Streets and Crowds in (Post-) Communist Romania: Opportunity, Collective Action, and Human Emotions

Eras: Ivanes, Chris D: Streets and Crowds in (Post-) Communist Romania

Streets and Crowds in (Post-) Communist Romania: Opportunity, Collective Action, and Human Emotions
Chris D. Ivanes
(Romanian Academy of Sciences, Cluj)

“We took our ration of freedom on Christmas”

– Protester’s writing on a wall, Bucharest, Romania, 1989

The Romanian Revolution of December 1989 does not fit traditional social movement schemes and theories, so it must be looked upon through rather unconventional lenses. After reviewing the literature, these lenses will be eventually identified.

From the very beginning it should be mentioned that the “December events”, as the Revolution of 1989 were immediately called by the “revolutionary” Government, are still surrounded by mystery, and neither the anti-Iliescu coalition nor the so-called “reformists” of the anti-Iliescu coalition ever tried to find out what actually happened in the streets of many Romanian cities during that mild winter of 1989. The unfolding of the events will be revealed later in greater detail. For now it is enough to point out that what seems to have happened in Romania in that fateful December 1989 was a double event: on one hand, a group of 2nd and 3rd tier nomenklatura members, in cooperation with some retired Army generals and Securitate officers, who had been for some time plotting against Ceausescu, seized the moment of what, on the other hand, was a spontaneous popular uprising originating in Timisoara. The regular Army and to a lesser degree the Securitate repressed contre-ceur until the point they realized the regime could not be saved anymore.[1] This is a key aspect of Romania’s bizarre exception from the East-European rule.

Analyzing the element of surprise that characterized the Eastern European revolutions of 1989, Timur Kuran criticizes the structuralist school of thought which depicts revolutions as occurring when two conditions coalesce: a) a state’s evolving relations with other states and local classes weaken its ability to maintain law and order, and b) the élites harmed by this situation are powerless to restore the status quo ante yet strong enough to paralyze the government. Through their obstructionism élites generate public hostility, which sets in motion an uprising that aims to transform the social order.[2]

Kuran also expresses doubts regarding voluntarist theories of revolution based on rational choice. In those theories the individual is expected to free ride and not risk anything, because the potential positive results of the protest are public goods available to all, regardless of whether or not they contributed to their production. In Kuran’s opinion, neither theory has been able to come to terms with its predictive weaknesses. He instead develops a theory which explains why major revolutions came as a surprise and why they are easily explained afterward.

There is no such thing as crowd or opposition, Kuran argues, but a large multitude of individuals choosing to participate or not in a social movement. Within individuals there has to be a distinction between their private preferences (what they actually think) and their public preferences (what they actually say in public meetings, because it is officially expected of them). Insofar as these two preferences differ, there is a preference falsification in the individual’s mind and soul. Another variable in one’s decision to participate is the extent of public opposition, expressed as a percentage of the population. The choice of the individual will depend on a trade-off between two payoffs, one external, the other internal. The external payoff is directly proportional with the public opposition. The internal payoff, however, is rooted in the psychological cost of preference falsification. The continuous suppression of one’s desires is costly and perceived as a loss of personal autonomy and a sacrifice of personal integrity. The internal payoff for supporting the opposition varies positively with one’s private preference. The higher this private preference is, the more difficult it is for one to hide and suppress one’s anti-government feelings. There is a point at which the person’s external cost of joining the opposition falls below his internal cost of preference falsification. This is Kuran’s revolutionary threshold. If private preferences (for the opposition and against the regime) increase, it will take a smaller public opposition to “give the people courage” to join the crowds, and at some point it will be unacceptably costly to continue falsifying one’s preference. This framework offers a very plausible explanation of why people choose to demand change even if the chance of succeeding is low and the risk is considerably high.[3]

Kuran offers both a scheme and an explanation of how, for instance, a shift in one individual’s threshold can generate a revolutionary bandwagon, an explosive growth in public opposition. Revolutions are made by humans, and private preferences of humans are not common knowledge, nor are their corresponding thresholds. This is why these events are so unpredictable, because it may come to revolution without even the knowledge of the participants themselves.

In brief, Kuran’s theory explains the impact of mental mechanisms and psychic states on human decisions. There are situations in human life and moments in history when people get tired of lying to themselves. Therefore, once the threshold is passed, they prefer to risk their lives rather than continue to not be true to themselves. Some will prefer dying. According to Steven D. Roper, the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in fall-winter 1989 were very different from the “great revolutions” to which some “classical” theories (should) apply.[4] Huntington has argued that “Revolution” is a “rapid fundamental and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activity policies”.[5] Roper considers the various theories of revolutions in order to understand which one better fits the Romanian case. “Natural history” theories, for example, maintained that the stages of revolutions were uniform across revolutions. The problem with these theories is that they are too descriptive in nature and, at best, manage to describe how revolutions occur, not why they do.

