The December Revolt and the Coup D'Etat - 1989

Origins Of The National Salvation Front (NSF)

Although some senior Romanian government officials have denied that the events of late December 1989 constituted a coup,60 others involved in the formation of the original NSF government have stated that the organizational structure for a post-Ceausescu government had been planned well ahead of time and that the leading members of the NSF exploited the unrest in Timisoara and in Bucharest to take power. However, it is possible that these versions were concocted by ranking officials in order to dissociate themselves from Ceausescu's legacy.

According to a former high-ranking Romanian military officer, General Stefan Kostyal,61 the plot to oust Ceausescu was modeled upon the failed coup attempt in 1984.62 General Nicolae Militaru has claimed that dissidence to Ceausescu began as soon as he was appointed head of the party,63 which, although Militaru does not state this, suggests that the dissidence came in part from pro-Soviet officials opposed to Ceausescu's maverick policies within the bloc. According to Militaru, he, Kostyal, and General Ion Ionita (Minister of Defense until 1984), organized a cell that was later to contact two other cells, each with three people, including one headed by Silviu Brucan. Kostyal's statements tend to confirm this version of events, but Kostyal claims that there were only two cells. Other members of the cells reportedly included a naval officer, Nicolae Radu,64 and Virgil Magureanu (a professor at the Stefan Gheorgiu party academy and a former Securitate officer from 1972 to 1980, according to Radu).65 Radu has claimed that an underground organization was already in existence by 1970, when he joined the anti-Ceausescu faction, and that the group was headed by Virgil Magureanu.66 It was Magureanu who supposedly recruited Iliescu, according to Radu.67 Radu, in turn, claims he recruited Vasile Patilinet (a former member of Romania's Defense Council and an alternate member of the RCP's Political Executive Committee from 1974 to 1979).68 Patilinet was recruited to enlist Soviet support, according to Radu, but apparently contributed little to the effort.69

Kostyal claims that Iliescu headed the second group,70 and not Magureanu, as Radu claims. Kostyal also claims that it was Iliescu who the military leaders considered the best man for replacing Ceausescu.

However, Radu states that Iliescu intended only to act 'within' the 'existing system', and that the conspirators had actually decided - at what point he does not make clear - not to back him as a possible successor.71 Radu has thus depicted events in a way that makes it appear that Militaru and Magureanu were the leaders of the conspiracy, with Radu himself serving as an important go-between. The veracity of Radu's version of events has been thrown into question by accusations coming from Magureanu and Iliescu, with the former accusing him of having been an agent of the Securitate and supporter of Ceausescu, and the latter accusing him of being a 'dangerous soldier of fortune'.72 Silviu Brucan claims that he began discussions of a possible coup with the military nucleus, which included Militaru, General Ionita and Stefan Kostyal, as far back as 1983.73 Militaru has stated that General Ionita and the Romanian Chief of the General Staff at the time, Ion Gheorghe, had considered, but rejected, the possibility of launching a military coup as far back as the mid-1970s, and had begun planning seriously for an attempt in 1977.

Kostyal states that Iliescu's group - the 'Securitate group' described by Radu - did not join with Militaru's until the two cells apparently agreed to attempt a coup in October 1984. Kostyal also claims this attempt was aborted when a key military unit involved in the attempt, one from the Bucharest garrison, was unexpectedly sent to do agricultural work. Militaru reveals that the unit commander was also placed in the reserves.74 Having failed in this attempt, the plotters reportedly prepared two contingency plans; the first involving a take- over of the Ministry of Defense and the rallying of army units, and the other 'in case of spontaneous revolt'.75 These contingency plans remained on the back-burner until 1989. In the interim, the Securitate group was supposedly expanded in 1985 to include Colonel Pingulescu, who was 'responsible for operations of the Securitate'.76 Another effort to topple Ceausescu reportedly began in 1985 when Brucan attempted to create a split within the RCP. According to Militaru, Brucan's public warning to Ceausescu after the 15 November 1987 riots in Brasov that he had better not use force in suppressing the revolt was part of this effort to weaken the Conducator's power by creating a schism within the Party.77 The 'letter of the six', which Militaru has revealed was written by Silviu Brucan and five other RCP members, 78 was also part of this effort. In March 1989, Brucan and five other RCP members sent a letter to Ceausescu and the Western media criticizing Ceausescu and his policies. The 'letter of the six', as it became known, attacked the omnipotent powers of the Romanian secret police and Ceausescu's cult of personality, and also suggested that popular dissatisfaction with the regime was growing as a result of shortages of basic consumer goods and food. In early 1989 Radio Free Europe broadcast the text of the letter as the manifesto of an underground organization called the National Salvation Front (NSF).79 The text of the letter was later reprinted in Sovetskaya Molodezh in June 1989, in what appears to have been a Soviet attempt to publicize opposition to Ceausescu.80

Ceausescu's response was to launch a campaign of harassment and intimidation directed at the authors of the letter. Mircea Raceanu, the son of a signatory and a former diplomat, was arrested and accused of treason.81 Two other signatories, Corneliu Manescu and Brucan were put under house arrest sometime before early May 1989, most likely in order to isolate them from contacts with members of foreign delegations visiting Bucharest for the Warsaw Pact summit in July 1989.

The provisional government, which took power on 22 December 1989, may have had its origins in meetings between several former high-ranking Communist Party officials and military officers which had been held up to eight months before the actual coup. The NSF Foreign Minister Petre Roman first attempted to deny that the revolution was prepared beforehand,82 but later admitted that General Militaru and Iliescu first began plotting to overthrow Ceausescu several months before the revolt. 83 Colonel Nicolae Radu has claimed that the plotters were actually preparing for a coup on 30 December 1989.84 It is doubtful, however, that they could have pulled off the coup without the popular uprising. Brucan admitted in an interview published in July 1990 that without the revolt the plotters would still be talking about how to get rid of Ceausescu.85

The exact date at which the National Salvation Front was formed is disputed by many sources. A report in Le Point claimed that the Militaru group set up the first 'National Salvation Front' in 1980.86 However, General Militaru claimed in a statement made on television during the revolution that the NSF had been operating for six months by then.87 A videotape of the first hectic meetings of the group showed Brucan and Militaru arguing against adopting a name similar to that of an organization that had existed six months previously and had issued an appeal which, according to Brucan, no one was willing to sign.88

During the revolution Ion Iliescu appeared to be the primary backer of the motion to name the new government after the clandestine group. In interviews conducted shortly after December 1989 both Militaru and Brucan, though not Iliescu, tried to point out that they were not members of the specific clandestine group which called itself the NSF. Rather, as the two officials admitted in a controversial interview given in August 1990,89 they were part of a group called the 'Military Committee of Resistance (MCR)',90 which worked to turn the Army and the Securitate against Ceausescu.91 The MCR included Generals Ionita, Militaru, Kostyal and others (some 20 generals in all), and a host of other officers.92

Reports of discontent within the military over Ceausescu's policies written shortly before the revolt indicate that the MCR may have had some support from senior military officers within the Ministry of Defense. However, as Michael Shafir has described, the coup plotters had a poor track record in securing arms for their attempt from military bases,93 which suggests that support from senior active duty officers was virtually non-existent before the revolt. Most of the generals in the MCR were, in fact, retired, some for more than a decade.94 Indeed, when some 16 generals and one admiral were brought out of retirement by Militaru and appointed to senior positions in the High Command it caused a strong backlash from within the officer corps, some of whom began protesting in early 1990 for the government to get rid Of the recent appointees.

When Militaru left his post in February 1990, amid rising criticism about his role in the government, most of the new appointees went with him.