Romania Modern History

By | January 30, 2023

Romania is a country located in Eastern Europe. With the capital city of Bucharest, Romania has a population of 19,237,702 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. After World War II, Romania became a Communist dictatorship, where Nicolae Ceauşescu took power in 1965. He controlled the community with the dreaded security service Securitate. But economic downturn and severe hardship for the people led to growing discontent, and in 1989 Ceauşescu was driven from power. The 1990s became rife with strikes, protests and violence against protesters. Today, Romania is firmly anchored in the Western world through membership in the EU and the NATO defense alliance.

At the end of the Second World War, there were not many communists in Romania, but the communist influence grew rapidly. A party organization was set up and through the presence of the Soviet Red Army in the country, party members got important jobs within the administration. At the same time, the old bourgeois parties had difficulty gathering wider support because they had discredited themselves during the war by supporting dictator Ion Antonescu (see Older History).

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Romania. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

In a manipulated election in 1946, a communist bloc supported by the Soviet Union won 89 percent of the vote. The following year, King Mihai was forced to abdicate and go into exile. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Romania.

In 1947, the National Liberal Party (NLP) and the National Peasant Party were dissolved (see Older History). The Communists and Social Democrats formed the Romanian United Workers’ Party, which in a new election in 1948 got almost all the seats in Parliament. Romania was now declared the People’s Republic.

Subsequently, a social transformation in accordance with the Soviet pattern began. All opposition was suppressed. Industries, natural resources and mines were nationalized. A powerful planning ministry detailed the economy. A collectivization of agriculture began in 1949.

Communist police state under Ceauşescu

After a power struggle, the Moscow-friendly were excluded from the party leadership in 1952 and Romania began to take a more independent course against the Soviet Union under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. The Soviet troops left the country in 1958.

The government opposed the division of labor that Moscow wanted to introduce in the Eastern bloc, which gave Romania its role as an oil and agricultural producer. From the end of the 1950s, Romania underwent rapid industrialization and immigration to the cities increased. Emphasis was placed on heavy industry, but the production of consumer goods was also developed. Industrial production rose at a rate that impressed the outside world.

Gheorghiu-Dej passed away in 1965 and was succeeded by Nicolae Ceauşescu who in 1974 also became president. The United Workers’ Party changed its name to the Communist Party.

In addition to party leaders and president, Ceauşescu was also commander-in-chief. His family and relatives were assigned high positions in the community. This nepotism was combined with constant movements of key people within the governing bodies, which prevented the emergence of centers of power that could threaten the president’s position. A large police apparatus and security service, Securitate, controlled the citizens.

Independent foreign policy was further strengthened under Ceauşescu. Romania condemned the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and it did not participate in the joint alliance of the Warsaw Pact, despite being a member of the Alliance until its dissolution in 1991.

Food shortage, oppression and personal cult

Towards the end of the 1970s, economic development reversed. The rigid system of a centralized economy had led to significant misconduct and mismanagement with resources in both agriculture and industry. Domestic production of oil, coal and natural gas fell and Romania was forced to rely on expensive fuel imports, which led to energy shortages.

In the early 1970s, Romania became the first country in the Soviet bloc to become a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The country took large loans in the West, but the payments on the loans became increasingly burdensome. Interest rates rose at the same time as Romania was getting less and less money to pay: the inflow of Western currencies decreased as a result of falling exports outside the Eastern Bloc. Romanian goods did not meet the quality required to compete in the world market.

The economic crisis worsened during the 1980s when Ceauşescu decided to pay off the entire foreign debt until 1990. Imports were cut and virtually everything that could be sold abroad was exported. The result was huge hardships for the Romanians. Some basic foods, oil and gasoline were rationed.

Ceauşescu’s rule became increasingly dictatorial and the cult of the person gained ever greater proportions. All dissatisfaction with food shortages and other hardships was defeated by Securitate, which was given stronger powers. Oppositionists were persecuted, imprisoned and tortured. Human rights violations isolated the country internationally.

Ceauşescu is overthrown and executed

The dissatisfaction sprouted beneath the surface. In the spring of 1989, the first signs of open opposition to Ceauşescu came from within the party when some deposed party officials criticized him, among other things, for the economic crisis. One of the critics was Ion Iliescu, educated in Moscow and formerly one of the president’s close associates.

