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World > Europe > Romania > Historical Highlights (Notes)

Romania - Historical Highlights (Notes)


HISTORY
Since about 200 B.C., when it was settled by the Dacians, a Thracian tribe, Romania has been in the path of a series of migrations and conquests. Under the emperor Trajan early in the second century A.D., Dacia was incorporated into the Roman Empire, but was abandoned by a declining Rome less than two centuries later. Romania disappeared from recorded history for hundreds of years, to reemerge in the medieval period as the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Heavily taxed and badly administered under the Ottoman Empire, the two Principalities were unified under a single native prince in 1859, and had their full independence ratified in the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. A German prince, Carol of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was crowned first King of Romania in 1881.

The new state, squeezed between the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires, looked to the West, particularly France, for its cultural, educational, and administrative models. Romania was an ally of the Entente and the U.S. in World War I, and was granted substantial territories with Romanian populations, notably Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Bukovina, after the war.

Most of Romania's pre-World War II governments maintained the forms, but not always the substance, of a liberal constitutional monarchy. The fascist Iron Guard movement, exploiting a quasi-mystical nationalism, fear of communism, and resentment of alleged foreign and Jewish domination of the economy, was a key destabilizing factor, which led to the creation of a royal dictatorship in 1938 under King Carol II. In 1940, the authoritarian General Antonescu took control. Romania entered World War II on the side of the Axis Powers in June 1941, invading the Soviet Union to recover Bessarabia and Bukovina, which had been annexed in 1940.

In August 1944, a coup led by King Michael, with support from opposition politicians and the army, deposed the Antonescu dictatorship and put Romania's battered armies on the side of the Allies. Romania incurred additional heavy casualties fighting alongside the Soviet Union against the Germans in Transylvania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

A peace treaty, signed in Paris on February 10, 1947, confirmed the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, but restored the part of northern Transylvania granted to Hungary in 1940 by Hitler. The treaty also required massive war reparations by Romania to the Soviet Union, whose occupying forces left in 1958.

The Soviets pressed for inclusion of Romania's heretofore negligible Communist Party in the post-war government, while non-communist political leaders were steadily eliminated from political life. King Michael abdicated under pressure in December 1947, when the Romanian People's Republic was declared, and went into exile.

By the late 1950s, Romania's communist government began to assert some independence from the Soviet Union. Nicolae Ceausescu became head of the Communist Party in 1965 and head of state in 1967. Ceausescu's denunciation of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and a brief relaxation in internal repression helped give him a positive image both at home and in the West. Seduced by Ceausescu's 'independent' foreign policy, Western leaders were slow to turn against a regime that, by the late 1970s, had become increasingly harsh, arbitrary, and capricious. Rapid economic growth fueled by foreign credits gradually gave way to economic autarchy accompanied by wrenching austerity and severe political repression.

After the collapse of communism in the rest of Eastern Europe in the late summer and fall of 1989, a mid-December protest in Timisoara against the forced relocation of an ethnic Hungarian pastor grew into a country-wide protest against the Ceausescu regime, sweeping the dictator from power. Ceausescu and his wife were executed on December 25, 1989, after a cursory military trial. About 1,500 people were killed in confused street fighting. An impromptu governing coalition, the National Salvation Front (FSN), installed itself and proclaimed the restoration of democracy and freedom. The Communist Party was dissolved and its assets transferred to the state. Ceausescu's most unpopular measures, such as bans on private commercial entities and independent political activity, were repealed.

Ion Iliescu, a former Communist Party official demoted by Ceausescu in the 1970s, emerged as the leader of the NSF. Presidential and parliamentary elections were held on May 20, 1990. Running against representatives of the pre-war National Peasants' Party and National Liberal Party, Iliescu won 85% of the vote. The NSF captured two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, and named a university professor, Petre Roman, as Prime Minister. The new government began cautious free market reforms such as opening the economy to consumer imports and establishing the independence of the National Bank. Romania has made great progress in institutionalizing democratic principles, civil liberties, and respect for human rights since the revolution. Nevertheless, the legacy of 44 years of communist rule cannot quickly be eliminated. Membership in the Romanian Communist Party was usually the prerequisite for higher education, foreign travel, or a good job, while the extensive internal security apparatus subverted normal social and political relations. To the few active dissidents, who suffered gravely under Ceausescu and his predecessors, many of those who came forward as politicians after the revolution seemed tainted by association with the previous regime.

