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Fighting Continues As Romania Names Reform-Minded President

By William EchiksonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 27, 1989



BOSTON

ROMANIA'S new leaders face a tough task establishing their rule. After popular demonstrations shook dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, a group calling itself the National Salvation Front has declared itself in control of the Balkan country.

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Ion Iliescu was named president yesterday by the country's provisional government, a day after the execution of Ceausescu and his wife Elena, who were tried secretly. Mr. Iliescu is a former senior Communist official who was demoted for standing up to Ceausescu.

Meanwhile, bitter fighting between Ceausescu loyalists and the Salvation Front loyalists continued yesterday, with the pro-democracy forces seizing control of most of the strategic areas.

In general, the Army and the public seem to back the new regime, while the feared Securitate secret police fight either for the Ceausescu regime or to save themselves from bitter revenge. But analysts caution that some elements of the Army may be fighting against the rebels while elements of the security forces back the new government.

Whatever the exact situation, most analysts such as Vladimir Tismaneanu of the University of Pennsylvania believe the Army ``will emerge as the guarantor of peace and stability once the fighting with Ceausescu loyalists ends.''

The Army, this argument goes, resents the favors that the Ceausescu regime bestowed on the feared security forces. While soldiers were used for farming and construction tasks, security forces were supplied with modern helicopter troop transports, rocket-grenade launchers, and armored personnel carriers. Security forces also enjoyed the best perks in a society short on food and energy.

The Salvation Front represents the forces of change in Romania. It has accepted the principle of free elections. But when they are held, who will contest them, and the future of Communist Party all remain open questions. Many doubt that the Romanian party, even under a reformist like Iliescu, can recover to become a credible political force.

Iliescu, a former Central Committee member, is purportedly a friend of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The relationship was forged while they were students in Moscow in the 1950s. Three decades later, Iliescu reinforced this tie by writing an article praising glasnost (openness). But he did not sign the March letter and so did not suffer from the ensuing repression.

Iliescu made his career within the party, rising to become a member of the Ceausescu inner circle. Then, almost as fast as he rose, he was demoted by Ceausescu. Until the recent events, he served as editor at the technical publishing house Technica.

The scenario was typical: Anyone who could be a rival to Ceausescu was pushed aside before he could build a power base.

Ceausescu also persecuted the noncommunist opposition mercilessly. When this correspondent visited Bucharest only one dissident dared to speak to him in public: a mathematician named Mihai Botez.

``The terror was a carefully calibrated strategy,'' recalls Liviu Turcu, a former official who recently defected to the United States. ``Ceausecu thought he could insulate himself from everything going on in Eastern Europe.''

That goal finally proved impossible. Communist regimes in Hungary and Poland adapted to the change and tried to stay out in front of public opinion. They managed a relatively smooth transition, an evolution, to an open pluralist market-oriented society.

There was support for change in Romania even under Ceausescu. Front leader Corneliu Manescu was a former foreign minister and loyal Communist bureaucrat, who gradually became disillusioned with the Ceausescu regime.

In March of this year, he and five other dissatisfied communists signed a public letter protesting Ceausescu's policies. Radio Free Europe published the protest and read its contents on the air, and when unrest struck, these signers emerged as the backbone of the new Salvation Front.

``At a time when the very idea of socialism for which we have fought is discredited by your policies, and when our country is being isolated in Europe, we have decided to speak up,'' the signers wrote. The letter criticized Ceausescu's fondness for uneconomic prestige projects, its insistence on paying back debts at the expense of living conditions, the forced removal of peasants from their homes under a program of ``systematization of villages,'' and the repression of the security police, who forbade contacts between Romanians and foreigners.

After the protest became public, the signers were taken from their homes and forced to live in primitive habitations either in the outskirts of Bucharest or the countryside under heavy police surveillance. Contacts with the public or the outside world became impossible. Western journalists and diplomats trying to visit them were turned away or beaten up. Because of their isolation, their contacts and organizational abilities may be limited.