182. Report Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Department of State1

No. 843



Romanian President and party boss Nicolae Ceausescu has concentrated more power in his own hands than has any other Warsaw Pact leader; his control of the party and state apparatus is seemingly unassailable. There have been indications, however, of a steady erosion in the extent of support he enjoys both within the party and among the population at large.

Ceausescu’s handling of the aftermath of the earthquake which struck Romania in March—he completely dominated the relief and reconstruction activities—highlighted and increased the gap between him and the rest of the party leadership. Since then, his intensification of an already blatant personality cult and his failure to modify unpopular economic policies have further alienated a dissatisfied public. The June 13 riot at Bucharest’s “August 23” stadium and the coal miners’ strike in western Romania in early August reflect a considerable degree of popular frustration and anger.

Although no immediate challenge to Ceausescu’s leadership position is likely, his isolation probably will grow, further hampering effective policy formulation and implementation. Within the next few years the resulting pressures could pose serious problems for Romania’s political stability.

Ceausescu’s Leadership Style

Ceausescu remains Eastern Europe’s most unusual Communist leader, integrating nationalism and Marxism in a uniquely Romanian blend. His domestic policies in recent years (he has ruled Romania for 12) increasingly have departed in significant ways from prevailing Soviet and East European norms. These deviations, while less publicized than his foreign policy initiatives, may be of greater importance in the long run for Romania’s stability and policy orientation.

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Broadly speaking, the new internal political actions introduced by Ceausescu fall into four interrelated categories:

—promotion of a “cult of personality” on a scale unparalleled in Eastern Europe since the 1950’s;

—frequent shifts of personnel between party and state organs, and between Bucharest and the rest of the country;

—gradual dilution of the prestige and authority of key party organs, such as the Central Committee; and

—blurring of party and state functions and the creation of new mass organizations with vaguely defined mandates.

Ceausescu’s mastery of political maneuver has enabled him to manage these changes so as to concentrate more and more power in his own hands.2 The centralization and personalization of decisionmaking in Romania has reached the point where Ceausescu overshadows not only the other members of the leadership but also the party and state institutions themselves. Most observers agree, however, that the decline of the prestige and effectiveness of these institutions has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in popular or party support for Ceausescu or his policies.

Such support was at its peak following Ceausescu’s courageous defiance of the Soviet Union at the time of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the subsequent dramatic opening to the United States symbolized by President Nixon’s visit to Bucharest in August 1969. The enthusiasm that these gestures evoked in Romania facilitated Ceausescu’s drive to consolidate his personal power, but the gradual stabilization of Romanian relations with the two superpowers since 1970 has reduced the role of nationalism as a means of winning popular allegiance.

As patriotic euphoria has declined, increasing public disillusionment with Ceausescu’s economic policies has surfaced. Living standards in Romania rank well below those in the other East European countries. The level of personal consumption is estimated to be 50 percent lower than that in neighboring Bulgaria, and the absence of adequate health care is reflected in an infant mortality rate that is the highest of any Warsaw Pact country. These shortcomings are the result partly of historical factors (Romania at the end of the Second World War faced particularly severe problems of rural over-population and general economic backwardness), but it is the regime’s investment [Page 544] policy favoring maximum expansion of heavy industry at the expense of the consumer which is increasingly seen as the major cause of the lagging standard of living.

Against this background, the earthquake that struck Romania last March provides a useful focal point for an assessment of Ceausescu’s leadership.

Ceausescu’s Leadership in Action

Ceausescu faced his most dramatic leadership test in years when an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale struck Romania on March 4, 1977. More than 1,500 persons were killed and 35,000 families made homeless; Bucharest and some provincial centers were damaged extensively. The extent of the disaster drew all elements of the party and government leadership into relief and reconstruction activities, but it was Ceausescu who directed and completely dominated the process. No other official was delegated meaningful authority or permitted to receive public recognition for his contribution.

When the earthquake struck, Ceausescu was in Nigeria completing a five-country African tour; thus the initial emergency actions were taken by others. Ceausescu, who was on the scene within 18 hours, lost no time in publicly criticizing “certain responsible factors for shortcomings in the organization of urgent acting to eliminate the effects of the earthquake.” Privately, according to a clandestine report, Ceausescu angrily reproached most of the top party leaders, accusing them of being “utterly confused” after the earthquake struck. The earthquake’s initial effect on the leadership was, therefore, not to promote solidarity in the face of disaster, but to increase the gap between Ceausescu and his colleagues.

Ceausescu’s subsequent management of the relief effort provided further evidence of his ingrained distrust of party institutions. On March 5, it was announced that the nine-man Permanent Bureau of the party’s top-level Political Executive Committee (Polexco) would “function as command center” for all earthquake-related activity. That decision was never implemented; instead, the full 34-man Polexco, acting as a “political staff,” met daily to “lead and organize the struggle against the effects of the earthquake.”3 The language of the Polexco daily communiques left no doubt, however, that on key decisions the Committee merely rubber-stamped Ceausescu’s “recommendations.”

