Romania aims to track crimes of Communists





In the cavernous Victory Palace, the home of Romania's government, history is being made in a small two-room office. Here, a staff of just three people under Marius Oprea has embarked on a task that until this year had been blocked by successive governments since the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.

Oprea, 41, is in charge of the Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. It was the first time such an institute has been established in a country where the regime had at its disposal one of the most ruthless secret services in the former Communist bloc to quash dissent.

Once he has found new premises, selected his full team of 25 people and been given two official cars, each allowed a monthly 300 liters, or 80 gallons, of gasoline, Oprea will have six years to complete the task of dealing with five decades of tyranny.

Other former Communist countries that collapsed in 1989 have opened their secret service archives, with the Czech Republic and former East Germany going the furthest. Both countries have prevented former secret service officials from holding public office.

But until now, no Romanian government had addressed the country's Communist past, or for that matter put any senior Communist or Securitate official on trial.

Oprea says previous governments did not want to condemn officially the Communist times.

"It would have meant condemning themselves," he said in an interview.

"Under a different guise, the Communist Party and the Securitate, the secret police, was always in charge here since 1989," said Oprea, who was appointed president of the institute in December by Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu.

Tariceanu was elected prime minister in December 2004 after the former Communists led by Adrian Nastase and President Ion Iliescu were defeated by a coalition of center-right parties. Since then, the government has spent most of its time trying to pass and carry out legislation to fight corruption, so that Romania will be ready to join the EU in January 2007.

"Until now, there has been no political will to have such an institute," said Oprea, a soft-spoken man who for many years had campaigned for such an body, partly because of his own experiences.

The former archaeologist-turned historian had organized manifestos against Ceausescu in September 1987, two months before workers in the city of Brasov protested dire economic conditions in demonstrations that the Securitate quashed.

In the mid-1990s, Iliescu made a gesture toward addressing the past by setting up a National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives, to examine the activities of the Communist political police. It went nowhere. The secret services refused to hand over the Securitate archives to that council.

This time, there are large hopes among Romania's nongovernmental organizations that the institute will cast light on the workings of the country's Communist regimes going back to 1948.

Doina Cornea, a former dissident and honorary member of the institute, said it was its duty to reveal the crimes of the Communist era.

"If we do not accept the investigations of the crimes and of those who suffered and the way they suffered for truth and justice, we are, or we become, a nation about to fall," Cornea said.

Oprea, however, acknowledges that there are still-powerful forces trying to obstruct his work.

"It has been immensely difficult gaining access to the archives," he said. Since 1989, he added, no government had put the archives under a central administration.

"During the early 1990s, some of the Securitate archives were transferred to the Justice Ministry," Oprea said. "Others were scattered, some went to the general prosecutor's office. Others were kept by the secret services themselves. It was the same story, too, for the Communist Party archives. They were placed under the control of the army in January 1990. The army claimed it was necessary to protect them. They were classified as secret. My first step is to get access to the archives."

Oprea says failure to centralize the archives and make them accessible was linked to the way the former Communists retained their influence and privileges after 1989.

"After 1989, you had the privatization of communism - in which state property, controlled by the intelligence services, the Securitate and the Communist Party was transferred to private ownership, which were often the same people of the old regime," Oprea said.

"With such funds, they supported the former Communist parties led by Iliescu and Nastase. It was in no one's interests to look into the past."

Hossu Longhin, executive director of the institute, said it should also "study the laws that governed and legitimated the crime."

"There is no individual or group without memory and there cannot be a country without memory," she said last month during the first meeting of the Institute.

Oprea agrees. He says present and future generations should know who gave the orders to introduce strict rationing of meat, who gave the orders to force women to have children, who gave the orders to restrict heat and electricity during the bitterly cold winters of the 1980s.

"This is about putting the political and moral issues in the same house," Oprea said.

"If we want to consolidate our democracy, we need to know how the system worked and to explain to the public how bad it was, otherwise you will keep having this kind of nostalgia for the past and lack of accountability and responsibility for crimes committed by previous regimes."


BUCHAREST In the cavernous Victory Palace, the home of Romania's government, history is being made in a small two-room office.

Here, a staff of just three people under Marius Oprea has embarked on a task that until this year had been blocked by successive governments since the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.

Oprea, 41, is in charge of the Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. It was the first time such an institute has been established in a country where the regime had at its disposal one of the most ruthless secret services in the former Communist bloc to quash dissent.

Once he has found new premises, selected his full team of 25 people and been given two official cars, each allowed a monthly 300 liters, or 80 gallons, of gasoline, Oprea will have six years to complete the task of dealing with five decades of tyranny.

