The December Revolt and the Coup D'Etat - 1989

Was Moscow Behind The Revolt And Coup?

One of the most hotly debated issues regarding the origin and nature of the NSF has been the question of whether the contacts between various key members of the NSF and Soviet officials were such that one could infer that the Romanian revolt and coup were a Soviet-guided conspiracy aided by Soviet intelligence agents in Romania. Since December 1989 a number of journalists and analysts, in France and Romania especially, have speculated on the role that Moscow played in the revolution. Some have concluded, without firm basis, that the officials who took control of the government were part of a Soviet plot to oust Ceausescu.95 This author is not willing to rule out the possibility, but the evidence available from public sources is only fragmentary and largely circumstantial. At a minimum, Moscow knew that a conspiracy was in the making, and that members of the Romanian government and military were anxious to get rid of Ceausescu. However, there is no firm evidence available to suggest that Moscow actually organized or guided the conspirators in their endeavors, although Gorbachev certainly had the motive to do so.

Ceausescu's differences with the Soviet leadership over bloc policies had continued during the Gorbachev era. Examples included Ceausescu's proposal to reduce the extension period when pact leaders voted to renew the Warsaw Pact in May 1985, and his opposition to radical reforms proposed by Gorbachev.96 The Soviet leadership could tolerate Ceausescu's independent foreign policies and oppressive domestic policies as long as Romania remained isolated, not only from the world at large, but even within Europe. However, the villagization program and Ceausescu's increasing bellicosity towards Hungary in 1989 shifted the international spotlight to Romania.97 As a result, Ceausescu's policies had repercussions affecting Soviet policies beyond Eastern Europe, including Soviet efforts to court Western Europe and increase stability in Central Europe. More-over, Ceausescu's call before the 14th RCP Congress in late November 1990 for Moscow to renounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an obvious call for the issue of sovereignty over Soviet Moldavia (former Romanian Bessarabia) to be raised again.98

Gorbachev and Ceausescu never got along well. Ceausescu was the last East European leader to pay his respects to Gorbachev after his election as general secretary in March 1985. Gorbachev returned the slight by visiting Romania only after traveling to all other NSWP states. When Gorbachev visited Bucharest to address a meeting of RCP members in May 1987, the tension with Ceausescu was obvious to all viewing the spectacle.99 During his speech to a gathering of RCP officials on 26 May he offered obliquely worded attacks on Romania's harsh mistreatment of ethnic Hungarians and Ceausescu's nepotism.100 The Romanian party officials present in the convention hall also made known their own displeasure with Gorbachev by interrupting his speech with applause on 16 occasions, visibly irritating the Soviet leader.101 One report on Gorbachev's talks with Ceausescu that May suggests that Gorbachev used the occasion to tell him that he needed to open up his country and begin the process of introducing reforms. Ceausescu is reported to have replied, 'Would otherwise, as in previous cases, Soviet tanks roll in?'102

Ceausescu consistently rejected the idea that Romania had much to learn from Moscow. During Gorbachev's visit to Bucharest in May 1987, Ceausescu declared that he was 'against any mechanical and dogmatic imitation of the experience or practice of another country'.103 In previous statements Ceausescu had called any move to decentralize economic planning as 'capitalist'. In subsequent months and years he moved to strengthen his ties with China and North Korea,104 and appears to have taken a particular fancy to the Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung's doctrine of self-reliance, called chuche.105

When Andrei Gromyko visited Romania in May 1988 the Romanian press censored comments promoting the virtues of reform. On the day of Gromyko's arrival, Ceausescu published a speech in which he denounced 'rightist deviationism' and 'recipes for improving socialism'.106 One Western report printed in Le Point claimed, without supporting evidence, that a KGB campaign to undermine Ceausescu began at about the same time.107 Le Point's version of events was that Moscow had begun to support efforts to undermine the authority of the Communist Party after the Brasov protests of 15 November 1987.108 One author writing for the same journal alleged that an interview published in the US shortly after-wards with Ainsi Gheorghe Apostol, who was reported to be Moscow's man to succeed Gheorghiu-Dej, was part of a Soviet effort to de-stabilize the Ceausescu regime.109