In December 1989, a demonstration was held in Timişoara in support of the outspoken pastor László Tőkés who would be forced to relocate to a smaller pastorate. The protesters were shot by the security police and dozens of people lost their lives – exactly how many are disputed. The unrest spread to other cities, including Bucharest, where Ceauşescu was evacuated at a mass meeting he called himself. On December 22, the Ceauşescu couple were forced to flee in a helicopter from the roof of the Central Committee building, after protesters in conjunction with a new mass meeting began storming the house at the same time as it was stated that army soldiers joined the protests.

On the same day, a provisional government was formed under the name National Rescue Front. Ion Iliescu was named president and Petre Roman became prime minister. Ceauşescu and his wife were captured and executed after a litigation on Christmas Day. Struggles between mainly government soldiers and Securitate continued for a few days in Bucharest. The number of deaths, including many civilians, has been estimated at over 1,100, but the official death toll was 689.

Soon after Ceauşescu’s fall, enthusiasm was switched to suspicion towards the National Rescue Front. Many of its leaders were formerly active Communists, who were not very willing to deal with the past. The well-known opposition who joined the front when it was formed quickly jumped off. Increasingly, what started as a popular revolution had been exploited by the National Rescue Front’s leaders and circles within the security police for a palace coup against the dictator.

Economic crisis and political unrest

After Ceauşescu’s fall, the Communist Party was banned. The old parties were resurrected, while a number of new political movements were founded. Elections were announced until May 1990. Prior to the election, the National Rescue Front gained support by taking loans in the west and filling the stores’ shelves with imported food. Some key groups such as miners also received pay raises. In the elections, the National Rescue Front won a majority of seats in Parliament and Ion Iliescu became president with 85 percent of the vote.

The elections had been preceded by large anti-communist demonstrations in Bucharest. The unrest continued afterwards. Students who refused to accept the result barricaded themselves in Bucharest. When the police tried to disperse them, there were clashes. Thousands of miners from Jiudalen then followed an appeal from Iliescu to Bucharest where they took to the streets and began to criticize regime critics. Several people were killed, hundreds injured and over a thousand arrested.

The protests continued during the rest of the year in Bucharest and other cities against, among other things, the deteriorating standard of living. The government failed to improve the economy and the turmoil continued in 1991. In September, the miners in Jiudalen went on strike, this time in protest of the government’s policy and went back to Bucharest. New casualties were required as they clashed with the security forces. The riots led to the government being forced to step down. New head of government became Theodor Stolojan, who led a coalition with the National Rescue Front and some smaller parties.

Former Communists lose power

National rescue fronts split in 1992. Former Prime Minister Petre Roman’s more reform-oriented group retained the old party name, while President Ion Iliescu’s falang took the name Democratic National Rescue Front. It became the largest party in the autumn parliamentary elections before the Democratic Convention and the National Rescue Front. In October, Ion Iliescu won the presidential election against Emil Constantinescu of the Democratic Convention.

Iliescu’s new minority government implemented financial austerity that led to continued social unrest. When Parliament’s opposition to the government intensified, a new coalition government was formed in 1995. It was led by Romania’s Social Democratic Party (PDSR), which was a merger of Iliescu’s party and some smaller groups, but it already broke that fall.

In 1996, PDSR lost some of its support, partly due to the financial difficulties with fuel shortages and poor harvesting. More and more revelations about high-level corruption, including within the government, also came into play. The November parliamentary and presidential elections set the point for seven years of rule dominated by the former Communists. The incumbent President Ion Iliescu was defeated by opposition candidate Emil Constantinescu, who advocated economic liberalization.

The Democratic Convention formed government together with a Social Democratic Party Alliance and the Hungarian Democratic Union (UDMR). It was the first time representatives of the country’s Hungarians participated in a Romanian government. Several leading businessmen with ties to the former regime were indicted for corruption. In exchange for a radical reform program, the government was promised loans from the IMF and the World Bank.

Refusal of application EU membership

However, price increases, cuts in social benefits and closures of unprofitable government companies hit the population hard. In 1997, about 80,000 miners lost their jobs. The general standard of living continued to decline. Nor was this government persisted. A crisis erupted in early 1998 following disagreements over, among other things, a planned privatization of agricultural land.

