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Volume 175: debated on Thursday 28 June 1990

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Greg Knight.]

10.1 pm

In opening this debate on the Government's policy on Romania, I should make a couple of declarations. First, although I have no pecuniary interest in Romania, I am writing a book on the history of the Romanian revolution. I am advised that I should declare that as a potential interest; I certainly hope that it will become one.

Secondly, I should give a political health warning. Although I have travelled regularly to Romania since the revolution, I never travelled there before it and would not have done so, such was my abhorrence of the evil and criminal Ceausescu regime, which was overthrown by the Romanian people's revolution on 22 December.

That political health warning is important, because I want to show that the Government's policy on Romania is seriously flawed, that the Government completely misjudged the dramatic events that unfolded in the capital, Bucharest, earlier this month, and that as a result they seriously over-reacted in a way that was inimical not only to our interests but to those of the Romanian people and the broader cause of bringing the former regimes of the Soviet bloc into the mainstream of European life.

In making that case, I wish to draw on several statements made by the Minister in the days and hours after those dramatic events. Making due allowance for the fact that events moved fast, I must say, although I greatly admire the Minister and often agree with him on foreign affairs matters, that some serious errors were made.

The Minister—I have gone through the transcripts of his interviews with several television and radio reporters—took a consistent line: that the Romanian Government had been responsible for the brutal crushing of a peaceful demonstration, mainly by students, against the Government of Romania and its policies. The Minister told Brian Hanrahan:
"We have seen no reports of a systematic attempt at a coup … What we are worried about is the way in which at the first challenge from opposition groups, which I have no doubt was an inconvenient challenge, they seem to have reacted in a way all too reminiscent of the old days."
In interview after interview, that line was maintained. The statements made at the time equated in many respects the new elected authorities in Romania with the old discredited authorities. The comparison was deeply offensive to the democrats and revolutionaries in Romania who had overthrown the dictatorship. They had risked their lives at a time when it was not clear how the dice would fall. Those men put their lives on the line and it was offensive to them to be compared in that way.

I have the advantage over the Minister because I was on the streets of Bucharest during those dramatic events. I can assure the Minister from what I saw with my own eyes that if it was not an attempted coup that was unfolding in Bucharest, I do not know what an attempted coup is. I followed the crowd and mob through the streets of Bucharest. Sometimes I was only a few yards behind them, although in most cases I was 100 yards or so away from the events.

I watched the crowd of what the Minister described as student demonstrators invade the Interior Ministry, which is the Romanian equivalent of the Home Office. They stormed that building and set it ablaze. I followed them as they moved on to the central police station which is their equivalent of Scotland Yard. They smashed a police truck through the station's locked doors. I saw them invade the central police station and set it ablaze. They freed prisoners and they looted artefacts in the police station. They even broke into an armoury and had begun to liberate weapons before the police opened fire. If that was not the beginnings of an attempted coup, I do not know what it was.

I followed the crowd to the ugliest incident—the siege of the television station, that extremely emotive totem of the December revolution. The crowd invaded the television station and they beat hell out of everyone they could get their hands on. Even the weather man was savagely beaten by the crowd. Journalists and broadcasters were beaten and film was destroyed. The transmission of the entire country's television went off for an hour. The central television station was occupied by hundreds of demonstrators, but the Minister described all that as if it was a common or garden demonstration of the kind that we might see on our streets. However, we did have a particularly bad demonstration some weeks ago, and I was there as well. The whole country was rightly angered and shaken to the core by the scenes of violence, but they bore no resemblance to the serious situation in Bucharest in those late Tuesday and early Wednesday hours.

I was able to test the character of the crowd of what the Minister persisted in describing as students. On the Sunday after the events I have outlined, the Observer described the crowd as liberals. I make no apology for repeating what I have said in the House before: the political character of a significant number of the people in that demonstration was ultra-right, racist and anti-semitic.

Two of the slogans that I heard from innumerable people in that demonstration were "Out with the Spanish yid Roman"—Prime Minister Petro Roman, whose mother is a Jew—and "Iliescu was a whoremaster presiding over a brothel of reds and yids." For the nationalists and anti-semites in the crowd, the terms "communist" and "Jewish" were entirely synonymous. The Minister is aware that that is a problem across central and eastern Europe. It would be a fundamental mistake for the British Government to imagine that that was a crowd of student liberals out on an everyday demonstration. It certainly was not that.

