The Genealogies of Memory Project was kind enough to invite us to their November 2013 conference in Warsaw. The following is my talk, which builds on Lavinia Stan, “Civil Society and Post-Communist Transitional Justice in Romania,” in Transitional Justice and Civil Society in the Balkans, ed. by Olivera Simic and Zala Volcic (Australia: Springer, 2013), pp. 17-31.

 

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Civil Society and Post-Communist Transitional Justice: The Romanian Case

 

In 2003, David Backer lamented the “under-appreciated role of non-state actors” in transitional justice.[i] Ten years later, his observation still applies to research on Romania, which remains state-centered. My talk maps the groups that have impacted the country’s reckoning with the communist past, explains which programs they affected the most, and draws general conclusions about their contribution to transitional justice in post-communist settings.

1. Civil Society Groups Involved in Transitional Justice

Three categories of groups are relevant for our discussion. The first category includes nation-wide associations of former victims who support comprehensive transitional justice. The Association of Former Political Prisoners in Romania, created in 1990, gathers political prisoners and deportees. The smaller Association of Former Political Prisoners and Anti-communist Fighters represents communist-era political prisoners with ties to the inter-war fascist Iron Guard who were imprisoned, tortured or killed by the Securitate. The Association of Owners of Property Abusively Confiscated by the State, set up in 1999 in Bucharest, includes property owners seeking property restitution and fair compensation.[ii]

Other groups are present locally, in Craiova (the Association of Owners Abusively Deprived of Their Property, Former Deportees and Refugees), Rm. Valcea (the Association of Victims of the Bolshevik Communist System and Its Legacy), or Bucharest (the Association for Private Property Owners and the Community of Legitimate Owners and Descendants in Romania). The French Association for Defending Property Rights in Romania and the German Restitution in Romania represent owners living abroad.[iii] Add the Gheorghe Ursu Foundation, set up by relatives of an engineer murdered in 1986, the Ion Gavrilă Ogoranu Foundation, named after the leader of the Făgăraş anti-communist fighters, and the ICAR Foundation, which provides medical rehabilitation for victims.

Transitional justice has also been advocated by organizations uniting victims of the 1989 revolution, which remain preoccupied with finding the truth about those events, unveiling the involvement of post-communist leaders, and securing financial benefits for their members. The best known such group is the Association 21 December 1989, set up in 1990 in Bucharest.

This category further comprises religious communities that faced persecution, property confiscation, and surveillance at the hands of the communists. In the 1950s, many Orthodox were imprisoned. Afterwards, the Church was monitored by the Securitate, which recruited some of its priests as secret agents.[iv] In 1948, the state dismantled the Greek Catholic Church, imprisoned its bishops, and transferred its property to the Orthodox Church.

The second category includes intellectuals, who support lustration, truth telling and access to secret files, but generally reject efforts to unveil collaborators from among their members and parties close to them. While small and elitist in view, the Timişoara Society, the Civil Alliance, and the Group for Social Dialogue have proposed some of the most coherent remembrance programs advanced by the Romanian civil society.

The third category is inimical to transitional justice. It includes the tenants who occupied confiscated dwellings with the authorities’ permission before and after 1989. Some tenants were poor workers who moved to town to work in new industrial factories, but many others were privileged nomenklatura members renting dwellings from the state at low rents not reflecting their market value. The Association of Tenants Living in Nationalized Dwellings has branches throughout Romania. The Association of Tenants Who Acquired Ownership through Law 112/1995 represents tenants who bought the confiscated dwelling in which they lived.[v]

Tenants and secret agents were not the only ones to benefit from the communist infringement of other people’s rights. Since 2003, the Motherland and Honour Solidarity Foundation protects the interests of former Securitate officers and post-communist intelligence agents.[vi] Former communist decision-makers have been reluctant to create associations because they could face public condemnation as a result and after 1989 retained enough political clout to advance their personal interests through the existing parties. Communist perpetrators have gained a public voice as members of parties successor to the Communist Party and the Communist Youth League: the Social Democrats, the Democrats, and the Greater Romania Party.

