Danube Institute
Batthyány Lajos Alapítvány
www.budapost.eu
Friends of Hungary Foundation
Magyar Szemle

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12 May 2016

Crisis and Ascent – The Days of the 1990 Taxi Blockade



NSZ-ZN
: First of all, can you briefly describe what was your status in the government at the time?

GYK: During the first two years of the administration I was Head of the Prime Ministerial Advisers Office, at the same time Chief Adviser on Foreign Affairs, answering directly to the Prime Minister. Around autumn-time in 1990, it emerged that the PM wanted me to sit in on cabinet meetings. As Antall had the utmost respect for legality however, he said I could do that only if I was promoted to state secretary and made a permanent member of the cabinet. By the time the taxi blockade erupted my appointment had not yet been formalised, but, in attendance as a special invitee, I was there to witness those fateful, exceptionally heated cabinet meetings that took place at the time.

NSZ-ZN: What sequence of events preceded that Sunday cabinet meeting on 22 October, when the government decided to hike the price of vehicle fuel?

GYK: An extraordinary sequence of events led up to that postponed cabinet session on Sunday afternoon. Antall and his delegation had not arrived back from his official US visit in time for the cabinet meeting, which were usually held on Thursdays. The US trip had been a triumph. I had also been part of the delegation, and experienced at first hand the special treatment. The trip was one of a mere handful of so-called “state visits” that are normally arranged for the US President in any year. This honour spoke volumes about two things: the significance of Hungary in the bloodless revolutions of 1989; and the international role of József Antall, who Bush had by then already held up as an outstanding statesman.

NSZ-ZN: How did the subject of the hike in petrol prices arise?

GYK: Minister of Finance Ferenc Rabár advocated shock therapy for fixing the economy just as National Bank Chairman György Surányi did, but in a different way. Neither Antall nor any other minister wanted it though. Rabár would love to have been the Chief Minister of the Economy, but Antall was not willing to create such a position. So Rabár remained first among equals. By the beginning of October, Rabár was already holding talks with the IMF in Washington, where the lender laid down much stricter debt repayment conditions than had been expected. Back home, Rabár wrote a long ultimatum letter to Antall on 8 October about his reform plans for the economy. In effect, he asked for a complete free hand to apply shock therapy (although he did not put it like that). In practice however, he had made up his mind that the conditions could only be met if painful, drastic steps were made, and also that ultimately he would resign. He did not have the patience or resilience for a long drawn-out process of incremental steps.

In contrast, Ottó Hieronymi, Péter Bod, Béla Kádár and György Matolcsy, along with József Antall, were proponents of applying the Erhard model of social market economy, the sort of template used to resurrect the German economy after the war. A model that combines gradual transition with vigorous growth and social sensitivity, but also one that needs extra external resources. It is my belief that at the decisive cabinet meeting on 22 October, Rabár wanted to push the issue to breaking point, and force through higher petrol prices in opposition to Péter Bod’s softer, graduated plan. Let us get over this by taking a large step, was Rabár’s argument, and actually it was able to convince most Cabinet members. So the genesis of the taxi blockade, seen from the government side, was Ferenc Rabár’s ill-fated gambit. Rabár, never a team-player, went on to become one of the main dramatic characters in the whole story, right through the interminable negotiations, as he himself recalled in 1998. Of course I do not believe that the price rise was the sole cause of the blockade, but its size and the bad management of communications of course contributed to the rising emotions.

