It will be autumn when the anniversaries start to pile up, with November 12 being the most significant, symbolically. That is the day the East Germans stepped back form the Berlin Wall. While in retrospect the crumbling of the rest of the Soviet-imposed regimes seems inevitable, in reality it was far more difficult. Five days after the Berlin Wall became superfluous, riot police suppressed a peaceful demonstration in St. Wenceslaus Square in Prague; this reaction, however, was incongruous with the momentum across Central Europe and within weeks the Communist Party was gone.
It took the Bulgarians until early 1990 to read the writing on the wall. Yet that writing had already been etched in blood in Romania, in December.
On December 16, a protest broke out in Timişoara in response to an attempt by the government to evict a dissident, Hungarian Reformed pastor László Tőkés. Tőkés had recently made critical comments toward the regime in the international media, and the government alleged that he was inciting ethnic hatred. At the behest of the government, his bishop removed him from his post, thereby depriving him of the right to use the apartment he was entitled to as a pastor, and sending him to be a pastor in countryside. For some time, his parishioners gathered around his home to protect him from harassment and eviction. Many passers-by, including religious Romanian students, unaware of the details and having been told by the pastor's supporters that this was yet another attempt of the communist regime to restrict religious freedom, spontaneously joined in.
As it became clear that the crowd would not disperse, the mayor, Petre Moţ, made remarks suggesting that he had overturned the decision to evict Tőkés. Meanwhile, the crowd had grown impatient — and since Moţ declined to confirm his statement against the planned eviction in writing, the crowd started to chant anticommunist slogans. Consequently, police and Securitate forces showed up at the scene. By 7:30 p.m., the protest had spread out, and the original cause became largely irrelevant. Some of the protesters attempted to burn down the building that housed the District Committee of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR). The Securitate responded with tear gas and water jets, while the police beat up rioters and arrested many of them. Around 9:00 p.m., the rioters withdrew. They regrouped eventually around the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral and started a protest march around the city, but again they were confronted by the security forces.
Riots and protests resumed the following day, December 17. The rioters broke into the District Committee building and threw Party documents, propaganda brochures, Ceauşescu's writings, and other symbols of communist power out the windows. Again, the protesters attempted to set the building on fire, but this time they were stopped by military units. Since Romania did not have a riot police (Ceauşescu, who believed the Romanian people loved him, never saw the need for the formation of one), the military were sent in to control the riots, since the situation was too large for the Securitate and police to handle. The significance of the army presence in the streets was an ominous one: it meant that they had received their orders from the highest level of the command chain, presumably from Ceauşescu himself. The army failed to establish order and chaos ensued with gunfire, fights, casualties, and burned cars. Transport Auto Blindat (TAB) armored personnel carriers and tanks were called in. After 8:00 p.m., from Piaţa Libertăţii (Liberty Square) to the Opera there was wild shooting, including the area of Decebal bridge, Calea Lipovei (Lipovei Avenue), and Calea Girocului (Girocului Avenue). Tanks, trucks, and TABs blocked the accesses into the city while helicopters hovered overhead. After midnight the protests calmed down. Ion Coman, Ilie Matei, and Ştefan Guşă inspected the city, in which some areas looked like the aftermath of a war: destruction, ash, and blood.
The end result was the execution of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife on Christmas Day, 1989.
Even as these events were unfolding Central Europe, the United States embarked on one of the oddest, little-remarked-upon military ventures of the time, the invasion of Panama. Counterposed with the remarkable events in Central Europe, this event seems almost anitquarian in its attempt to keep alive the American Empire in Central America.
Two decades later, all I can say about these events and their aftermath is this - I think the US pissed away so many opportunities in the wake of these changes, it is difficult to grasp. We will never - NEVER - have such an opportunity again. How sad that our leaders at the time were so short-sighted, so callow, so unimaginative as to be unable to move forward with these changes.
What's even more astounding, to me, is that there were people who voted in last fall's Presidential election who weren't even born when these events took place. I do believe that's a sign I'm getting really old.