SO MUCH FOR CEAUSESCU, 'THE GENIUS OF THE CARPATHIANS'
(Updates with new events in Romania)
Scripps Howard News Service
Release date: 12-22-89By B.J. CUTLER Scripps Howard News Service
In the megalomaniac tradition of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu simply knew he was one of history's greatest men. So he had his fawning propagandists refer to him as 'the brilliant son of the nation, the communist hero of modern Romania, the genius of the Carpathians.'
Meanwhile, most Romanians secretly prayed that Ceausescu, 71, would die. Then they could award him the title he truly deserved: the Butcher of Bucharest.
As hard-line Eastern European regimes moved toward reform and democracy, Ceausescu remained a throwback to Stalinism, a 'real communist,' a creature willing to use machine guns against unarmed demonstrators.
Last weekend, in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, Ceausescu capped 24 years of misrule by ordering the slaughter of thousands of citizens. It was the little tyrant's very own Tiananmen Square.
In addition to keeping his subjects short of food, fuel and electricity in a bitter winter, Ceausescu happened to be an ethnic bigot. His favorite victims were the 1.7 million Hungarians whose misfortune was to live in Romania, mostly in ex-Hungarian Transylvania.
Ironically, Ceausescu's hatred for his Hungarian subjects led to his downfall. His secret police had been harassing a Protestant pastor, Lazlo Tokes, who became popular in Transylvania by speaking out against persecution of the Hungarian minority.
On Dec. 16, the police came to the minister's house in Timisoara to take him away. It was ringed by his followers, who soon swelled into an anti-regime mob, shouting 'Food!' and 'Down with Ceausescu!'
Then the shooting started -- by infantry, tank gunners, helicopter gunships. It continued for days and spread to other cities. Ceausescu went off on a state visit to Iran, confident that his wife Elena, No. 2 in the hierarchy, knew how to kill in his absence. Borders were closed, telephone lines cut, journalists refused visas.
As a result, no one knew precisely how many thousands died for daring to protest Ceausescu's callous incompetence. How bad was it? Well, in a nation suffering from malnutrition, his regime earned hard currency by exporting ... food.
Dictators often seem to be at their strongest just before they topple. Ceausescu was no exception. Hated by the people, his only props were the efficient and omnipresent secret police and the military. When word of the slaughter in Timisoara reached Bucharest, young people in the capital took to the streets.
Shoot, the dictator ordered, and the police and army did -- at first. However, young Romanian conscripts soon refused to fire at young Romanian students. Soon both joined forces against their Hitler-like master. Within a week of the massacre at Timisoara, his servile army commanders and Politburo turned against Ceausescu, and Eastern Europe's longest-ruling despot was gone.
In a second irony, Ceausescu's interim successor was Corneliu Manescu, 73, a former foreign minister who had been under house arrest. His crime? With five other former officials, he had written a letter criticizing the dictator's brutal policies.
In the context of today's Romania, Manescu is a reformer.And a hungry, freezing, near-ruined land, shed of its madman, is eager to rejoin the family of nations.
A footnote: Though Britain's Queen Elizabeth II bears no blame for Ceasescu's final savagery, she must be embarrassed. When he made a state visit to London in June 1978, she gave him the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, the highest honor she can award to a foreigner.
Lord Bethell, a human-rights official, tartly said the other day: 'The Order of the Bloodbath would have been more appropriate.'
(B.J. Cutler is foreign affairs columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.)