Moreover, authors of an article for Le Point alleged that Moscow's efforts to undermine Ceausescu may have extended into the Securitate. They based their speculative assertions on the fact that a former unnamed member of the regime told them that the Securitate always and naturally worked with the KGB. This was a questionable assertion. Le Point's story, which was derived from the speculation of Securitate officers writing on Brucan, went even further. It states that the Securitate believed at the start of 1989 that the USSR had told the French and Italian intelligence agencies that they were going to get rid of Ceausescu, and that the Hungarian intelligence service would participate in the venture by creating unrest in Transylvania.110 Meanwhile, according to one unconfirmed version printed in Le Point, surveillance of Petre Roman (the future Prime Minister), Andrei Plesu (the future Minister of Culture), and Ion Iliescu found that all were meeting covertly in early 1989.111

In late 1988, perhaps as a result of the Soviet leadership changes that occurred in September-October 1988, and possibly reflecting former KGB Chairman Viktor Chebrikov's increased influence after the reorganization (before the events of April 1989), the Soviets took a more accommodating line toward Ceausescu. At the Moscow summit meeting between Gorbachev and Ceausescu in October 1988, Elena Ceausescu was accepted by the Soviets for the first time as an official representative of Romania. As a result of the summit meeting, the two leaders reviewed the final drafts of agreements on some 30 joint economic projects. Following the summit Moscow moved closer to Romania's positions in its disputes with Hungary, and backed Romanian proposals at the CSCE talks in Vienna.112 Gorbachev and Ceausescu appeared anxious, in fact, to push their ideological differences aside for the sake of improving economic co-operation.113 Gorbachev's meeting with the Ceausescus was followed up in late January 1989 with another outwardly friendly meeting between Vadim Medvedev and Ceausescu in Bucharest, during which it was agreed that Soviet and Romanian 'ideological ties' would be expanded to include increasing contacts between labor collectives, scientific establishments, higher educational facilities, and even local party bodies.114

Despite such signs of improvement, Soviet-Romanian relations soon took a turn for the worse. Apart from the international uproar over Romania's construction of a fence along its border with Hungary, the Soviet leadership was probably concerned at the growing prospects for a military conflict between Hungary and Romania. Ceausescu had informed Hungary in August 1988 that Romania had the capability to produce nuclear weapons (although the claim appeared dubious).115 Romania had also reportedly started developing an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of carrying chemical and nuclear weapons.116 But the final straw, as far as Moscow was concerned, probably came in May 1989, when Romania called for an emergency meeting of the Warsaw Pact heads of state, to discuss 'hostile Hungarian actions against Romania'.117 Romania is reported to have been pressing at the same time for some sort of Warsaw Pact intervention in Hungary.118 After a great deal of delay from Soviet officials and other Pact countries, the summit was held in July 1989, amid a flurry of activity involving senior Soviet officials and Romanian military officers, but firm evidence that the Hungarian issue was even discussed at the summit is lacking.

Even more intriguing are comments by the former head of the CPSU Central Committee's International Department, Valentin Falin. Falin's defense of Iliescu contradicts the version of the conspiracy put out by Radu, and suggests that Moscow favored Iliescu and Brucan. In an interview with New Perspectives Quarterly Falin claimed that: 'The main source of resistance to Ceausescu was from within the Party - Silviu Brucan, Ion Iliescu, Cornelio Minescu and others.'119 In another interview Falin implied that Moscow was at least an interested observer of the pre-revolutionary conspiracy:

We knew there would be victims; we knew that a coup was inevitable because the regime was not only rotten but intransigent. Even so, we did not foresee the extent of the bloody bacchanalia that finally came to pass. When key critics of the regime, like Silviu Brucan, came to Moscow in November, we were asked to appreciate the fact that Romania had no other way out. We therefore watched the developments within the armed forces of Romania, and the growth of resistance to the regime from November through the end of the year, very closely.120

The Soviets appear to have been trying to oust Ceausescu, or at least bring him back into line, since 1971, when Soviet forces massed on Romania's borders. There is at least one sign that the KGB's campaign against Ceausescu began in the 1970s. In 1978, a French journal called Synthesis, which is reported to have been established in 1976 with Soviet funding, published an article highly critical of Ceausescu's anti-Soviet policies, nepotism, and xenophobia.121 This report is important to our understanding of when the KGB began maneuvering to oust Ceausescu, because if Pacepa is correct when he tells us that even in the 1970s General Militaru was a suspected Soviet agent, and reports by Radu and Kostyal that the conspiracy to oust Ceausescu has its roots in the 1970s, then it raises the possibility that Moscow had been trying to remove Ceausescu since the 1970s.