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The Cult of Personality Intensifies

The earthquake provided Ceausescu with an unparalleled opportunity to display his complete dominance of party and state activity. The press provided saturation coverage of his highly visible control of relief and rescue operations, which extended to personal supervision of (and sometimes participation in) individual rescue operations. Praise of Ceausescu’s “titanic” leadership reached a new pitch of intensity. The eulogies even took on quasi-religious overtones, as when the Foreign Minister announced that the “miracle” of recovery from the earthquake did not come from heaven but from “the great force of mobilization and action of our party Secretary General Nicolae Ceausescu whose example in those tragic days has already entered the heroic history of our people.”

Attempts were also made to include Ceausescu’s wife Elena (appointed to the Permanent Bureau in January) in this glorification campaign. The increasingly prominent role played in recent years by Mrs. Ceausescu, who by most evidence is the most unpopular member of the leadership, has been a political liability for her husband.4 Evidently her appointment on March 10 to head a “National Committee of Assistance” to coordinate internal and foreign donations was not well received. Nothing further has been heard about the committee or about Mrs. Ceausescu’s role in earthquake assistance.

Popular Discontent in Post-Earthquake Period

Ceausescu’s political exploitation of the catastrophe clearly alienated the Romanian elite. For the average Romanian, however, political issues remain secondary to pocketbook issues, and in the aftermath of the earthquake the latter took on added significance and sensitivity.

Any hopes the public may have had that the trauma would prompt a fundamental reevaluation of economic priorities were disabused within a few days. Even before the full extent of economic loss could be assessed, Ceausescu emphasized that the five-year plan targets would have to be met “in accordance with the initial provisions.” Subsequently, however, the need to give a psychological boost to a weary and disillusioned population was recognized, and in May the regime announced a program of wage and pension increases designed to put more money in consumers’ pockets. The program as a whole has nonetheless been greeted with skepticism because of uncertainty [Page 546] over the extent of real gain for the consumer. More seriously, the proposed pension law changes, while increasing pension payments, contained provisions adversely affecting certain categories of pension recipients.

In early August, Ceausescu was forced to interrupt a vacation to rush to the scene of a strike by coal miners angered by provisions of the new pension law. Reportedly, Ceausescu, who was greeted with open hostility by the miners, agreed to change some of its more onerous provisions, and the strike ended.

The August strike was the second overt expression of popular discontent since the earthquake. On June 13 a mass riot at Bucharest stadium, triggered by public anger at the overselling of tickets to a pop concert and soccer match, had taken on a clearly anti-regime cast. These two unrelated incidents indicate that popular frustration has reached the point where traditional Romanian passivity toward political authority can no longer be taken for granted.


After 12 years of rule, Ceausescu’s élan appears undiminished. His handling of the earthquake crisis and its aftermath demonstrated anew the qualities of decisiveness, energy, and tactical skill which have long been hallmarks of his style. The initial period of confusion was very brief, and while some have questioned the emphasis placed on cosmetic aspects of the relief program, there is no denying the impressive results achieved.

Offsetting these accomplishments was Ceausescu’s seeming unwillingness or inability to modify characteristics of his rule which threaten further erosion of his support within the party and among broad strata of the population.

—The increasingly blatant cult of personality is viewed with cynicism or embarrassment by many Romanians.

—Mistrust permeates the top ranks of the country leadership, while the circle of Ceausescu supporters constantly narrows.

—Rigid adherence to unpopular economic policies, aggravated by ineptness in their implementation, continues.

As yet, there is no immediate, visible threat to Ceausescu’s overwhelming dominance of the levers of power. His skill in maneuvering potential critics out of positions of influence appears to have prevented formation of alternative leadership clusters. A new confrontation with the Soviets, should one occur, could once again permit him to rally Romanians behind the banner of nationalism.

Over the longer term, however, Ceausescu’s failure to reverse what looks like a gradual but steady erosion in his political backing could increasingly isolate him, making effective policy formulation and exe[Page 547]cution more and more difficult and threatening the stability of his regime.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Office of Analysis for the Commonwealth and Eastern Europe, Office Subject Files, 1958–1978, Lot 92D468, Box 6, Eastern Europe Misc. 1977–1978. Secret; Noforn; Orcon. Drafted by Rackmales; approved by Mautner.
  2. Ceausescu is now President of the Socialist Republic of Romania, General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, President of the Council of State, Chairman of the Socialist Unity Front, Chairman of the Defense Council and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Chairman of the Supreme Council of Economic and Social Development, and Chairman of the Ideological Commission of the Romanian Communist Party. [Footnote is in the original.]
  3. The reason for the change is unclear, but it probably reflects Ceausescu’s known dislike for anything that smacks of collegial leadership. [Footnote is in the original.]
  4. An unflattering portrayal of a character thought to represent Elena in a 1971 novel by Paul Goma caused the book’s rejection and completed Goma’s alienation from the regime. Ceausescu’s three children—Valentin, Zoe, and Nicu are—less prominent, and therefore less unpopular than Elena, but their personalities and penchant for high living are further liabilities for Ceausescu. [Footnote is in the original.]