The “general” theories, developed in the 1950s and 1960s, have three main variants or branches. First, there is the psychological approach. Roper argues that when expectations rise and achievements fall, revolutions are most likely to occur. The second variant is concerned with the organization of popular discontent. Tilly argues that discontent alone will not lead to revolution unless the aggrieved population is mobilised and organized. Resource mobilisation theory argues that discontent is a normal part of the political game and only if it is organized and mobilised are revolutions made possible.[6] The final variant was the structural-functionalist approach. Instead of examining psychological factors, these theories look to systemic factors associated with revolutions. Structural theories of revolution postulate that state structures determine revolutions, not individuals or groups. The state is a potentially autonomous entity and this fact allows it to resist revolutions. It is the state structures (in the international arena, for example), and not the position of the internal élites, that ultimately lead to revolution. This theory seems to decrease the role of humans, which, with their acting and thinking, are the main actors between (objective) structural conditions and various social outcomes.[7] According to Roper, none of these theories fully explain the Romanian revolution. Obviously, what is needed is a synthesis of these theories. It is not hard to see that the social psychological approach accords well with the Romanian “events”. Discontent is regarded as the root cause of violent conflict and indeed the degree of social discontent in 1989 Romania was overwhelming. Vladimir Socor, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (FRE/RL) researcher, argues that Hungarian Pastor Lászlo Tökes mobilized the population of Timisoara, which was the spark of the generalised revolt in the whole country.[8] As for the structural theory, it would probably argue that primarily external forces putting pressure on the Ceausescu regime caused the revolution. One source of indirect pressures was the reformist Gorbachev regime in the Soviet Union. What the structural theory does not see is that the Romanian revolution was not determined by state structures alone, but by a kind of Kuranian threshold, reached because the people could not bear their preference falsification any longer. These theories seem to explain many facets of the “December events” in Romania. The combination of the social psychological and determinist approaches is particularly beneficial. After all, as Roper concludes, revolutions seem to be a product of both deterministic and voluntarist elements.

Authors with special appetite for theoretical entanglements, such as Peter Siani-Davies, argue that there is little wonder why the “events” have been called a “revolution” because the storming of the Central Committee Building in Bucharest on 22 December 1989 could be easily equated with the storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 or that of the Winter Palace in October 1917.[9]

Tilly sees revolutions as a struggle for political sovereignty. Revolutionary situations correspond to multiple sovereignty between competing blocs making incompatible claims to control the state.[10] He sees the Romanian situation as a revolutionary one. Indeed, it is correct to suggest that the transfer of power from the Romanian Communist Party to the National Salvation Front did represent some sort of rupture in sovereignty. Was what happened in Romania a revolutionary situation, a revolution that triumphed, a coup, or a banal uprising? Davies argues that, unlike revolutions, uprisings do not call into question the social order and do not have a very clear ideological foundation. Uprisings are not just revolutions that do not meet their goals. There is no doubt that the Romanian situation was a revolutionary one. Davies goes further, arguing with Tilly that a revolutionary outcome requires some form of political succession.[11] At the same time, unlike political revolutions, social revolutions transform the very social basis of power. Many years are needed to see whether a revolutionary situation metamorphoses itself into a revolutionary outcome. Tilly expresses doubts that this will happen in Romania.

A very popular expression in Romania is lovilutie , an invented term that could be translated into something like “revocoup”. Valentin Gabrielescu, president of a parliamentary commission whose task was to investigate what happened in that fateful December of 1989, used this term in his report. His conclusion was that both a revolution at the bottom and a coup at the top did take place, without any connection between them. Actually it was not a typical coup, but a well-planed conspiracy against Ceausescu by some third echelon nomenklatura in cooperation with the military and the Securitate. They acted only after the spontaneous popular movement managed to topple Ceausescu from power. The conspirators were then able to fill the political void left by Ceausescu’s demise. Their coup was not intended to be a revolutionary one because it did not intend a fundamental change in the regime but only Gorbachevian cosmetic reforms.[12]

Especially after the 1989 revolutions there has been a debate on whether political scientists should predict whenrather than explain how and why social events take place.[13] Tismaneanu did attempt to speculate in early 1989 about what was going on with the Romanian regime and what could happen to it in the near future.[14] In a chapter called “A vulnerable regime” he writes, as Kuran has, of the fact that “the reverse of the public idolization is the private demonization of the leader”. Moreover, the isolation of the regime and the changed international situation deprived Ceausescu of the support of a Gorbachev-style Moscow regime, which had no interest in defending a blatant Stalinist dictatorship. Tismaneanu finds the party apparatus as the only pressure group capable of doing away with Ceausescu. “Hence a potential party-coup is not a far-fetched possibility in a country where every social stratum has been antagonized by the president’s behavior”. He even saw Ion Iliescu, the younger and reform-mindedapparatchik, isolated by Ceausescu, as the dictator’s successor. In fact, Iliescu was asked to leave Bucharest during Gorbachev’s visit to Romania in May 1987, but there are indications that the two met in Moscow during Iliescu’s education there in the early 1950s. Moreover, “any succession scenario depends on the attitude of the security police and the military”.[15]

Still, with regard to what happened in Eastern Europe, Sidney Tarrow proposes an alternative to both resource mobilization and new social movement theories. The onset of a wave of mobilization can be seen as a collective response to generally expanding political opportunities, in which the costs and risks of action are reduced and the gains increase. The expanding political opportunities have effects at the citizen, group, and élite level: expanding the space within which citizens feel they can legitimately make claims; providing opportunities for organizers to build movements; and offering to élites new opportunities within the polity. According to Tarrow, Eastern European events offered all three kinds of expanded opportunity. It is not easy to say, however, what Tarrow means by all this. Possibly one conclusion is that revolt or revolution is far from being enough. In this respect his quotation of Jan Urban is emblematic: “The big European Wall has been broken through, and the barbed wire barriers have been cut. And it turns out this was the easiest part”.[16]

