I'm sure we will read a lot about 1989 this year. It was twenty years ago that Hungarian democracy or, as it's sometimes called, the Third Republic was born. 168 Óra, a liberal weekly that in its online form looks more like an internet daily (hourly?), has already begun a series of articles dealing with 1989 when the last communist government "had to change the wheels while running," as its prime minister Miklós Németh said with a certain amount of pride. It was either in 1994 or 1995 that on an English-language internet list a very knowledgeable member, an economist, claimed that perhaps the best government Hungary had was Németh's. This is what József Barát, a journalist who wrote about the Németh government in 168 Óra, also thinks.
Németh became prime minister on November 24, 1988, thanks to the secretary of MSZMP Károly Grósz who a few weeks later announced that the one-party system must be retained in Hungary, if necessary by force. However, by May 10, 1989, Németh managed to completely revamp the composition of his cabinet. He transformed it into a "government of experts" whose members were destined to make the transition from one-party dictatorship to democracy. It just shows how rapidly events unfolded that a month after Grósz swore up and down that the old regime would stay regardless of what happens, in January 1989, the New March Front, a civil organization established in 1988, claimed that there must be a national committee whose task would be to work out the details of the transition to multi-party democracy. By June the members of the opposition parties and the representatives of MSZMP began their negotiations about the actual details of how this transition would be achieved. And by October 23 the Republic of Hungary was officially declared by the Speaker of the House from one of the balconies of the parliament building. In 1990 March and April there were the first free elections where MSZP, the reform wing of the old MSZMP, lost badly. Németh passed the reins of government to József Antall who thanked him for his stewardship. In turn, Németh congratulated Antall on his victory. (In those days there was still civility in Hungarian political life. Such courtesies are dispensed with nowadays. The losers don't congratulate the winners. They don't even want to accept the results.) Here is a picture of Németh and Antall at this historic moment shaking hands.
It fell to Miklós Németh, shortly after the declaration of the Republic, to confess that the former governments, including his own, had provided false figures on the economic situation of the country: Hungary in fact had a foreign debt of 20 billion dollars which in those days was a staggering amount especially in comparison to the country's GDP. The "gulash communism" of János Kádár had been financed by foreign loans. The country lived above its means. Not for the first and not for the last time. Németh and his government were faced with a Herculean task during their short stint in office. First and foremost, they had to raise prices. On January 9, exactly twenty years ago, the prices of goods went up by 20-22% on average. And the price of medicine, which used to cost next to nothing, rose by 80%. Suddenly there was the need for unemployment insurance.
By the end of January 1989, Imre Pozsgay, a member of the Political Committee, openly admitted for the first time that the October Revolution of 1956 was not a "counterrevolution" but an "unprising of the people." By February even the top brass of MSZMP realized that the end of one-party rule was at hand and that a change to multi-party democracy was inevitable. By February the decision was made no longer to officially celebrate November 7.
Within a year there was an election campaign where the most remarkable poster was produced by MDF. This poster became emblematic of the end of both one-party dictatorship and Hungary's membership in the Warsaw Pact. I just read somewhere that this poster is worth about a hundred dollars today. Perhaps even more. Someone apparently has four hundred copies of it.
The end of the dictatorship came as a surprise to practically everybody. Of course, without Gorbachev and his willingness to let the Soviet Union's Eastern European Empire go there would most likely have been no regime change. Unlike in Poland there were practically no signs of unrest in Hungary. The opposition was minuscule and ineffectual. Although the secret police worked furiously, most of their reported cases were banal and without any threat to the state. Most people, as far as I could see, were satisfied with the government as long as their standard of living was climbing even if modestly.
And now I come to another article in the same issue of 168 Óra by Mária Vásárhelyi. It is about her father, Miklós Vásárhelyi, who was Imre Nagy's press secretary in 1956 and who not only shared exile with him in Romania but also was sentenced along with him, Pál Maléter, József Szilágyi, and others. He was lucky he got the lightest sentence: five years. Vásárhelyi lived long enough to see the change of regime. He died in 1995. Mária Vásárhelyi recalls in her piece that in her family the only person who strongly believed in the collapse of the Soviet regime in his lifetime was her father. He had just been released from prison, he had no job, no income, some of his old acquaintances wouldn't even accept his greeting or crossed to the other side of the street to avoid meeting him. But he was already watching world events trying to find every bit of promising change in the international climate that would lead to the death of the Soviet empire. He spent hours every day trying to listen to Radio Free Europe and BBC and with great optimism he always found some encouraging news. Other members of the family thought that he was a bit eccentric, especially as years rolled by without any change whatsoever. Sometimes the other members of the family just smiled when Vásárhelyi began to outline his optimistic scenarios. Thus, says Mária Vásárhelyi, 1989 was for "our family as if the Messiah had arrived."
However, let's face it, the ordinary Hungarian didn't know what was happening or what was coming. Or he believed that democracy would bring prosperity and that Hungarians would be as rich as their Austrian brothers-in-law. Hungarians jokingly call the Austrians "sógorok," after all, the two countries lived together for an awfully long time. And when the riches didn't materialize, disappointment followed. Today a lot of people think back fondly to the good old days of János Kádár. But twenty years have gone by, there is a new generation who never lived in that regime. Perhaps in a few more years, with a little more prosperity, people's thinking will change. I very much hope so.