A new coalition government was formed with the same parties, but the economic problems of subsequent strikes and demonstrations soon grew overhead. After failing to meet the IMF’s requirements for improved state finances, the Prime Minister was dismissed in December 1999 and succeeded by Governor of the Central Bank Alexandru Athanasiu.

Romania had signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) in 1993 and two years later it applied for membership. The disappointment was great in Bucharest in 1997 when it became clear that Romania was not among the eastern countries that were in turn first to join NATO and the EU respectively. A rising EU membership had been the government’s main argument for getting the population to accept the economic austerity.

The European Commission justified the rejection that Romania did not meet the requirements of legal certainty and that the development towards market economy did not go far enough. The EU also pointed to deficiencies in border controls, the fight against organized crime and, not least, the conditions in the many orphanages (see Social conditions). Only during the December 1999 government crisis did Romania receive the sign of membership negotiations, despite the shortcomings.

Agreement on social peace

The new Prime Minister Mugur Isărescu tried to breathe life into the failed reforms of the economy and the judiciary. The state was in desperate need of loans from the IMF, which in exchange demanded tougher austerity measures: raising electricity and gas prices and layoffs of another 20,000 government employees. The government found itself forced to agree to this in the early 2000s, but Romanians’ anger towards politicians grew again.

The dissatisfaction was reflected in the presidential and parliamentary elections at the end of 2000. The government parties suffered a severe defeat while the Social Democratic PDSR received 37 percent of the vote. The right-wing Nationalist Great Romanian Party (PRM), led by Corneliu Vadim Tudor, won almost 20 percent. In the presidential election, former President Ion Iliescu of PDSR triumphed over Tudor, despite corruption allegations and suspicions about past activities within Securitate.

Iliescu had a former foreign minister, party colleague Adrian Năstase, form a minority government. There was no alternative as no parties wanted to cooperate with Tudor’s party. The government’s main support party became the Hungarian Democratic Union. In early 2002, the government signed an agreement with the unions and employers on social peace. It would give a deadline for the implementation of reform plans. The union promised to abstain from strikes for one year in exchange for the government’s promise of reducing inflation, raising wages and increasing the fight against unemployment.

Some years after the election, contradictions between the prime minister and the president were revealed. Năstase, who now also led the party that changed its name to the Social Democratic Party (PSD), made it clear that he wanted to renew and modernize the party and replace the generation around the former Communist Iliescu with younger forces.

Combating corruption is counteracted

To counter criticism of widespread corruption, Năstase dismissed four ministers. A special corruption prosecutor opened an investigation in August 2004 against 80 former ministers and senior government officials, most from the opposition, for alleged bribery. However, the attempts to convict high-ranking politicians for corruption were thwarted by, among others, Parliament and the Constitutional Court. Both former MPs and ministers had been protected by the court from prosecution. Therefore, Năstase was also far from trying to prosecute him.

After four years in power, the PSD’s minority government was challenged in 2004 by the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Party (PD), which had formed the Alliance for Justice and Truth. The presidential election was between Prime Minister Năstase and PD leader Traian Băsescu. Năstase got the most votes in the first round, but the decision in December gave Băsescu the victory with just over 51 percent of the vote.

In the parliamentary elections, however, the Left Alliance – PSD and the Conservative Romania’s Humanist Party (PUR) – received almost 37 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for the Center-Right Alliance. The right-wing nationalist PRM, which no other party wanted to cooperate with, took 13 percent of the vote.

The new President Băsescu gave PNL leader Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu the government assignment and he could gather a majority by offering ministerial posts to both PD and UDMR and PUR, which therefore broke his cooperation with the Social Democrats.

Official distancing from the Communist era

The government’s first measure was to introduce a tax reform, which from 2005 provided Romania with a uniform income and corporate tax – a so-called flat tax. The purpose was to stimulate foreign investment and to make activities in the extensive informal sector less profitable.

At the same time, the country concluded negotiations with the EU for membership in 2007. However, the EU Commission was still critical on some points: unauthorized government subsidies, including to the steel industry, a lack of border guard and widespread corruption. The EU countries therefore warned that membership could be postponed for one year unless the deficiencies were removed before 2007.