“The ‘Autumn of the People’ of 1989 was a dismal failure of the predictive power of political science”. Those are the beginning words of Adam Przeworski in an article about the revolutionary changes in Eastern Europe.[17] According to him, it is easier to explain why communism had to fall than why it did. Actually, what developed in the major part of the Eastern Bloc countries was a kind of implicit social pact, by which the élites offered the prospect of material welfare in exchange for silence and consent. It was a society in which people uttered clichés nobody believed in. People cannot live ad infinitum with their thoughts and words perpetually diverging (one of the main points in Kuran as well). The Gorbachev revolution in the Soviet Union doubtlessly played a crucial role in unleashing the East European events. People in terminal cancer status usually die of pneumonia. Gorbachev’s “revolution” is for Przeworski the pneumonia, the precipitating event. Except for Romania, where significant violence took place, the author wonders why no one was killed in the streets by the colossal repressive machinery at the party’s disposal and why party bureaucrats did nothing to defend their power. The answer is because by 1989 they did not believe in their own rhetoric. And to shoot, one must strongly believe in something. In East Germany, for instance, local party bureaucrats (like Egon Krenz) simply disobeyed Honecker’s order to shoot the people. In other places (still not in Romania) party bureaucrats did not control the guns, a fact which makes Przeworski mistakenly claim: “in no country did the Army, as distinct from police forces, come to rescue”.[18]

The Crowds

Some scholars are rather skeptical of the predictive capacity of social, and especially political, science. The failure to do so in the case of the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European communist regimes raised the question whether political science should stop at explanation rather then going beyond, into the prediction minefield. These thoughts came to me while writing about the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. Who “predicted” it? More generally, who predicted the events of the fall 1989, which shocked the world? Who predicted the natural death of the enemy?

In Romania, the beginning of the end was a cold and rainy December day in Timisoara (15 December 1989). TheSecuritate received the order to evict the Protestant ethnic Hungarian priest Lászlo Tökes from his home. He was accused of “indiscipline” and of “entering in contact with foreign radio and television stations in order to denigrate and present in a tendentious way the realities of the country”.[19] When Tökes refused to move the “case” became famous through Radio Free Europe, and people began to crowd around the priest’s house in order to encourage him. This was the beginning of what has since been called “the Romanian Revolution”. At Ceausescu’s personal order, special troops of the Ministry of Interior and especially of the Army attacked the demonstrators. In the following days the city experienced a strange type of civil war between the unarmed population, on the one hand, and heavily armedSecuritate troops and the regular Romanian Army, on the other. Rational choice game theory was apparently completely ignored by the people, who had very little chance to win and a huge probability to lose. They knew the regime would do anything to stop them and would not hesitate to order machine-gun fire against them. One of the most shocking slogans was “We will die and will be free”. The regular Army opened fire on the crowd gathered in the Cathedral Plaza. However, by 20 December the city was under the control of the demonstrators. Defense Minister Vasile Milea had ordered his troops to stop firing on the demonstrators. The Army, now fraternizing with the demonstrators, withdrew its so tanks and its troops from the streets.

Nicolae Ceausescu, on a visit in Iran from 18-20 December, had lost the first city. The capital was preparing itself. Although the Romanian media reported nothing about the Timisoara massacre, everyone knew exactly what had happened from Radio Free Europe broadcasts, the most popular radio station broadcasting in Romanian.[20] Back from Iran on 21 December, Ceausescu organised a mass meeting of support in the Palace Square in Bucharest. It is not known whose idea this really was, but it was a critical mistake. Mass disorders started not only in Bucharest, but also in all major Romanian cities. The regime responded with violence, opening fire against the demonstrators (the majority of whom were students and young workers). On 22 December, after a night of bloody repression in the capital, a crucial moment arrived: the demonstrators succeeded in occupying the state television building, and at 10 o’clock in the morning they started to broadcast the first “free” revolutionary program.

What followed is not very clear. Another curious war began, this time between the Romanian Army (which eventually defected and joined the Timisoara units in supporting the demonstrators on the morning of 22 December), and groups of “terrorists” (Ceausescu’s loyalists), who apparently fired on unarmed civilians and Army troops from high roofs and hidden places. It has been speculated that some of them were Arabs (especially Palestinians and Libyans). Ratesh cites a România Libera reporter commenting about an alleged secret agreement Ceausescu had with some Islamic countries (Iran, Libya, Syria), and the PLO. The agreement provided for each of them to come to the aid of the other with armed forces in the case of disturbances that would endanger the safety and the power of the other country’s ruling élite. Besides General Piotr Lushev, deputy chief of staff of the Warsaw Pact (to which Romania belonged at that time) declared on 23 December that Romania was under “foreign aggression”. The post-revolutionary Romanian government has always been reluctant to clarify this matter.[21]

In those moments of confusion and street fights, a former member of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party (RCP), Ion Iliescu, formed the National Salvation Front, a movement that replaced the now defunct RCP. On television he addressed the people as “comrades”, and argued that the “bloody” dictator “smeared the noble ideals of socialism”.

As it is known, Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, fled and were caught by the Army. They were tried and sentenced to death on Christmas Day 1989.

Why It Happened

The conditions that most theories of collective action depict as necessary for social movements to arise were not present in Romania in 1989. Few efforts have been made to consider the psyche, the emotions, and the inner mental processes of individuals. One of the first scholars to deal with explaining collective action was Mancur Olson.[22] His famous theory claimed that the larger the group, the more people prefer to “free ride” on the grounds that the public goods thus gained from collective action would be available to non-participants who avoid the risk of participation. To overcome this problem, Olson suggested the leaders should provide the group members with “selective incentives” or private benefits that were available only to participants. Romania is a very different case in the context of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989. In explaining why the Romanian revolution took place in 1989 I will use three categories of causal factors that allow us to explain the spontaneous social movement of December 1989. Analysing revolts in the GDR, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, Oberschall justly argues that it is essential to focus on political opportunity, mobilization, and framing. Romania presents unique characteristics among the ex Soviet bloc countries, which had a crucial impact on the Romanians’ decision to engage in collective action.[23]

