2006 the Presidential Commission recommended the opening of a Museum of Communism similar to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. A Museum of Communism already exists in Prague in the Czech Republic. The Romanian Museum of Communism was to be constructed in Bucharest and was to depict the most gruesome crimes of the communist regime. The initial proposal to locate the museum inside the House of the People, the enormous building erected by Ceausescu during the late 1980s on the ruins of several residential quarters in downtown Bucharest, received a cold shoulder from the parliament, which has continued to use the building for its meetings. In 2011, the local press announced plans to open the museum inside the old military unit where Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were judged and executed in December 1989 (Mihai), but the initiative apparently received no support from civil society groups. To date, the Romanian government has made no firm commitment to support the creation of the museum. Given the financial crisis that has affected the country recently, it is unlikely that the government will find the funds necessary for the construction.


By all accounts, post-communist Romania has remained a laggard in the region in terms of the scope and pace of its transitional justice programme (Stan). This is paradoxical because the country had more reasons than its neighbours to reckon with its recent past in a decisive and prompt manner. The communist regime remained unreformed to the very last and the exit from communism was bloody. At the same time, post-communist Romania inherited a population which had collaborated in large numbers with a regime that subjected it to starvation, humiliation and widespread repression. Years of material and spiritual deprivation at the hands of a megalomaniac dictator who cunningly used nationalism, propaganda and disinformation to present his regime as paradise on earth had robbed Romanians of the power to envision a great future, the patience to see the enactment of resolute reforms and the skills needed for the democratisation project. The improvisation and piecemeal approach that characterised the post-communist project have also affected efforts to come to terms with the communist past.

The country has adopted a wide diversity of transitional justice methods, but almost none of these methods have been brought to completion. A handful of court cases were launched, but none dealt with the key actors of communist repression. While enacted in 2006, lustration was discontinued after just one year, without having affected any politician. In 2005, a Property Fund was established to offer compensation in lieu of the return of property abusively confiscated by the communist authorities, but the Fund has neither the financial means nor the institutional capacity to develop a compensation scheme that would satisfy the owners. The truth commission delivered its final report, but in many respects its conclusions came too late after the collapse of the communist regime and, as such, the vast majority of its recommendations have been ignored by the self-interested political class and a general public afflicted by apathy towards the process of reckoning with the communist past. While the ‘window of opportunity’ for the enactment of justice-oriented transitional justice methods had seemingly closed by 2009, Romania could still pursue a wide range of truth-telling and reconciliation methods. It is up to the country’s citizens and its politicians to come to terms with the communist past, even belatedly.