The December Revolt and the Coup D'Etat - 1989

The December Revolt and the Coup

Amid a popular uprising against Ceausescu's dictatorship, a select group of former high-ranking Party officials and military officers seized power by announcing on Romanian television that they had taken control of the government. That group was actually a clique of men, some of whom had been plotting Ceausescu's downfall since the 1970s. Contrary to a widely held view in the West at the time, this clique also appears to have secured the backing of a large number of senior Securitate officers and Securitate units almost immediately after Ceausescu took off from Bucharest on 22 December.

Apart from overt pressures from Moscow to promote change, there is scant evidence that the Soviet intelligence agencies played a direct role in the coup. The evidence for this theory is isolated to a single report: Ion Pacepa's pre-revolutionary testimony that a central figure in the pre-coup plotting and the NSF's first Minister of Defense, General Nicolae Militaru, who had been a student at the Soviet Military Academy, had been in close contact with Soviets working in Romania and may have been an agent working for the Soviet General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).42 It is hard to underestimate the significance of that linkage because testimonies by individuals involved in the pre-revolutionary conspiracies suggest that the force behind the December coup was a 'military group' led by Militaru, rather than a purported 'Securitate group' led by former Securitate officer Virgil Magureanu.

The Romanian revolution began with a small protest in the town of Timisoara on 16-17 December 1989. The protest was in support of a dissident Protestant and ethnic Hungarian minister, Reverend Laszlo Tokes, who was then facing imminent deportation for sermonizing against Ceausescu.43 What started out as a meeting by a few of his parishioners soon grew into an anti-government riot that required police, Securitate troops, and a large contingent of Army troops to suppress.44 army troops, which were under the command of General (and future post- revolutionary Minister of Defense) Victor Stanculescu,45 did nearly all of the shooting in Timisoara.46

Immediately after the revolution the Romanian Army and the Iliescu regime denied that the army fired on demonstrators in Timisoara. They claimed that Securitate units, 'firemen's' units and unknown 'terrorists', did all the shooting. There was even a rumor that Securitate troops were wearing military uniforms.47 However, those claims appear to have been politically motivated, since Iliescu had a vested interest in cleaning up the military's image. In the end, the truth came out only after two former officials in the NSF government, the former Romanian Ambassador to the United States Professor Silviu Brucan and General Nicolae Militaru, admitted that Army troops also fired on demonstrators in Timisoara.48

On the fateful day of 17 December, when Ceausescu and his closest associates were discussing how to respond to events in Timisoara, one story has it that Ceausescu agreed to resign, but was dissuaded from doing so by some of his cronies, including Silviu Curticeanu, Ion Dinca, Emil Bobu, Ana Mureasan, Lina Ciobanu, Georghe Radulescu and Elena Ceausescu.49 Other reports suggest that immediately upon arriving back in Bucharest after cutting short his trip to Iran, Ceausescu ordered troops in Timisoara to open fire on demonstrators.50

On 20 December, when some 50,000 people again took to the streets in Timisoara, most of the army troops present sided with the protesters. When word of the army revolt reached Ceausescu, he showed no signs that he was willing to offer concessions. Instead, he prepared for a long siege. What he did not expect was that less than 48 hours later he would be faced with a mass rebellion that would come on so quickly and with such force that it would stun not only Ceausescu himself but the whole world.

With hindsight it is easy to see that Ceausescu's crucial error in managing the crisis was his vain decision to attempt to muster public support behind him by holding a mass rally in the center of Bucharest on 21 December. In the middle of the rally, which was being carried live on national television, a small number of protesters in the back of the crowd began chanting such slogans as 'Down with the dictatorship!' In the few seconds that the television broadcast covered the incident before going off the air Ceausescu appeared visibly shaken. This incident is widely reported to have incited many Romanians to begin taking to the streets on the night of the 21st. That night a large crowd began gathering in the center of Bucharest demanding Ceausescu's overthrow. Earlier that day, Ceausescu had ordered the army to block access to the center of Bucharest. Come nightfall, however, army units were refusing to stand in the way of the protesters. The Romanian Defense minister, General Vasile Milea, who reportedly refused to open fire on demonstrators in Timisoara or Bucharest, was summarily executed.51 The next day Ceausescu took off in his personal helicopter from the roof of the Central Committee building to an almost certain fate.