The other main actor, Antall, meanwhile had not been paying enough attention. He was still tired from the US trip, as well as ill. Hospital was on his mind instead. I still maintain that this important question should not have been allowed to be on the agenda just before his operation. The petrol price rise had already been put off for a long time so could easily have been delayed another week. Antall was a hugely talented statesman, but everyone has blind spots and weak moments. As is well known, Rabár proposed a price hike to 75 forints, Péter Bod to 45 forints. The added irony of the story, which casts Rabár in a certain light, is that the handling of the political and media spin on the price hike was passed over to Péter Bod’s portfolio, the Ministry of Industry, but not to the Minister but a spokesperson. It was clear that the price hike was untouched by any sort of communication strategy. In fact there was just one Minister, Ferenc Rabár himself, who could have credibly defended it before the public. Another factor to note is that it is also possible that Antall wanted to make a gesture, a concession to Rabár, who had been threatening to resign. It is worth recalling here a less well-known event. After the 23 October commemoration in the Parliament Antall did not go immediately to the hospital. Instead, he called to his office a handful of people he knew he could trust: Sándor Lámfalussy, the founding Chairman of the European Bank, who was in town at the time, Chief Economic Adviser Ottó Hieronymi, cabinet chief István Forrai, and my good self. Then we waited for György Matolcsy, the State Secretary for Economic Policy within the Prime Minister’s Office, and Ferenc Rabár to arrive. Antall was hoping that Sándor Lámfalussy could settle the conflict between the two opponents at the same time, as well as the macroeconomic debate within the government. Matolcsy came, but Ferenc Rabár did not show up! In the light of that particular story, one can imagine how Rabár felt about his ministerial role in the days before the taxi blockade and what the patient, but proud Antall must have thought. During the handling of the crisis negotiations it was Péter Bod and State Secretary for Labour Tamás Szabó that he increasingly pushed into the foreground, a source of resentment for Rabár it later turned out when, in 1998, he described himself as a peace-seeking trench warrior who saw the blockade as a matter of private conscience.

NSZ-ZN: How widely known within the government was József Antall’s sickness?

GYK: Antall was an extraordinarily reticent person. He did not like talking about his illness, either then or later. The news emerged for the first time during the US trip. Once, when there were just the two of us, he told me about his pains and operation. Those weeks were really heavy with drama even before the taxi blockade. The day before we left for the US the municipality elections took place. The results greatly distressed Antall, who was visibly depressed in the airport. But the journey hugely lifted his spirits. The American hospitality was uplifting, the trip an unprecedented success. It was another question, and another blow for Antall, how the Hungarian media gave the triumphal visit such scant coverage. That was the nature of the post-communist media in 1990. Government success did not receive the coverage it deserved, while there was not the slightest degree of objective information. In effect, the media endeavoured to become the first estate of power rather than the fourth, and to Antall and his government responded with hostility.

So on our return then, Antall was preoccupied with the operation. By the April elections, there had been visible signs of his illness. He consulted with his doctors, who said unless he improves the pessimistic prognosis was that he had three years left. Hence he was aware of the gravity of the situation, but still hoped that he could see out the term. It steeled his determination and became his vocation. I have to add here that he did indeed manage to work out those three and a half years, including during the periods of treatment, and with his customary excellence and intensity. The only thing he cut down on was his activities and public appearances. He often had severe headaches due to the treatment’s side-effects.

NSZ-ZN: How worried was the government that the decision to hike the petrol price could be a powder-keg?

GYK: Bod, myself and others had bad feelings about how it was going to go down with the public. The anger of the taxi drivers could be considered justifiable, but the blockade, hardly. Events never take place in a linear field of force. On the surface, the press and the opposition were able to drive home the idea that the government had lied and broken promises with the price hike. In such an atmosphere, in which uncertainty was breeding a widespread and completely natural feeling of anxiety in people, other forces quickly attached themselves to the taxi blockade “cause” from the first moment. Looking just at how quickly the country was shut down, it can be seen that it all went according to a thoroughly professional plan. During a few short hours road traffic suddenly became paralysed in the entire country. What the parliamentary enquiry later discovered was that some fifty of the taxi drivers who had been recently laid off by the security services and had become taxi drivers, coordinated and controlled the events on CB radios. They were not the brains of the whole thing but they handled the communications. It does not appear a mere coincidence either that the blockade broke out when Antall was in hospital. In medical circles obviously, his illness was not unheard of. The remnants of the Communist secret service would have known about it, and known when he was going to be operated on.