Rumors of Soviet involvement in the coup surfaced shortly after the new Romanian government appeared on Romanian television calling itself the Front for National Salvation (NSF). Western observers were quick to note that this was the name used by the authors of two letters distributed to Western news agencies and to Radio Free Europe in early 1989; one calling for the delegates to the 14th RCP Congress to oust Ceausescu, and the other addressing Ceausescu's abuses of power and economic policies.122 Ceausescu apparently feared that the letters were part of a Soviet-orchestrated campaign designed to promote reforms and to undermine his power. One of the original authors of the letters, Mircea Raceanu, a former diplomat in the Romanian embassy in Washington, was arrested in March 1989 on charges of being a spy, and held by Romanian security forces at least until August 1989, when his arrest was reported.123

One indication that Moscow may have been in contact with the coup plotters comes from the fact that the NSF's first Minister of Defense, General Nicolae Militaru, was a man who reportedly had extensive contacts with Soviet intelligence in the 1970s. Ion Pacepa writes that General Militaru was suspected of being a Soviet agent in the 1 970s, after Romanian counter-intelligence had photographed him meeting a Soviet intelligence operative, possibly from the GRU.124 But despite the possible link to the Soviets, Militaru and Radu both claim that Militaru failed in an attempt in 1987 to obtain Soviet support for launching a coup.125 Soviet diplomats, Militaru claims, were 'forbidden to interfere in domestic Romanian affairs'.126 According to Brucan, the Soviets also rejected a similar request when he visited Moscow in 1988, only to be snubbed by the Soviet leadership, which refused to allow him to meet with a high-ranking official. Nevertheless, according to Brucan, Moscow did agree to provide for his 'personal security' (and later did so by periodically sending Pravda's correspondent in Bucharest, probably an intelligence officer operating with a cover as a reporter, to check up on him).127 According to Brucan, Gorbachev was familiar with the details of the conspiracy, but apparently refrained from informing Ceausescu.128

While these reports are interesting, they do not necessarily help us in identifying how Moscow responded to requests made in 1989, for the agenda of the Soviet leadership had changed profoundly by then. Nor is Brucan's account of a Soviet denial of interest in 1988 necessarily accurate, for his version of events regarding the pre-revolution conspiratorial enterprises has changed over time.129 Moreover, Brucan's account cannot adequately explain why the Soviets would claim that they were not interested in interfering in Romanian affairs and yet promise to protect him. From Brucan's account it appears that Moscow was far from uninterested in his endeavors. Moscow's decision not to inform Ceausescu of the existence of a conspiracy to overthrow him and the possibility that Moscow was protecting Brucan and Militaru seems to indicate that the Soviet leadership was interested in shepherding the coup plotters, that is, making sure they were not uncovered so that they could be used in the event that Moscow decided to oust Ceausescu.

Analysts trying to draw a link between the new Romanian government and the USSR also point to Iliescu's close personal ties to the USSR as a result of his schooling in Moscow and purported friendship with Gorbachev. Iliescu did study for five years at a party- cadre training school in Moscow,130 which also happened to be a recruiting ground for many KGB foreign agents. However, Iliescu denies that he was ever close to Gorbachev while the latter was a student at Moscow State University.131 Indeed, it is difficult to believe that two students, from different countries, and studying in different faculties at different schools, could have been friends. It seems more likely that if Iliescu had any long-standing Soviet contacts they involved individuals he met as a result of his educational experience in Moscow, in meetings with Soviet officials as a high-ranking member of the party, or as a member of the Romanian Academy of Social and Political Sciences.132 Nevertheless, rumors of a past link between Iliescu and Gorbachev saved Iliescu's life in the summer of 1989, according to Prime Minister Petre Roman. The story, as told to a French reporter, is that the Securitate had monitored a discussion between Iliescu and Militaru sometime that summer, when the two were discussing the need to 'overthrow the dictatorship'. Iliescu was reportedly summoned to Securitate headquarters to be questioned on the matter, but nothing further happened to him. When Gorbachev visited Bucharest in July 1989 (for a WTO summit being held there), Iliescu was sent away to the country-side for three days.133 Iliescu had also been forced to leave Bucharest for one week during Gorbachev's trip to Romania in May 1987.134

