“From the mid-1980s the leading diplomats of the Western powers maintain a day-to-day contact with the Hungarian opposition, as well as with the leading reformists of the Hungarian Communist Party. From 1988, the Hungarian opposition builds institutional contacts with Western European parties.”

The advertised title of our exchange needs to be adjusted to the actual themes – the actual forces in a great international theatre, which made the revolutions of Central Europe possible.

We in fact must take into account the entire Atlantic world, and not just Europe, since the leading strategic role of the US in the “transition” process – I prefer to talk about the “long Revolution” – was obvious. And we cannot leave unmentioned the roles of Soviet politics, especially that of Mikhail Gorbachev, of course.

To me three themes seem to naturally formulate themselves, also corresponding to three clusters of years on a time scale. The three distinct units possess their separate agendas and solutions. The first period includes the late 1980s, the second the early years (1990–1994) of the new era, and the third, the developments which have taken place since the full (NATO and EU) integration of the new democracies of East Central Europe since 2004.

THE LATE 1980s

It appears that the year 1977 suddenly gave focus and form to intellectual unrest in the countries of East Central Europe, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. In January the Charta 77 movement is initiated by Václav Havel, who is then arrested and imprisoned by the authorities. This meets with a lively response in the other Communist countries and in the Western world. In Kádár’s “most liberal” Hungary, from this year the unofficial opposition movements of the intellectuals take shape, the “democratic” (left-liberal) opposition and the national cultural revival of the so-called, for want of a better term, “populist” intellectuals. The first group will be the seed of the Alliance of Free Democrats (1988), the second of the Hungarian Democratic Forum. In the following years the two wings cooperate with each other, with Hungarian exile groups in the West, and with Hungarian ethnic groups in the neighbouring countries, creating a significant network of informal grass-roots groups. The link with the 1956 Revolution remains the strong understructure of all the change that will happen in Hungary until 1990, as John O’Sullivan also perceived recently in his October 1956 memorial address in London.

The birth of Solidarity brings a new impetus and hope in the whole region: a movement based on the broad participation of the working classes and society at large. From this moment, the late 1970s on, a loose but intense network of underground contacts evolves in the region: marginalised intellectuals, artists and students travel to and fro among the cities of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, crossing borders under alert but unsuspecting eyes. They build up friendships that will be decisive in the formation and cooperation of the new democratic governments in the early 1990s. Hungarians also build up such networks with their counterparts in the Hungarian national groups in Romania and Slovakia.

The rise of Solidarity also mobilises Western politics in an unprecedented way. The contacts of the Czech and Hungarian opposition with Western diplomats and journalists had been lively and continuous, yet with Solidarity entering the picture the highest levels of Western politics are mobilised in the concentrated efforts of “the President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister”, as John O’Sullivan’s famous book title evokes Ronald Reagan, John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher. The three of them execute a multi-layered strategy for the weakening of the decrepit Soviet system inherited from Brezhnev. The younger generation of pragmatic Hungarian Communists realise the country’s bankruptcy, its unpayable Western loans, and in a last resort introduce desperate reforms, open up to the West. Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand pay official visits to Hungary, while in Moscow the ailing old successors of Brezhnev are followed at the helm by the charismatic reformer Gorbachev in spring 1985. As early as July 1985, leaders of the unified Hungarian opposition hold a significant debate on the precincts of a private property in the village of Monor near Budapest, discussing avenues to a post-Communist future, and the long peaceful Revolution of Hungary takes off in September 1987 with the first Lakitelek meeting of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, thus taking the lead on the region’s road to liberation, and the creation of a democratic party system in the open.

From the mid-1980s the leading diplomats of the Western powers maintain a day-to-day contact with the Hungarian opposition, as well as with the leading reformists of the Hungarian Communist Party. From 1988, the Hungarian opposition builds institutional contacts with Western European parties. Information abounds in the West about the deep ferment in Hungarian society and about the significant figures who would become the leaders of a new democratic Hungary. Yet President Bush, who in 1989 initiates his offensive for the unification of the two Europes in his unassuming but persevering manner, during his June visit in Budapest has serious discussions only with the reform Communist leaders, especially the determined and pragmatic patriot Prime Minister Miklós Németh. No one seems to suspect on either side that as early as April 1990, in less than a year’s time, Hungary will have a democratically elected centre-right Prime Minister in the person of József Antall. (However, in January 1990, prior to the election campaign, Antall, in company of two aides meets President Mitterrand in a private discussion at the French Embassy in Budapest, then, with Géza Jeszenszky visits American leaders on a week’s tour in Washington, and in February, again with Jeszenszky, is invited to meet Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street.)

