PARIS — Paris. Was the December 1989 Romanian upheaval in that ended the dictatorship of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu a revolution, or a coup d'etat?
It was both , says a principal figure in those events, Silviu Brucan.
I met Silviu Brucan in Bucharest in the late winter of 1988-1989, when he was organizing a secret movement inside the Communist Party to overturn the Ceausescus and install a liberalized Communist regime. When the revolution took place at the end of 1989, he emerged as one of the new National Liberation Front's leaders.
Mr. Brucan is a major figure in Romanian communism, a member of the Communist Party since before World War II. He is one of that declining number of people who knew and dealt with Joseph Stalin. He has been ambassador to the United States and editor of the Communist Party daily.
In March 1989 he was a figure of (justified) suspicion to the Ceausescu government, but was able to move about with relative freedom. According to him, his conspiracy was not backed by the Soviet Union; he had been told by Moscow, he says, that the Soviet political services had all they could handle at home without attempting to organize subversion in Romania. The Soviet Union had made it known, however, that he was under its protection.
At the time, he showed me a proposal for Communist Party reform he had drafted. He was also about to deliver to President Ceausescu a letter, signed by himself and five other veteran Communists (including a founder of the Romanian Communist Party), demanding the restoration of constitutional guarantees of individual security, economic reforms and an end to the ''systemization'' -- destruction -- of Romania's traditional agricultural communities.
Some days later the text of this letter was published in the West -- together with the signatures. Mr. Brucan and his fellow-signers were arrested.
I saw Mr. Brucan again in the Netherlands two weeks ago. The following is the account he gave me of what actually happened in Romania.
The revolution began in a spontaneous popular uprising set off by the violent repression of demonstrations in the provincial city of Timisoara in mid-December. It was the very young who launched the subsequent demonstrations in Bucharest which led to street fighting and provoked the flight from Bucharest of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.
However, not one but two conspiracies already existed to topple the Ceausescus. There was Mr. Brucan's, which had been checked but not destroyed by the arrests in March (two further demands for reform were issued in Bucharest during the autumn, signed by what already was calling itself the ''National Salvation Front''), and there was a second in the army, going ''deep'' into the officer corps.
His group had chosen Ion Iliescu as eventual successor to Nicolae Ceausescu. Mr. Iliescu was a Ceausescu official, but was known to have opposed some of the dictator's more extravagant decisions and was thought capable of rallying the Communist Party apparatus once the Ceausescus were out.
The popular uprising was undirected and (in Mr. Brucan's eyes, those of a veteran political operator) hopelessly unsophisticated. did not know where it was going and had no leadership. It offered the opportunity, however, for both Mr. Brucan's group and the army conspirators.
However, ''reality overtook us,'' Mr. Brucan says. The revolution revealed nothing but hatred for communism. The Communist Party completely collapsed. The idea of Communist reform was no longer tenable. The new government had to be noncommunist. Mr. Iliescu did wind up as leader of the new government, but the conspirators were not in control of events. Everything was improvisation.
The national election that followed, in the spring of 1990, was imperfect but free, according to Mr. Brucan. He expects new voting this fall, in view of the government's manifest difficulties and incoherence. Discouraged, he himself left the new government two months after it was formed, writing in a Paris newspaper that ''it will take 20 years for Romania to become a democracy.'' That made him extremely unpopular. Today he shrugs about it. It is still what he thinks. He now teaches at the University of Bucharest.
I should add a personal footnote, for the record. I have been credited by Radio Free Europe, and elsewhere, with having brought the text of the dissident Communist leaders' letter of March 1989 to the West. This is not true. I seem to have provided a useful diversion in these events, but the text of the letter was simply mailed by Mr. Brucan to addresses in Vienna and London, for transmission to the Associated Press and the BBC.
When after several days the BBC had broadcast nothing, Mr. Brucan concluded that the letter had not got through -- actually it had -- and made another handwritten copy that he gave to the American Embassy, asking that it be immediately typed on an embassy machine and his version destroyed. His arrest promptly followed. According to him, the embassy had been penetrated by the Romanian security service.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.