Romania's post-Securitate secret service turns 20


31.03.2010 @ 09:39 CET

Twenty years ago this month, a presidential decree on 26 March 1990 marked the official metamorphosis of the much dreaded Securitate into what was hailed at the time as a modern, professional and efficient Romanian Information Service (SRI).

The reality was different, at least for the first decade. The 'new Securitate' continued to function in an opaque manner and its presence and activities were felt throughout the political turmoil that led up to Romania's EU accession in January 2007.

Former Chief of the Romanian Secret Service, Virgil Magureanu (Photo: Romania Libera)

The first SRI director was non other than Virgil Magureanu, the intriguing figure who made his first public appearance on a film showing the "trial" and execution of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

In the first part of that badly filmed snuff movie, he is seen watching intently and silently the fictitious proceedings that ended with the shooting of Ceausescu and his wife Elena. Little was known then about the mysterious Mr Magureanu, a "professor" at the Communist Party's elite Academy, whose mission was to oversee the quick dispatch of the hated presidential couple.

Two decades later, the institution is still mistrusted by most Romanians.The refurbished Romanian secret services never shed any light on the way in which they were reformed and how it was possible that Mr Magureanu remained at the top until 1997, during the reformed Communist Ion Iliescu's first presidency and half way through the mandate of his follower, the Conservative Emil Constantinescu.

The SRI's rebirth coincided with violent ethnic clashes between Romanians and members of the Hungarian minority in the Transylvanian city of Targu-Mures, in March 1990, which left six people dead and hundreds wounded, an event widely believed to have been staged as a pretext for the rehabilitation of an institution still dominated by Ceausescu's henchmen.

Still unclear remains the SRI's role in the descent on Bucharest of the Jiu coal miners, in June of the same year, to crush opposition demonstrations. The miners benefited from support by the public transport system and police, which would not have been possible without the SRI's approval.

The surveillance of the opposition to Mr Iliescu's Social Democrat party and the illegal taping of phone conversations continued until at least 1996, when a whistle-blowing SRI officer, captain Constantin Bucur, exposed what was going on. The captain was fired from the SRI, then still under Mr Magureanu, and sentenced by a military court to a suspended two years in jail for "misuse of secret documents."

After the period of "privatisation", when large chunks of the country's economy went to shady characters who in the past had kept close relations with the Securitate, the SRI initially opposed Romania's bid for NATO membership. Very quickly though, the benefits of both NATO and EU accession became obvious and the "services", as they are known, fully embraced the nation's rediscovered European identity.

Today, people close to the "services" belong to every political party in Romania, effectively making the SRI the most efficient cross-party network. Until now, the SRI has refused to allow the National Council for the Study of the Archives of the Securitate (CNSAS) full access to the archives of the Communist era, arguing this could harm national security.

The new SRI director, George Maior, a former Social-Democrat senator known for his consensus-building skills, was nominated in 2006 by president Traian Basescu. But Mr Maior has failed to distance himself from the old regime's heritage or express regret for crimes committed by the "services". The anniversary passed without a word to that effect. Meanwhile, Mr Magureanu today runs a consulting company near the government headquarters.

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