Political Opportunity

Changes in the political opportunity structure were crucial to the genesis of the Romanian revolution. Of special significance were, first, Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and, second, the success of the revolutions in the rest of Eastern Europe. These two combined to convince enough Romanians that, first, the Soviet Union would not intervene militarily to preserve Ceausescu’s regime and, second, that a popular movement had a greater chance of succeeding than at any previous time in the Ceausescu era. As such, these developments served as a kind of compensation for the repressed capacity to mobilize in a communist state. With respect to mobilization, the differences between the Socialist Republic of Romania and the other Eastern Bloc countries were immense. Ceausescu never ceased to be an admirer of Joseph Stalin and after his trips to China and North Korea in 1971 the Romanian conducãtor imposed an increasingly harsh personal dictatorship on the nation. Mental coercion, indoctrination, and regimentation were the main instruments of the perpetuation of the repressive regime. The omnipresent Securitate, the secret police, would use all the “necessary” methods (including crime and kidnapping) to prevent any organized opposition. Power under General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu (who in the 1970s was also given the office of President of the Republic) was exerted by a tiny coterie using mechanisms of manipulation common in authoritarian regimes, including psychological terror, especially after 1980.[24] The Securitateestablished a vast network of “collaborators”, whose task was to discourage and prevent any discussion critical of the regime.[25]

Besides the fear and the moral dependency felt by the people, there were periods of terrible economic hardship, especially after 1979. In order to pay the country’s $10 billion debt, the regime imposed on the population harsh austerity measures, exporting everything it could. Thus, the humiliation of the Romanians reached new and absurd depths in the form of strict rationing of food, electricity, gas, and winter heating. Life itself became a dangerous adventure and physical survival a major challenge for the people. Romanians started considering their socialist neighbor Hungary as something close to paradise.

The nepotism of the regime became extreme, with Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, becoming second in command. She was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister, member of the Political Executive Committee, and chairperson of the Central Commission for cadres. Their son, Nicu, became a candidate member of the Political Executive Committee and head of the Sibiu county Party organization. The regime deviation towards sultanism was obvious and this made it resistant to any form of non-violent transformation. No Romanian author could publish any article without explicitly referring to “comrade Secretary General” as his major source of inspiration and guidance.[26] The mobilisation efforts of the regime were intense and pervasive, although ineffective. In no other Eastern European country was social life so politicized as in Ceausescu’s Romania. Even inoffensive associations, such as the stamp collector association or the fishing and hunting associations had to be organized and directly controlled by the Party. In no other country did the regime force high school students, university students, and state employees to clean the streets, public parks or harvest crops. Typewriters had to be registered with the police (Decree 98/1983), and failure to immediately report a conversation with a foreigner (regardless whether from a Western country or not) was a serious criminal offense (Decree 408/1985).[27]

As noted before, political opportunity was central for the 1989 democracy movements, due to the near-zero mobilisation capability under the Communist party-state. In this context, a crucial shift in opportunity structure was the Gorbachev factor. Although Romania was (or should have been) a “sealed” country, where the only information allowed to circulate was meaningless Party propaganda, at least 60% of the population listened regularly to Radio Free Europe.[28] People were aware of the Gorbachev reforms, about the general thaw in the Eastern Bloc, and especially about the fact that the Soviet Union would not intervene in the event of troubles. This gave the feeling to the people that sacrificing themselves would not be rendered useless by a Soviet occupation of Romania. Everybody knew that the Soviet General Secretary clearly said he would not intervene in Poland, and that Eastern Europe was free to choose its own path and destiny. This certainly contributed to the movements in the rest of the Soviet bloc and their success assured the Romanians that, despite the huge human costs that normally would have been anticipated, their sacrifice might not be in vain and the only obstacle that remained was Ceausescu’s control of the guns. East Germans knew that neither Honecker nor Gorbachev could (would) crush their movements. Romanians knew that at last there was only the domestic enemy to defeat, and the world would give them moral support, the Soviet Union included. As Roper points out, ironically, the Soviet Union “influenced events in Romania because of the lack of interest in intervening on behalf of the Romanian leadership”.[29] Actually, the Soviet leadership was not disinterested at all in the Romanian “events”. As will become clear, the whole anti-Ceausescu plot seems was carefully planned and blessed by the appropriate Soviet authorities.

As Oberschall points out, a state has both a national and an international political environment. Both domestic and international political opportunity structures were detrimental to the Romanian regime. Domestically, the regime had long since lost its legitimacy, and, ipso facto, its capacity to extract compliance. The only instrument left for dealing with society was fear and terror. Without legitimacy, the people conformed out of habit, apathy, and especially fear. Hatred for the leader was universal. When fear vanished and opportunity presented itself, the anti-regime opposition would strike at the foundations of the party-state.[30]

Here the differences between Romania and the other Eastern Bloc countries become evident. Romanians reached the edge of biological survival and the general living conditions were so unbearable that a phenomenon like that described by Kuran took place. In the traditional Olsonian understanding, rebels have everything to gain and nothing to lose by staying home. By the same token, rational people will never rebel – if the movement is victorious, the gains are public goods (and people do free ride); if it is crushed, the aggrieved person loses nothing. The dilemma is thus “solved” by staying home and everybody else’s choice is irrelevant. Rationality requires inaction.[31]

This theory, applied to the Romanian “December events”, becomes inappropriate. The people reached such a point in their daily despair that, although aware that the regime would not hesitate to violently repress, they chose to take an “irrational” risk, having nothing to lose except their lives and everything to gain. As Tarrow points out, “in so many situations and against so many odds, collective action does occur, often instigated by people with few resources (I would argue despair is a very valuable resource) and little inherent power”.[32] Everybody knew perfectly that the probability of dying while engaging in collective action was much higher in Romania than in other socialist countries.