2. Transitional Justice Methods

Let me now turn to the second point I want to make today, and outline the contribution of civil society to judicial and non-judicial transitional justice programs.

Lustration

            The civil society has promoted lustration without being able to convince political elites to implement it. In 1990, the Timişoara Society called for banning communist decision-makers from running in general elections. The Society has understood lustration as an accusation-based process. Almost all associations representing victims and intellectuals have shared this view.

            In 1993 senator Ticu Dumitrescu, leader of the Association of Former Political Prisoners, presented Parliament with a motion on secret agents that amounted to a lustration proposal.[vii] The motion had no effect,[viii] so Dumitrescu then asked public officials unveiled as former agents to renounce their posts. Parliament ultimately stripped that proposal of its lustration stipulations.[ix]

Inspired by Bulgarian efforts, in 2006 Romanian journalists launched a Clean Voices campaign to identify secret agents in mass media. The civil society then called on spies to unveil their ties to intelligence services, and convinced the Chamber of Deputies to organize a public debate on lustration in 2006. Representatives of ten groups – including the Timişoara Society, the Civic Alliance, and the Association of Former Political Prisoners – stated their position in that debate, but Parliament opted for confession-based lustration.[x]

Court trials

            Since 1989, civil society actors have called for the prosecution of former prison guards, Securitate officers, and party leaders, and collected information to indict communist criminals. Press campaigns, street protests, and roundtable talks have been used to promote trials. By 2012, the Association of Former Political Prisoners, the Ursu Foundation, and the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes submitted 27 complaints to military prosecutors against Securitate officers, heads of detention centers, and prison guards. No court trials ensued.[xi] Few perpetrators are alive today and the surviving ones are old, so their prosecution is improbable.

            The courts’ reluctance to recognize communist abuses as crimes against humanity, and the civil society’s support for a generic ‘Trial of Communism’, explain the scarcity of trials against communist perpetrators. Preference for an all-encompassing ‘Trial of Communism’ was first voiced in 1990 by the Civic Alliance, which asked for “a trial of the leftist ideology of communism.”[xii] The call had little legal value, since abstract concepts like ideology or regime cannot be put on trial. The preference for the ‘Trial of Communism’ as opposed to specific cases has stemmed from the civil society representatives’ lack of legal expertise.[xiii]

Access to secret files

Access to secret files was the brainchild of Dumitrescu, who convinced Parliament to legislate it by drawing support from the Association of Former Political Prisoners, the Group for Social Dialogue, and other victims’ groups. In 1997, the Senate restricted Dumitrescu’s original lustration proposal so that files were made public only if their contents did not endanger national security; the leadership of the file custodian (the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives) was no longer independent from the government; and the archives remained housed with the institutions that produced them and wanted to keep them under lock to cover their links to the dictatorship. These amendments enraged the civil society groups, which called on deputies to consider Dumitrescu’s original draft, as they believed that the amendments made it impossible for the truth about communism ever to be known. While ignored, the petition showed that civil society actors could come together in support of a transitional justice project, if they wanted.

The presidential history commission

            Undoubtedly, the civil society scored its greatest success in 2006, when it convinced President Traian Băsescu to create the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania, the so-called Tismăneanu Commission. Weeks before Romania’s accession to the European Union on 1 January 2007, Băsescu condemned the communist regime in front of Parliament and on the basis of the Commission’s final report, which detailed the mechanisms of repression in communist Romania, the ties between the Securitate and the Communist Party, and the continuity between the Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceauşescu regimes.[xiv]

            The Commission was created in response to civil society calls to renew the political elite by legislating lustration. Under pressure from victims groups, Băsescu declared that he could not support lustration without first condemning the communist regime as criminal and repressive, since collaborators just obeyed an internationally recognized regime and the laws of that time. Only the exposure of the regime’s repressive character could lay down the moral ground for a blanket policy like lustration. To condemn communism, Băsescu needed a scientific report on the crimes written by experts. The presidential commission included representatives of the Association of Former Political Prisoners and the Group for Social Dialogue.

