Twenty years ago: the birth of Hungarian democracy

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. Nemeth-Antall

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.Tovarishi koniets  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.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Ricsi
Guest

I hate to be so negative,but the reality is that we will see a lot more suffering these next few years,before we see ‘a little more prosperity’.The county is in far worse state than 1989,effectively sold off with no prospects for revitalisation under the present incompetent gang of liars,or even under the marginally less incompetent main opposition party.

Op
Guest

“Today a lot of people think back fondly to the good old days of János Kádár.”
They are right.
The ’60s, ’70 and ’80s were the best times in the long history of Hungary.
Believe it or not.

Eva Balogh
Guest

Op: “Today a lot of people think back fondly to the good old days of János Kádár.” They are right. The ’60s, ’70 and ’80s were the best times in the long history of Hungary. Believe it or not.”
I don’t expect anything different from the Hungarian far right.

Ricsi
Guest

Éva
The Hungarian “far right” can in no way be equated to the ’60s,’70s ’80s . How can you even think that the communist regime would be in some way respected or approved.
Any way-what is your definition of ‘far right’ ?

Ricsi
Guest

By the way Éva, I have still got plenty of ‘hot air’ ,want to prick my balloon and see when it bursts ? (metaphorically speaking of course)
Still not clear ?

Odin's lost eye
Guest
For those who had foresight (and those like me who have hindsight) what has happened was absolutely predictable, just as it was in the 1920s and 1930s all over again. The Hungarians who had the best chance of all to make it big in the capitalist world squabbled and bickered amongst them selves and left the bureaucrats to run things. In the 20s and 30s they put all their effort into trying to undo the treaty of Trianon instead of making the best of it and becoming the ‘bread basket’ of Europe. Bureaucrats (although they think they can) are no use as running anything as dynamic as trade, industry or commerce. Sure they can count beans, fill in forms, meet in committees, write endless reports –which often make no recommendations- and push paper. It takes a person with huge determination to get an answer from them. When pressed on a point they will form sub-committees and sub-sub-committees to investigate and conceder the point. At the ‘front desk’ level (the first point of contact with the real world) the answer is always NO!. It is safest way. Either the ‘client’ will just go away –job done- or if he/she persists then… Read more »
Ricsi
Guest

Odin,
You dopey moron,nobody is ‘strutting around ,beating up people with foreign sounding names’ stop crying wolf everytime the Jew calls your attention and start opening your OWN eyes.
You want Hungarians to learn how real capitalism should work,honest trading,why ? when they see the thefts and blatant lies from the politicians and the new ‘elite’ everyday. Grow up man,Hungarians could be the best achievers ,but why bother in a system so endemic with corruption from the top ?
The sooner the corrupt lap dogs and commies disappear the better if Hungary is ever to progress.

Eva Balogh
Guest

Ricsi, one more “dopey moron” and you will be barred from this blog

Op
Guest

“I don’t expect anything different from the Hungarian far right.”
Is this the best you can do? Pathetic.
Far right? What is that? Your idea of the boogeyman? How lame can a liberal get?
No brains for argument, only handing out labels. What are you an 8 year old?
Can you deny that the ’60s through ’80s were the best years in the history of Hungary? Of course not. You don’t have a clue.

Ricsi
Guest

Éva,
That must be about the 20thtime you have ‘warned’ me,but something tells me that you are intrigued enough to let me stay !
We are not the evil that you like to think,only the reality for today’s situation.

Eva Balogh
Guest

Ricsi: Éva, That must be about the 20thtime you have ‘warned’ me,but something tells me that you are intrigued enough to let me stay”
Intrigued? I’m mostly disgusted that there are people like you in Hungary. I’m a patient person but when patience runs out I act swiftly. Don’t tempt me.

Ricsi
Guest

But I am in Hungary,unlike you Éva,and
why are you such a avid supporter of traitors,liars and thieves ??
For me this forum is a game to waste away a few minutes for I know nothing of any real construct will be found here,it is just interesting to see that such out-dated idolisation of the corrupt still exists.

Odin's lost eye
Guest
First of all there must apologise for stirring up Mr. Risci the way I have. Please do not worry about any one calling me a ‘dopy moron’. It just shows that the name caller has had to revert to insults because he is angry. I find it fun some times ‘bait my hook’ for that particular worthy! I am I’m old enough to remember Hitler’s brown shirts or ‘Sturm Abteilung’ as they were called and what they did. I have no intention of allowing my grandchildren to grow up and have to deal with a country held in a thrall by such clowns. Unfortunately Hungary was in that unpleasantness not on the side of the ‘angels’. It is but a short step from ‘marching against gypsy crime’ to a second ‘Kristallnacht’ and a new and more terrible ‘Final solution’. Mr Risci you say ** “Grow up man, Hungarians could be the best achievers, but why bother in a system so endemic with corruption from the top?” ** A statement like that coming from someone in your position astounds me There may be some mildew on the skin of a fruit that can be washed away but if the very core… Read more »
Op
Guest

Odin: “marching against gypsy crime”.
What’s wrong with that? They say a country has the right to defend itself (when it comes to Israel). Gypsies do a lot more damage to Hungary than the Hamas rockets do to Israel. Imagine if we did to gypsies what Israel is doing to the Palestinian. Is this some kind of double-standard? A little genocide is fine as long as it’s done by Jews, but if Hungarians dare to march peacefully they are immediately called racist, fascist, nazi, and whatnot. Is this idiotic or what?

Odin's lost eye
Guest

Oh! My God! He’s fallen out of hisn tree!

wpDiscuz