In June–September of 1989, at the so-called Round Table negotiations, the unprecedented happens: the Communist leadership accepts the invitation of the opposition to lay down the blueprint for a democratic change. Peacefully, to avoid the historical tragedy of 1956. Also in June, the Polish opposition surprisingly defeats the Communist Party in a partly open election, and the non-Communist Tadeusz Mazowiecki forms a new coalition government with the Communists. On 19 August, in the framework of a “Pan-European Picnic”, concerted by opposition activists with MEP Otto von Habsburg, and with the tacit approval of the reform Communist leaders of the Hungarian government, thousands of East German tourists are allowed by unmoved Hungarian border guards to run through a gate at Sopron into neutral Austria, and on 10–11 September Prime Minister Miklós Németh officially declares the abolishment of the Iron Curtain along the entire Hungarian–Austrian border. This accelerates dramatically the erosion of Communist power in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The Berlin Wall is tumbled over by East German citizens in a few weeks’ time, and in Prague the Velvet Revolution triumphs in November. At Christmas, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu is toppled in a Revolution triggered by the civic resistance organised around Hungarian Reformed Bishop László Tőkés in Temesvár (Timişoara), and then partly engineered by opposition figures in the Communist echelons.


The accelerated events of late 1989 bring a democratic breakthrough in East Central Europe, although some parts of the picture come in place only gradually in the course of the year, while at the same time outlines of a dangerous conflict begin to emerge as the member nations of the Yugoslav Federation also decide to walk their own independent democratic paths.

The East–West relationship is raised on a much higher level of cooperation in the course of 1990, and the Western powers begin to work feverishly on a new strategy, with national variants, along the lines of the thinking of President Bush and the most far-sighted leaders of the new democracies, Antall, Havel and the Poles. This includes the recognition that these latter democratically elected politicians are the true partners of the West, instead of Communist leaders reformed to whatever extent. President Bush energetically pushes through the unification of Germany, with support from Chancellor Kohl, Antall and the Poles, despite initial resistance from Gorbachev, and also from major Western leaders who are committed to a new Europe, but also fear a new German strength – such as Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand.

The new democracies, in the longer run, but as fast as possible, are bent on joining the European Union and NATO. On 8–9 June, József Antall makes his historic announcement about Hungary leaving unilaterally the Moscow summit meeting of the Warsaw Pact leaders. He declares that the Pact symbolising the Communist alliance has lost its function and relevance, and he announces that Hungary will leave the alliance in any case. Significantly, it is during the preceding week that he makes his first international visits as Prime Minister on a string of trips to Munich, Stuttgart, Bonn and Paris, on which I was part of his retinue as Senior Adviser on Foreign Policy.

In the course of the year, Antall establishes a very good working relationship with President Bush and Chancellor Kohl, but also with Thatcher and Mitterrand, who all commit themselves to the idea of including East Central Europe into the European and Atlantic community of nations, while the pace of formal integration would depend on many factors, not excluding the sensitivities of Gorbachev’s domestic situation. As examples of the new relationships, the first distinguished foreign guest of Prime Minister Antall is the Prince of Wales in May 1990, and Margaret Thatcher arrives on an official visit to Budapest in the summer, while Antall meets the French leaders on several visits to Paris, and is invited for a State Visit by President Bush in October. Chancellor Kohl conducts frequent telephone conversations with him.

A new chemistry works at the everyday level too, in a new intense inter-governmental communication, good personal relationships and friendships with the new leaders, and the fast opening up of a whole number of European and Atlantic cooperation structures. There is a spirit of hope and generosity in relations. Borders are opened, and visa requirements for citizens of the new democracies are gradually lifted. A living tissue of communications builds up between East and West in all fields and at all levels, thereby an organic integration process starts far ahead of political integration.

Another very positive development is the creation of the Visegrád Group of Three, then Four. After initial thinking about the idea by Antall and Havel in early 1990, the two leaders and the Poles, in a side meeting of the Paris CSCE summit of November, agree to officially initiate the Visegrád cooperation in March 1991, whereby the fine-tuning of the regional political strategy of integration becomes possible, which has been working to our day.

Importantly, Antall also wields a very good personal relationship with President Yeltsin from 1991, negotiating a hard but fair deal on mutual financial claims as the last Soviet soldier leaves Hungary on 29 June. Yeltsin ceremonially asks for the forgivingness of the Hungarian nation for the bloody smashing of the 1956 Revolution. Hopes for a democratic normalisation in Russia fly high, though there is caution, too, on all sides.

With all the political goodwill and openness demonstrated by the West for the peaceful political revolutions and the new democratic governments, economic reconstruction of the former Soviet satellites proves to be a much more daunting task, which has drawn itself out almost to our own day. There is a hope in East Central Europe that the generous help of the Marshall Plan will be copied for their case in 1990 – yet the ruling financial philosophy of the West deceives itself by the tenet that free market and export of private capital investments will solve economic transition for them.