The citizen’s opinion tribunal

Frustrated with the judiciary’s unwillingness to organize a Nuremberg-type trial, in September 2006 civil society groups organized an opinion tribunal in Cluj-Napoca. The tribunal included nine former victims, one councillor each for the prosecution and the defense, and 150 audience members who acted as jurors. Charged with genocide and crimes against humanity (including premeditated murder, extermination, forced deportation, arrests, torture, disappearances, and ethnic and religious persecution), the communist regime was found guilty of all charges after the opinion tribunal discussed a summary of its human rights abuses.[xv]

The opinion tribunal had little echo inside and outside Romania, and was ignored by the general public, the political elite, and the press. The public was reluctant to support a ‘Trial of Communism’ that indirectly implicated the four million ordinary party members, and former victims argued that the post-communist state — the legal successor to the communist state that perpetrated the crimes — should acknowledge responsibility through its judiciary. But the courts have ignored these demands, pointing to the statute of limitations applicable to those cases.

Victims’ and intellectual groups challenged the legitimacy of the opinion tribunal, calling instead for a ‘Trial of Communism” in the courts of law. In 2003, the ICAR Foundation asked the government to acknowledge the “communist Holocaust,” apologize to victims, and admit that the Securitate was a political police.[xvi] President Iliescu and the Social Democrat government ignored the request. After the 2004 elections, ICAR convinced President Basescu of the power of an official apology addressed to victims and the Romanian society at large, and coming from the country’s top state dignitary. Băsescu agreed to deliver the apology, after the Commission documented the crimes. The apology, however, never came, being replaced by a condemnation.

Property restitution

            Since 1989, organizations of initial owners (most notably the Association of Owners of Property Abusively Confiscated by the State) have asked for the return of the property they lost or for fair compensation, when restitution in kind was not possible. They have opposed the tenants who rent confiscated dwellings from the state. All these groups have tried to influence public policy through street protests, open letters, and press campaigns.

In 2000, the Association of Tenants Living in Nationalized Dwellings convinced Parliament to accept as valid the contracts through which tenants bought nationalized dwellings from the state. As such, Law 10/2001 prohibited the return of homes bought by tenants in ‘good faith.’ The Association of Owners of Property Abusively Confiscated by the State warned that all tenants knew that the houses had been illegally confiscated, and addressed an open letter to Parliament, but its plea for property restitution remained unanswered.[xvii] The Association also monitors the activity of the Property Fund, set up in 2005 to provide compensation to owners, and the cases lodged by Romanian owners with the European Court for Human Rights.

Property restitution also extended to church property, including that transferred in 1948 from the Greek Catholics to the Orthodox Church.[xviii] Since 1989, the two churches have engaged in high-profile public campaigns for restitution (in the case of the Greek Catholics) or against it (in the case of the Orthodox). At the pressure of the Orthodox, in the early 1990s the government denied the Greek Catholics their right to seek justice through the courts. In turn, the Greek Catholics approached the European Court of Human Rights, which recognized the infringement of their rights and obliged the Romanian state to allow the courts to hear cases of Greek Catholic church restitution starting 2006. As it commands the loyalty of 86 percent of the population, the Orthodox Church remains an important civil society actor shaping the politics of the past.

Memorialization

            In the absence of a museum dedicated to the victims of communism, the Sighet Memorial remains Romania’s most significant memorialization project. Created in 1993 by the Civic Academy, the Memorial includes the Museum located in the Sighet prison and the International Center for the Study of Communism in Bucharest, which seek “to revise the country’s history falsified by the communist regime.”[xix] Besides oral history programs, the Memorial organizes summer schools for pre-university teachers and students, publishes a scholarly journal, and commemorates a Day of Memory, dedicated to those who suffered in communist prisons.

