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East European Perspectives: May 14, 2003

14 May 2003, Volume 5, Number 10


By Richard Andrew Hall

The Symbiosis Of Serbian Opposition (Continued)

Benson, for one, expresses skepticism regarding the timing of the publication of the now infamous Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU) Memorandum in late September 1986 -- "since it had been in circulation for well over a year" (Benson, 2001, p. 146). SANU had appointed a committee in June 1985 to formulate a memorandum to "raise the most important social, political, economic, educational, and cultural problems." What they came up with instead was a nationalist screed that claimed Serbs were the targets of "neofascist aggression" and of "physical, political, legal, and cultural genocide in Kosovo." (It is worth noting that such hyperbolic and ultimately abusive treatment of the term "genocide" also characterized Hungarian discussion of the plight of Transylvanian Hungarians.) Serbs were portrayed as the victims of a monstrous "anti-Serbian coalition" consisting of the leaderships of Croatia, Slovenia, and Vojvodina (Thomas, 1999, p. 41; Mertus, 1999, pp. 137-141). A media campaign after the leaking of the divisive document lasted from autumn 1986 through spring 1987 and called for the SANU leadership and, in particular, its vice president, the writer Antonije Isakovic, to resign (Thomas, 1999, p. 41).

Bennett maintains that whereas Ivan Stambolic, then president of Serbia, and Dragisa Pavlovic, head of the Belgrade League of Communists, denounced the memorandum publicly, condemnation of the document by the Central Committee of the Serbian League of Communists was "suppressed at the insistence of its President, Slobodan Milosevic" (Bennett, 1995, p. 82). Milosevic had acceded to that position in May 1986 according to the rules of rotation of office that prevailed at the time and with the help of his longtime political benefactor Ivan Stambolic. However, Cohen claims that as late as 4 June 1987 -- and thus three months after Milosevic's public nationalist epiphany at Kosovo Polje (Fusha Kosova) in April 1987 (discussed below) -- Milosevic used a closed meeting with Communists from the Federal Secretariat of Internal Affairs to launch an "uncharacteristically impassioned attack on the infamous Memorandum" (Cohen, 1997, p. 326). As Cohen observes, "Only a short time after making this speech, Milosevic would begin appropriating and encouraging viewpoints that he had earlier condemned as examples of the darkest nationalism" (Cohen, 1997, p. 326). Within a year he would also co-opt many of the memorandum's authors and supporters as an intellectual brain trust.

As is well known, the defining moment of Slobodan Milosevic's political career -- his personal "epiphany" or "moment of truth" -- occurred in Kosovo Polje on 24 April 1987 when he addressed a crowd of 15,000 Serbs beaten back by a mainly ethnic Albanian civilian police force. "No one should dare beat you, no one has the right to beat you," he told them. The crowd began chanting in response, "Slobo, Slobodo" -- a play on Milosevic's nickname and the word for freedom in Serbian -- and Milosevic responded: "You should stay here. This is your land. These are your houses. Your meadows and gardens. Your memories." Eric Gordy has perhaps captured best why Milosevic's behavior and style of interacting with the crowd at this event -- no matter how rehearsed or staged-managed as has been alleged -- was so groundbreaking:

"This was one of the first instances in which a leading politician had spoken in public and offered an idea that everybody could understand and who went so far as to encapsulate the message in a single comprehensible sentence. After years of progressively more incomprehensible and dense babble purporting to explain Yugoslavia's unnervingly opaque system of 'workers' self-management,' such an event was beyond memory for people who opposed Milosevic as well as those who supported him" (Gordy, 1999, p. 26 No. 6).

The so-called Night of Hard Words -- Milosevic would listen to the grievances of a delegation of Kosova Serbs in a meeting that lasted 12 hours! -- would end with Slobodan Milosevic a changed man. With the Belgrade media on hand to capture and later replay the moment over and over, Milosevic's "promise" to protect the Serbs rapidly became the stuff of popular legend in Serbia (Silber and Little, pp. 37-39).

