Iliescu began his professional career in 1955 as a design engineer at the Energy Institute of Bucharest, but his chief interest was politics. He had joined the Union of Communist Youth in 1944 and then the Progressive Youth Association. In March 1949 he became a member of the Central Committee of the Union of Communist Youth, and during his years in Moscow he was secretary of the Romanian Students Committee. A candidate member of the Romanian Communist Party (RCP) in 1953, he became a full member in 1955.
Iliescu was one of the founders of and then headed the Communist Federation of Romanian University Students during 1956–1959, participating in many activities of the International Union of Students. In 1960 he was elected to the Grand National Assembly (Romanian parliament). During 1960–1967 he served in the Central Committee's Department for Ideology and Propaganda, and he was minister for Youth Affairs during 1967–1971. He was closely identified with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu.
In 1971 Iliescu's close relationship with Ceauşescu ended when he criticized the latter for his "Cultural Revolution," a reference to Mao Zedong's policies in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Ceauşescu stripped Iliescu of his major party posts and exiled him to western Romania, where he served on the Timiş County Council (1971–1974). Because he was a critic rather than an opponent of the regime, he was soon back in favor as president of the Iaşi County Council (1974–1979). He was then a candidate member of the Executive Committee of the RCP. Iliescu's continued criticism of Ceauşescu's cult of personality, however, led to his removal by 1984 from all his party posts.
Shunted into the position of director of the Technical Publishing House in Bucharest, Iliescu came to be regarded as a communist reformer. He played no role in active plots to overthrow the increasingly dictatorial Ceauşescu but did take part in planning for a governmental structure should the Ceauşescu regime end.
In late December 1989, upon the overthrow of Ceauşescu, Iliescu emerged as the leader of the hastily formed National Salvation Front Council. As a communist reformer, he was acceptable to the various elites in the country. To win over the people who had carried out the revolution, he ended most of the former regime's repressive policies. During this period, he maintained a delicate balance between still-powerful former regime's elites and those desiring complete change.
In May 1990 Iliescu was elected president of Romania with 85 percent of the vote, but he came under considerable criticism in the West for Romanian repression of Roma (Gypsies) and the Hungarian minority and for the violent suppression of demonstrations in Bucharest by Jeu Valley miners. Iliescu won reelection as president in 1992 with 61 percent of the vote, but his party failed to win a majority of seats in parliament. In 1996 he failed to win another presidential term but continued his political career in the Romanian senate (1996–2000).
Iliescu was again president of Romania during 2000–2004, winning election with 67 percent of the vote. He moved Romania increasingly closer to Western Europe and the United States. In 2002 Romania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Fluent in French, English, and Russian, Iliescu has written many books and articles.
Dumitru Preda and Spencer C. Tucker
Iliescu, Ion. The Revolution I Lived. Bucharest: Editura Enciclopedic, 1995.; Iliescu, Ion. Revolution and Reform. Bucharest: Editura Enciclopedic, 1993.; Iliescu, Ion. Romania in Europe and in the World. Bucharest: I. Iliescu, 1994.; Tismaneanu, Vladimir. Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.