Other former Communist countries that collapsed in 1989 have opened their secret service archives, with the Czech Republic and former East Germany going the furthest. Both countries have prevented former secret service officials from holding public office.

But until now, no Romanian government had addressed the country's Communist past, or for that matter put any senior Communist or Securitate official on trial.

Oprea says previous governments did not want to condemn officially the Communist times.

"It would have meant condemning themselves," he said in an interview.

"Under a different guise, the Communist Party and the Securitate, the secret police, was always in charge here since 1989," said Oprea, who was appointed president of the institute in December by Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu.

Tariceanu was elected prime minister in December 2004 after the former Communists led by Adrian Nastase and President Ion Iliescu were defeated by a coalition of center-right parties. Since then, the government has spent most of its time trying to pass and carry out legislation to fight corruption, so that Romania will be ready to join the EU in January 2007.

"Until now, there has been no political will to have such an institute," said Oprea, a soft-spoken man who for many years had campaigned for such an body, partly because of his own experiences.

The former archaeologist-turned historian had organized manifestos against Ceausescu in September 1987, two months before workers in the city of Brasov protested dire economic conditions in demonstrations that the Securitate quashed.

In the mid-1990s, Iliescu made a gesture toward addressing the past by setting up a National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives, to examine the activities of the Communist political police. It went nowhere. The secret services refused to hand over the Securitate archives to that council.

This time, there are large hopes among Romania's nongovernmental organizations that the institute will cast light on the workings of the country's Communist regimes going back to 1948.

Doina Cornea, a former dissident and honorary member of the institute, said it was its duty to reveal the crimes of the Communist era.

"If we do not accept the investigations of the crimes and of those who suffered and the way they suffered for truth and justice, we are, or we become, a nation about to fall," Cornea said.

Oprea, however, acknowledges that there are still-powerful forces trying to obstruct his work.

"It has been immensely difficult gaining access to the archives," he said. Since 1989, he added, no government had put the archives under a central administration.

"During the early 1990s, some of the Securitate archives were transferred to the Justice Ministry," Oprea said. "Others were scattered, some went to the general prosecutor's office. Others were kept by the secret services themselves. It was the same story, too, for the Communist Party archives. They were placed under the control of the army in January 1990. The army claimed it was necessary to protect them. They were classified as secret. My first step is to get access to the archives."

Oprea says failure to centralize the archives and make them accessible was linked to the way the former Communists retained their influence and privileges after 1989.

"After 1989, you had the privatization of communism - in which state property, controlled by the intelligence services, the Securitate and the Communist Party was transferred to private ownership, which were often the same people of the old regime," Oprea said.

"With such funds, they supported the former Communist parties led by Iliescu and Nastase. It was in no one's interests to look into the past."

Hossu Longhin, executive director of the institute, said it should also "study the laws that governed and legitimated the crime."

"There is no individual or group without memory and there cannot be a country without memory," she said last month during the first meeting of the Institute.

Oprea agrees. He says present and future generations should know who gave the orders to introduce strict rationing of meat, who gave the orders to force women to have children, who gave the orders to restrict heat and electricity during the bitterly cold winters of the 1980s.

"This is about putting the political and moral issues in the same house," Oprea said.

"If we want to consolidate our democracy, we need to know how the system worked and to explain to the public how bad it was, otherwise you will keep having this kind of nostalgia for the past and lack of accountability and responsibility for crimes committed by previous regimes."


BUCHAREST In the cavernous Victory Palace, the home of Romania's government, history is being made in a small two-room office.

Here, a staff of just three people under Marius Oprea has embarked on a task that until this year had been blocked by successive governments since the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.

Oprea, 41, is in charge of the Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. It was the first time such an institute has been established in a country where the regime had at its disposal one of the most ruthless secret services in the former Communist bloc to quash dissent.

Once he has found new premises, selected his full team of 25 people and been given two official cars, each allowed a monthly 300 liters, or 80 gallons, of gasoline, Oprea will have six years to complete the task of dealing with five decades of tyranny.

Other former Communist countries that collapsed in 1989 have opened their secret service archives, with the Czech Republic and former East Germany going the furthest. Both countries have prevented former secret service officials from holding public office.

But until now, no Romanian government had addressed the country's Communist past, or for that matter put any senior Communist or Securitate official on trial.

Oprea says previous governments did not want to condemn officially the Communist times.

"It would have meant condemning themselves," he said in an interview.

"Under a different guise, the Communist Party and the Securitate, the secret police, was always in charge here since 1989," said Oprea, who was appointed president of the institute in December by Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu.


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