The Romanian Communist Party functionary Ion Iliescu (born 1930) rose to full membership on the Central Committee of the party before falling out of favor with Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1970s. Following the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in late 1989, Iliescu was elected president of Romania in May 1990.

Ion Iliescu was born in Oltenita, Romania, on March 3, 1930. His father was a railway worker who was active in the workers'(communist) movement prior to his death, at the age of 45, in the early 1950s. Ion Iliescu pursued advanced studies in the Soviet Union specializing in electro-technical engineering.

Even before the rise to power of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1965, Iliescu held important posts in the apparatus of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, the most important being that of deputy chief of the education and health section. In 1965, upon Ceausescu's recommendation, Iliescu, who had been active in the Communist youth movement, was elected secretary of the Union of Communist Youth and also assumed the post of chief of the section of agitation and propaganda of the Central Committee. His career in the Romanian Communist Party reached its zenith in 1968 when he became a full member of the Central Committee.

Association with Ceausescu

Iliescu's close association with Nicolae Ceausescu ended in 1971 when he was removed from the apparatus of the Central Committee following Ceausescu's criticism of Iliescu's liberal attitudes in matters cultural and ideological. It should be noted that the Romanian "cultural revolution" and ensuing neo-Stalinism identified with Ceausescu's "cult of personality" began in 1971 with an attack against policies and attitudes identified with Iliescu and other non-doctrinaire Communist leaders.

Exiled to Iasi and Timisoara where he continued to be active in party affairs, Iliescu was removed from the apparatus a few years later and appointed head of the National Council for Water Resources. His disgrace, apparently due to his continuing opposition to Nicolae Ceausescu's policies, culminated in his appointment as head of a technical publishing house in Bucharest in the late 1970s.

Relatively little is known about Iliescu's activities in the 1980s other than that he was regarded by opponents of the Ceausescu regime as the most desirable alternative to Ceausescu. Whether he was directly involved in the sequence of events that led to the "revolution" of December 16-22, 1989, the collapse of the Ceausescu regime, and the establishment of the National Salvation Front is somewhat unclear. In any case, he became the head of the Front immediately after the execution of the Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife and was elected president of Romania by an overwhelming majority (about 85 percent) of the voters in May 1990.

The Presidency

As president, Iliescu was subject to severe criticism by political opponents at home and abroad. The primary accusation directed against him was that of being a Communist in ill-fitting democratic clothing. His once close association with Nicolae Ceausescu and the belief that he continued to be "Gorbachev's man" in Romania led to several violent street demonstrations seeking his resignation. Emigre groups influential in the determination of American and Western European policies toward Iliescu tended to equate Iliescu with Ceausescu and the National Salvation Front with the Romanian Communist Party. All of this contributed to continuing political turmoil in post-Communist Romania. These accusations and comparisons, however, seemed baseless, as Iliescu appeared to be committed to democratization and the elimination of all negative aspects of the Ceausescu era. He seemed genuinely committed to the gradual development of a socialist market economy and to respecting the human and political rights inherent in a democratic society.

As president, Iliescu was the first Romanian head of state to participate in the Jewish community's annual commemoration of the Holocaust. In May 1996, Iliescu signed a Treaty of Friendship, Goodneighbourliness and Cooperation with President Zoran Lilic of Yugoslavia. The Treaty will regulate the two countries' inter-state relations until 2016. In a statement to journalists at the close of the Treaty signing ceremony, both Presidents emphasized that the Treaty opened up a new era in the development and strengthening of the traditionally solid relations between Yugoslavia and Romania. Iliescu paid an official visit to Moldova in July 1996 at the invitation of Moldovan President Mircea Snegur. Due to the initiative of Iliescu, Romania and Hungary signed a significant treaty in September, 1996 to end centuries-old disputes and to boost the two nations' chances of joining NATO and the European Union.

1996 Elections

Despite Iliescu's high-profile visits abroad, Romania's domestic situation remained dire. As of 1996, average wages for Romanians were a third of those in other Eastern European states. Iliescu's status as a presidential candidate was controversial because the Romanian constitution limits a president to only to two terms in office. Iliescu was elected to the presidency for the first time in 1990, then won reelection in 1992. He argued successfully in the constitutional court that his first term of office didn't count toward the two-term limit because the constitution was not revised to include this proviso until 1992. Iliescu lost the election to Democratic Convention candidate Emil Constantinescu and peacefully relinquished power.

Further Reading on Ion Iliescu

There is nothing in English by or on Ion Iliescu himself. Pertinent material on the economic, political, and cultural conditions of the time can be found in Daniel N. Nelson, Romanian Politics in the Ceausescu Era (1988); Mary Ellen Fischer, Nicolae Ceausescu: A Study in Political Leadership (1989); Trond Gilberg, Nationalism and Communism in Romania: The Rise and Fall of Ceausescu's Personal Dictatorship (1990), and Edward Behr, Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite: The Rise and Fall of Ceausescus (1991).