Now that he has been toppled and executed, Nicolae Ceausescu has few defenders, his rank secure among the century’s most brutal and despised dictators.
But it wasn’t so long ago that the Romanian president was the West’s favorite Communist, showered with kind words and economic benefits for his role as a maverick in the East Bloc.
France was especially friendly toward Ceausescu’s Romania for many years, seeing a people with cultural affinities as well as a country whose independence from the Soviet Union could be a mirror-image for French refusal to follow U.S. foreign policy leads.
In the aftermath of the Romanian revolution, France is now seeing apologies and recriminations, as politicians and parties accuse each other of being slow to realize the scope of Ceausescu’s abuses of power.
Elsewhere, the change of heart has taken a different form. Queen Elizabeth II stripped Ceausescu of his honorary knighthood “as a mark of revulsion at the abuse of human rights in Romania.”
King Olav V of Norway took away his honorary Grand Cross of St. Olav Order and, by action of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, the Romanian leader was no longer a Knight of the Elephant Order when he went before the firing squad.
All three monarchs acted after Ceausescu was driven from power, wiping out honors that had been awarded about a decade earlier, when Romania’s reputation was at its height.
The process of exposing crimes and repressions in the aftermath of Ceausescu’s ouster is similar to what followed the demise of other dictators this century, such as Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Idi Amin in Uganda and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic.
It was not until early this year that the United States withdrew Romania’s valuable status as “most favored nation” for trade purposes, on grounds of human rights violations.
As recently as 1986, Reagan Administration officials were defending Romania’s favored nation status, with Edward J. Derwinski, counselor of the State Department, telling a hostile congressional committee that Romania had an “overall reasonably good record” on allowing people to leave the country.
Ceausescu’s reputation for free thinking was earned in foreign affairs. At home, he ruled a police state that used a repressive security apparatus to stamp out dissent.
He condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and refused to join the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia that ended the “Prague Spring” liberalization movement.
Ceausescu also stood apart from the other Communist countries when he maintained links with Israel after the 1967 Middle East War, eventually serving as mediator between Israel and Egypt in the talks that led to their peace treaty.
The gratitude won as the Jewish state’s only ally in a hostile Communist Bloc has survived, although Israel condemned massive killings by the secret police and pledged support for Romania’s new leadership.
“Speaking as Jews and Israelis we cannot forget the general point, we cannot remember our enemies and forget our friends,” Israel’s former ambassador to Bucharest, Abba Geffen, said recently on Israel radio. “We must not enter into the anti-Ceausescu hysteria.”
Anti-Ceausescu sentiment was mostly to be found in Moscow back in 1969, when Richard M. Nixon chose Romania for the first visit by a U.S. president to a Warsaw Pact country.
Nixon and Ceausescu delighted crowds by joining in a traditional Romanian peasant dance, with a Romanian girl dancing between them. Their joint statement talked of a “spirit of cordiality, sincerity and mutual respect.”
Earlier in the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle blazed the trail of ties between the West and Romania.
“De Gaulle was following a policy of independence vis-a-vis the United States. France was seeking an ally in the East. Ceausescu was following a similar path in the Warsaw Pact,” said Ewa Kulesza, an expert on Eastern Europe at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris.
“There was a kind of identification between De Gaulle’s France and Ceausescu’s Romania. It was an illusion,” she said in an interview.
The illusion, based in part on cultural associations between France and Romania, whose languages are similar, was long-lasting.
Claude Cheysson, former French foreign minister who visited Romania in 1983, apologized for his role in an interview recently published in the leftist daily newspaper Liberation.
“We should have been more clear in our denunciations of what we knew, of what we guessed about Romania, so that perhaps we could have precipitated the movements that we see now,” Cheysson was quoted as saying.
Former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing accused the current Socialist government of not doing enough to call attention to Ceausescu’s misdeeds.
Socialist leaders criticized Giscard d’Estaing for exchanging visits with Ceausescu--while President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, at least scrapped a planned visit to Romania in 1982, although he cited scheduling problems rather than human rights abuses. The trip was never rescheduled.
Giscard d’Estaing replied, in an interview in the rightist newspaper Le Figaro, that he “personally felt a strong antipathy” for Ceausescu after their 1980 encounter in France, and said the translator at their session could confirm it.
The heaviest fire has focused on Georges Marchais, the hard-line French Communist Party leader, who vacationed on Ceausescu’s yacht in 1984. Dissidents in the party recently called on Marchais and the entire Politburo to resign because of their past support for Ceausescu.
The Politburo replied that Marchais had not seen Ceausescu in five years and had made many quiet appeals to the Romanian leader for respect of human rights.