This is especially harmful in the case of the two countries spearheading the political revolutions, Hungary and Poland. These countries inherit huge amounts of external debt piled up by Communist administrations. President Bush in his memoirs berates that the National Security Adviser’s team of specialists, especially Blackwill and Condoleezza Rice fail to persuade the Treasury of the necessity for structural loans to these countries, at a time when Congress also holds tight rein on the President’s budgetary discretion. Antall fails to get support via Kohl and other sympathising leaders for his plan for a three-year, three billion dollar structural loan that would generate a growth with which Hungarian national debt could be managed. Only Poland gets an exceptional re-structuring of its debt, owing to Walęsa’s charismatic appearance and appeal in the US Congress – thus the Polish economy, after a long span of severity, takes off in the late 1990s.

Hungary welcomes and receives huge green-field investments from the West, in which it is the leading nation in the region by far during the early 1990s, yet from 1992 on it is forced to privatise much of its national property at low prices in order to service its debts. In Czechoslovakia Václav Klaus deftly manages a softer landing for the national industries, also offering national property vouchers for every citizen, behind the deceiving facade of a loud free-market philosophy. Disillusionment in citizens of the region abounds after a few years, and in the mid-1990s the former Communists, now masquerading as Western-type Socialists, win general elections in Hungary and Poland.

However, early 1994 marks a strategic high point. In September 1993 I deliver to the White House the “farewell message” of the fatally ill József Antall, a three-page letter of strategic issues, especially on the necessity of NATO enlargement, to the wavering President Bill Clinton. Then, in January 1994, the President invites V3 leaders to Prague, and announces that in the imminent first wave of NATO accession, these three countries will be invited as new members. The road opens up to a graduated process of integration completed on 19 March 1999.

SINCE 2004

The V4 countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia became members of the EU in 2004, along with Slovenia, the first of the former Yugoslav republics to be adopted. With Slovakia, also a member of NATO since 2003, the V4 group has developed a distinct agenda of its own vis-à-vis Brussels in recent years. This is rooted partly in memories of a common Central European history, memories of past Soviet oppression, and is also triggered by unexpected political crises in the united Europe.

The 2004 wave of EU enlargement had a great symbolic significance. The adoption process began in December 1997, and its declared goal was the actual re-unification of the continent, the crowning of the process that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, enlargement was received in high spirits in the new member countries, and the Hungarian national referendum on accession brought record high voter support. Europe has a strong spiritual meaning in the minds of citizens of these countries, going back to pride in the millennial achievements of Christian culture, and peaks of human achievement since the Renaissance. With the vivid memory of intra-ethnic conflicts in Central Europe after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the political elites of 1989 had high hopes that entry into the European Union will lead to cooperation and understanding across former borders in the region. Hungarians also entertained hopes that EU integration will enhance ethnic rights for Hungarian groups in neighbouring countries, hopes that so far have been fulfilled indirectly rather than through the desired European legislation and political steps.

Beyond these spiritual and political gains, it is also hard to overestimate the significance of European Union cohesion and structural funds for the development of infrastructure, health, cultural and environmental sectors in the new democracies. Although to a lessening extent, the balance of these countries is still positive when comparing the funds and the membership fees paid by the country, and the import of production and advanced technologies, such as that of the leading German carmakers to Hungary, brings its fruit, and is closing gradually albeit slowly the gap in GDPs and the standards of living between the old and new members.

However, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán remarks, these countries have opened their borders and lifted all customs tariffs to West European products, while ensuring industrial and trade advantages for producers that should not be underrated. So there seems to be an overall balance for us in the pros and cons of European membership, and given that balance, the structural help the new members receive is not efficient enough to close the gaps between national economies, with a severe drain on the highly skilled workforce of countries like Hungary.

Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland have shared the British philosophy of maintaining national sovereignty against an unbridled centralisation within the EU – no doubt due to their historical experiences, of which membership in the Soviet bloc is all too vivid, with memories of central decisions enforced against the national interest. To these countries, Brexit brings a loss even more sensitive than to the European Union as a whole. With Britain, they lose an important political partner in their resistance against far-fetched federalism – which seems to have won new momentum when national veto has been eliminated in the European Council, ultimately leading to the departure of Britain from the EU. Such feelings, together with a rational analysis of the potential gains and losses, also explain why these countries delay the adoption of the euro for the time being. Yet these countries insist on their EU membership, while attempting to contribute to realist reforms of institutions and procedures. Such issues of sovereignty also explain the resistance of these countries to immigration policies tailored by bureaucrats in Brussels, and rooted in perceptions we do not share. Decisions by global centres will never be taken for granted in East Central Europe, it seems.

(Note. Talking points written for a round table discussion, on 8 November, at the international conference Miracle or Necessity, 1989, organised in Budapest by the Hungarian University of Public Administration, the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung and the Danube Institute.)

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