Hungary: Leadership Succession, Struggle, And Opposition Fragmentation
The process of opposition coalescence that had developed in Hungary over the course of the early and especially mid-1980s began to fray in 1987. On the one hand, the banning of the provincial (Szeged) periodical "Tiszataj" in July 1986 for "nationalist material" and the measures taken against Istvan Csurka and Gaspar Nagy, who had written that material in its pages, had become mainly the focus of populist angst -- as exhibited at the Hungarian Writers' Union congress in late November 1986, the first such meeting since December 1981 (Pataki, 1986). Jenkins notes too that although Csoori, Csurka, and Sandor Lezsak had signed the October 1986 joint appeal with members of the "democratic opposition," they pointedly stayed away from a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, in part because they did not wish to jeopardize the gains they had wrested from the regime as a result of their ability to establish influence in the Writers Union (Jenkins, 1992).

After all, despite their struggles with the authorities -- a struggle made clear at the 1986 Writers' Union congress when party ideologue Janos Berecz launched a stinging indictment of intellectuals who did not toe the party's line in their work -- the populists did have something to lose. In response to a letter in late 1984 by Zoltan Biro and 18 of his populist colleagues, they had been allowed to establish the Gabor Bethlen Foundation to cover the plight of Transylvanian Hungarians (Jenkins, 1992; Tokes, 1996, pp. 196-197). Then, in April 1987, relations with the "democratic opposition" were further soured when the cultural monthly "Mozgo Vilag" published a poem by the urbanist Gyorgy Spiro in which he referred to the populists as "scum." As Judith Pataki describes, "many populist authors felt insulted and [thus] asked the Hungarian Writers' Union to refer the poem to its Committee on Ethics" (Pataki, 1987).

Against this backdrop came the so-called "Beszelo" affair surrounding the publication of the "Tarsadalmi Szerzodes," in which Janos Kis and two co-authors argued that it was time for Kadar to exit the political scene and for "radical political change" to renegotiate the "social contract" of the Kadar years (Tokes, 1996, p. 201). The populists were furious. It did not matter that the document, in Tokes's words, reflected the views of the "Beszelo" editors and not the broader "democratic opposition," and thus, "devoted considerable attention to the issue of Hungarian ethnic minorities" (Tokes, 1996, pp. 201-202). What mattered was that in "early 1987 the Populists [had] made another attempt to resume cooperation with the 'Beszelo' group by way of holding a 'Monor II' conference later in the year," and now instead the "democratic opposition" was attempting to impose their more radical agenda on the populists without consulting them (Tokes, 1996, p. 197).

Tokes argues that at the time the document was exceptionally courageous, but that it was the product as much of new pressures as new opportunities (Tokes, 1996, p. 200). In June 1987, Karoly Grosz had succeeded to the post of prime minister in what Tokes identifies as "the beginning of the endgame for the Kadar regime in Hungary." "The still loosely organized dissident movement was in danger of losing momentum or worse -- succumbing to offers of co-optation by the regime or by its 'human face,' Imre Pozsgay," head of the People's Patriotic Front-organization (HNF) since 1982 and already well known as the most prominent advocate of reform among the post-Kadar generation in the party's higher ranks (Tokes, 1996, p. 200; 239).

Clearly jockeying for power in advance of the succession struggle that would inevitably follow Kadar's eventual resignation, Pozsgay appears to have played an important role as godfather of the conference of 181, mostly populist intellectuals at Lakitelek on 27 September 1987, that saw the founding of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). The site of the conference was the home of the intellectual Sandor Lezsak in the village of Lakitelek, some 90 kilometers southeast of Budapest. The contrast with a previous meeting of young authors at the same location in May 1979 -- when authorities shut down proceedings after only two days -- could not have been greater. This time, not only did the authorities stay away, but a senior official (Pozsgay) spoke at the gathering (Pataki, 1987).