While I am at it, I wish to correct a particularly offensive error that the Minister made in every one of the transcripts. In every interview he accused President Iliescu of Romania of describing the demonstrators as gipsies. There is no record of the president using such a description. The word for gipsy is "tigani". In any record that I have seen—I have searched for it—the president never used that word. He used the word "golani" which in Romanian means tramps or low-life characters, which some, if by no means all, of the demonstrators were. The Minister's accusation was entirely wrong. His mistake was politically important. It is the ultra-right in Romania which hates the gipsies, the Jews and other minorities in the country. It is important that that reality is understood.

If the House does not believe me, I quote to it an authority to whom I do not usually turn. Conor Cruise O'Brien is a well-known Conservative commentator and he wrote an article in, of all places, The Times on 22 June this year. It said:
"Mobs of both persuasions menace Romanian liberty. Conor Cruise O'Brien argues that student protestors threaten democracy as much as miners with clubs … This was no protest, but a student-led attempt at a putsch against the recently elected government of Romania. … The great difference between the two sets of mob violence is that the first was directed against the elected government, while the second was initiated by the elected government in its own defence."
That is another fundamental reality which the Minister has not recognised and should recognise this evening. Not to do so would be to draw the wrong conclusions.

The Government's conclusions have been mean and spiteful. They amount to a demand for economic sanctions against the Romanian Government. In his speech to the Press Gallery on 20 June, the Foreign Secretary said that with his advocacy, but not his alone, the Romanian Government would not be invited to the discussions of the Group of 24 with the emerging European democracies and the European Community. He said that conditionality must apply. On the basis of that conditionality, the Romanian Government would not receive the aid package that other east European Governments would receive.

Such a stance sits uneasily with the Government's attitude to other countries. They do business as usual with Baghdad and Peking. Baghdad has committed crimes against our own country and Peking has committed crimes on a gigantic scale, mowing down thousands of people with machine guns. We can do business as usual with them, but we take a mean and spiteful attitude to the Romanian Government for the events that I have described in the time available to me and which Conor Cruise O'Brien described in The Times at greater length, very well. The Government should have the courage to say that, in retrospect, knowing facts that they did not know previously, they are prepared to think again.

To his credit, the Minister made it clear in all the transcripts that the National Salvation Front Government have the support of the great majority of the Romanian people. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and the deputy leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) were observers at the elections. The National Salvation Front Government seek to build a mixed economy and are heading towards a market economy. They are determined to develop parliamentary democracy in their country. If we turn our back on them and slam the door in their face, we shall send the message to them that the European Community and countries such as Britain are not interested in helping them through these difficult times.

The Romanian people need our help to defend and develop their democracy. They feel that Britain is a cradle of democracy which has a lot to teach them. However, we can only teach people with whom we are engaged in dialogue. We could help to provide a genuine police force. In the events that I have described, the police ran away: they hightailed it out of town, so frightened were they of the mob. We could help them train a police force which could face up to civil disorder, and so avoid the ugly scenes involving the miners and other workers on the streets of Bucharest.

We should also encourage trade. Romania is not some impoverished banana republic in central Africa or Latin America, but a European country with no foreign debts, tremendous natural resources and a big market for us—24 million people. It would be foolhardy of Britain to turn its back on such a country. The French will not do so; French diplomacy is active in Romania. Nor will other European countries take the view that Britain is taking.

I have spoken to the Minister previously about the question of child AIDS in Romania. There has been a tremendous response to that from the British public through articles in The Guardian, an article by Anna Smith in the Daily Record and another by Bob Wylie in The Observer. Those powerful articles have brought the human tragedy—the legacy of the Ceausescu period—to the attention of the British people. They have achieved a phenomenal response from British donors, who have sent hundreds of thousands of pounds. Many other groups, such as orphans and people living in penury on low wages, have had almost nothing to buy for the past 10 to 20 years.

Let us not turn our backs on those people.The British people would not understand if, at the same time as they were giving with their cheque books to help Romania, the British Government were slamming the door in the face of the Romanian Government. I beg the Minister and the Government to think again.

10.16 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) for giving the House the chance to have this timely short debate on Romania, and also for his fiery and heartfelt speech. He will not be surprised if I do not agree with everything that he has said, but we both agree that we care for the future of Romania.

All hon. Members and members of the British public who watched the events of the revolution through those moving television broadcasts wish Romania success. My argument with the hon. Gentleman is not about the horrors out of which Romania has fought its way. I pay tribute to him: unlike a number of others—whom I will leave him to name—he did not accept the hospitality of the previous dictator. His hands are clean in that regard. He has also made a considerable contribution on the humanitarian side, along with other hon. Members from both sides of the House.