I think it is not surprising that a brutal rise in prices can bring on a crisis. Just think about all that happened in our region while our government saw out its full four-year term: four Polish Prime Ministers came and went, four Prime Ministers who sat opposite us at meetings: Mazowiecki, Bielecki, Suchocka and Pawlak. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union collapsed. Czechoslovakia split in two. Compared to such upheaval, the transition in Hungary went relatively smoothly. This of course is also thanks to the reform communists, and the opposition leaders in 1989, all having behaved in an extraordinarily responsible way. It was always going to be an illusion to think such a difficult transition could have happened without convulsions and drama. But to cripple an entire country on the basis of the price rise, well that was a reaction we had not counted on.

NSZ-ZN: On Thursday, the day when the price hike was announced and the taxi drivers went onto the streets, the bridges were closed. How do you remember it?

GYK: We quickly surmised the situation. During the blockade, the office of the Advisers Body became a focal point for the exchange of news, information and ideas. Everyone and anyone from government members, deputies and experts all dropped in. Hence the latest news reached us quickly, we were able to quickly immerse ourselves in the drama and search for a way out of the mess. Antall believed that the mistake was made right at the beginning. It may have perhaps been possible to prevent the blockade then by taking a vigorous stance. But the first setback was when the Budapest police chief not just failed to obey the Minister of the Interior Balázs Horváth but also misinformed him. It became clear there and then that Balázs Horváth had not been able to affect the necessary changes in personnel that would have guaranteed the loyalty of the police. Events took an even more dramatic turn on Friday. Early that morning Balázs Horváth, together with the MDF parliamentary caucus leader Imre Kónya, met President Árpád Göncz, but could not persuade him to make a public statement calling for calm and order to be restored. Reporting back to us in the Council office, Balázs said that the President clearly agreed with the taxi drivers and the politicians who supported them. He made another attempt to convince the president, this time taking along György Szabad, the House Speaker, and myself in my capacity as Chief Adviser. Balázs told the President that Lieutenant General Lőrincz, the Army Commander, was willing to provide truck-mounted cranes and other technical equipment to Army civilian staff in order to clear the roads of the obstructing vehicles.

NSZ-ZN: How did the meeting go?

GYK: Göncz appeared tense, even twitchy, when we arrived. We put three proposals to him. The first was a repeat of the effort made earlier that morning, but now bolstered by the respected György Szabad: that is, make a statement that would help to cool passions, and urge that a solution be found through talks with the government. Göncz point blank refused the idea. In that case, we would request, we said, that you as the person with legal authority and power of supervision over the army, authorise the army to hand over its truck-mounted cranes for use by Army civilian staff to dismantle the blockades. He refused this too. His face by now red, he raised his voice and said that in his capacity as Army Commander-in-Chief he would not tolerate the use of any force against civilians. There had not however been any mention of such a thing. The second issue with his reaction was that according to the constitution the President is indeed Army Commander-in-Chief, but only during a state of emergency, which had not been declared in this case. He had therefore overstepped his constitutional authority, but we left it at that. Our third proposal was that if deemed necessary the Army would be authorised to build a pontoon bridge to allow traffic cross the Danube. This was also rejected by the President, who summarised his position thence: “You got yourselves into this – so solve it yourselves!” And so we left, by then us too in a worked-up state.

NSZ-ZN: What did Göncz say at the afternoon cabinet meeting, after accepting, albeit conditionally, an invitation to it from Balázs Horváth?

GYK: At the invitation of the Interior Minister who was officially deputising for Antall, he finally came to the meeting, and for a while, reasoned arguments were voiced on both sides. Göncz outlined his view on the situation, that a movement of national disobedience had begun, and that this was the voice of the people. Péter Bod listed the reasons behind the price hike. Minister of Foreign Affairs Géza Jeszenszky feared that the great international respect we had earned over the previous years would be lost if the crisis dragged on inconclusively. Imre Kónya, a guest attendee as party parliamentary caucus leader for the MDF the raised the legal pitfalls within the stance of the president and the blockade builders. Prime Ministerial Adviser Csaba Ferencz – also a guest attendee – dealt with the national security risks of the crisis. At one point Göncz lost his patience, jumped up, and glowering, repeated his stance from the morning – this is your business, I cannot risk my authority because of you. And he left, literally slamming the door on the way out. It was then crystal clear for everyone, not just that there was no hope of help from him but that he saw things completely differently.