As Tokes points out, Zoltan Biro, still a party member at the time, was a friend and associate of Pozgay's while at the Culture Ministry in the 1970s and had since at least the late 1970s constituted a link for Pozsgay to the provincial cultural and educational elites who formed the backbone of the populists (Tokes, 1996, pp. 204-205). Tokes maintains that as one of the conveners of Lakitelek, Biro was clearly serving as "Pozsgay's political emissary." Pozsgay himself attended the meeting -- ostensibly to convey Prime Minister Grosz's greetings -- and delivered a sharp indictment of the contemporary political situation in Hungary, calling for a "new national coalition" for a "democratic and socialist" Hungary. In case there was any doubt that the MDF was a "stalking horse" for Pozsgay, on 14 November 1987 the founding statement of the MDF was published in the HNF newspaper "Magyar Nemzet" as part of an interview with Pozsgay, the HNF head. The article came six weeks after the conference, but significantly only two days after a stinging address by Grosz in Gyor about the "extremist elements of the opposition trying to compromise and discredit the leadership" (Reisch, 1987).

Conspicuous by their absence at the Lakitelek conference were representatives of the "democratic opposition." Judith Pataki noted at the time, "Gyorgy Konrad was the only 'urban' author invited to the meeting, indicating the split that exists between populists and 'urban' writers, which the regime has sought to capitalize on in order to divide the opposition" (Pataki, 1987). In fact, Konrad objected to the nascent communist-populist condominium being advocated by Pozsgay and most of the populist speakers, claiming that it was antithetical to the multiparty system that had prevailed in 1947-48, before the communists extinguished official political differentiation (Tokes, 1996, p. 198). Laszlo Lengyel, a reform economist, did not abstain from highlighting that the conference was not representative of the Hungarian opposition: "Where are those who for years had spoken up for the cause of Hungarian democracy and the rights of Hungarian citizens? Where are the Janos Kis'? I miss them!" (cited in Tokes, 1996, pp. 198-199).

The absence of representatives of the "democratic opposition" from Lakitelek was not accidental. Asked several years later why, at the famous founding meeting of the MDF at Lakitelek in September 1987, representatives of the "democratic opposition" had been conspicuously absent, Zoltan Biro recalled what he claims was the poisonous fallout of the "Beszelo" affair:

"The whole thing went to pieces with the appearance of the special 'Tarsadalmi Szerzodes' edition of 'Beszelo.' With this they went ahead of the events, since the goal of the organizing council should have been exactly the acceptance of such a document. I cannot help but conclude that such a gesture was a breach of trust. They didn't say a word about any of it. Csoori, Gyula Fekete, and I were sitting on the terrace of the 'Europa presszo' [cafe], when Fur and Csurka returned from a preparatory session with the news: 'Social Contract' had been published. It was then that we decided that we can't go on like this [with the "democratic opposition"], we have to arrange our own meeting (Biro, 1993, p. 96).

Tokes discusses the groundbreaking significance of the Lakitelek conference for regime-opposition relations in Hungary as follows:

"The Lakitelek conference was a landmark event: the public renegotiation of the terms of the Kadar-Aczel-Populist compromise of 1958-1962. The old regime had defaulted on its commitment to Nemeth, Illyes, and their ideological heirs. This, in turn, presented the reform communists, particularly Pozsgay, with the opportunity to revise the terms of the relationship to their political benefit. The recruitment of Populists for participation in a 'democratic socialist' partnership with political incumbents was an example of communist 'rearguard Realpolitik' at its best. The Populists' enthusiastic endorsement of the terms of Grosz's proposal helped drive a wedge between the democratic opposition and the nationalist intelligentsia. As the populists saw it, Pozsgay's involvement as a trusted middleman between the regime and the intellectuals committed to values of 'people and nation' held the promise of a Popular Front-type 'democratic socialist' party pluralism. Prospects of peaceful power sharing by emerging constituencies, such as new clubs and associations, with the regime's PPF seemed irresistible to the 'founding fathers' of the HDF in the fall of 1987. The pact, such as it was, helped upgrade the Populist politicians' status from that of powerless petitioners to politically sheltered auxiliaries of the ruling party's nascent reform wing" (Tokes, 1996, p. 199).