In Prague and in Leipzig it must have been chic to go to demonstrate against the regime, because there was the generalized feeling (confirmed by reality) that the regime would not dare to use force. Nor did it have the capacity. The Monday demonstrations in Leipzig became almost fashionable, a place where young people would meet after work at a given hour to feel free, to shout against the regime and eventually to demand German unity. There was no sense of high risk to this form of collective action. Many participants’ Monday evening schedule was to demonstrate against the regime for some few hours, and then to change entertainment with perhaps a movie or a concert. In Romania, however, people knew that, unlike East Germany or Czechoslovakia, there would be repression, which might cost them their lives. According to Kuran’s vocabulary, people were heavily engaged in preference falsification, having a private preference that was viscerally hostile to the regime and a public preference that was totally opposed to what they really thought. Nonetheless, the tragic situation and the impossible life they were forced to live, in hunger, frost, and darkness increased public opposition to the point that the cost of preference falsification was simply too high and not worth paying anymore. The revolutionary threshold was reached and people did not care about risks and consequences. They had almost nothing to lose, and, though aware of the high risk of dying, they accepted that risk. There are touching, though real, reports of fathers kissing their wives and children before freely choosing to join the crowd in the streets, though the first Kalashnikov shots signaled the presence of the Army. It was like going to war.[33]

The domestic political opportunity, in conclusion, was created by the complete lack of legitimacy of the Ceausescu regime and by the fact that, because of the terrible misery and frustrations they were experiencing, people simply could not lie to themselves anymore, because the cost of doing so became higher and more painful than risking their own life by engaging in collective action. True, foreign influence (in this case lack of direct intervention) brought the state under pressure, but the main stimulus was the modification in people’s disposal to accept high risks by undertaking collective action, surpassing a revolutionary threshold by publicly expressing their private preference. This led to a decisive challenge to the autonomy of the communist state vis-à-vis its own society.


Because of the harshness of the Ceausescu regime, social movement organisations (SMOs) could not emerge, and therefore the capacity to mobilise people for collective action was very limited. Citizens retired into their atomized private world, dominated by fear and preoccupied with their immediate needs. Usually networkers in a population can facilitate mobilisation, but in a communist society, especially Ceausescu’s Romania, this was impossible. Ironically, the process was somehow inverted in comparison with the conventional wisdom: mass demonstrations developed spontaneously without being organised by anyone and leaders and SMO’s emerged after the crowds created the space for them to emerge more or less without risk. Two important aspects did count: the diffusion of the victory over fear in the whole country and a collective action repertoire.

With respect to the former, the movement was initiated in Timisoara on 16 December 1989, when the communist authorities tried to evict a Hungarian protestant pastor from his home on the grounds of alleged indiscipline. Contrary to what some researchers believe, the pastor did not do anything to provoke popular protests, and there are indications that he even tried to persuade people gathering spontaneously to go home. The eviction of the pastor wasper se a minor event, which in normal conditions would have hardly had any consequences. Nonetheless, in the specific Romanian conditions of 1989 described above, this act was the spark that caused many to abandon their conformist public preferences in favor of the real private preference for opposition to the regime.

The news of “something” going on in the city rapidly circulated among the industrial complexes on Timisoara’s outskirts, and workers left the “production for the fatherland” and spontaneously gathered in the factory yards, heading then to the center of the city. A kind of civil war was about to start between the regular Romanian Army (plus some units of the Securitate) and the population of Timisoara. Everybody knew the risks. They knew that the confrontation would not be a show. Later parliamentary investigations revealed that the soldiers had precise orders from Ceausescu to open fire. Until 20 December millions of bullets were fired in Timisoara and the Army managed to kill and wound men and women, children and elders, passers-by and active demonstrators.[34] The people continued to engage in collective action even when they saw dead bodies smashed by tanks. A strange sentiment of self-sacrifice penetrated the participants and a declared willingness to die for the future of their children. After four days and nights of war, on 20 December 1989 the firing stopped and the Army began to fraternise with the demonstrators. The people of Timisoara literally took over the city, creating the so-called Democratic Front. It was declared the first free Romanian city. Obviously, the official media reported nothing of the carnage and continued to broadcast hymns of glory to Ceausescu and reports about his visit to Iran as though nothing had happened. However, the atmosphere was extremely tense. Despite the informational blockade, people knew about the events mainly from Radio Free Europe, (which obtained some precious, though distorted information, from the few foreigners leaving the country and from the Yugoslav consul in Timisoara, Petrovic). The next day, 21 December, people in many large Romanian cities flew into the streets, realising that the only way to give the movement a chance to win was to generalise the protest, even with the terrible costs Timisoara had to pay. There were no organisers to lead the protest at this point. Though the Army had defected in Timisoara the day before, other units opened fire around the country against the demonstrators. That was the beginning of the end.

Considering Tarrow’s categories, the repertoire of the Romanian “revolutionaries” was in a sense adopted from that of their East German, Hungarian, Polish or Czechoslovak “colleagues”.[35] They were motivated by “traditional” grievances, including the shortage of food, heat, electricity and hot water. Such deprivations were not found in the other Eastern Bloc countries, where the material situation was not desperate. Romanian demonstrators were also motivated by a desire for liberty and a free life. They adopted the “modular” repertoire of demonstrations from their Eastern European colleagues (mass demonstrations). Nevertheless in Romania the risk of being killed was high. This is the fundamental difference between the autumn of the people in Eastern Europe and the tragic December of 1989 in Romania. Perhaps the most important symbol was cutting off the Communist coat of arms from the Romanian flag, symbolizing the anti-Communist sentiments of the people.

