Deep inhibition has paralysed much of Romania since Nicolae Ceausescu's bloody overthrow, as the people struggle to escape their communist past
A tank's machinegun fired in the Bucharest night nine Christmases ago. I was rushed, with two other journalists, into the nearby foreign ministry. We sat in a small room with a man in his early 70s. He wore a cynical smile.
His name was Silviu Brucan, one of the half-dozen organisers of the revolution in the Romanian Communist party that a few days earlier had forced the country's leader, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, to flee the capital. They were later arrested, summarily tried and shot.
Mr Brucan had agreed to meet us at night in the foreign ministry to tell us something of what he knew and had done. His story was of the internal breakdown of the Ceausescu order. It was a tale of a group of communist intellectuals, such as Mr Brucan, which saw, in the eruption of popular dissent that December, its chance.
Nine years to the day later, I sat in Mr Brucan's study to hear what he made of "his" revolution. His story was full of paradoxes.
After the uprising he had broken, bitterly, with Ion Iliescu, the man who emerged as the first president of post-communist Romania. Yet Mr Brucan has prospered, recently becoming a leading TV personality with an acidic weekly political commentary. He is still on the left but believes capitalism alone can save Romania. He excoriates the seven-year rule of Mr Iliescu for its belief in "Ceausescu statism" - but says Mr Iliescu did establish democratic institutions and allow free expression.
Dorel Sandor, a prominent political analyst of successive administrations since 1990, says: "Iliescu was the good, kindly uncle to Ceausescu's bad father. He smiled all the time."
Ceausescu's securitate, or secret police, ensured society could never become civil. Yet the securitate has never been investigated. General Iulian Vlad, its commander, and a handful of others were tried for suppressing the 1989 riots and received three- year sentences, nothing more.
"There is a draft law on opening up the securitate files," says Mr Brucan, "but most deputies are against it. Why? Because everyone who wanted to do anything under Ceausescu had to have contact with the securitate. Now everyone's afraid; they don't know what is in these files."
A deep inhibition therefore paralyses much of Romanian society. This, says Mr Brucan, has had two effects: it has made Romanian capitalism a hole-in-the-corner affair, in which former communist bosses have been transformed into capitalist bosses; and it has paralysed economic reform.
In his recent book, From Party Hacks to Nouveaux Riches, Mr Brucan details the acquisition of wealth by the associates and relatives of the Ceausescu clan.
General Victor Stanculescu is typical. He was chief of the supply section of the defence ministry, then turned to trading with the UK companies Balli Trading and Kay International, and now runs the Anglo-Romanian insurance company.
Mr Stanculescu's transformation is, Mr Brucan says, the "symbiosis of power and capital": capital and expertise that had been monopolised by the state was grabbed, in the post-revolutionary period, by those in or close to the new elite. The post-communist government depends on their financial and media support. It is harder for "clean" capitalism to take root. Mr Brucan identifies "corridors" to post-communist wealth, including membership of the former politburo, the import-export sector and state banks, and one that he calls "the corridor of self-made men".
I met someone from the last category - in fact a self-made woman. Virginia Gheorgiu is vice-president of the Tofan group. The company was started by Gelu Tofan, a tyre factory worker who began his own business with a loan of $ 50,000 from a brother in Canada. Tofan group is the country's largest tyremaker and is increasingly powerful in media and agribusiness. Her experience is instructive. "It is hard to start a business here. The banks won't give you credit. If you do get started, bribery is everywhere and expensive."
The second effect is the impact on economic reform. Mr Iliescu, says Mr Brucan, knew little and cared less about transforming Romania into a market economy. Dorel Sandor adds: "No one was out on the streets in December 1989 demonstrating for capitalism - on the contrary. Romanians had been taught to hate capitalism."
Petre Roman, the present leader of the senate and the first post-communist prime minister, attempted reform but only, says Mr Brucan, under pressure from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Emil Constantinescu, who replaced Mr Iliescu at the end of 1996, promised to get Romania into Nato, the western defence alliance, and the EU, open up the securitate files, raise the standard of living and privatise industry. So far he has done little.
Radu Vasile, the second prime minister to serve under Mr Constantinescu, has agreed to close 30 of Romania's largest 2,100 loss- making enterprises that account for 15 per cent of total losses.
On this occasion Mr Brucan is more optimistic. "I think it might stick this time," he says. Mr Vasile is trying to make headway before a team from the IMF arrives on Saturday to decide whether to give Romania more than $ 400m in financial assistance.
"I think closing these plants will be enough to keep the IMF happy. They cannot fail in Romania after they have failed in Russia," says Mr Brucan.
He reveals his cynical smile. "It has taken us nine years to get to this state and we still don't know if we want a reform." Beginning its 10th year, the Romanian revolution is reluctant, even now, to dismantle the structures with which its leaders emerged.
By John Lloyd