As Kurti has suggested, as emigration from Transylvania increased, the issue of the fate of the Hungarian diaspora became more concrete for Hungarians: "The very presence of 'Transylvanian Hungarians' gave an impetus to the public discourse on the problems of Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring successor states, especially in the fight for human rights in Czechoslovakia and Romania" (Kurti, 2001, p. 111). In this way, Hungary mirrored Serbia, where the exodus of Kosovar Serbs and their presence in Belgrade had placed the issue in the popular conscience and forced its way onto the political agenda.

Although the role of changes in Hungarian regime policy toward East German "tourists" and refugees is well known in the history of the collapse of communism in 1989, the impact of Hungarian regime policy on the Transylvanian question in Hungarian politics and upon Hungarian-Romanian relations is generally not. Between August and October 1986, for example, the number of Romanian passport holders exiting Hungary for Austria without the requisite valid Austrian entry stamp doubled (Pataki, 1988a). Whereas in 1986 3,284 Romanian citizens had requested Hungarian residency, in 1987 that number doubled to 6,499 -- with fully 95 percent of the total being Romanian citizens of Hungarian ethnicity (Kurti, 2001, p. 110). By early 1988, there were an estimated 10,000 new refugees from Romania living in Hungary -- even though one-quarter of those trying to enter Hungary were still purportedly being turned back at the border and there were isolated instances of Romanian border guards gunning down would-be refugees (Pataki, 1988b). The resettlement issue in general, and the return of ethnic Hungarians to Romania by the Hungarian government specifically, were issues that, according to Kurti, "so galvanized the Hungarian opposition elite that by the beginning of 1988 it dared to speed up its open confrontational manner against both countries' regimes" (Kurti, 2001, p. 124).

As Kurti observes, "Mostly formed by populist writers, filmmakers, poets, university teachers, and artists, the Democratic Forum was organized with the central goal of helping the Transylvanian cause" (Kurti, 2001, p. 129). Although in late January and early February 1988, there was a coordinated multi-country effort by dissidents across Eastern Europe -- including representatives of Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia -- to protest Nicolae Ceausescu's oppressive rule in Romania, the Democratic Forum was undeniably the engine of sustained efforts to highlight the transgressions of the Romanian regime -- but primarily with regard to the treatment of the Hungarian minority. A 30 January 1988 gathering of some 500 people sponsored by the Democratic Forum -- but also including the attendance of Gyorgy Konrad and Janos Kis -- in the Jurta Theater -- Budapest's only large privately owned theater at the time -- had drawn up an appeal for political reform that was promptly ignored by official Hungarian media (Reisch, 1988a). However, the MDF's third meeting, on 6 March 1988 in the Jurta Theater, was devoted to formulating a statement on the Hungarian diaspora, and attracted 730 people to the 330-seat theater -- attendees were asked to donate 100 forints for rent, because the regime was applying financial pressure to shut down the Jurta Theater (Reisch, 1988b). In attendance this time were not only populist mainstays such as Csoori and Csurka and many others, but nonpopulist Transylvanian emigres such as Gaspar Miklos Tamas and Geza Szocs, as well as a series of increasingly prominent Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSZMP) members who were shortly to be expelled from the party (Reisch, 1988b). In his remarks, Szocs assailed not only the Romanian regime but the "lameness" of the Hungarian authorities. Undoubtedly responding to the increasing flow of refugees from Romania and the pressure now publicly assumed and exerted by the MDF, and attempting to carve out a more autonomous role in the rapidly evolving political climate preceding Kadar's succession, on 17 March the National Assembly -- with only 12 votes against and 10 abstentions -- voted for a resettlement fund for the refugees in the amount of 300 million forints (Reisch, 1988b).

