I’m writing from Bucharest, Romania. The Romanians haven’t shown a lot of interest in what’s happening in Ukraine. Oh, they’re following it, but it doesn’t seem to grab their imagination. Part of this, I think, is because they’re distracted — they have a big election of their own, for Parliament and the Presidency, this weekend. And, too, Romanians consider themselves “part of Europe”, while Ukraine is seen as outside. But whatever the reason, they don’t seem too interested.
Except for one detail.
Apparently Yanukovic and his supporters have been busing thousands of coal miners into the capital. Every Romanian that I’ve talked to has commented on this.
Why? Well, you have to know a little recent Romanian history.
The “National Salvation Front” government took control of Romania after the fall of Ceausescu in December 1989. The NSF presented itself to the world as a group of plucky revolutionaries. In reality, it was a group of Communists from the second rank of the nomenklature. They were led by Ion Iliescu, a former friend and colleauge of Ceausescu who had fallen from favor some years earlier. For the next couple of years, Romania had a government that’s been described as “Communism with the serial numbers filed off” — new faces at the top, but otherwise the same people sitting in the same offices, running the same centrally planned economy.
Once the first flush of post-Ceausescu enthusiasm was over, a lot of people didn’t like this. Liberals wanted a real, reformist, democratic government. Monarchists wanted the king back. Everybody wanted some sort of house-cleaning. Students from Bucharest’s universities developed the annoying (to Iliescu) habit of gathering in Bucharest’s squares and protesting loudly and more or less continuously.
So, in the spring of 1991, Iliescu started bringing busloads of coal miners into Bucharest.
The first time was bad. The miners rioted, smashed windows, looted, and beat dozens of students. They went particularly after “liberal” opponents of the NSF regime, sacking the headquarters of the opposition party and targetting the houses and offices of opposition leaders. Afterwards, Iliescu appeared publicly and thanked the miners for the “patriotism” and “forbearance”.
The second time was much worse. This time the miners ran riot for three days throughout central Bucharest. Eleven students were killed, the city was shut down, and the Prime Minister — who had been showing irritating signs of independence — was forced to resign. And Iliescu got to write a new constitution, which put him in charge for the next four years.
(This is why, if you go to University Square in the center of Bucharest, you’ll see two sets of monuments. The official ones are for the martyrs of 1989, when Ceausescu’s secret police opened fire on the demonstrators. The crude, unofficial ones are for the dead of 1991, when the miners started beating students to death with clubs.)
So, while Romanians generally aren’t too interested in Ukraine, that one detail makes them sit up and take notice.
Let’s hope they’re wrong.