NSZ-ZN: Was the government aware that he had visited the barricades as well?

GYK: Naturally. And then came the midnight statement which pulled the rug out from under the first agreement made between the drivers and the Government. It was then obvious that it was not just about him thinking that a popular movement had begun and that the voice of the people was sacred above all, but that he, together with his authority had stepped over to the other side.

NSZ-ZN: How did Antall, who was just over his operation, cope with that?

GYK: Antall was on his way back to his old self and had followed the events from his hospital bed on television and by telephone. He had not reckoned on Göncz’s behaviour and felt it as a painful stab in the back. I think this was one of the most dramatic events of the blockade. Árpád Göncz had Antall to thank for his position, an outcome of the so-called SZDSZ pact. The question of who would be president had not gone without hitches. Antall however had stuck by Göncz’s candidacy for the office. Behind it all lay a forty-year-long friendship. The Antalls had often helped out the Göncz family after he was sent to prison in ‘56. I do not think Antall ever thought that Göncz could possibly be his rival, but as the developments revealed, his ambition was much bigger than Antall could have imagined. It is interesting in this context that Göncz was the secretary of Béla Kovács, the leading Smallholders politician after ‘45. In ‘56 it was Antall. During the revolution, it was Antall working in cooperation with Béla Kovács who made most of the statements on behalf of the Smallholders. I think in the best sense of the word Göncz was perhaps more plebeian than Antall, but he always belonged to the Hungarian centre, which the policies of Antall relied on. Antall himself was the core of that centre, while Göncz moved a little to the left of it, as Bibó had done. But in any case there was a deep friendship between them. I was also on good terms with Árpád Göncz during our years in the unofficial opposition. To what degree he could not be counted on however, became clear during the taxi blockade, when for the first time, a clear case of backstabbing occurred. Antall and Szabad’s clear-headed, long-sighted statesmanlike thinking during the blockade meanwhile bears noting, how they asked us not to criticise Göncz in public, as that could seriously damage respect for the new democratic system. I think, aside from Antall, György Szabad and Ferenc Mádl were both the most generous and most far-sighted politicians of the 1990 to 1994 period.

NSZ-ZN: As a Foreign Policy Adviser no doubt you followed during those days how the blockade was seen by international opinion.

GYK: It was of course very important how the West, or simply the world outside Hungary, saw the events and how it related to the Hungarian Government. It has to be said that on several levels the West stood beside the government. These manifestations of expressions of support were not seen in the media, neither at the time nor in the current rather superficial anniversary look-backs in the media, although they had enormous significance. One of the most important was the help from the European Community. While the blockade was unfolding, a European Community session involving Common Market heads of government took place in Rome. At the request of a telephone call from Antall, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl proposed that the European Community demonstratively vote for an extraordinary credit line from the Standby Facility, and that in the name of the European Parliament it should issue a statement of support for the government. Rescheduling the day’s agenda, the Hungarian situation was added to the programme. Kohl personally gave an account of the events of the taxi blockade and the concurrent dangers. The attendees voted unanimously and immediately to release the loan. The personal friendship of Antall and Kohl as well as the former’s international prestige had a large part to play in this expression of support.

The leading western statesmen and diplomats very early on came to the conclusion that the blockade was not a good thing. They quickly felt what it had taken time for Hungarians to feel, and what many realised only after the event: this could have led to tragedy, anarchy and civil war in the country that was held up as a model of political Transition. In the end, even the taxi drivers could see that. I imagine that those in opposing political circles also knew it. The situation at the barricades and blockades had become increasingly anarchic. Some extremist street elements had also begun to appear. Anything could have happened. It turned out that after taking the first step the leaders of the taxi drivers did not know what to do next. Our negotiating team reported that only one message was being repeated by them: reverse the price hike. They were not prepared for how to achieve results during a negotiation. Their political advisers in the background – whoever they were – gradually melted away. The spontaneous backing of the population also turned against them as time went on. The blockade then could have slipped out from any form of control.