If the revolutionary process is to be observed during a long period of time, now, a posteriori, we can say that the third echelon nomenklatura plotters confiscated the revolutionary outcome. With the occasion of a 1999 survey, 41% responded that the “events” were a revolution, 36% believe it was a coup, 19% don’t know, and 4% think it was “something else”. Moreover, 62% consider that the revolution succeeded, 27% that it failed, and 8% don’t know. The main cause in toppling Ceausescu is attributed to “the Romanian people, unhappy with hunger and misery” (40%), Iliescu (19%), and secret services (11%).[36]

Framing and Collective Identity

Framing theory suggests that the agents of framing have been either the SMO’s or the media. Nevertheless, as Oberschall correctly observes, these certainly do not exhaust the possibilities. In Romania there had been for long time a hidden collective identity, and, on the other hand, a false one, shown only at the Party meetings.[37] This dual identity rendered public functions completely meaningless, consisting of little more than ritualistic references to the dictator’s “brilliant helmsmanship”, and approval of everything by ovation, acclaiming in rhythmic applause Ceausescu’s glorious leadership and the new heights of “socialist multilaterally developed society” to be built. No one believed in that any longer, neither the people nor the organisers.

As we have seen, in communist societies it is impossible to talk about SMOs. In Romania, the demonstrators provided the interpretative frame, which actually was the hidden collective identity no one had dared to reveal publicly. It is true that people knew mostly from Radio Free Europe (broadcasting from Munich in short wave) and from the neighboring countries’ television broadcasts (for those who were lucky enough to live near the borders) what was going on in Eastern Europe and what kind of demands demonstrators elsewhere were making. Despite the desperate attempt to monopolise the flow of information, the regime had already lost the information battle. In the three to four years prior to the events of 1989, numerous homemade satellite antennae could be seen on condominium rooftops, and all the families would receive the signal from the receiver. Homemade satellite devices strangely were not banned, and they became a widespread phenomenon in the late 1980s, with nobody watching anymore the official Romanian television, except to make fun of the apology of the “hero among the heroes”.

Nevertheless, the media did not frame the issue of 1989. It was there, hidden in the people’s minds. The media did however show that in other Eastern countries people had taken to the streets for similar grievances of freedom, rights, and a better life. The lack of a credible communist frame, and the fact that the regime had not been able to offer anything other than terror, hunger and darkness (literally and symbolically) allowed a collective open identity to form rapidly among the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators choosing to risk their lives in protest. Public opposition was so high that for many (but not for very many), preference falsification became unbearable, and the public preference began to coincide with the hidden private preference.

Following Kuran, and contrary to Tarrow, I argue that there is no such actor named “the crowd” or the “people”. People joined the crowd by a choice, as individuals. Some made the choice to engage in collective action, and some did not. Horia Patapievici, a famous Romanian analyst who participated in the demonstrations, wrote:

people…divide into two categories: those who in the morning of December 22nd got into the streets knowing there was the risk to be shot, and those who refused to protest…My relatives, for instance, did not demonstrate on December 22nd. They were waiting prudently to see what’s going on. As big part of the people I belong to through birth, they were waiting that things be decided by others, for them to get advantage of, in a sense or in another.[38]

That there were free riders is beyond any doubt. Still there were enough of “those irresponsible guys” (who usually make the difference in revolutions) who freely chose to protest, even at the risk of losing their lives. Lichbach correctly argues that the number of people with grievances who do rebel never exceed 5% of the aggrieved population.[39]

Unlike the GDR, Hungary, Poland, or Czechoslovakia, the Romanian challengers stormed and seized the television station in Bucharest on 22 December. At about the same time, Ceausescu and his wife were escaping in a helicopter from the roof of the Central Committee building. From this moment on, television had a crucial role in framing and interpreting the popular movement. Iliescu and his group established their headquarters there for some days. The National Salvation Front, which took power on 22 December, initially had the intent of creating an atmosphere of panic and distrust by broadcasting live the same evening an extremely violent fight between the Army (now on the side of the winning crowd), and mysterious “terrorists”, said to be Ceausescu’s loyalists. The unbelievably disturbing images and the general wartime atmosphere kept Romanians in front of the television screens. Journalist Octavian Paler, in an interview with Le Monde, argues that the harm done by the Securitate (or the loyalists) was deliberately exaggerated if not fabricated.[40] The consequences are that the revolution was stopped, as many people stayed at home to watch the war live on television instead of protesting against the bizarre neo-Communist tendencies in the National Salvation Front. The NSF gained from this event the moral capital of having resisted the cruel terrorists. This gave them exactly what the NSF and Iliescu lacked: popular legitimacy that would otherwise have been difficult to build in a coup that opportunistically took advantage of the heroism of the demonstrators by filling the political vacuum left by Ceausescu. It is worth noting here another Romanian peculiarity: the existence of a Moscow-led plot against Ceausescu and the distortion of the movement by the national television. Television coverage spread the “terrorist” hysteria in order to create panic and cultivate a desire for “normality” among the population. The coverage also conveyed the impression that the winners had fought a tiresome war and thus were the natural claimants to power.

A Kidnapped Revolution

There is often a significant difference between what people engaging in collective action want and what they actually get, even after a “victorious” movement. This seems to be the case in Romania. Before drawing this conclusion, it is useful to take a look at some definitions of revolutions and see how and if the Romanian case does fit one or more or none.

