TIMISOARA, Romania - Chanting "Liberty," a small group of grizzled former fighters assembled in this snow-dusted city yesterday to relive their role in toppling communist Eastern Europe's most repressive dictator 20 years ago.

Their demonstration drew scant attention, however, in a fragile democracy that is preoccupied with hard times and political rancor.

The residents of Timisoara were the first to defy Nicolae Ceausescu: It was here that citizens flocked to the defense of an ethnic Hungarian dissident pastor who was threatened with forced relocation, leading to escalating confrontations with police.

The next day, police, army, and secret service units began firing at protesters, the start of six days of fighting that spilled over to Bucharest and led to the end of Ceausescu and his era of hunger, hardship, and repression.

More than 1,000 people were killed in the sole violent upheaval of the many revolutions that swept communists from power across Eastern Europe. Of those, 118 were killed in Timisoara.

Timisoara Mayor Gheorghe Ciuhandru told the gathering of veteran revolutionaries that the city near Romania's western border with Hungary and Serbia should be proud the uprising began here.

"To those who were born free," he said, "I say that things were changed in this revolution. We have freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and the right to private property."

Today, Romania is a member of both the European Union and NATO, groups associated with Western values and prosperity - and on the surface seems to have overcome the past.

Yesterday, this city of ornate fin-de-siecle buildings, exclusive boutiques, shopping malls, and fine restaurants was awash in bright Christmas lights and its streets were flooded with well-dressed shoppers.

Almost lost in the downtown bustle was the group of about 70, most of them male and in their 50s, chanting, "Down with Ceausescu" and "Liberty."

The bloody struggle of 20 years ago appears irrelevant to a new generation facing economic hardship and political bickering. People in passing streetcars stared passively at the small crowd. A young girl flashed a tired "V" sign as she walked by - without looking back.

Romania is drowning in debt - with foreign obligations of $113 billion.

Although it joined the EU in 2007, the nation remains troubled, plagued by corruption, mired in recession, and paralyzed by political infighting - most recently a presidential election marred by allegations of fraud.

U.S. Ambassador Mark H. Gitenstein paid tribute to the events of 20 years ago but noted, "You, in Romania, have much yet to do to complete your revolution."

Tudorin Burlacu, 53, who was among Timisoara's revolutionary fighters 20 years ago, complained that politicians claim to believe in democracy but play by the old, communist rules.

Musicians from the local opera performed Christmas carols and popular Romanian music in a short concert attended by former President Emil Constantinescu, in office from 1996 to 2000.

"I am here for those who fought and died for the ideals that changed lives in Romania and wrote a page of heroism in Romania's history," Constantinescu said.

The revolt began Dec. 16, 1989, when authorities tried to forcibly move ethnic Hungarian pastor Laszlo Toekes to a remote rural parish. Supporters gathered outside his house and soon the site was teeming with protesters.

Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day after a summary trial. His brutal reign was underpinned by the notorious Securitate and its army of 700,000 informers - 1 in 20 Romanians - to stifle dissent during 25 years of harsh rule.