            Victims groups have also funded memorials. The Association of Former Political Prisoners erected hundreds of monuments, crosses, and commemorative plaques throughout Romania to mark the site of former political prisons or murders of anticommunist fighters, remember the struggle of anti-communist heroes, or celebrate the people’s opposition to the dictatorship. Given the reluctance of post-communist governments to honour victims and condemn perpetrators, these efforts to mark memory sites remain of utmost importance.[xx]

3. General Observations in Lieu of Conclusions

Let me now make some general observations about the role of civil society in transitional justice. Some apply to other countries as well; others are relevant only to Romania. For lack of time, I will just list these observations, without providing full demonstrations.

1. There is a wide diversity of groups interested in transitional justice, and not all of them support reckoning, a fact insufficiently recognized by scholars and practitioners. Inimical groups are formidable opponents when organized as institutional interest groups working within and having privileged ties to the government (like those gathering intelligence agents).

2. The need to address multiple abusive pasts creates competition within the civil society. The victims of the 1989 revolution, those of Ceausescu, and those of Gheorghiu-Dej’s “deep repression” have competed more than collaborated with each other. Their contradictory agendas have delegitimized transitional justice, instilled “memory fatigue” in the public, and provided arguments for governments to do as little as possible in coming to terms with the recent pasts.

3. In Romania, victims’ organizations have generally enjoyed strong leadership but faced crippling financial difficulties, even when anti-communist parties formed the government. Groups created around pre-communist leaders could draw on their expertise, but were disadvantaged by the leaders’ old age and health problems acquired in communist prisons. Lack of finances has partly been addressed by enthusiastic volunteer work.

4. Victims set up civil society groups earlier than perpetrators because perpetrators were represented in the first post-communist governments that blocked reckoning. It was only later, when public debates on the need to honour victims and identify perpetrators unfolded and anti-communist parties won elections, that civil society actors inimical to transitional justice appeared. The reproduction of communist elites gave perpetrators representation in state structures, and obliged victims to organize as part of the civil society. This “state perpetrators”/”non-state victims” dichotomy has remained almost unchanged since 1989.

5. Overall state actors have blocked and civil society actors have supported redress. Civil society groups have been listened to and their projects have been supported only when parties and governments have anticipated possible electoral gains. These groups were abandoned, ignored or even silenced when their demands for justice threatened the careers of powerful political gatekeepers, or the policy priorities, legitimacy and popularity of the ruling party.

6. Civil society groups have promoted mostly non-judicial, and often local, reckoning processes of limited impact. The wavering and self-interested position of the intellectuals and the dishonesty of civil society actors who hid their own former collaboration also explain why the Romanian reckoning has been politicized and delegitimized in the eyes of the public.[xxi]

The challenge facing the pro-transitional justice civil society groups in Romania is to find common ground, a common voice and a common platform to promote various methods, processes and practices of coming to terms with the past as new generations with no direct experience with the communist regime and its crimes come on the political stage. This implies more concerted action, a redesigned agenda and tool kit, and the political acumen needed to bring the public and the political elite behind the larger de-communization project.

Notes:


[i] David Backer, “Civil society and transitional justice: possibilities, patterns and prospects,” Journal of Human Rights 2(3) 2003: 297-313.

[ii] Asociaţia Foştilor Deţinuţi Politici din România, Asociaţia Foştilor Deţinuţi Politici şi Luptători Anticomunişti, and Asociaţia Proprietarilor Deposedaţi Abuziv de Stat.

[iii] Asociaţia Persoanelor Deposedate Abuziv, Foştilor Deportaţi Refugiaţi din România; Asociaţia pentru Proprietate Privată; Comunitatea Moştenitorilor şi Proprietarilor Legitimi din România; Asociaţia Victimelor Sistemului Comunist Bolşevic şi a Sechelelor Sale; Asociaţia Victimelor Magistraţilor din România; Asociaţia Franceză pentru Apărarea Drepturilor de Proprietate în România; and Interessenvertretung Restitution in Rumanien.