Both coups and revolutions are extra-legal take-overs of power, but compared to a revolution, a coup is perceived as élite-based and conspirational rather than mass-based and spontaneous.[41] A coup generally lacks mass mobilisation. Unlike revolutions, coups are not associated with turmoil and state breakdown. Tilly suggests that uprisings, unlike revolutions, do not lead to major transfers of state power. The National Salvation Front was composed mainly of third tier nomenklatura members. Though its initial intent was to implement a human-faced socialism, it was later pushed by the nascent civil society toward a shy and unconvincing redistribution of political power.

Tilly has argued that in 1989 Romania experienced a “revolutionary situation”, characterised by a struggle between two sovereign blocs for the control of the state. However, what Tilly misses is the third and most important player: the Iliescu-plot group that filled the political vacuum created by the victorious crowds that had managed to dislodge the Ceausescu regime from power. The new rulers, once in power, did not intend initially to eliminate completely the socialist system, despite the clearly anti-Communist slogans of the crowds. This adds a new category in the theory of social movements: that of the movements being kidnapped. In other words organized groups (in Romania’s case, the Iliescu plot) can take advantage of winning social movements and fill the political vacuum thus created. Those are “coups” with no risks, facilitated by the collective action of the crowds. Both “coup” and revolution took place in Romania in the winter of 1989. What made the Romanian events different from a coup is that the new leaders could not have taken power without the social movement first dislodging the incumbent regime. What makes them different from a revolution is that those who took power had no connection to or involvement in the social movement that removed the old regime. Finally, what makes the “events” different from a rebellion is that social order and political system were profoundly altered afterwards.

The psychological approaches of Gurr and Davies do fit the case of the kidnapped Romanian revolution. There was an obvious causal connection between the catastrophic social conditions and the movement.[42] Unlike the other Eastern European countries, where a split in party structures between reformers and hardliners did exist, Ceausescu had removed all the political alternatives to revolution by stifling reform and dissent inside and outside the Party.[43]The structuralists, on the other hand, would argue that the Romanian revolution “happened” primarily because of the external forces that put an immense pressure on the regime. This is partially true, and the Gorbachev factor was of extreme importance. Ultimately Ceausescu failed to mobilise the élites in support of his continued rule, and the autonomy of the state vis-à-vis the Securitate élites (and the military after 22 December 1989) dramatically eroded.


The crucial peculiarity of the Romanian revolution was that, because of the unbearable life conditions, because of hunger, frost, and the lack of any hope for the future, public opposition rose to the point where the internal cost of preference falsification (behaving publicly as if one would support the system) was higher than the external cost of getting into the streets and openly protesting against the regime. This was a revolutionary threshold, beyond which people in Romania decided to risk their lives by engaging in spontaneous collective action, having little to lose and everything to win. Lichbach, in agreement with Tarrow, suggests that people protest when the gains from protest outweigh the costs.[44] In a society where almost everybody forgot the meaning of “hope” and where the horizon was first red and then black, life per se loses value to the point that some hundreds of thousands of “thoughtless emotional” people prove willing to renounce it for winning. Sometimes they make history and fill the heroes’ cemeteries.

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[1] During one of the three sessions of the Political Executive Committee (the Romanian version of the Politburo) held on December 17th in Bucharest, Ceausescu reproached Defense Minster Vasile Milea, Interior Minister Tudor Postelnicu, and Securitate chief Iulian Vlad for the escalation of the protests of Timisoara into a riot. He accused them of not having respected his order that the armed forces be given immediately live ammunition (so far the regular Army had limited itself to a show of strength in the center of the city, and the Interior Ministry troops were also not armed with live ammunition). If until 17 December the regular Army hesitated to shoot (against Ceausescu’s orders), after 20 December in Timisoara the Army spontaneously fraternized with the people it had tried to repress days before. In fact, the massacre in Timisoara began on 17 December, and lasted until continuing repression would have meant total war against the unarmed populace. This moment came three days later in Timisoara, when soldiers allied with demonstrators and the Army was given the order (by Defense Minister Vasile Milea) to withdraw to the barracks. Unfortunately, the day after, 21 December, other Army units received the order to open fire in other Romanian cities, including Bucharest, and they did repress until Ceausescu fled by helicopter from the roof of the Central Committee building at noon on 22 December. Although Timisoara was lost starting December 20th, the repression would have continued if the people had not stormed the Central Committee building and forced Cesusescu to flee. That was the moment the Army and Securitate realized the dictator could not come back to power. Also, if it were not for the plotters’ fear, many innocent lives could have been saved, although Silviu Brucan, a major actor in the events, correctly argues that without the Army and Securitate involved in the plot, the massacre would have reached apocalyptical proportions. A valid transcript of the Political Executive Committee’s session was published by România Libera on 10 January 10th 1990. For e detailed description of the anti-Ceausescu conspiracy and its implications see Chris Ivanes, “Romania: A Kidnapped Revolution and the History of a Pseudo-Transition”,Eras Journal, Second Edition, Monash University, Australia, November 2001. Back

[2] Timur Kuran, “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989”, World Politics, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1991, pp. 7-20. Back

[3] Timur Kuran, “Now Out of Never”, pp.16-17. Back

[4] Steven D. Roper, “The Romanian Revolution from a Theoretical Perspective”, Communist and Post-Communist Studies , Vol. 24, No. 4, 1994, pp. 401-410. Back

[5] Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies , Yale University Press, New Haven, 1968, p. 264.Back

[6] Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution, McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, San Francisco, 1978, pp. 62-90.Back

