Gheorghe Apostol, veteran Romanian Communist who turned against Ceausescu, dies at 97

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Gheorghe Apostol, a veteran Communist politician who gained international attention in 1989 by publicly criticizing Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, has died. He was 97.

Apostol died Saturday in Bucharest, apparently at his home, Romanian media reported Wednesday. The cause of death was not given.

In Romania's chaotic political history, the country was allied with the Nazis from 1940 to 1944, but on Aug. 23, 1944, it joined Allied forces as the Soviets advanced into Romania.

As the war ended in 1945, Communists began to gain power in Romania, and King Michael's abdication in December 1947 marked the beginning of the country's Communist regime.

Apostol had become a communist in the 1930s when the party was still illegal in Romania, and he served as a close ally of the Communist leader at the time, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.

In 1948, Apostol became a Politburo member of the Communist Party, and he served as the party's general secretary in 1954-1955 and as Romania's agriculture minister in 1953-54.

After Gheorghiu-Dej died in 1965, Apostol was defeated in a contest for Communist Party leader by Ceausescu, who ended up ruling Romania with an iron fist for 25 years.

Apostol was soon considered the dictator's rival and, acting on the advice of senior party members, he became a diplomat and served as Romania's ambassador to Argentina in the 1970s and later in Brazil before returning to Romania in 1988.

Apostol gained international attention by signing the "letter of the six," in March 1989 in which he and five other senior Communists publicly criticized Ceausescu for the first time. In the letter, they opposed the ruler's plans to destroy thousands of villages and accused him of damaging the country's economy and reputation abroad.

The letter was broadcast on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, and a short time later Apostol was accused of being a Soviet spy and placed under house arrest.

But that didn't last long as Romania slipped into political chaos again.

Apostol was released during Romania's anti-communist revolt in December 1989, during which Ceausescu was toppled and executed in a bloody revolt that killed more than 1,000 people.

Soon afterward, Apostol retired from public life, and he rarely spoke in public.

Apostol was buried Tuesday in a private ceremony in Bucharest, and he is survived by his wife and three children.