In December 2006, a few weeks before Romania became an EU member, President Băsescu officially renounced the Communist era and condemned the abuses that have taken place over the past 40 years. The statement was made following pressure from, among others, the Council of Europe and was based on a historical investigation commissioned by the President. Former President Iliescu criticized the inquiry for “demonizing the left”.

For a long time, the cooperation had crackled between President Băsescu and Prime Minister Popescu-Tăriceanu and it developed into a political duel. In October 2006, Băsescu had dismissed the Defense Minister, who belonged to the Prime Minister’s PNL, and the conflicts affected the entire government’s work. In December, PUR, which changed its name to the Conservative Party (PC), resigned from the government, and in April 2007, Popescu-Tăriceanu dissolved the alliance with PD. Together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the PNL formed a minority government which received some support in Parliament by the Social Democrats.

Romania becomes an EU member

The president, who still had great support from the people, criticized the government for curbing reform efforts after the EU’s entry into force on January 1, 2007, and several politicians were disturbed by his high-level corruption allegations. After a vote in Parliament in April, Băsescu was suspended from office for the time being. Parliamentarians from both the left and the right accused him of abusing power. In accordance with the constitution, a referendum was held a month later to possibly put the president before the national court. Three-quarters of voters supported Băsescu, who moved back to the presidential palace. However, turnout was only about 44 percent.

The power struggle between the president and the prime minister contributed to a political deadlock, and the minority government was not heard of a number of important decisions during the rest of the term of office. Before the parliamentary elections in autumn 2008, Romania was affected by the international financial crisis, and the country’s large dependence on financing based on increased concerns about the future.

The November 2008 parliamentary elections were deadlocked between President Traian Băsescu’s backing Democratic Liberal Party (PD-L) and the Social Democratic Party / Conservative Alliance (PSD / PC) alliance. They formed a broad coalition led by Emil Boc, chairman of PD-L.

The coalition took over an economy that was hard pressed by the global financial crisis. The government was forced to apply for external aid and in March 2009 reached agreements with, among other things, the IMF and the EU on crisis loans of almost EUR 20 billion. The support was given with strict requirements to reduce the state’s budget deficit. It created political contradictions, even within the government, and led to growing popular dissatisfaction.

Cuts and protests

The severe pressure shattered the government, which fell into a vote of no confidence in the plans for raising retirement age. Liviu Negoiţă, Bucharest municipal politician, was led by a transitional government that lacked the power to push through a budget with the cuts the IMF required. This meant that the next loan payment was postponed.

The crisis was exacerbated by suspicions of cheating in the December 2009 presidential election, when Băsescu beat Social Democrat Mircea Geoană by a slight margin. In the midst of this conflict, Prime Minister Negoiţă resigned after only a month, and Boc had to try again to form a coalition, which could start the interrupted loan negotiations with the IMF.

His new government consisted of PD-L, UDMR and several independent allies. In May 2010, it presented a savings package, where public salaries would be reduced by 25 percent and pensions by 15 percent. The demonstrations were extensive. PSD leader Victor Ponta appealed the cuts to the Constitutional Court, which rejected lower pensions but gave a clear sign of the pay cut. Instead of raising VAT, the government got the IMF’s yes to a loan payment.

The increase in VAT led to new protests, and during the autumn the demonstrations also continued against wage cuts and the fact that around 70,000 public servants were laid off for a couple of years. The government had to endure several distrustful votes in Parliament.

In 2012, former Prime Minister Năstase was sentenced to two years in prison for using state funds to fund his presidential campaign in 2004. Two years later, he was sentenced to another four years in prison for bribery and three years for extortion.

Victor Ponta forms government

New tough budget austerity was followed by such violent public protests that the government resigned in February 2012. A new government fell after only a few months in a vote of confidence in proposed budget austerity.

Now the government mission went to Social Democrats leader Victor Ponta, who also led the newly formed mid-left Alliance Social-Liberal Union (USL) between Social Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives. Ponta formed a government with USL ministers and promised to address the social injustices caused by the budget cuts. In May 2012, the IMF agreed that the salaries of civil servants were raised to the level before the cuts in 2010 and that a medical tax was repaid to the pensioners.

After great success for USL in the local elections in June 2012, Emil Boc resigned as leader of PD-L and was succeeded by Vasile Blaga. The newly formed populist People’s Party – Dan Diaconescu (PP-DD) made strong headway in local elections.

