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Hungary: Ten Years After Communism

  • Jolyon Naegele

In late October of 1989, the Communist dictatorship in Hungary was dismantled. As part of RFE/RL's series on the events of ten years ago, correspondent Jolyon Naegele takes a look back at Hungary in 1989.

Prague, 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago this month, Hungary's parliament enacted some 100 changes to the communist constitution, re-establishing a multiparty system and transforming the "people's republic" into a republic without adjectives.

On the 33rd anniversary of the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution -- the speaker of parliament and acting head of state, Matyas Szuros, addressed a crowd of some 100,000 people. Szuros waved the constitutional amendments from a balcony of the parliament building and declared, "God protect Hungary; we have suffered long enough".

"I solemnly declare that the national assembly through an amendment to the constitution proclaims that from this day, the 23rd of October 1989, the state bears the name Republic of Hungary."

To the accompaniment of a military brass band, the crowd with hardly a dry eye in sight, sang the Hungarian anthem, "God bless the Magyar."

More than four decades of communist totalitarian rule was ending and the overwhelming sense of relief was palpable. That night opposition leaders and their supporters marched across Budapest's chain bridge and up the ramparts of Buda castle in a torch-light parade, singing and chanting. The communist dictatorship had been dismantled and the political fight for voter support had begun. But the goals of a pluralist state of law, a free-market economy, and a civil society were still barely on the horizon. Free elections were held the following Spring.

Hungary's current Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the leader of the fledgling Federation of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), that a decade ago made many of the most radical demands for change. He spoke recently at a colloquium in Vienna on the legacy of 1989.

"89 was the last year of dictatorship. I think the less that remains from '89 the better. What we believed in '89 was that as long as there are no free elections, there is no democracy. Consequently everything before the free elections is part of dictatorship, even if a soft dictatorship."

The changes achieved in October 1989 were, nevertheless, a milestone in the country's gradual transformation. It began inside the Hungarian parliament some four years earlier as MPs became increasingly unwilling to act as a rubber stamp assembly.

Their first act of defiance was to refuse to allocate funds for construction of luxury homes for the communist leadership. The party leadership under Janos Kadar was taken aback but unable to circumvent the MPs. Further moves toward establishing a multiparty parliamentary democracy ensued.

Kadar had led Hungary since the suppression of the 1956 revolution. He gained a reputation as a moderate, known for his dictum, "whoever is not against us is with us." That was a reversal of the traditional Stalinist line. But in later years, he resisted attempts by younger party officials to tinker with his modest reforms.

By the mid-1980's, Hungary was in the depths of a malaise. An opposition manifesto published in the Budapest daily Magyar Nemzet in November 1987 declared that Hungary's "national strength is broken, its self-confidence and bearing are shaken, its cohesion loosened..."

Hungarian society was atomized, frustrated and fearful of inflation and the specter of unemployment.

The first moves toward the development of a civil society in the late 1980's threw the spotlight on an issue about which large numbers of Hungarians had strong opinions. It concerned a costly project to dam up the Danube river at three locations upstream from Budapest as part of a joint hydropower project with Czechoslovakia. Growing public pressure, including a series of demonstrations, forced Hungarian authorities to declare a moratorium and eventually unilaterally withdraw from the project.

Kadar remained in office long past his prime. When he was finally due to resign at a conference of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers Party in May 1988, he threatened not to leave. He waved a dismissive hand at those demanding speedier reforms.

Most of the 1,000 delegates rejected Kadar's recommendation for a gradual replacement of the old guard. Kadar was succeeded by Karoly Grosz, who enjoyed the backing of the key anti-Gorbachev, conservative Soviet Politburo member, Yegor Ligachev.

Kadar's departure enabled the rehabilitation of the reluctant leader of the 1956 revolution, Imre Nagy, who under Kadar had been labeled a counterrevolutionary. Nagy was secretly tried and executed in Romania in 1958 with Kadar's approval. In June of 1989 as Kadar lay dying, immense crowds turned out in Budapest's Heroes square for a formal funeral ceremony and re-burial of Nagy. Kadar's funeral the following month was a considerably more modest affair that in a sense represented the burial of Hungarian communism.

Between June and September 1989, the communists held roundtable talks on democratic transformation with the pro-democracy opposition. The talks, chaired by the speaker of parliament, Szuros, resulted in an agreement between the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party and opposition groups. It set the political and legal conditions that would enable a peaceful transformation to a multi-party democratic state of law. It also sought a way out of Hungary's social and economic crisis.

The communists proposed that "the Polish model" used in the June 1989 elections in Poland be followed in Hungary. This would have established a fixed percentage of seats in parliament to go to the communists while the opposition would be allowed to run against the communists only for the remaining seats. But unlike in Poland, the opposition rejected the concept.

Prime Minister Orban participated in the roundtable talks a decade ago.

"In a word, the (communists') goal was that the reform communist party should be the one dealing the cards for a long time after the democratic transition in parliament."

Orban notes the opposition in turn demanded that space be given to genuine competition in the political arena to enable the establishment of a real parliamentary democracy. Similarly, in the economic sector, Orban says, the communists sought to reserve the ownership of large scale enterprises for themselves by transforming the old political and economic nomenklatura into the new owners.

A decade ago, many defended putting state companies in the hands of their communist managers to ensure a peaceful transformation, in the belief that once the power elite had property at stake they would not take up arms against the changes. But Orban says this process created "fake competition" and almost made real competition impossible for years to come.

The pro-democracy opposition insisted that genuine privatization which could create real market competition could only start after free elections, which were finally held in March and April 1990.

Orban says the difference between those who mark 1989 and those who mark 1990 as the end of communist rule and the beginning of democracy reveals the two opposing concepts of transition.

"The concept of the 89ers in Hungary is that of continuity. The concept of the 90ers is that of change. The stance of the 89ers was that many things needed to be changed so that the substance could remain the way it was -- continuity in all fields. The same elites should exercise power as before and the same old ties and networks should remain in the economy, in society and politics as before."

In contrast, Orban says the concept of the 90ers was that a great many things have to be changed so that things shall not remain the way they were. In his words, "the concept of the 89ers in Hungary is what we call post-communist society; and the concept of the 90ers is the competition-based society".

Orban says the 89ers and 90ers in Hungary remain "diametrically opposed" to each other. In Orban's view these divisions still cut across politics and society, the economy, and the media.