The MDF's existence as the first and essentially sole organized representative of civil society at this juncture, the prominence it gave the Transylvanian question, the growing tide of ethnic Hungarian refugees from Romania, and the politics of Kadar's potential successors staking out their ground in the run-up to the special party conference scheduled for May, conspired during this period to give the national question, and specifically Transylvania, a primacy in Hungarian domestic politics. Indicative of the fact that some within the party leadership were fearful of the growing influence of the MDF, and of how it was potentially serving as a stalking horse for Imre Pozsgay within the context of the succession struggle, four reformers within the party were expelled in early April 1988 for violating party discipline by articulating "views at variance with the party's policies...for some time at nonparty forums" (Tokes, 1996, p. 202). Not surprisingly, one of the four expelled was Zoltan Biro, who had played a key role at Lakitelek and in the founding of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, and was widely seen as Pozsgay's bridge to the organization.

But the decisions taken by the Romanian regime at this juncture also played a key role in forcing Transylvania to the front of the Hungarian political scene. In April 1988, the Hungarian media reported that even minority language newspapers in Romania were now required to use only Romanian-language place names for cities and villages, regardless of the location or ethnic makeup of the place in question. More damaging still was Ceausescu's announcement to reenergize his so-called "systematization" dream, that called for the elimination of up to 10,000 villages by the year 2000, and that Hungarians believed would disproportionately affect them given the increasingly precarious long-term prospects for Hungarian culture and identity in Transylvania.

The Romanian regime's decisions loosed a veritable avalanche of articles, statements, and protests from individuals and organizations inside and outside the Hungarian party-state. Demonstrations in Western capitals against the Romanian regime's policies, and in particular the systematization project, were covered by the Hungarian media. The Hungarian Architects Association, the Hungarian Musicians Association, the Hungarian Musical Council, the Hungarian Lawyers Association, the Hungarian Writers Association, the Institute for Literary Theory of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Association of Hungarian Film and Television Artists, the Hungarian Association of Societies for the Technical and Natural Sciences, and many other official organizations launched appeals and protests against the systematization project -- frequently appealing for international intervention to prevent it -- in the weeks following Kadar's resignation from the post of general secretary on 22 May 1988 (for an excellent chronology of the protests, see Ionescu, 1988). The Hungarian media gave prominence to such developments. The Foreign Ministry took the occasion to openly criticize the Romanian authorities while putting translations of articles from the official Hungarian press critical of Romania's resettlement plans at the disposal of foreign journalists (Ionescu, 1988). Clearly, those in the party-state were taking advantage of the succession and Kadar's exit to promote and exploit the authorities' tacit approval of protests on the Transylvania question.

The founding of the MDF, the regime's apparent grudging toleration of its existence (so long as it was a distinct entity outside the party and was not attempting to "steal" party members), and Pozsgay's call for a law on associations had unleashed a process in early 1988 whereby the formalization of what had been distinct, if informal, interest groups began to take place. Thus, on 30 March 1988, students founded the youth organization, the League of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), and a series of emergent interest groups joined together to form the Network of Free Initiatives (SZKH) on 1 May 1988. As Tokes suggests, the SZKH "was an unstructured discussion forum and, in a way, the 'Beszelo' circle's answer to the by then semilegitimate MDF" (Tokes, 1996, pp. 311-312). As Jenkins suggests, the members of the "democratic opposition" who founded the SZKH still, somewhat unrealistically perhaps at this juncture, seemed to harbor the expectation and hope that the MDF would join under the umbrella SZKH to form a united opposition (Jenkins, 1992). This did not happen. From March, the MDF had been setting up provincial branches, and throughout the spring and summer of 1988 this proto-party gathered momentum as an increasing force in Hungarian politics.