Over 200 new political parties sprang up after 1989, gravitating around personalities rather than programs. All major parties espoused democracy and market reforms, but the governing National Salvation Front proposed slower, more cautious economic reforms. In contrast, the opposition's main parties, the National Liberal Party (PNL), and the National Peasant-Christian Democrat Party (PNTCD) favored quick, sweeping reforms, immediate privatization, and reducing the role of the ex-communist elite.

In the 1990 general elections, the FSN and its candidate for presidency, Ion Iliescu, won with a large majority of the votes (66.31% and 85.07%, respectively). The strongest parties in opposition were the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), with 7.23%, and the PNL, with 6.41%.

Unhappy at the continued political and economic influence of members of the Ceausescu-era elite, anti-communist protesters camped in University Square in April 1990. When miners from the Jiu Valley descended on Bucharest two months later and brutally dispersed the remaining 'hooligans,' President Iliescu expressed public thanks, thus convincing many that the government had sponsored the miners' actions. The miners also attacked the headquarters and houses of opposition leaders. The Roman government fell in late September 1991, when the miners returned to Bucharest to demand higher salaries and better living conditions. Theodor Stolojan was appointed to head an interim government until new elections could be held.

Parliament drafted a new democratic constitution, approved by popular referendum in December 1991. The FSN split into two groups, led by Ion Iliescu (FDSN) and Petre Roman (FSN) in March 1992; Roman's party subsequently adopted the name Democratic Party (PD). National elections in September 1992 returned President Iliescu by a clear majority, and gave his party, the FDSN, a plurality. With parliamentary support from the nationalist PUNR and PRM parties, and the ex-communist PSM party, a technocratic government was formed in November 1992 under Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu, an economist. The FDSN became the Party of Social Democracy of Romania (PDSR) in July 1993. The Vacaroiu government ruled in coalition with three smaller parties, all of which abandoned the coalition by the time of the November 1996 elections.

The 1992 elections revealed a continuing political cleavage between major urban centers and the countryside. Rural voters, who were grateful for the restoration of most agricultural land to farmers but fearful of change, strongly favored President Ion Iliescu and the FDSN, while the urban electorate favored the CDR (a coalition made up by several parties -- among which the PNTCD and the PNL were the strongest -- and civic organizations) and quicker reform. Iliescu easily won reelection over a field of five other candidates. The FDSN won a plurality in both chambers of Parliament. With the CDR, the second-largest parliamentary group, reluctant to take part in a national unity coalition, the FDSN (now PDSR) formed a government under Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu, with parliamentary support from the PUNR, PRM, and PSM. PRM and PSM left the government in October and December 1995, respectively.

The 1996 local elections demonstrated a major shift in the political orientation of the Romanian electorate. Opposition parties swept Bucharest and many of the larger cities. This trend continued in the national elections that same year, where the opposition dominated the cities and made steep inroads into rural areas theretofore dominated by President Iliescu and the PDSR, which lost many voters in their traditional strongholds outside Transylvania. The campaign of the opposition hammered away on the twin themes of the need to squelch corruption and to launch economic reform. The message resonated with the electorate, which swept Emil Constantinescu and parties allied to him to power in free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. The coalition government formed in December 1996 took the historic step of inviting the UDMR and its Hungarian ethnic backers into government.

The coalition government retained power for four years despite constant internal frictions and three prime ministers, the last being the Governor of the National Bank, Mugur Isarescu.

In elections in November 2000, the electorate punished the coalition parties for their corruption and failure to improve the standard of living. The PDSR (renamed PSD - Social Democratic Party at June 16, 2001 Congress) came back into power, albeit as a minority government. In the concurrent presidential elections, former President Ion Iliescu decisively defeated the extreme nationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM) leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor.

The PSD government, led by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, forged a de facto governing coalition with the ethnic Hungarian UDMR, ushering in four years of relatively stable government. The PSD guided Romania toward greater macro-economic stability, although endemic corruption remained a major problem. In September 2003, the center-right National Liberal Party (PNL) and centrist Democratic Party (PD) formed an alliance at a national and local level, in anticipation of 2004 local and national elections. Romania then moved closer toward a political system dominated by two large political blocs.

In October 2003 citizens voted in favor of major amendments to the constitution in a nationwide referendum to bring Romania's organic law into compliance with European Union standards.

On November 28, 2004, Romania again held parliamentary and the first round of presidential elections. In the December 12 presidential run-off election, former Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu, representing the center-right PNL-PD alliance, delivered a surprise defeat to PSD candidate Nastase. Basescu appointed PNL leader Calin Popescu-Tariceanu as Prime Minister, whose government was approved by the Parliament on December 28, 2004.


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