By Corina Rebegea
Center for European Policy Analysis / CEPA
August 3, 2015

Two weeks ago Americans remembered nations held captive by oppressive regimes and leaders in what is called Captive Nations Week. In a coincidence of the calendar, that week also saw a groundbreaking court decision that is likely to make history in the former captive nation of Romania.

More than 60 years since the oppressive communist regime took over Romania, in a landmark decision the Bucharest Court of Appeal sentenced a former perpetrator to 20 years in jail for crimes against humanity. On July 24, Alexandru Visinescu, the 89-year-old former commander (between 1956 and 1963) of the Ramnicu Sarat prison in Romania, received a sentence that too many Romanians thought would never come. Accused of crimes against humanity for the torture, starvation and death of many inmates and political prisoners during the most repressive period of Romanian communism, Visinescu became a symbol of the former regime’s abuses that went unpunished in the 25 years of transition. Another perpetrator, former work camp commander Ion Ficior, is awaiting a court sentence in a similar trial.

De-communization has been an intricate and incomplete process in the early days of transition in Romania, while lustration has not received real and consistent political backing. With the recent court decision, some of the historical wounds will hopefully begin to heal. More importantly, for Romania and countries that have lived through totalitarian regimes, such a decision may show that forgetfulness is not a recipe for successful transition.

It was only in 2006, through the activity of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania, that the communist regime was officially condemned from the podium of the Romanian parliament as an illegitimate and criminal regime. Before that, attempts to implement a true lustration policy failed. The provisions of such a policy came too late and were difficult to justify in a way that would not violate fundamental principles of the rule of law. Also, for many years, efforts to establish the legal mechanism of disclosing those who collaborated with the former regime were often attacked (and destroyed) through political action. The stigma of having been a collaborator of the former regime, and in particular of the former secret police – the Securitate – played an important part in some politicians’ careers, which explains the tremendous initial backlash.

Despite staunch opposition from those who retained ties with the former regime, a certain level of administrative lustration did take place. Magistrates and other public officials would have to declare they were not part of the former repressive regime and would be brought to court should they be proven to have collaborated with the Securitate. In this way some notorious politicians were exposed to public naming and shaming. However, this was the result of a long fight by former political detainees and civil society. The early post-communist elites pushed for a policy of reconciliation and oblivion. But contrary to reconciliation efforts in other post-conflict societies, the Romanian context did not accentuate the value of seeking truth or providing reparation to victims.

Oblivion was framed to signify a definitive break with the past and a guarantee of amnesty for the millions of Romanians who held a Communist Party membership card. Unfortunately, it was also meant to bring impunity for those who held offices in the former regime. But this so-called reconciliation was not able to eliminate the fundamental transition cleavage between the post-communists (those whose political paternity had originated in the former regime) and the anti-communists that marked Romanian politics for almost 20 years, no matter how blurry the lines between them were at times. It was only after 2004 that more political opening allowed the discussion about the former regime and its crimes to have more than an academic impact.

The court decision two weeks ago will hopefully restore the concept of transnational justice as a way to honor victims and bring solace to survivors and their families. Moreover, it reasserts the value of historical truth and its role in helping a nation move forward. The symbolic value of this decision extends beyond the punishing of past criminal regimes. For Romania and other nations in the region whose wounds of the past are not yet closed, looking back at recent history should encourage them to assess the values that lie at the foundation of their societies today and the principles that their political leaders should be fighting for.

Corina Rebegea is a Resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), where she leads the Center's Romania program. She completed her MPA degree at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs as a Fulbright scholar, with a focus on leadership and public and non-profit management.
As Project Coordinator at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s Rule of Law Program South East Europe and as an active member of the Romanian NGO community, Corina managed and supervised projects dealing with justice reform, human rights and leadership. She is also a graduate of the University of Manchester as an OSI/Chevening Fellow (MA in Human Rights) and of the University of Bucharest (BA in Political Science). Currently a PhD candidate at the University of Bucharest, Corina does research in the field of public management and governance as applied to the justice sector.