How do we judge the recent events? It is clear that, after 40 years of a particularly ruthless communist dictatorship—including 25 years under President Ceausescu, and his predecessor was no picnic—it was too much to hope that the transition to freedom would pass without any difficulty or hitches. The Ceausescu era fostered intolerance and, above all, distrust and mutual suspicion. The strongest feeling that I encountered when I visited Romania was the lack of trust between people that had been engendered by those years. Everything had to be learned from scratch. In other countries of eastern and central Europe, the often sullen, slow-moving and incompetent communist bureaucracies could at least be turned to democratic use. However, in Romania even the bureaucracies were corrupted by Ceausescu and the organisations—down to the football teams—were often corrupted, and involved in the Securitate.

After the revolution, from January onwards, the National Salvation Front came under criticism from its political opponents in the reformed and newly reconstituted political parties, and on the streets, for its ties with the personnel and the behaviour of the old regime. Nevertheless, the fact that such opinons could be freely expressed was a measure of the change that had occurred. When I was in Romania in January, I found chaos and disorganisation, but also optimism and hope for the future.

In the campaign leading up to elections on 20 May, there was certainly no shortage of well-founded allegations that Mr. Iliescu and his colleagues in the NSF were not playing the democratic game as it should have been played. The opposition parties faced the intimidation of their candidates and supporters and persistent difficulties in setting up publications and making their voices heard. The NSF took maximum advantage of its control of radio and television.

To leave the Romanian Government in no doubt about our concern at what was going on we summoned the Romanian chargé on 11 May and pointed out that the way in which the elections were held would have a great impact on British and western attitudes to Romania in the future.

In the event, few independent observers doubt that the campaign, as it was run, helped to increase the already substantial support enjoyed by the NSF. Despite the limitations of the campaign, however, the elections were, if hardly a paragon, at least an important step towards democracy. Throughout the long day at polling stations nationwide Romanians of different political persuasions co-operated, in the main peacefully and enthusiastically, to elect a President and two chambers of a Parliament.

That there were many departures from ideal democratic practice—instances of malpractice and fraud—is not in doubt. Most independent observers, however, including hon. Members from both sides of the House, came to the conclusion, which I share, that even if the campaign and the poll had been scrupulously fair, Mr. Iliescu and the NSF still would have won a considerable majority. They concluded that the election should, by and large and in the circumstances, be taken as valid.

By early June, we were therefore hopeful that Romania was starting on the difficult road to democracy, although we had no illusions about the magnitude of the task facing her. The events of 13 and 15 June put paid, for the time being, to our cautious optimism.

To some extent the hon. Member for Hillhead has conflated two separate events. It is true that in the early hours of 13 June the Romanian security forces cleared, by force, the demonstrators, at that time largely peaceful, from University square. He is right that the second event involved a group of largely young thugs—possibly egged on by others with grudges against the Government. We shall probably never know the full story. They attacked the police and others with sticks, stones and petrol bombs.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there were scenes of disgraceful violence. The hon. Gentleman saw demonstrators storm the police headquarters and the television station. I do not for one moment condone that violence directed at everybody. I think that there is still little evidence to show that it marshalled forces that could possibly be described as those representing an incipient coup. It is perfectly fair, however, for the hon. Gentleman to say that in a democracy—everyone in Romania should now be seeking to build democracy—those opposing the elected Government should do so peaceably. There can be no excuse for the mayhem of 13 June in Bucharest.

What we must judge—we deal with Governments—is the response of the Romanian authorities. Here I part from the hon. Gentleman. The violence organised by the Romanian authorities was of a different order altogether. It is the duty of an elected Government not just to win an election, but to wield power within the law. That is why we were so profoundly shocked by President Iliescu's decision to call on the miners to act as vigilantes. The systematic and ruthless attempt by those miners to incapacitate the main opposition parties was profoundly shocking not just to Britain, but to other western countries.

The hon. Gentleman gave his own eye-witness account. There are many others, for example, the report carried by the Daily Express of Monday 18 June about Mrs. Rodica Glaser, who was also in Bucharest and whom my officials have questioned. She saw the systematic beating and killing of people and the raping of women by those so-called miners.

There is no doubt that the brutal savagery of 14 and 15 June was directed by people in positions of authority. How else would those miners have been able to find straight away the offices and homes of the Liberal party and Peasants' party leaders? Why else would there be so many reports of well-dressed figures directing the violence, while the police—not in every case running away, according to accounts that I have had—stood idly by?

