Central Europe Review Balkan Information Exchange
Vol 2, No 34
9 October 2000
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Nicolae and SlobodanSeparated at Birth?
The similarities between Ceauşescu and Milošević
Catherine Lovatt

Between 1989 and 1990, revolution, in its various guises, swept across Central and Eastern Europe dismantling the Communist regimes that were tentatively clinging to power. A decade later, Yugoslav opposition rival Vojislav Koštunica has ousted the Communist-turned-nationalist, Slobodan Milošević from the presidency of Yugoslavia.

The dramatic events of last week grabbed the attention of the world as the last vestiges of Communist Europe disintegrated before its eyes. In Romania, onlookers watched as an all too familiar pattern of events evolved.

One of a kind?

Petre Roman, the Romanian Foreign minister, warned on 26 September: "We had a tragedy in December 1989. It was a heavy burden for our people. It makes no sense for the Serbian people to experience such a tragedy." (Reuters, 26 September 2000)

He was alluding to the collapse of Communism in Romania and the deposition of Romania's nepotistic leader, Nicolae Ceauşescu, and his wife, Elena. In Romania, the events were bloody and savage. Ironically and unexpectedly, in Yugoslavia the "Butcher of the Balkans" was removed by what has been termed a "peaceful" revolution.

Despite this fundamental difference, the downfall of Slobodan Milošević bears a remarkable resemblance to the collapse of Ceauşescu in Romania. Although Milošević's popularity has been waning since the end of the Kosovan conflict in 1999, the events of the last few months pushed him over the edge. Speaking to the BBC on 5 October 2000, Yugoslav opposition spokesman and professional psychologist Zarko Korac commented that the Milošević era was over, he was a man who had lost touch with reality. (Newsnight, 5 October 2000)

In his last moments prior to fleeing, Nicolae Ceauşescu seemed flustered and confused when the crowd he was addressing began to turn on him, shouting: "Down with Ceauşescu!" Broadcasts were suddenly interrupted by patriotic speeches only to momentarily flash back to a man who had just seen the whole foundation of his life disintegrate before him. Ceauşescu fled with his wife. Milošević's whereabouts are, as yet, unknown.

However, beyond the image of a man who has lost all hope, other similarities exist. Events may technically be different but the outcome of the actions is fundamentally the same. The miners in Romania were traditionally the allies of Ceauşescu, playing on his every word—a true symbol of the values of the proletariat and Communism. The same can be said of the miners in Yugoslavia.

Once fiercely loyal...

In the end, the once loyal supporters of both Ceauşescu and Milošević were prominent in their respective leaders' ends. In Romania, the miners were bussed in from surrounding towns and villages to bolster the numbers for Ceauşescu's speeches. Initially, the miners in Romania did not play an obvious role, but once Ion Iliescu took hold of the reigns of power, they became an effective tool in securing the legitimacy of the new administration.

As an ex-Communist and disgraced aide of Ceauşescu, Iliescu drew support from the old vanguard to diminish any opposition that he faced. The miners, composed of many ex-Securitate (secret police), provided a force strong enough to quell any discontent. In 1990, only months after the death of the Ceauşescus, sit-in protests at universities were regarded as a threat to the new regime. Iliescu's allergy to criticism encouraged him to invite the miners to Bucharest. Clashes ensued and the protests ended.

...the miners revolt

In 1991, the miners returned, pillaging and ransacking the streets. This time, they opposed Petre Roman, then Prime Minister, and his calls for faster economic and political reform. This contrasted with Iliescu's desire for slow rehabilitation. Roman was sacked.

In Yugoslavia, the miners played a hands-on role from the start. The presidential and parliamentary elections, held on 24 September, proved to be a farce with both Milošević and Koštunica claiming presidential victory. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) had wrong-footed Milošević and his cronies, counting the vote independently before the regime could manipulate results. It was clear that Koštunica had won over 50 per cent of the vote and should rightfully be President of Yugoslavia. Milošević wanted a second round, claiming Koštunica had only received 48 per cent against his 40 per cent.

On 27 September, mass protests took place in Belgrade demanding that Milošević step down. Milošević refused. The opposition called for a general strike to begin on 2 October. The miners, once fiercely loyal to Milošević, stopped work in a show of support for the opposition.

Two days later, the police raided a coalmine in Kolubara, 40 kilometres south of Belgrade. The miners put up a strong show of force and were successful. In response, Koštunica visited the mine and was heroically received.

In both respects, the miners were used to show strength against a regime to which they had previously been overwhelmingly faithful. This offered a certain degree of legitimacy to those attempting to seize power: it drew attention to the fact that a large proportion of the overthrown regime's loyal support group was discontented. They were no longer willing to be associated with something they now saw as the root of their problems.

However, there is a stark contrast between the involvement of the miners in Romania and the involvement of the miners in Yugoslavia. In Romania, the miners were used as a tool of the new government, directed from above like a military battalion. From what is known, at present, of events in Yugoslavia, the miners acted on their own accord and were part of the rebellion from the start. It seems they did not have to be coaxed into action.

State media crackdown

For both Milošević and Ceauşescu, the state media was crucial to their survival. It provided the machine of propaganda. In Romania, media was centrally controlled. Everyday television appeared for only two hours in order to show their esteemed leader speaking to the heart of the nation. In Yugoslavia, the run-up to the elections saw Milošević crack down on any independent media, imprisoning and punishing independent commentators.