The response of Hungarian authorities to protests that occurred in the immediate wake of the special party conference in late May demonstrated even more clearly the lines between tolerated and unacceptable dissent and the regime's efforts to differentiate and drive a wedge between the two. On 27 May, for example, an unofficial gathering of 2,000 protesters demonstrating against the Czechoslovak Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam project was allowed to proceed peacefully and was covered by Radio Budapest, including a 20-minute press account the following day (Pataki, 1988c). A month later, on 27 June 1988, in the largest demonstration since the 1956 Revolution -- larger than any previous effort to mark the dates of 15 March, 16 June, and 23 October -- at least 40,000, and perhaps many as 80,000 people, marched through the streets of Budapest to denounce the planned Romanian project of "village systematization" and protest in general the lot of ethnic Hungarians in Romania. There was little police presence and both Hungarian television and radio covered the demonstrations (Pataki, 1988d). Moreover, it appears that although the party's politburo urged party and youth organizations to stay away from the 27 June demonstration, nothing was said about party penalties for those who chose to join the protest march (Tokes, 1996, p. 486 n. 88).

By contrast, preventive detentions occurred in the days leading up to the 16 June 1988 demonstrations to commemorate the execution of Imre Nagy, and 19 were arrested and over 100 beaten as police brutally broke up the demonstration (Pataki, 1998c; Tokes, 1996, p. 287). This seemed no fluke either, as the 15 March 1988 demonstration on Hungary's traditional national day had resulted in the famous "Battle of the Chain Bridge" when police cracked down on demonstrators (Tokes, 1996, pp. 173-174). What differentiated the repressed 16 June 1988 demonstration and the tolerated 27 June 1988 demonstration 11 days later was that the "democratic opposition" had a heavy presence at the former, while the latter was dominated by the populist Hungarian Democratic Forum (Schopflin, Tokes, and Volgyes, 1988, pp. 44-45). And what differentiated the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros and Transylvania protests from the Nagy protest was also that the former called upon (greater) regime action and intervention -- a call that could be potentially embraced by party cadres who did not support the cause of the demonstrations themselves -- whereas the latter was explicitly critical of the government.

The division and separation of the Hungarian opposition into distinct groups was cemented in the fall of 1988. A year after the famous Lakitelek conference, the Hungarian Democratic Forum officially declared itself a political movement on 3 September 1988. Among its founders were the core of populist dissent and thus it should come as no surprise that its founding statement stipulated that the diaspora was an "inalienable" part of the Hungarian nation (Reisch, 1988b). Significantly, the MDF announced that it was and intended to be a "movement that neither supports, nor opposes the government" (Reisch, 1988b). As Alfred Reisch noted, the MDF appeared to have been set up with "official acquiesence," as media coverage of the event was incomparably greater than that of the Lakitelek conference the previous year, and as government officials seemed to be "outright rejoicing" in their commentary on the party's creation (Reisch, 1988c). Indicative of the sea change in official regime attitudes that appeared to have followed Kadar's ouster was that the regime organ "Tarsadalmi Szemle," which had previously published criticism of the MDF, ran a six-page statement by MDF official Zoltan Biro, who had been expelled from the party in April for his participation in the MDF (Reisch, 1988c). In November 1988, some members of the SZKH (led by Janos Kis, Ferenc Koszeg, and Balint Magyar) chose to form their own rival political movement to counter the MDF, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ); by March 1989, their first party congress -- including Gabor Demszky, Gyorgy Konrad, Miklos Haraszti, and many other long-time members of the "democratic opposition" -- was launching a political program (Jenkins, 1992; Markos-Oltay, 1989). Hungary's future political party system was coming into existence.

(Richard Andrew Hall holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University and a B.A. from the University of Virginia. He currently works and lives in northern Virginia. Comments or questions can be sent to him at


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