NSZ-ZN: How would you describe the government’s bearing during the blockade?

GYK: Within government circles everyone understood clearly the sinister tones of the events, but there was no sign of any of us panicking. Particularly not Antall who followed the events from hospital. We saw that the taxi drivers were beginning to tire, that they could not get what they wanted, and that was becoming increasingly awkward for them. In practice, it was about reaching that point in the negotiations when it was felt that it would be good to do a deal.

In the government everyone agreed that the measure was not going to be reversed, but that a compromise could be reached in the form of compensation and/or other top-up measures. But a necessary precondition for a deal from our side was the dismantling of the roadblocks. There was no doubt that serious communication errors were committed. It was obvious to the government as well that neither the introduction nor the implementation of the measure was properly thought through in advance. Preparatory consultations with the parliamentary parties were not held, so the government was left to stew in its own juices. While it was more or less accepted that fast steps needed to be taken, no exchange of views took place on what exactly needed to be done. But under the cathartic influence of the events, the governing coalition parties and voters found a way to stick together, they found each other again you could say, which had a positive effect in the longer term.

When the government announced a package of large price rises the following January, there was no commotion at all. The population accepted it without protesting. Of course, in the seat of the Minister of Finance by then was Mihály Kupa who treated the press well and who the press treated well in return. Kupa was credible in the eyes of the press. He had a Reform Communist background, as well as the requisite contacts to get his measures approved.

NSZ-ZN: By Friday the SZDSZ was calling on the government to step down. How unexpected was that reaction?

GYK: From the moment just after the election win when we made clear that we were not willing to enter a grand coalition with the SZDSZ, we became enemies in their eyes. After that, anything was possible. The SZDSZ’s bid to bring down the Government was futile and therefore surprising, because the regulation of no confidence motion required that a new government could be formed only if two thirds of Parliament voted for a proposed new Prime Minister. It was less surprising though that the press were as hostile as they were toward us, as the SZDSZ had all the contacts. Neither were we surprised by SZDSZ politicians bringing tea to the barricades as if it was a patriotic democratic act to do so.

NSZ-ZN: Would a slightly more realistic target for them not have been to insist on a grand coalition?

GYK: Forcing a grand coalition could have been a target, which actually could have been achieved psychologically. When sometime at the beginning of the crisis ministers briefed the MDF caucus about the situation, István Elek apparently spoke up first and said the government should dissolve itself immediately, and that a grand coalition should be formed. This did not go down at all well with the others though. Such a scenario had not entered Antall’s mind as a realistic proposition. There was no need for that he felt as the government was not in a losing position. Cracks had not appeared in its confidence in its own competence.

I maintain that people were really not fully aware of what shocks the change of system had in store for them, despite the government’s early warnings. Antall spoke about this in his speeches, but it was usually ignored. At that time, most voters were extraordinarily uninformed politically, not surprising given they had been excluded from politics for 30 to 40 years. They simply did not know what steps were required to restructure and reorientate an entire institutional system, or how much time a government responsible for a highly complex legal and institutional system needed to prepare and implement certain things.

NSZ-ZN: How much was it possible to work with the remnants of the old apparatus? Did that inherited apparatus help or hinder the work of the new government?

GYK: It depended on the individual public official, how committed and loyal he or she was to the new system. We were not surprised that some of the police chiefs distanced themselves or turned away from us. It was a strange period, if you think that from a constitutional point of view the government’s position after six months was strong, but in the background, it was impossible to judge its real strength politically, or on the administrative level. We trusted that our international recognition as well as the opportunity to begin again would mean more and more people supporting us. But we knew that the four years would be a difficult and tiring process. At the top of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for example wholesale changes in personnel had to be done on the way. But many veteran public officials showed their gratitude for the trust given them by showing loyalty and performing professionally.

