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Hungary’s 1989 negotiated change of regime

By Zsuzsanna Hargitai
In January 1989 I was in the foreign service of the People’s Republic of Hungary and by the end of the year I was in the foreign service of the Republic of Hungary. In April I visited London for the first time in my life, participating in the CSCE Information Forum – where we included an “opposition member” in the official Hungarian delegation. What an uproar that caused in the Warsaw Pact caucus!

Then I went on to the Paris CSCE meeting on human rights, where for the first time we could talk about the plight of the Hungarian national minority in Romania and say “no” to an invitation from the Soviet delegation to a “tea party”, i.e. coordination among Warsaw Pact member states. And then I spent the summer as part of the Hungarian delegation negotiating, or rather communicating, the opening of Hungary’s border with Austria – the Iron Curtain.

By the way, the Iron Curtain did not fall. It had to be broken down, cut open – by peoples’ pressure and by some politicians’ bold and well-timed decisions. Later, I received a piece of the barbed wire, duly framed, with a personal dedication from the Prime Minister of Hungary at that time, Miklós Németh.

Commemorating 1989 

This week’s 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will be commemorated throughout Europe. 

But that historic moment would never have happened without dramatic changes elsewhere in the continent in 1989, such as Poland holding its partially free elections and Hungary breaching the Iron Curtain’s barbed wire.

 The EBRD is itself a child of that year, established as it was later to help the region embrace the principles of democracy and the market economy. Now, 25 years on, the EBRD is looking back and reflecting on the future.

In October I was part of the Hungarian delegation at the highest level meeting of the Warsaw Treaty, the Political Consultative Committee. It was a last ditch effort to bring some cohesion to its members. My mandate at the time was to prevent a joint statement on economic co-operation with a “constructive approach”. And so I used words which today are common vocabulary of the EBRD: market integration, market incentives, encouraging private sector development and commercial banking. There was no chance of the other countries agreeing to this terminology.

On day 3 the news arrived: Hungary has shed the term “People’s Republic” and the 1956 counterrevolution was reassessed by one influential politician in power as a people’s uprising. Perhaps this was the moment I felt the changes east of Vienna had become irreversible.

In November, as we were celebrating my birthday which happens to fall on 9 November, I received a real surprise birthday present – the news about East Berliners cracking, crushing, breaking through the Berlin wall! Early December we had foreign policy consultations with the State Department in Washington – a lot was on the table ranging from the impact of a potential Soviet troops withdrawal from Hungary on the balance of conventional forces in Europe to the human rights situation in Romania.

Little did I imagine that on 24 December 1989 my last trip of the year – and this time not in an official capacity but as a private citizen with other volunteers – would lead me from my home town Debrecen to Oradea in Romania, bringing food and medicine in the middle of the people uprising against the Ceaușescu regime.

Hungary had a “negotiated change of regime” as we used to call it, achieved through lengthy round table talks between representatives of the democratic opposition and factions of the incumbent Hungarian Socialist People’s Party. The talks led to a fundamental change of the constitution and the free elections of March 1990.

Some may think  that this “negotiated way” to a new system did not lead to a “deep cleansing” of society and Hungary’s institutional structures. I respectfully disagree. Hungary for a good decade led the process of “transition” with bold steps – but then shied away from reforming its public spending, reconsidering the role of state institutions in a market economy and instead launched itself into a consumption-led growth, fuelled by cheap funding which was available from the largely foreign-owned banks in the early 2000s.

With the onset of the 2008/09 financial crisis, soaring mortgage payments coupled with rising unemployment undermined the confidence of most of the population in market economies’ ability to provide better living standards. Since then promises of law and order to protect Hungarian interests and the argument for creating a “central force” providing paternalistic protection and provision, reining in unfettered foreign corporate greed and consolidating traditional Hungarian values, have been made frequently. And the “central force” has indeed consolidated power in a highly shrewd manner.

I still hope that the liberal ideas and values that contributed to the changes of 1989 will come back to Hungary and take deeper roots. One day.

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