Romania reopens 1989 revolution probe amid growing generational divide

Earlier this month, a Romanian court ruled that the investigation into the brutal repression of unarmed demonstrators during the 1989 revolution could be reopened. The decision comes less than a year after the case had been declared classified by the Military Prosecutor’s Office, which — after  overseeing the case for 26 years — said it didn’t have the evidence to prosecute anyone, and blamed the events of 1989 on soldiers firing at one another due to “fatigue and stress.” Interim Prosecutor General Bogdan Licu sought to reopen the case in April, arguing that the previous ruling was illegal and “did not take into account numerous key documents regarding the case.” The High Court of Cassation and Justice of Romania accepted the appeal on June 12, allowing the investigation into the actions of former members of the Romanian Communist Party and high officials from the ministry of interior and armed forces, as well as some civilians, to continue.

The Romanian revolution of 1989, which brought an end to Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorial regime, was part of a series of events that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War. Considered one of the bloodiest struggles for liberty in recent history — during which 1,142 people were murdered and more than 2,000 injured or maimed by army and police forces over the course of just nine days — it is still considered an open wound in the Romanian collective memory.

Since then, several thousand police investigations have been opened over the last 26 years. Many people who participated in the revolution formed NGOs to put pressure on the state and its institutions to “find out the truth about who shot at them,” as a famous protest chant of the revolutionaries puts it. But no favorable decisions have been made in Romanian courts. Only the European Court for Human Rights has forced the Romanian state to pay compensation — to just 17 people — while criticizing its institutions and justice system for the way proceedings have been carried out.

At the same time, however, the reputation of the aggrieved revolutionaries has slowly diminished among the general public because for the past two decades the state has been giving special pensions to some participants or families and relatives of the dead as compensation for what happened. As a result, a high number of corruption cases appeared from 2006 to 2012, when it was discovered that approximately 3,500 people — with the help of some NGOs and doctors — had forged papers in order to claim special compensation. Meanwhile, other groups were used by almost all of Romania’s major political parties as paid supporters during protests or counter protests, creating a stigma for several years around anyone protesting in the squares.

The new generation of activists or active citizens, the ones who constitute Romania’s civil society today, has been battling this negative legacy — not just with the politicians in power, but also the former revolutionaries themselves. The breaking point between the old and the new occurred during the 2012 anti-austerity riots, when people from the new generation decided to separate their protest from the revolutionaries by gathering on the opposite end of Bucharest’s University Square, so as to not be associated with the image they projected in society.

The divide between the two generations further solidified during the 2013 Rosia Montana anti-mining protests, during which several new activist groups were founded, isolating the revolutionaries and forcing them to adopt the shouts of large crowds. These groups — like Romania Curata, Activisti Fara Frontiere and Comunitatea Uniti Salvam — differ from the revolutionaries in their opposition to all political parties, focus on concrete issues as opposed to political scandals, and tactics such as marches, human chains, public awareness campaigns and sit-ins. All of this constitutes what some describe as an unbridgeable chasm between the two generations.

Like other young activists, Irina Melente — a member of the samba activist group Rhythms of Resistance — said she understands how 1989 and the revolution gave them the framework, the structure and, to some degree, the freedom to struggle for specific causes, but now the majority of the generation responsible for it has “retreated into the passivity of their lives, disappointed at how post-socialist Romania turned out.” Meanwhile, the only groups remaining active “are without bearing or purpose and easily manipulated by party activists.”

Marius Nastase, a revolutionary who was paralyzed by a bullet that damaged part of his spinal column, agrees with this assessment, saying he feels “disappointed that the solidarity and fire of our generation faded away.” As for the new generation of activists, he said, “We took to the streets thinking of them also, but now they struggle for other things. They are much more organized.”

So far, the only mention of support for the reopened investigation has come in the form of press releases from NGOs representing the revolutionaries. Younger activists seem to feel that the struggle to hold those accountable for the crimes of 1989 is not theirs to wage. Alex Lita — member of the activist group Militia Spirituala — confirmed this by stating, “It would only be legitimate if they [the revolutionaries] act on this. We would surely offer support.” As for the wider Romanian public, which remains skeptical of state institutions and the justice system, it’s likely that only an initial verdict by the court — whether it be a conviction or an acquittal — would cause a reaction.

When asked if he would like to see activists of all generations working together, Nastase smiled and said, “With their organizational and creative capabilities and our grit we would surely make a powerful community.”

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