How Ceausescu's Secret Police Still Influence Romania Today

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“Growing up in communist Romania, you carried around a terrible certainty—one in 10 people was an informer for the dreaded Securitate secret police on behalf of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu,” recalls NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu. In fact, Lungescu’s figure is off—it was “only” one in 30.

The Securitate’s informer network was enormous, totaling 750,000 in a country of only 23 million, meaning that three percent of the population consisted of informers; in a country as large as the US, that would total almost 10 million Americans all spying on each other.

Anyone was fair game to be spied on: "Persons who had relatives abroad. Persons who used to tell jokes. Persons interested in studying foreign languages." Even speaking to a foreigner could land a Romanian citizen under the government’s suspicion. One visitor to Romania in 1989 recalled that “since foreigners were persona non grata and even just conversing with them raised suspicion, I had only to seat myself in a public place, like at a bar or in a railway station, to cause locals to scatter like birds.”

My own grandfather was falsely accused by an anonymous informer of fighting for the Romanian fascist Legionnaire movement. As a result, he lost his position as principal of a school in Arad, was interrogated repeatedly for a period of months, and was threatened with arrest. Fortunately, he had influential friends who testified on his behalf; he was never arrested, but neither was he reinstated in his previous position as principal. Needless to say, the Securitate never offered him an apology.

What motivated so many Romanians to spy on their neighbors? According to Securitate records, 97 percent of informers were volunteers, motivated by “political and patriotic sentiment,” but such statistics are obviously false. The majority were motivated by Securitate brutality, blackmail, and intimidation. Germina Nagat, head of investigations at Romania’s National Council for Studying the Securitate Archives (CNSAS), recalled how a Securitate officer offered her “a passport to travel abroad and the cancer drugs my sick father needed. In exchange I would have to spy on people I knew.” When she refused, the Securitate started keeping tabs on her. For others, the consequences were even worse. When WWII veteran George Marzanca refused to collaborate with the Securitate, within a month he was “arrested and sentenced to four years imprisonment, on spurious grounds.”

CNSAS managed to attain the bulk of the Securitate’s archives, which today are open to the general public. Yet this transparency has done little to help Romania come to terms with its communist past. Many former Securitate officials and informers still occupy high positions of power. Reading the list of former informers feels like reading a catalogue of who’s who in Romanian society. For example, Ristea Priboi, a former Securitate colonel, served as a Social Democrat member of the Romanian Chamber of Deputies from 2000 to 2004.

Another politician, the late Vadim Tudor, who was a Member of the European Parliament, acted as an “informal informant” who “denounced opponents of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime.” Judge Florica Bejinariu, who informed on colleagues for money, categorically refused to resign when her activities became known, and once shouted at a group of journalists: “What do you want to know—whether I was a virgin when I married?”

Dan Voiculescu, a Romanian businessman and media magnate, was forced to give up his attempt to become deputy prime minister when his informing activities came to light. Former Culture Minister Mona Musca, who was “admired for her calls for reform” and for being the “author of many laws guaranteeing press freedom,” also confessed “to having reported on foreign students,” and said she would resign from Parliament if it was found that her informing “caused harm to her students.” Ms. Musca resigned in March of 2007.

But the Securitate files that are open to the public today are incomplete. The files were released in 2006, 17 years after the communist regime’s collapse. This gave those in power plenty of time to remove any incriminating information about themselves from them. Romanian newspapers remain “awash with allegations that many politicians, civil servants, judges and other public figures collaborated with the secret police in the communist era,” but since so many records were either lost, or potentially purged, the full extent of many politicians’ collaboration with the Securitate may never be known. For every Voiculescu or Tudor, there are countless others whose crimes remain hidden.

The communist regime’s brutality, and the all-pervading atmosphere of fear and mistrust caused by the Securitate’s massive informer network ensured that Romania never developed a strong resistance movement that could step into the light and take control after Ceaușescu’s fall from power. After the Romanian Revolution in 1989, “the second tier of the former communist apparatus took over: There was no one else.”

The Securitate’s networks survived, and they now “reach into politics, the business world, the media, and even the Orthodox Church,” according to Gabriel Andreescu, a former dissident and human rights activist. Worse still, “a younger generation is now also involved, the offspring of Securitate or people somehow indebted to them, who protect their interests in exchange for entry into the power structures.” Since these institutions are the “very ones that should set lustration in motion,” there’s “no wonder” Romania never adopted strong lustration laws.

The Securitate’s legacy is on full display in Romania’s modern-day intelligence service, the Romanian Information Service (SRI). An estimated one third of former Securitate officers joined the SRI, and the new intelligence service’s methods have led some to label it the “Securitate 2.0.” These methods include “intimidation of judges, use of investigative powers against political or even personal foes, excessive pre-trial publicity and ‘preventive detention,’ improper and potentially illegal forms of plea-bargaining to secure testimony against high-profile perpetrators, and continued use… of intrusive counter-terrorism methods in the investigation of corruption cases,” all as part of Romania’s anti-corruption campaign.

Herta Müller, the Nobel Prize-winning Romanian writer whose works focus on the brutality of the communist regime, claims “she is followed and her phone [is] bugged when she is in Romania.” “Ceaușescu’s secret service wasn’t dissolved,” she has written, “it simply renamed itself.”

The wounds of forty years of communist rule are still felt in 2018. Until Romania can come to terms with its communist past and reckon with the crimes committed by those who held power, those wounds will still fester.