[7] Theda Skocpol, Ellen Kay Trimberger, “A Structural Approach to Revolutions”, in Jack A. Goldstone (ed.)Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies, HBJ Publishers, New York, 1986, pp. 59-65. Back

[8] Vladimir Socor, “Pastor Tökes and the Outbreak of the Revolution in Timisoara”, RFE Report on Eastern Europe, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1990, p. 19. Back

[9] Peter Siani-Davies, “Romanian Revolution or Coup d’Etat? A Theoretical View of the Events of December 1989”,Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 29, No. 4, 1996, pp. 454.Back

[10] Charles Tilly, European Revolutions 1492-1992, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1993, p. 10. Back

[11] Peter Siani-Davies, “Romanian Revolution or Coup d’Etat?”, pp. 459-464. Back

[12] Sergiu Nicolaescu, a PDSR senator and vice-president of the Parliamentary Commission for the Investigation of the December Events of 1989, declared that “nobody wanted this investigation commission, neither the Party in power (to whom he belonged – author’s observation), nor the Opposition”. See details and interview with Nicolaescu in Jurnalul National, 22 December 2000. Back

[13] Adam Przeworski, “The ‘East’ Becomes the ‘South’? The ‘Autumn’ Of the People and the Future of Eastern Europe”, PS Political Science and Politics, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, 1991, p. 20. Back

[14] Vladimir Tismaneanu, 1989,”Personal Power and Political Crisis in Romania”, Government and Opposition, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1989, pp. 177-178. Back

[15] Vladimir Tismaneanu, “Personal Power”, p.195, 197. Obviously the exiled Romanian political scientist could not be aware at that time of the Moscow-blessed conspiracy against the regime, and seeing the well-known Romanian passivity, he thought there was not much hope for a change from below, despite the generalized popular discontent.Back

[16] Sidney Tarrow, ” ‘Aiming at a Moving Target’: Social Science and the Recent Rebellions in Eastern Europe”,PS Political Science and Politics, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, pp. 12-20, 18.Back

[17] Adam Przeworski, “The ‘East’ Becomes the ‘South’?”, pp. 20-24. Back

[18] Adam Przeworski, “The ‘East’ Becomes the ‘South’?”, pp. 22. Back

[19] Nestor Ratesh, Romania: The Entangled Revolution, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, 1991, p. 20. Back

[20] According to a survey of EEAOR (East European Area Audience and Opinion Research) done before the Revolution, 63% of the adult Romanian population listened to Radio Free Europe, Voice of America (in Romanian) – 31%, BBC (in Romanian) – 25%, Deutsche Welle (in Romanian) – 16%. EEAOR, Listening to Western Radio in Eastern Europe, July 1989. Back

[21] Nestor Ratesh, Romania: The Entangled Revolution, p.67. See also Le Nouvelle Observateur, 17-23 May 1990.Back

[22] Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action; Public Goods and the Theory of Goods, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971, pp. 50-2, 60. Back

[23] Anthony Oberschall,”Opportunities and Framing in the East European revolts of 1989″, in Doug McAdam, J.D. McCarthy, M.N. Zald (eds), Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp.94-100. Back

[24] Vladimir Tismaneanu, “The Quasi Revolution and Its Discontents: Emerging Political Pluralism in Post-Communist Romania”, East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1993, pp. 317. Back

[25] According to Constantin Ticu Dumitrescu, a Romanian right wing politician who initiated a law that would have allowed to the Romanian citizens to view their own Securitate file (as well as that of important State figures), theSecuritate “collaborators” were approximately half a million, out of a population of 22 million. See interview withRomânia Libera, 27 October 1999. Back

[26] Juan J. Linz, Alfred Stepan,Problems of Democratic Transitions and Consolidation, Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1996, pp. 349-356.Back

[27] State Council Decree 98/1983 (Decret privind regimul aparatelor de multiplicat, materialelor necesare reproducerii scrierilor si al masinilor de scris) was published in Buletinul Oficial al Republicii Socialiste România No. 21, 30 March 1983, and was annulled by CFSN (Consiliul Frontului Salvarii Nationale) Decree No. 1, 26 December 1989, and published in Monitorul Oficial No. 4, 27 December 1989. See also Colectia de legi si decrete, Vol. 1 (1 ianuarie-31 martie), Consiliul de Stat, Sectorul Buletinului Oficial si al Publicatiilor Legislative, 1983, pp. 205-212. Decree 408/1985, although not published in 1985 in neither of the above publications, was annulled by the same CFSN decree quoted here. Back

[28] See Note 19. Back

[29] Steven D. Roper, “The Romanian Revolution from a Theoretical Perspective”, p. 408. Back

[30] Anthony Oberschall,”Opportunities and Framing in the East European revolts of 1989″, p. 94.Back

[31] Mark I. Lichbach, The Rebel’s Dilemma, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1995, p. 16. Back

[32] Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement, p. 188. Back

[33] “After 1980 in Poland, after Gorbachev in 1986, and especially after the 1989 dominos, we felt that we were an isolated case, and that Ceausescu would never accept peaceful change” – Ion Bogdan Lefter, Ro-manian poet and journalist, interviewed by Alfred Stepan (Linz, J.J., Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transitions and Consolidation , p. 358). Back

[34] According to the Romanian post-revolutionary authorities, 1104 people died in December 1989. Before 22 December 162 people were killed, 73 in Timisoara, 48 in Bucharest and 41 somewhere else in Romania. 3352 people were wounded. Some of the first victims were sent to Bucharest and cremated. Back

[35] Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement, pp. 35-44. Back

[36] CURS survey published in Româ