It is not surprising that in both countries the state media was one of the first things to go. In Romania, after Ceauşescu's debilitating speech and a night of clashes between the police and protestors, it was announced that the Defense Minister, Vasile Milea, had committed suicide. Ceauşescu's right hand man was gone, apparently because he had refused to order his troops to fire on demonstrators.

In that moment, Ion Caramitru who, at the time, was known as an actor, director and playwright but later became an esteemed member of the Romanian government, realised that Romania was ripe for revolution. The army had been positioned at key points around the capital but had been ordered not to fire. Caramitru managed to persuade the drivers of a tank to head for the state television. The army had joined the crowd.

We are free!

Caramitru and the protestors seized the television station and he and the poet, Mircea Dinescu, immediately began broadcasting to the nation saying "We are free!" and asked the people of Romania to join the revolution.

Meanwhile, Ceauşescu, his wife and some bodyguards had departed the Central Committee building by helicopter but with no organised destination.

In Belgrade, events happened in a similar manner. The DOS had set an ultimatum for Milošević to accept the election results by three o'clock on Thursday afternoon. Opposition supporters travelled from across Yugoslavia and although they were met with police blockades, these soon fizzled out. By three o'clock, there was no word and the demonstrators stormed the parliament. They were joined by many of the police.

The next step was to take the state media. Although they were met with some resistance from the police who showered them with tear gas and bullets, the television screens went blank. However, later broadcasts resumed. BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson commented that they knew it was all over when Koštunica addressed the nation on the once Serbian State Radio and Television service, RTS. (Newsnight, 5 October 2000)

The loss of the propaganda machine symbolised a loss of power for both Milošević and Ceauşescu. However, it also symbolised the hatred that Yugoslavians and Romanians had for the state institutions that had once controlled and attempted to brainwash them.

Loss of trusted support

The longevity of Ceauşescu and Milošević came about through their control of state institutions and their guaranteed support from certain factions of society. When this crumbled, they were, in essence, defeated.

Events pertaining to the collapse of Ceauşescu are veiled in secrecy. When the military turned against its former head of state, Ceauşescu had no one left to rely on for support. He had already lost control of the people, his trusted advisors and the media. The last pieces of any legitimacy that he maintained were relinquished with the decision of the army to partake in the revolution on the side of the revolutionaries.

In Yugoslavia, a similar turn of events took place. Milošević clearly lost the support of the electorate on 24 September. From then on, his close allies resigned, he lost control of the media, the police joined the ranks of the protestors on 5 October and on that very evening the army said that they would not intervene. Both Ceauşescu and Milošević were completely isolated.

Romanian questions, Serbian contrasts

The events in Yugoslavia and Romania do have a remarkable resemblance. However, certain key factors are different. As already mentioned, Romania was host to violence and bloodshed. Perhaps this explains the secrecy surrounding its revolution.

From where did Iliescu suddenly appear? Was the revolution organised from above? Where did the instigators of the violence suddenly disappear? How did the vanguards of the old regime suddenly transform themselves into leaders of democracy overnight? What happened to the members of the Securitate who slipped into society without anyone saying anything? These questions remain unanswered and perhaps if they were allowed to be investigated, we would have a clearer view of why the collapse of Communism in Romania was so violent.

In Romania, the protests seemed to appear out of nothing. In Yugoslavia, Milošević's rapid change of the constitution in July and his supposed acceptance of a democratic election provided the catalyst for two weeks of open protest.

The protest itself was jubilant. Victory had been seized by Koštunica who did not have a long history of links with the Milošević regime. He came from the political sidelines and appealed to both the intellectuals and the non-intellectuals. Iliescu, however, had obvious links with Ceauşescu and did not have the support of a wide cross-section of society, as was demonstrated during the sit-in protests at universities.

Milošević's options

Milošević appeared on television on Friday 6 October, stating that he was looking forward to spending some time with his grandson. He also met with the Russian Foreign Minister, Ivan Ivanov, who later pledged Russian support for Koštunica. On Saturday morning, Milošević's son, Marko, left Belgrade airport with his family heading for Moscow.

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Koštunica has declared to Western governments that he will not turn Milošević, an indicted war criminal, over to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He argues that the problem is one that Serbs have to deal with, not the West. Indeed, as Zarko Korac commented, Milošević has more to fear from the people of Serbia. (Newsnight, 5 October 2000)

Essentially, Milošević has two options: flee like the Ceauşescus or face trial and prison. The outcome of either of these options is difficult to predict.

After a failed attempt to flee, the Ceauşescus in Romania were subjected to an unfair and rushed trial in which they were sentenced to death. On 25 December 1989, they were shot during a television broadcast to the nation.

On 5 October 2000, Misha Glenny, speaking to the BBC, commented that if Milošević is still in Yugoslavia, within 24 hours he would either be in prison or be dead. (Newsnight, 5 October 2000)

As of yet, Milošević is neither in prison nor dead.

Catherine Lovatt, 6 October 2000

Moving on:


Catherine Lovatt
Resurrecting 1989

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Not a Shot
in the Dark

Pat FitzPatrick
The Last Domino?

Jan Čulík
A Hard Cell

Sam Vaknin
Losing an Ally

Artur Nura

Emilia Stere
Eminescu's Love Letters

Magali Perrault
Beyond the Velvet Revolution

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
Oliver Craske
Comparing Revolutions

Andrea Mrozek
Violent Anniversary


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