BUCHAREST, Romania – In Internet chats, TV talks shows and cafe conversation, the topic is on everybody's lips: The opening of files by Romania's dreaded secret police that have been buried since the fall of communism 17 years ago.
The documents contain a portrait of a paranoid state that forced friend to spy on friend, lovers to betray each other to police, and informants to scour poems for signs of subversion.
The long overdue opening of the files shows Romania may finally be coming to terms with its dark communist past. But it has also sparked fears of a witchhunt in which low level informers are exposed while the masterminds continue to operate in the highest circles of power.
On Wednesday, a day after a national commission began examining the Securitate secret police files of 71 politicians, many Romanians said the campaign was all political theater — and that the real culprits would never be exposed.
"What is happening is stupid. People who are in high level business or senior politicians are either former Securitate or close to the former Securitate, otherwise they would not have had the connections," said 34-year-old fitness trainer Amalia Fodor.
"They have had access to their files a long time ago and have already taken away files showing they were informers and left files that say they were under surveillance," she said.
Still, the nation has been gripped, in fear and fascination, by the slow trickle of information on who collaborated with the secret police force that wormed its way into people's families, homes, workplace and schools, relying on informers as young as 12.
Revelations have already been tearing families apart and destroying friendships, a measure of the trauma in store for the nation as the 1.3 million Securitate files become public. Other former Soviet states released their own secret police files years ago.
Driving the Romanian campaign are President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, who say that opening the files will show the transparency that Romania needs before it joins the European Union next year.
Romanians learned Wednesday how ex-Securitate officer Ristea Priboi, who was close to former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, had his informers study a writer's poems to detect "non-Marxist tendencies."
The Cotidianul newspaper reported that Florica Bejinariu, a top magistrate, received money for informing on colleagues. Justice Minister Monica Macovei has called on Bejinariu to resign, but she has refused.
"What do you want to know — whether I was a virgin when I married?" Bejinariu yelled Tuesday at journalists who have been digging into her past.
Indeed, some observers have warned the campaign could open up a new era of political hounding, in which the authorities who control the files can select victims to settle scores — and protect their allies.
"It is not bad that the files are being opened but there is a huge problem in the way it is being done. Everyone should get the same treatment and I have a question: Why do we have a selective opening of the files? It might be the settling of political conflicts," said Romanian human rights activist Renate Weber.
It is also often difficult to distinguish victim from victimized in the bizarre world that was Romania under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Many informers were blackmailed into spying on friends — and did their best to protect them by filling reports with harmless details.
Despite the moral ambiguities, many Romanians say opening of the files is essential.
"These are turbulent times but at the end of this period we will be able to see the sky above the trees. It's bit late but our society is mature enough to be able to benefit from finding out who the poisonous informers were," said Doina Pauleanu, an art critic.
The commission checking the Securitate files will also be issuing verdicts on whether informants harmed the people they snooped on. There is no punishment although a draft law proposes excluding people from public life who collaborated with the former regime.
So far, only a few politicians have had their secrets revealed.
Politician and businessman Dan Voiculescu, who for years vehemently denied being a Securitate officer although he worked for a Securitate-affiliated company under communism, was recently discovered to have been an informer. He denied he had ever harmed anyone, but nonetheless abandoned his bid to become deputy prime minister.
Former Culture Minister Mona Musca, admired for her calls for reform and the author of many laws guaranteeing press freedoms, also confessed to having reported on foreign students when she was a student. She said she will resign from Parliament if the commission rules that caused harm to her students.
The airing of communist-era secrets has not stopped at politicians. A handful of journalists have also confessed under pressure from a group pushing to expose the role of the media during the Ceausescu era. There are also calls to see files on priests, athletes and academics.
The sheer scale of the task is creating difficulties. The government says the national commission lacks the staff, resources and expertise to open up files that stretch for 13 kilometers (8 miles).
Ticu Dumitrescu, who heads the Association of Former Political Prisoners and has fought for the Securitate files to be opened, estimated it would take 10 years for all of the files to be revealed.