Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 16
11 October 1999

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I T A:
Ten Years after What?
Did Romania really have a revolution a decade ago?

Catherine Lovatt

The beginning of the Romanian academic year saw President Emil Constantinescu controversially declare that the collapse of Communism "meant no revolution" (Nine o'clock, 5 October 1999). Almost ten years after the events of December 1989, the concept of revolution is still open to debate. The countries of Eastern Europe may have experienced major economic, social and political change, but can the episode really be considered a revolution?

The definition of "revolution" appears to be relatively straightforward. The Oxford Dictionary states that a revolution is the "forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system." However, it also states that a revolution is "any fundamental change or reversal of conditions." Taking the first explanation, the occurrences in Romania could be considered a revolution. Violence was used to remove Ceausescu from power and replace his nepotistic Communist regime with a new system. This definition could also be applied to events in Prague and Berlin, but those in Budapest, Warsaw and Sofia took a more peaceful turn. Does this mean that Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland did not experience a "revolution"? The answer is dependent on the definition of force. Force can mean both violence and an exerted strength, which may or may not be violent in nature. The pressure placed upon these three Communist governments from unified forces among the population brought down the regimes without resorting to violence. If one considers force to be violent, then revolution did not occur in Poland, Hungary or Bulgaria.

Revolutions and refolutions

Timothy Garton Ash agrees that revolution did not occur in Hungary or Poland. In his book We the People he freely uses the term "revolution" for events in Bucharest, Prague and Berlin. However, he uses the phrase "refolution" - a term signifying reform from above in response to pressures for revolution from below - for the events in Warsaw and Budapest. . Here, rapid and radical change arose from the fear of losing control. Reform was the obvious method of alleviating tension among the population. In Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany reform did not happen. Consequently, revolution from below resulted.

The second explanation proffered by the Oxford Dictionary renders any major change in conditions a "revolution". At its most basic, this interpretation implies that revolution did spread through Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990. However, it also implies that any considerable change in the economy and society of a nation is a revolution. It transforms the term into a development rather than the groundbreaking destruction of a political system.

In a meeting with students at the University of Craiova, Constantinescu argued that a revolution doesn't just mean a change in rulers. He stated that the events in December 1989 constituted a riot - a riot that happened to bring about the collapse of Communism in Romania and establish a new system of government. Constantinescu continued to say: "the revolution will take place this autumn along with the adoption of the property laws, after which only eight percent of agricultural land will remain state-owned. It is necessary to change the mentality." (Nine o'clock, 5 October 1999) Constantinescu may be correct in believing a revolution is a continuous process of development. The occurrences in December 1989 ended Ceausescu's rule but did not transform the mentality of the whole population overnight, nor did it immediately establish a new legitimate infrastructure of power. This is an ongoing and time-consuming process. Nonetheless, Constantinescu may be misinterpreting the concept of revolution. Revolution forcibly replaces one system of rule with another. It is the task of the new system to build a different but legitimate political and economic society. Revolution is the turning-point, construction is the aftermath.

Anatomy of a revolution

Crane Brinton has suggested that a revolution has an "anatomy" that is peculiar to all revolutions. Patterns of revolution can help us determine whether the events in 1989 were indeed a revolution. By comparing the English revolution (1688) with the French (1789), American (1776) and the Russian (1917) Revolutions, Brinton argues that the course of revolution can be traced as follows: After a united opposition have overthrown the old regime a honeymoon period begins. This is soon dislodged by moderates. The initial victors have convictions but little plan of how to introduce a new system. The moderates lack conviction but have some knowledge on how to establish a political system.

In Eastern Europe some parallels do exist. For a short time, opposition groups were united. This is true of the National Salvation Front (FSN) in Romania and Solidarity in Poland. However, once they had replaced the old regime the uniting factor was removed and the honeymoon faded. Divisions in the ranks became apparent and were complicated by the fact that the state system was no longer legitimate. Legitimisation was therefore sought through general elections to enable decisions on the construction of a new state system.

In Romania, rapid and radical change occurred in what could be considered a spontaneous "revolution" by the people. However, there is some doubt over this argument. A conspiracy theory has developed that favours a coup d'etat as an explanation of events in December 1989. Certain aspects appeared too well organised. For example, the manner in which the crowd Ceausescu was addressing suddenly turned from chanting "Ceausescu and the People" to "Ceausescu is a dictator" (Return to Diversity, Rothschild p.248). This change has been attributed to FSN supporters, strategically placed within the crowd, inciting violence. Of equal curiosity is the betrayal of the Ceausescus by a member, or members, of their "loyal" entourage during their planned escape. Further observations have been made about the role of the miners transported into the capital for the occasion, believed to have been working under orders from the FSN. The FSN later achieved power. If believed, the conspiracy theory negates the idea of revolution from below transforming it into an organised take-over of power.

The events in Eastern Europe in 1989 to 1990 are complicated and confusing. Whether they can be termed a revolution is dependent on definition and interpretation. Certainly radical change occurred and the Communist regimes were deposed, both violently and non-violently. New systems of government are being developed but transition is slow and continuous. The different countries of Eastern Europe experienced their own individual change which may or may not be considered revolutionary. In Romania alone, various perceptions of what a revolution is exist. In 1989, the balance of power was forcibly altered, but whether a revolution or an organised coup occurred will continue to be debated.

Catherine Lovatt, 11 October 1999





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