Power struggle between Ponta and the president

During the year, a fierce power struggle developed between Ponta and President Băsescu, in which Ponta resorted to methods that caused dismay within the EU. The Prime Minister accused Băsescu of abusing power in connection with the previous austerity measures. In July 2012, Ponta received parliamentary support for his attempts to oust the president when they voted to put Băsescu before the national court. The decision would be approved in a referendum and Băsescu was suspended until further notice. Senate President Crin Antonescu became acting president.

In the referendum that month, 87 percent of the participants voted to put the president before the national court, but turnout was too low for the result to be valid.

The power struggle was also about who would represent Romania at the EU summits. When the Constitutional Court ruled that it was the president’s job, Ponta deprived the court of its right to oppose Parliament’s decision. He threatened to set aside all the judges, and in July 2012 replaced the Ombudsman, who has the right to sue the government before the Constitutional Court, against a government loyal person.

The Ponta government also took control of the official state publication Monitorul Oficial, where court rulings and new laws are announced. This meant that the government could delay publication of decisions in the Constitutional Court which the government opposed.

The government wins the election

Ponte’s attempt to break the Constitution and gather power with himself led to such strong criticism from, among other things, the EU that he was forced to back down on several points. Romania risked losing voting rights in the EU, losing financial support and being excluded from the Schengen passport union. Therefore, the government was forced to accept that Băsescu resumed the post after the referendum.

In Romania, Ponta retained its popularity through promises to ease economic austerity. When parliamentary elections were held in December 2012, the USL prevailed over the newly formed bourgeois Alliance ARD and populist PP-DD. President Băsescu was forced against his will to allow Ponta to form a new PSD-led government.

Eventually, however, a rumor began to emerge among Romanians about signs that Ponta’s leadership style was becoming increasingly authoritarian. A first clear signal that Ponte’s popularity began to decline came when PNL’s candidate Klaus Iohannis triumphed over the Prime Minister in the November 2014 presidential election. Iohannis had gone to elections with profile issues that intensified the fight against corruption and strengthened independence for the judiciary. The election result was considered one of the biggest political upheavals in Romania since the fall of communism, not least because the prospective president was one of the country’s small German-speaking minority.

Ponta acknowledged being defeated but did not intend to resign as prime minister. After that message, thousands of people in Bucharest demonstrated demanding that Ponta leave her post.

The Ponta government is falling

A severe blow to Ponta also came in December 2014 when he was forced to resign the doctorate in law he was awarded in 2003. For a couple of years, Ponta had been accused of plagiarizing much of his dissertation. Ponta refused to cheat but needed to get the accusations out of the world to build confidence in the government.

Since the Romanian president may not belong to any political party, Iohannis resigned as PNL leader and was replaced in December by Alina Gorghiu, who thus became the first female leader of a larger Romanian party.

In June 2015, a criminal investigation was initiated against Ponta for suspected fraud, money laundering and tax evasion assistance in 2007–2011, when he was a member of parliament and worked as a lawyer. As a result, Ponta resigned the same month as PSD leader and was succeeded by Liviu Dragnea, who recently received a conditional verdict for election fraud. In September, a lawsuit was brought against Ponta, who thus became the first Romanian prime minister to be brought to trial while he was still in power. (Ponta was released from the charges in 2018.)

In 2015 came the drop that caused the goblet to run over for Ponta. After more than 20,000 protesters demanded his resignation, he filed the government’s resignation application. The demonstration was prompted by a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that had claimed 64 lives and injured nearly 200. The protesters held the government ultimately responsible for the weak regulations that made the fire possible.

President Iohannis commissioned former EU Commissioner Dacian Cioloș to form a new government that would sit until the next election in December 2016. Cioloș appointed a government made up of trade experts, diplomats, people with experience of work in the EU and representatives of civil society organizations.

During its rough year in power, the transitional government failed to arouse new enthusiasm among Romanians for the political system. It suffered a series of drop-outs and scandals, and when the Romanians went to elections in December 2016, participation was among the lowest since the fall of communism, just over 39 percent. Despite all the allegations of corruption and powerlessness, the Social Democratic PSD received strong support and became clearly the largest party. In second place came the National Liberal Party (PNL) followed by the Union Save Romania (USR) (read more about the parties in the Political system).

Romania Modern History