Additional evidence of possible Soviet involvement in the coup comes from a report by Silviu Brucan that he met unidentified senior Soviet officials during a trip to Moscow shortly before the massacre in Timisoara. This visit has been confirmed by Falin (see above). According to Brucan, the Soviets 'reluctantly' offered a pledge of support for their reform efforts during the trip. However, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze denied the report.135 The Soviets are also suspected of having been somehow involved in the protests in Timisoara. A Romanian film maker, conducting research into the events surrounding the revolution, found that a party of Soviet 'tourists' visited Timisoara just two days before the protests began.136 This was apparently confirmed at the trial of former Securitate chief Colonel General Iulian Vlad, when it was revealed that before the events in Timisoara on 16-17 December Ceausescu expected 'unusual' events to occur in Banat and Transylvania. The intelligence estimate that Ceausescu reportedly relied on was based on a highly unusual flood of applications for visas from foreign correspondents, applications for access to facilities by foreign diplomats, and an influx of foreign tourists into Timisoara, Arad, Cluj and Sibiu.137

A chronology of events in Romania during December 1989, reportedly written by former Securitate officers, surfaced in September 1990 in the pages of Democratia. According to this, between 11 and 15 December there were 'massive arrivals of so-called Hungarian tourists in Timisoara and Soviet tourists in Cluj'.138 No doubt these were the Soviet 'eyes' that Falin claimed were trained on Romania. In what seems like an exaggerated account of events in Timisoara, the chronology described how the 'tourists' first incited protesters and then fired shots into the air and 'began to shoot and knife demonstrators'. The chronology then accuses various key figures in the coup of having been intelligence agents, including Militaru (purportedly a KGB-CIA double agent) and the former Securitate officer and adviser to Ceausescu, Dumitru Mazilu (purportedly a CIA agent), and Silviu Brucan (purportedly both a CIA and KGB agent). The con-clusions presented in the chronology - that the CIA and KGB plotted together to oust Ceausescu - are simply not credible. But the theory presented is important for illustrating the paranoia some Romanians have felt as a result of more credible reports of foreign involvement in the events of December 1989.

Another version of the events leading up to the coup, offered by the French journal Le Point, has suggested that Soviet provocateurs were behind the events in Timisoara, and that Moscow had resolved to overthrow Ceausescu after he revived the Bessarabian issue in his address to the 14th RCP Congress.139 However, Le Point's version of events is based on very scanty evidence: a single unidentified East European source. Another Le Point story appeared to be based on access to at least one Securitate document, and stated that it was not Soviet tourists but rather general Victor Stanculescu (then Minister of Defense), Stefan Guse, and Mihai Chitac (future Minister of Internal Affairs) who had some role in the events in Timisoara, and deliberately exaggerated the death toll in order to foment further unrest.140

Another coincidence that has yet to be explored by conspiracy theorists is the possibility that the former members of the CPSU Politburo Viktor Chebrikov and Lev Zaikov may have been canvassing Romanian military officers for their views on a possible move against Ceausescu when they met high-ranking military delegations making special visits to Moscow in July 1989. On 3 July 1989, Viktor Chebrikov met Lieutenant General Ilie Ceausescu, who was then a deputy Minister of Defense and member of the Central Committee.141 Ceausescu had arrived in Moscow at the head of a delegation of political officers on 30 June, and did not leave the USSR until 5 July.142 Five days before, Lev Zaikov, then Moscow party boss with responsibilities in the Defense Council, had reportedly met a delegation of Romanian officials from Bucharest.143 This flurry of meetings was most probably related to the rising tensions between Hungary and Romania, and rumors that Romania was pressing for a Warsaw Pact intervention into Hungary, although a connection between these meetings and the military's role in the coup cannot be excluded.