Two weeks ago, the non-governmental Association 21 December 1989, which represents victims of the Romanian Revolution, announced they were in possession of an extraordinary document. This is it:

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The President of the National Salvation Front,
acting as interim President of Romania,
examining File 1-SP/1989 and the verdict of the Special Military Tribunal handed down today, 25 December 1989,
taking into consideration that, to stop the bloodshed, Ceausescu Nicolae has actively contributed to the cease of fire on the part of the Securitate troops by giving a firm order to that effect,

DECREES

Art. 1 – Changes the death penalty to life in prison for CEAUSESCU NICOLAE.
Art. 2 – Changes the death penalty to life in prison for CEAUSESCU ELENA.
Art. 3 – Articles 1 and 2 do not modify in any other way the [court] Decision 1 of 12 December 1989 regarding the two above-mentioned condemned [individuals].

Bucharest, 25 December 1989

President of the National Salvation Front
Ion Iliescu

Iliescu, post-communist Romania’s eminence grise – the man who almost single-handedly blocked attempts to break with the communist past, to unveil the truth about communist crimes, to sideline communist-era decision-makers from post-communist politics, and to bring communist perpetrators to justice – quickly claimed that the decree was a ‘crass fabrication’. According to him, evil hands who wished to tarnish his image had copied his writing and had signed the ill-fated decree. Wholesale rejection of the document is probably his only way to avoid answering some hard questions. Who gave Iliescu the right to appoint himself as interim President? When was the decree issued – how long after the death penalty sentence was handed down? Was Iliescu’s decree communicated to the military unit where the Ceausescus were held? How could an interim President overturn the decision of a military tribunal? Was this move constitutional? When did Ceausescu order the Securitate troops to stop fighting? How could he communicate that order to the troops, while held captive in Targoviste? Was Iliescu in any way connected to Ceausescu’s order? How come most of the casualties were registered after Ceausescu’s capture? Why was Iliescu’s decree ignored by the military tribunal that executed the Ceausescus shortly after the sentence was pronounced? And what does the decree tell us about Iliescu’s relations with the demonic couple, and the way he envisioned post-Ceausescu Romania, his political role as the country’s new leader, and Ceausescu’s place in the new Third Way regime Iliescu advocated during the Revolution?

All these questions are important for scholars of the Romanian Revolution. Coming from a transitional justice perspective, however, I am more intrigued by the possibility of imagining post-Ceausescuism with Ceausescu alive and around – a kind of Dracula, dead and loving it. This is because some democratization scholars readily dismiss the threat that former dictators pose for their countries and the new democracy after their overthrown. One argument raised in regard to Iraq, for example, was that the imperatives of democracy and rule of law called for allowing Saddam Hussein the chance to live in the new democracy. Saddam’s willingness to follow the rules of the democratic game was taken for granted, but I very much doubt that Saddam ever saw himself as a backbencher, the manager of a small firm, or a mediocre professor of politics at one of Iraq’s bankrupt colleges.

Let’s not forget that the Ceausescu Trial was substantially and procedurally flawed. The ad-hoc tribunal – created by Ion Iliescu at a time when the only position he occupied was that of a state-owned press – had little legal basis, given the legislation at the time. The verdict was predetermined, as judges knew in the morning that the Ceausescus had to be executed by early afternoon. No evidence was presented to back up the outrageous accusations levied against the two (probably because all of us believed, at the time, that the accusations were just and evident). Basic legal principles were ignored. The Ceausescus were never presumed innocent until proven guilty. Even the defense councilor turned against them, voicing accusations even more damning that those put forward by the prosecution. They were not allowed to defend themselves. Elena Ceausescu’s sentence did not match her crimes – intellectual fraud is never punishable with death. More importantly, no right to appeal was granted, as the execution was carried out barely half an hour after the sentence was pronounced.

A fair trial was needed not only to allow us, ordinary citizens, to find out the intricate ties between Ceausescu’s yes-men and the post-communist political elites but also to mark a radical break with the communist-era show-trials and demonstrate that post-Ceausescu Romania was, and wanted to be, something else, a rule of law state. The two Ceausescus cannot be absolved of responsibility for their crimes, which were many and serious (I won’t list them here, as the Report of the Tismaneanu Commission Report presented them systematically and in detail). Given his Stalinist stance until the very end, I am convinced that Ceausescu and democracy were not compatible, that one precluded the other. The former dictator would have never accepted to be anything but the country’s genius, while democracy would have been impossible to build (even crooked, corrupt, and inefficient as it is today) unless Ceausescu, his immediate collaborators, and his loyal Securitate shock troops were sidelined.

On Christmas day 1989 Iliescu held a different view – he saw Ceausescu and democracy as perfectly compatible. For Iliescu, a post-Ceausescu Romania, with Iliescu at its helm as a benevolent leader, could have well accommodated the two Ceausescus. After a respectable period of time – say two months? – Iliescu would have pardoned the Ceausescus and liberated them, for good behavior in jail or for serious health problems. After regaining his political rights and reclaiming his properties abusively confiscated by the new democracy, Ceausescu would have done like every decent Romanian looking to make ends meet by syphoning off some public resources into his private pockets – enter politics. Given the remarkable political trajectories assumed by many former party leaders and the pronounced nostalgia for communism exhibited by large segments of the Romanian electorate, it is safe to say that Ceausescu could have transformed himself from an intransigent and much-despised dictator into a successful, democratically elected, much-loved post-communist politician. His hidden Swiss accounts – diverted by the numerous moguls and oligarchs who’ve kept Romania prisoner to their whim – would have helped Ceausescu win each and every post-1989 election by distributing free tuica and sarmale, goody bags for orphaned children, seeds and GPSed tractors to needy farmers, and cheap Dell computers to urban families. In his spare time, Ceausescu could have taught politics (and narrate his picaresque life as unchallenged Conducator) at one of the hundreds of public and private universities that have mushroomed throughout Romania during the last two decades. Maybe the very university where Elena, by then a respected professor of chemistry with a vitae longer than most of her colleagues’, would act as provost, president or dean. Paradoxically, when thinking of these possibilities my attitude toward Romania’s current luminaries is gently softened. I’ll take Victor Ponta and Elena Udrea, only not to have to put up with Nicolae and Elena!

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