Romania appeared to be edging closer to martial law Saturday as the military took over in the regional capital of Timisoara, and the ruling National Salvation Front came under renewed attack for its past Communist connections.
The state news agency Rompres announced the military takeover in Timisoara, where the Romanian revolution was born in protests that began Dec. 16 and six days later toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
The news agency said that Maj. Gen. Gheorghe Popescu, the military commander in Timis county, took over from the interim government chief, Lorin Fortuna, in the face of protests by demonstrators who had gathered in front of the building where the local council of the National Salvation Front has made its headquarters.
Popescu said the army had taken over in what he called an "administrative measure" until a new council can be elected this week. The step does not mean martial law, but similar dissatisfaction with the National Salvation Front councils in scores of cities and towns across the country points to an increased role by the army, at least until some political stability is achieved.
In Bucharest, the newspaper Romania Libera published a scathing attack against the council's vice president, Dumitru Mazilu, who, it said, had been a colonel in the Securitate, Ceausescu's secret police, before falling out of favor with the Ceausescu regime. The newspaper said he turned against Ceausescu only when his travel privileges were revoked.
Mazilu was the author of a U.N. human rights report on Romania in 1986, but he was not allowed to leave the country to deliver it. He has spent most of the last three years under house arrest.
Unlike the other East Bloc countries that were swept by rapid change in 1989, Romania has had no core of opposition leadership to step in and organize a government when the Ceausescu regime fell. In Poland, Solidarity had been preparing itself for a decade. In Czechoslovakia, dozens of small groups were organized around Charter 77, the country's leading human rights activists, and its nominal leader, Vaclav Havel, now the country's president.
But in Romania, Ceausescu crushed the faintest suggestion of opposition from the beginning. Individual dissidents were kept isolated, and no opposition organizations were permitted to form. Thus, when the Ceausescus were overthrown and fled the capital on Dec. 22, virtually the only figures who came forward were those who had run afoul of Ceausescu but who had some past connection with the Communist apparatus.
That taint now has become crucial, and the growing public dissatisfaction suggests that the days of the National Salvation Front could be numbered.
In contrast, the public has shown relatively strong trust of the military, which turned against the government and fought in the streets against the Securitate for days.
On Friday, crowds of about 4,000 in front of the Foreign Ministry in Bucharest, where the National Salvation Front council makes its headquarters, shouted down interim President Ion Iliescu.
Responding on the spot to the pressure from the public, Iliescu announced that the Communist Party would henceforth be banned in Romania and that the death penalty would be reinstated in the cases of Securitate members on trial in connection with civilian deaths in the revolution.
On Saturday, Iliescu changed course, calling Friday's announcement a "hasty decision, contrary to the democratic spirit." In a nationwide broadcast, he said the National Salvation Front had been criticized for Friday's action, and that the question of banning the Communist Party will be decided by the people in a national referendum Jan. 28. The referendum will also include the question of restoring the death penalty.
The number of deaths in the revolution still is uncertain 17 days after the fighting stopped. But most Romanians say that about 10,000 were killed by Securitate snipers and guard forces firing into crowds.
Many have been clamoring for retribution against the Securitate, which helped Ceausescu hold an iron fist over the Romanian public for the last 20 years.
Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by a military firing squad Dec. 25. Shortly afterward, the National Salvation Front announced the abolition of the death penalty.
Iliescu's announcements on the future of the Communist Party are less significant than the pressure to which he was forced to respond. Even if legal, the Communist Party would be hard put to win 3% of the vote in any national election, most Romanians say.
But the public has become increasingly fed up with the barricade mentality of the National Salvation Front, made up of about 140 members headed by an 11-member council, which has issued its decrees with virtually no public consultation. Although a few of its members have met individually with the press, none has held a press conference or made a public speech to explain the front's policies.
Moreover, in cities and towns all over Romania, high officials of the party and the Securitate have been at liberty, apparently feeling so confident that some have appealed for jobs in the new administrations.
The major problem for the council is trying to run the government--or the power plants or railroads or factories--without relying on the old apparatus, the topmost layers of which belonged to the Romanian Communist Party. The party had nearly 4 million members, one of the largest Communist Party memberships in the East Bloc. Party membership was a prerequisite for holding any significant position during the Ceausescu regime.
The editorial in Romana Libera on Saturday demanded that Mazilu resign. He could not be reached for comment Saturday. There was some speculation that he might be arrested and investigated for his past connections to the Securitate.
The crowd Friday was also asking Iliescu to explain his past. Iliescu, who was in the Ceausescu government until 1971, said he had been jailed for his opposition to Ceausescu.
The demonstrations Friday in Bucharest and Timisoara were the first since Ceausescu was overthrown, but it appeared likely that more will follow in the coming days.
The interim government has said that trials of the Securitate officials will be held publicly.