When groups of vigilantes called in by the highest figure in the land roam the streets dispensing summary justice to those whose opinions, or even appearance, they do not care for, and when the elected leader does not condemn such activities but instead thanks their perpetrators, prospects for democracy are dark indeed.

Those so-called miners went on a rampage through the gipsy quarter, handing out violence of a high degree. That is why the British Government have roundly condemned President Iliescu's action. We did so by way of an immediate diplomatic protest in London, and in Bucharest on 15 June. On 18 June the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and his European Community colleagues issued a vigorously worded statement—all of them, not just us—deploring the behaviour of President Iliescu's Government. They decided unanimously to put off a decision on signature of the European Community—Romania trade and cooperation agreement.

As a further sign of disapproval—again unanimously—Romania is not being invited to the ministerial meeting of the Group of 24 on 4 July to discuss aid to eastern Europe. Humanitarian aid must continue, but there can be no question at present of the aid that is conditional on the development of policies which we support being released as if those conditions had been met.

It is important that certain matters should be raised here and now because they may help. On 21 June the British ambassador in Bucharest invoked the CSCE human rights mechanism to raise with the Romanian authorities the fate of the three arrested student leaders—Munteanu, Dinca and Nica—and some hon. Members may remember meeting Mr. Nica when he was here in March for the political seminar organised by the IPU and the GB-East Europe Centre.

Even though, in all those cases, the Romanian Government have accepted that they hold the students in question, they had not as of this afternoon given access to Leon Nica, whose family has still not been allowed access to him or to contact him, and he has been moved from place to place apparently without any information being given to his family, let alone to lawyers or to any other legal authorities.

Investigations are continuing. We shall watch carefully the way in which they are carried out and the way those under arrest are treated. Hon. Members will have seen that Mr. Munteanu was interviewed on Romanian television a couple of days ago and rejected the charges against him. We hope that that portends a more open-minded approach to those under arrest.

How is it that it can be business as usual with Peking after the gunning down there of thousands of students, yet we are freezing out the Romanians in response to the events that we are discussing tonight?

I had intended to deal with that point. We are doing business as usual with Romania. There is no question of economic sanctions against that country or of our trying to stop trade with Romania. Indeed, we—the British Council and others—are trying to step up contacts with Romania.

But we are saying that funds that we—bilaterally in this country or collectively in the Group of 24 and the European Community—have established to respond to the steps taken by eastern and central European countries which are building free institutions based on the rule of law must be conditional on progress being made.

It would be wrong and insulting to the reformers in Romania and elsewhere if we pretended that the progress in Romania was equivalent to that in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. It would be wrong and untruthful. That is why all the countries concerned in the establishment of those conditions, including France, have agreed that those conditional funds should not be released.

But that is not to say that we are boycotting Romania or are not trading with that country. We trade with many regimes worse than President Iliescu's. We must, for we have to live in the world and we still have much higher hopes that Romania, after this setback, will return to the road of optimism and progress.

We recognise the difficulties that Romania faced and still faces, but we must also recognise, and give the clearest signals, that the way in which the undoubtedly difficult situation was handled by the Government—the ruthless violence meted out by the vigilantes—cannot receive in Britain the same sort of support as the methods and peaceful developments that have taken place in Czechoslovakia and in other countries. We shall not forget Romania. Our wish to see her consolidate her revolution and develop into a truly free society is as strong as ever.

The hon. Gentleman will recall the criteria that the Group of 24 set out for assistance to eastern Europe. They included a multi-party system, and free and fair elections—those two are well on the way. The rule of law was shatteringly put at risk by the way the demonstrations, first peaceful and then violent, were handled. We are keeping a close watch on those who were arrested. I have not heard accounts of miners being arrested; all those arrested seem to come from the demonstrators' side—many of them, like Mr. Nica, students with long histories of peaceful activism against the previous regime. If we had seen the pursuit of some of those who raped women on the streets and beat up girls because they were wearing western clothes, we might have considered that encouraging.

The other criteria were respect for human rights, freedom of the media and economic liberalisation. It is clear to all of us in Europe, not just Britain, that for the moment, Romania falls short in many of those aspects. We recognise that not everything can be done overnight. We do not expect miracles, but we were greatly encouraged initially when Romania accepted all her CSCE commitments. It was a measure of our disappointment that we were so distressed when those fair words were followed, first, by fraud in the election—limited, but still serious—and now, by violence against the political opposition.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.