NSZ-ZN: During those critical times, did you have personal connections with the Prime Minister?

GYK: I was in constant contact with Marianna Rózsa, the chief secretary. If Antall wanted to get something across to his Ministers it usually went through Marianna. But more than once he called someone directly from the hospital. He called up his Ministers, if he judged that something needed changing be it style or negotiating conditions. He spoke to Péter Bod several times during the talks and followed hour by hour reports of the talks from Government members, particularly the decisive turning point on Sunday, which was broadcast on television.

It must have been Friday, after the failed cabinet meeting, when I called him. Marianna had told him that I would. I was quite down after the hostility from Göncz, and felt that things were beginning to go in a bad direction, as it was unpredictable when and what the President would say in public. I asked Antall if he felt that now was the time to make a public statement. In reply, he said that no, he did not want to go before the public; that from the country and government’s point of view it was extraordinarily important that he should remain withdrawn for the time being. He as Prime Minister had to be very careful, as ministers might flounder in negotiations, but he should not be seen to do so. So he only wanted to make a statement when it was all over. He had already thought over that he would go before the public at the moment of catharsis, when the situation had been settled. Then, he would speak to the nation in a unifying rather than divisive way. He would say that the nation had been shaken, and in the lead-up to that, we, the Government had made mistakes, but the reaction had been out of proportion. We would draw the consequences, and refrain from punishing the taxi drivers. And that is what happened, during his remarkable and impressing “pyjamas interview” in hospital late on Sunday evening.

Antall made his great peace gesture, a statesmanlike gesture, on television right after the agreement was sealed. It is important to emphasise that the taxi blockade was the most dramatic event of the transition period, yet its traces have been buried in the nation’s memory, perhaps deliberately. In fact, it is almost pathological how its history has never been properly examined or evaluated.

I do not believe that forces within parliament organised the blockade. The MSZP behaved in a restrained manner during the whole affair. The SZDSZ on the other hand jumped aboard the train after it began moving. Perhaps its leaders felt that events had handed them a gift horse, which they had to use to their own advantage. What is not in doubt is that politicians on the lookout for popularity and higher profile may have contributed to the escalation of the conflict. In some people meanwhile the whole change of system had stirred a desire for revenge. Although many behaved as if the change of system had been over, done and dusted, they were wrong to do so. One only has to think back to 19 August 1991, and the KGB’s attempted putsch in Moscow. Well aware of the determination of Gorbachev’s internal opposition, for Antall it did not come as a surprise. In fact at that time we were otherwise engaged, still rejoicing at the sight of the last Soviet soldier leaving Hungarian soil in June 1991.

NSZ-ZN: Looking back now from a greater distance, how do you evaluate the way the opposition and the leaders of the taxi blockade acted?

GYK: We definitely have to revisit how very different ideas about freedom and democracy clashed at the ‘90 elections. I believe that at that time it was not yet clear to everyone that within the SZDSZ there were in fact two distinct strands. How those two elements were able to interact and cooperate with each other is a peculiar psychological feature of that party. The party was home to both anarchists and extreme liberals. The MDF in contrast brought under its roof moderate conservatives, liberals and Christian Socialists, if you look at its coalition partners that is, with the exception of the radical right Csurka wing that was louder than its actual power in fact suggested and which broke away from the MDF in two years. Between opposing ends of the spectrum, three, four, five strands of public and social theory were laid out on a broad palette. Looking with good faith at Göncz, I would say that he acted in the spirit of an extreme idea of liberty and a very plebeian democratic ideal. He really could have believed that this indeed was the voice of the people, and that a citizen really does have the right to topple a government. Lots of ordinary people believed the same for longer or shorter periods during those days. In contrast, Antall stuck rigidly to the rules of Western parliamentary democracy. He believed that if a government is elected in the Parliament, then it would be an exceptionally serious misdemeanour to remove it from power outside the Parliament, as the entire system of law and order and operation of the country would be at stake. After the elections, on the government side, but with significant parliamentary agreement, we began to slowly and steadily construct a new state and institutional structure. As we saw it, it was not permissible to endanger all that by inciting the public to anger, or with puerile playing at revolutionaries.