[iv] Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu, “The Devil’s Confessors: Priests, Communists, Spies and Informers,” East European Politics and Societies, 19(4) 2005: 655-685, and Lucian Leuştean, Orthodoxy and the Cold War. Religion and Political Power in Romania, 1947–1965 (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[v] Asociaţia Chiriaşilor din Casele Naţionalizate, and Asociaţia Proprietarilor pe Legea 112/1995. See Lavinia Stan, “The Roof over Our Head: Property Restitution in Romania,” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 22(2) 2006: 180-205, and Daniela Benea, “Musceleni, la şedinţa pentru modificarea Legii Chiriaşilor,” Evenimentul Muscelean, 28 October 2008.

[vi] Fundaţia Solidaritatea Patrie şi Onoare. See Gabriel Andreescu, “Cazul Grigore Opriţa: a început vânătoarea zăpăciţilor şi a aiuriţilor,” Observator Cultural, no. 180 (August 2013).

[vii] Şedinţa Senatului din 25 martie 1992, Monitorul Oficial al României, partea a II-a (26 March 1992), p. 2.

[viii] Şedinţa Senatului din 3 februarie 1994, Monitorul Oficial al României, partea a II-a (4 February 1994), p. 4.

[ix] Lavinia Stan, “Access to Securitate Files: The Trials and Tribulations of a Romanian Law,” East European Politics and Societies, 16(1) 2000: 55-90.

[x] Lavinia Stan, “Witch-hunt or Moral Rebirth? Romanian Parliamentary Debates on Lustration,” East European Politics and Societies (April 2011).

[xi] Raluca Grosescu and Raluca Ursachi, Justiţia penală de tranziţie: De la Nurenberg la postcomunismul românesc (Iaşi: Edituta Polirom, 2009).

[xii] Domnita Ştefănescu, Cinci ani din istoria României. O cronologie a evenimentelor decembrie 1989-decembrie 1994 (Bucharest: Editura Maşina de Scris, 1995), p. 110

[xiii]Grosescu and Ursachi, Justitia penala de tranzitie, p. 182.

[xiv] Cosmina Tănăşoiu, “The Tismaneanu Report: Romania Revisits Its Past,” Problems of Post-Communism 54(4) 2007: 60-69, and Vladimir Tismăneanu, “Democracy and Memory: Romania Confronts Its Communist Past,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 617 (2008): 166-180.

[xv] Curtea Penală de Condamnare Juridico-Morală a Crimelor Regimurilor Comuniste, Procesul Comunismului, October 2006, available at: http://redholocaust.org/procesul.html, accessed on 29 March 2011.

[xvi] The ‘Trial of Communism’ is “a duty to the victims who died with the hope that justice would be done and to those who survived and are still waiting for justice to be done,” “a necessary and expected acknowledgement of the state abuses of the past, and a sign of maturity for the Romanian democracy.” ICAR Foundation, Communism Trial, 2010, available at: http://www.icarfoundation.ro/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=29&Itemid=44, accessed on 1 September 2011.

[xvii] Damiana Oţoiu, “Negocier la (re)constitution de la propriete privee en Roumanie postsocialiste. (Nouveaux) acteurs, (anciennes) strategies,” Options Mediterraneennes, A92 (2009), p. 70.

[xviii] Lavinia Stan and Lucian Turcescu, Religion and Politics in Post-Communist Romania (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[xix] Monica Ciobanu, “Democracy and Education – Teaching History and Building a Democratic Future: Reflections From Post-Communist Romania,” Democracy and Education, 17(3) 2008, p. 60.

[xx] Asociaţia Foştilor Deţinuţi Politici din România, Album memorial. Monumente închinate jertfei, suferinţei şi luptei împotriva comunismului (Bucharest: Ziua, 2004).

[xxi] R. Grosescu, “The Role of the Civil Society and Anticommunist Political Actors in the Romanian Transitional Justice Partial Failure,” in Lustration and Consolidation of Democracy and the Rule of Law in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. by V. Dvorakova and A. Milardovic (Zagreb: Political Science Research Center, 2007), p. 190.

A link to my Youtube talk is available here.