It was a farce of a trial, barely an hour long, held in a kangaroo court, but the verdict was already decided. Thirty years ago, on Christmas Day 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, Romania’s hated ruling couple, were lined up against a wall at a military barracks. Footage of their last moments shows Nicolae looking stoical, or perhaps bemused, while Elena shrieks in fear and fury. Bullets crack the winter air. They crumple, blood seeping on to the ground. The revolution had triumphed. But had it?
The Romanian uprising was a bloody finale to a year of revolutions that smashed the Soviet bloc. Nowadays, that yearning for freedom burns more brightly than ever. From Hong Kong to Tehran, Beirut to Baghdad, demonstrators demand the end of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. Today’s revolutionaries use social media to organise their protests and encrypted digital channels to dodge arrest and communicate in secret. But the analogue uprisings of 1989 — and 2000 in Serbia — can still teach a vital lesson: don’t let the revolution be co-opted.
Ancien regimes are far more resilient than they appear, even when their leaders are executed. They sense what is coming and they plan ahead. In Romania’s case, December 1989 marked less the destruction of the old system than its entrenchment, albeit in a new incarnation. Many Romanians believe the events of 1989 to be an inner-party coup led by Ion Iliescu, a former member of the Communist Party Central Committee. If second-tier officials like Iliescu sacrificed the leadership, they would keep their power and privileges, the thinking went.
At first, it worked. Mr Iliescu — now on trial for crimes against humanity for his role in the aftermath of the revolution — was elected president in May 1990. For years afterwards, networks of Communist party officials, and the brutal Securitate secret police, essentially still ran the country. Even now they remain influential.
Their Hungarian counterparts played a smarter game. There, a “handshake transition” saw the ruling party agree to cede power without violence. But the communists proved themselves far more business-savvy than the conservative intellectuals and student dissidents — one of them, a young Viktor Orban — who took charge of Hungary’s nascent democracy. Political power matters little when you can simply help yourself to a nation’s wealth. Who owns a state-owned factory or fine villa when the state collapses? Whoever grabs it first.
Numerous high-ranking communist officials became extremely rich extremely quickly. It was witnessing this wholesale plunder, say Budapest insiders, that later drove Mr Orban’s determination to centralise economic as well as political power once he was elected prime minister.
In Serbia, a people’s uprising brought down president Slobodan Milosevic on October 5 2000. That morning, long columns of protesters, tens of thousands strong, poured into Belgrade from across the country, many of them burly farmers and miners, ready to fight, chanting “Gotov je, gotov je” — he’s finished, he’s finished. The protesters took the parliament, braving tear gas and live rounds fired into the air, then stormed state television and captured it.
By 6.30pm, 500,000 people had gathered in front of Belgrade City Hall to hear Vojislav Kostunica proclaim himself president of Yugoslavia.
But just as the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote that every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought, so is every revolution. Psychological operations are vital. Young activists had sprayed the slogan “Gotov je” on walls across the country long before October 5.
Opposition radio stations had been broadcasting into Serbia from outside its border. President Ceaucescu’s rule effectively ended on December 21 1989 while he was giving a speech in central Bucharest. The crowd laughed at his promises. He faltered. Gotov je.
In Serbia, “blocking the response mechanism” was vital. When Milosevic called for help from the police, the army and the feared security services, none responded. The deals had been done in advance with western powers. The upside of that was that there was no fatal bloodshed. The downside was that, just as in Romania in 1989, much of the army, police and security services stayed in place. And this had terrible consequences. In March 2003, Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s reformist prime minister, was assassinated by a special forces sniper.
Serbia’s current president, the former prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, is a conservative populist. He also served as minister of information during the Milosevic regime.
For the revolutionaries of 2019, like their predecessors in 1989, the key to regime change is simple and the same: occupy the centre of power and hold it, for as long as it takes, at whatever cost. As Leon Trotsky noted:
“Revolution is impossible until it is inevitable.”
The writer is author of ‘Kossuth Square’, a Budapest noir crime novel