This is why the taxi blockade was an extraordinarily important, cathartic event. The mood of disillusionment needed a crisis, which would make us all face up to what the political situation that we lived in looked like, what were the stakes and the risks, how fragile societal peace was, and how slow and challenging the process of transition was going to be. In every sense, including the material one. The course of the blockade also clearly showed how a democratic system of law and order must operate, who has what roles in such a situation, who has what rights and what duties. Personally I believe that many people understood this. On the opposition side as well. They may not have said so, but it was a very serious lesson for every intelligent person. Think of the big demonstration on Sunday. For its organisation, huge credit went to Sándor Lezsák and his inner circle, the wonderful Dezső Gyarmati, as well as many MDF ladies. That march was so large and so convincing for the reason that it drew many people of sober mind who may not have supported the government but saw that the blockade was a bad thing that was moving in a bad direction. Someone had to get the country back working again. Who in this situation was capable of doing that? Constitutionally and organisationally the government – a freely elected government. Well then one had to stand beside the government. I had friends and old schoolmates, who voted for the SZDSZ or other opposition parties, but who were now outraged. Several of them even went along to the pro-government demonstration. Several sent me messages of support, for the first time since the elections. There were also uncommitted people, and ones who were fearful of a brutal clampdown... In the first phase of the transition more than a few people were thinking, now let us see what will happen here, how will one be able to thrive in new company. In effect, they were waiting to see. And the taxi blockade and within it the strengthening of the government opened many people’s eyes.

NSZ-ZN: Were you satisfied with the first half year of the government’s work?

GYK: Pulling off a change of system would have been a tall order even in an unchanged global political landscape but in 1990 dangerous currents were swirling around, even in the Soviet Union where an internal war was going on around perestroika. With respect to the taxi blockade the main point was that the Gulf crisis had begun, leading to a doubling of the price of oil on the world market soon after. The Soviet Union meanwhile as part of its wrangling over troop withdrawals and payments, came up with all sorts of excuses not to deliver oil to Hungary as it had agreed. Our reserves had declined alarmingly before the blockade. By 1994 however, the oil reserves accumulated during the period of the Antall government had gradually grown. Our National Bank reserves had grown in similar fashion. One of the shocking discoveries – only found out by József Antall after the elections – was that the MNB reserves came to just 800 million dollars. We increased that to four billion dollars by 1994. More than a half of all inward investment into the entire Central and Eastern Europe region, that is over 12 billion dollars, came to Hungary between 1990 and 1994. We had to struggle with really difficult day-to-day economic problems in the first years, and visible effect of the efforts only gradually arrived.

NSZ-ZN: You mentioned earlier that a parliamentary enquiry revealed that a large number of the taxi drivers comprised people recently laid off by the secret services. Would it be possible to know more about their activities during the blockade?

GYK: A parliamentary special committee prepared a report, which later came before parliament. It was claimed in the report that, if I remember correctly, 47 laid off state security officers were among the leaders of the taxi blockade. Those details made it as far as the report but further details on their background were not revealed. Perhaps the enquiry was unable to find out, or perhaps it did not want to dig deeper. In the interests of restoring peace, Parliament decided to take legally exceptional action by granting an amnesty to those who participated in the blockade and exempting them from any criminal liability.

NSZ-ZN: In the wake of the taxi blockade wholesale changes in personnel were made within the government. Did this lead to an improvement in the government’s work?

