The enduring legacy of Romania's Securitate

BUCHAREST, Romania — As a young correspondent covering central Europe in 1989, I vividly remember the terror that the Securitate, Romania’s secret police, wreaked on ordinary Romanians in the last, harrowing months of the dictatorship. In no country in the former Eastern Bloc was the reach and the power of the intelligence services so vast as in Romania, where the the Securitate held a uniquely tight grip.

The dictatorship’s secret services commanded such an immense network of informers that no one felt safe speaking his mind, even among friends. 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 bar or in a railway station, to cause locals to scatter like birds. I visited Romania with names and phone numbers written in code and stuffed in my shoes. The price was high for those deemed uncooperative: Careers were made and unmade by the Securitate, to say nothing of the hundreds who perished in its prisons.

Yet since Romania’s bloody Christmas revolution — an exception among the “velvet revolutions” of that year — no country in Eastern Europe has dealt less thoroughly with the legacy of its secret services under communism. Romania never passed a lustration law like those in Germany, the Czech Republic or Poland that thoroughly vetted public officials. It took until 10 years after communism’s demise — under European Union pressure — for the Securitate archives to be opened, by then much purged or altered by the very people whose careers they threatened. Not a single person has been tried and sentenced for killings during the 1989 revolution, when more than 1,000 people lost their lives.

“Romania today is impossible to understand without understanding the networks that these people — Securitate officers, apparachiks — created for themselves,” said Gabriel Andreescu, a former dissident and human rights activist. “They reach into politics, the business world, the media, and even the Orthodox Church.”

Andreescu claimed that 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. These tightly knit networks, said Andreescu, are very difficult to crack. “These institutions,” he said, “are the very ones that should set lustration in motion. No wonder it hasn’t happened.”

Romania’s case is unique because the dictatorship of tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu was the fiercest in the Eastern Bloc. Since it broached no dissent, there were only very weak reform-minded factions in the ruling Communist Party and nothing like the underground opposition movements that existed in Poland, Hungary and even East Germany.

Thus after the revolution, the second tier of the former communist apparatus took over: There was no one else. It is estimated that still today at least a third of the “new” intelligence service, the Romanian Information Service (SRI), is made up of former Securitate officers. Those in retirement received a pension three times that of ordinary Romanians.

After years of stalling, the new information agency finally released files of the estimated 1 million people persecuted by the regime. But they are woefully incomplete. The Romania-born German writer Herta Mueller, recently named Nobel Prize laureate for literature, said whole years are missing from her files. "Ceausescu’s secret service wasn’t dissolved,” she wrote, “it simply renamed itself.”

In the recent article in the German weekly Die Zeit, Mueller calls her file “a botched creation of the SRI in the name of the Securitate.”

“They had 10 long years to ‘process’ it [her file],” explained Mueller. “You can’t say it was touched up, it was eviscerated.”

By destroying the relevant files and undermining a lustration process in Romania, wrote Mueller, the former collaborators turn the Securitate into “an abstract monster devoid of identifiable, human faces.” This way, the guilty are protected and a rational public debate is undermined.

The secret service today, Mueller wrote, still functions in much the same way it did before. Even today, she claims, she is followed and her phone bugged when she is in Romania. Her demands to get back all of her Securitate file have gone nowhere.

Romanian political scientist Alina Mungiu Pippidi said that Mueller’s charges of continued persecution are not far-fetched, although it is probably not the SRI itself behind it.

“The networks of the Securitate have been privatized into lucrative businesses,” she said. “Their people fear anyone who can expose them the way Mueller does in her fiction. The fact that they use familiar methods to intimidate is not surprising.“

Mungiu Pippidi thinks it is simply too late now to expect a full-scale lustration to be effective. “If I had my way,” she said, “I’d just have [the files] all burned. The whole system is too infiltrated for these archives to be useful, in a positive way. Lustrstion is only valuable when it can affect the power structures it has been designed to vet. There is no chance of this happening in Romania today.”