GYK: Many people saw it as necessary, within both the government and the apparatus. It turned out that anyone who had not done military service could not become Minister of the Interior. Balázs Horváth was a very kind and enlightened person but he was not forceful enough for the job. Péter Boross on the other hand was well-suited for the position. He knew that the police needed and indeed expected a leader. He was even able to make them like him. They liked Balázs Horváth too, but it was less sure if they respected him. Horváth was the fourth major actor in the taxi blockade drama besides Antall, Göncz and Rabár. He suffered though because of what happened, and was unfairly attacked, within the party as well. Looking back today, it may have been Balázs Horváth whose instincts worked best. The slightest intervention by the authorities may indeed have led to an explosion. We do not know exactly how determined the ringleaders were. While Horváth was slated for dithering or being weak, he may in fact have been showing deeper instinctive wisdom. The Rabár question decided, he quickly left from the government, after the weekly HVG published his ultimatum letter of 8 October.

NSZ-ZN: The taxi blockade revealed large defects in the communication area. What steps were taken in this area, and what did the Advisers Body do about it?

GYK: The internal criticism was huge of course within the MDF, within the government coalition, and from our voters. This was all valid criticism. It was also true that we had made many communication errors. It was a weak point of the government. We started out from a very bad situation. In effect, we had no media on our side. Public service radio and television were of little help in the handling of the situation. Elemér Hankiss and Csaba Gombár, who had been appointed to the head of those institutions, found themselves in very difficult situations. They came under tough internal pressure, which they could not handle. In addition, former dissident intellectuals seemed to think that the essence of independence is being anti-government, always and everywhere. That too was an unexpected disappointment – Hankiss was a trusted friend of Antall’s before the system change, Gombár meanwhile had been personally put forward for the post by the poet and writer Sándor Csoóri and other influential friends in the MDF.

In the wake of the taxi blockade, we rapidly stepped up efforts to launch a conservative daily newspaper. Much credit is due to the Advisers Body and in particular Gábor Czakó for the creation of the daily Új Magyarország [New Hungary]. There were personnel changes in the government spokespersons roles as well. At my suggestion Judit Juhász, an exceptionally charming and well- articulated radio reporter joined the Prime Minister’s Office as spokesperson. After she joined, the work of the Prime Minister’s Office press department evolved in a different way. Before the blockade as well, the highly experienced and polished speaker Gábor Czakó had spent time with Hankiss and Gombár in the interests of ensuring that state television and radio carried out their particular public service demanded by the system change.

The taxi blockade itself was preceded by an ugly smear campaign by the media against which the government had no means to defend itself.

At the beginning of September a campaign began that said that Antall was a prime minister of a “Christian political order”, by which it meant “Horthyist”. Sulking intellectuals then echoed the line by launching another campaign that called the Prime Minister’s public behaviour arrogant and lacking empathy. And all the time the government’s leaders were not given chances to come across in the media. The goal was obvious: to alienate the government from the people, while at the same time preventing members of the government from regularly appearing and communicating relevant information.

Part of responsible governance task is to ensure good communication between the government and the people. This clearly did not happen, but not because we did not want it to happen. Quite simply, in the situation we found ourselves in, Hankiss and Gombár did not know how or did not want to vigorously stand up for the idea that this was not a question of party politics. Unfortunately the proposal of us Advisers, written up for Antall by György Kiss, that a Minister without portfolio post in charge of communication be created was not implemented.

NSZ-ZN: How would you sum up on balance the taxi blockade?

GYK: Overall, three factors decided its outcome, I believe: the government’s steadfastness; Antall in the background, who took over the direction role; and the big demonstration organised by Sándor Lezsák’s team, which had people lining up behind it who were not government supporters. At the time Péter Bod spoke of the strength the demonstration had given him, that he heard from the street cries to “hold out”. The taxi drivers and their supporters simply had not counted on such a formidably large and peaceful turnout. Many tens of thousands marched through the streets, from Pest to Buda and back to Pest, in a resolute determined manner. The silent but strong force had come out again. The MDF knew that Hungarian political tradition – despite our history of revolutions – was instinctively moderate, veering to the centre to find solutions. The taxi blockade, like all great dramas, came with catharsis. For my own part, I repeat, its end result, mental and psychological impacts were all positive.
 

Translation by Johnny Adams

 

*A translation of the interview published in Hungarian in the December 2015 and February 2016 issues of Magyar Szemle, edited and abridged by Hungarian Review.




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