“It is good to know – and hear and read – that today Jozsef Antall’s achievements are also recognised by his former political opponents. Because, as Speaker of Parliament Gyorgy Szabad put it on the day after the Prime Minister’s death in December 1993: ‘The greats of a nation who are elevated to immortality – however tragic the end – are never unfortunate.”
Foundations of the Regime Change of 1989—1991
The historical antecedents of regime change in Hungary – the dawn of a free, independent and democratic Hungary between 1989 and 1991 – can be traced back to the Revolution of 1956, when the country was united in its hunger for liberty and national independence. Then, the freedom fighters of Budapest pitted themselves against what was then the world’s largest army almost barehanded, and at the same time the entire nation rose up all around the country. In a matter of days, they swept away the institutions of the hated Rakosi regime, elected national and revolutionary committees that maintained law and order, workers’ councils were set up in the factories and workplaces, and the National Guard was formed.
In the end the Revolution was brutally crushed by the Soviet Army, but it still made a difference. The Soviet leaders and their proxies in Hungary had drawn their conclusions: in Hungary, power could not be wielded in the same way as in the empire’s other countries. The Kadar regime was consolidated by 1962 on the basis of a tacit compromise that was offered by the reconstituted party state to a people that was terrorised by the bloody retribution – unprecedented in our history – that followed the crushing of the Revolution. This unwritten offer acknowledged the following: “You can live a little better and we won’t interfere in your private life, but we exercise the power and you don’t have any say in that.”
By the end of the 1980s, the consensus that rested on this compromise had disintegrated. The holders of power could no longer maintain the state of relative prosperity, so they allowed people to take control of their own fortunes within certain constraints, for example through legal or semi-legal secondary sources of income, and the opportunity to start their own businesses. In parallel with this, independent grassroots organisations were forming that called into question the legitimacy of the single-party state, and political street demonstrations were also held. After putting up varying degrees of resistance, the party state resigned itself to reforms in the course of the late 1980s, due in no small measure to the changes taking place in the international arena. In the altered geopolitical landscape the holders of power could no longer count on the unconditional support of the ailing Soviet Union if conflict was to turn violent.
Opposition politics, however, mostly remained an affair of the intellectuals. The majority still shied away from politics and was cautious to observe the by now crumbling constraints marked out by the regime. The fast growing ranks of the politically active were strongly divided in their opinions about the nature and extent of the changes that were needed. Nevertheless, based on the 1956 experience, there was a general agreement that the changes had to be peaceful and non-violent. This was the new social consensus, based on which – through hard-fought political agreements – the crisis-stricken, single-party regime was replaced with a democratic constitutional state within the space of barely over a year.
The first of these agreements led to the establishment of the Opposition Round Table on 22 March 1989 when, at the initiative of the Independent Lawyers’ Forum, the eight most important opposition groups agreed to act jointly – constantly reconciling their respective positions – in negotiations with the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) to promote the transition to democracy. This gave rise to a genuine political force that compelled the party state, relegating its own parliament to the role of an extra in a film, to negotiate with the National Round Table as an equal partner regarding the conditions for the democratic transition.
The necessary political pressure bolstering these positions was the growing thrust of the tens of thousands involved in the peaceful civic politics of the new opposition movements and parties. At these talks the opposition’s aim was not to carve out a slice of power for themselves as it happened in the same year at the Polish Round Table talks, but to create the laws that were strictly necessary for the holding of free elections; in other words, to put in place the conditions for the people themselves to decide who would govern the country in the period from one election to the next.
The Opposition Round Table Talks therefore, created the rallying point which united the forces of the opposition parties, allowing them to act as a genuine counterweight to the party state, but without giving away their independencet identities. Then, once the opposition had achieved its goal at the Talks in early autumn of 1989 and free elections came within reach, the Opposition Round Table fell away from the opposition parties like a discarded shell, and they stood ready to compete in the elections. The Opposition Round Table, which may not have launched, but certainly accelerated the changes and channelled them in a clear direction, was unique to Hungary. No initiative of this kind had existed anywhere else.
The second milestone thus was the agreement signed by the party state and the MDF-led (Hungarian Democratic Forum) majority of the Opposition Round Table on 18 September 1989 as the closing act in the National Round Table Talks. This sanctified the statutory conditions for the free elections and the proposed laws on the Constitution of the Republic, which had been drafted not only by the signatories to the agreement, but with the participation of all members of the Opposition Round Table. The negotiations between the party state and the Opposition Round Table, and the proposed laws drawn up by them, were subsequently legitimised by the 1990 elections because the parties elected to Parliament became the same that had taken part in the Talks.
The last accord in the series was the May 1990 agreement – some call it a Pact – between the election-winning Hungarian Democratic Forum and the party that gained the second highest number of votes, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which put in place the final conditions necessary for democratic governance, and incorporated additional rule-of-law passages into the Constitution that the Round Table negotiations had not been able to cover. The freely elected Parliament debated the proposed laws set out in the agreement and passed them by an overwhelming majority with only minor alterations.
There is no disputing that these political agreements brought about revolutionary changes. From a single-party regime to a multi-party democracy, totalitarianism to the rule of law, a centrally controlled economy to a market economy based on private ownership. If there is such a thing as a peaceful, non-violent revolution, then everything that happened in Hungary over the period of just over a year, starting in spring 1989, can rightfully be called – given the extent and speed of the changes – a revolution.
The concerted changes that got under way in 1989 took the majority of Hungarian society and the ruling Communist Party itself by surprise. At the beginning of the year nobody thought that the opposition, divided as they were by so many visceral conflicts, would be able to unite within the space of three months and establish the Opposition Round Table on 22 March. Or that three months after that this political counterweight would force the incumbent powers to negotiate with the opposition on an equal footing regarding the transition to democracy. Or that in another three months, on 18 September, the agreement setting out the statutory conditions for free elections would be made. Or that on 25 March 1990 the first round of elections would be held, followed by the second round on 8 April, the formation of Parliament on 2 May and the inauguration of the responsible government on 23 May. Or that ever after 22 March 1989, following the convening of the Opposition Round Table, the all-powerful party state would simply be trying to keep up with these rapid developments and, within exactly a year the democratic constitutional state of Hungary would be born, in keeping with the ideas of opposition groups that had no power individually, but were capable of putting up a mighty force in uniting for this common cause.
May 1990 marked the close of the first stage of the regime change. In the second stage the Parliament, guided by the Government led by Jozsef Antall, built up the complete system of constitutional institutions, including the freely elected local authorities, and put in place the statutory conditions for the transformation of the economic, social, cultural and educational system. The country made an about-turn from the East and towards the West. The Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance dissolved, and Hungary regained the independence it had lost on 19 March 1944, when German troops accupied the country. On 19 June 1991, when the last Soviet soldier left the country’s territory, the Hungarian regime change was complete. Between 1989 and 1991, the aims of the efforts that had been so brutally suppressed in 1956 were finally achieved by peaceful means: a free, independent and democratic Hungary was born.
So, who should take the credit? There is no doubt that the regime change could not have happened without the transformation of the geopolitical landscape, but domestic factors were important too. Everyone played their part, even the hardline Communists, if only by refraining from face. The reformers within the single ruling Party took the first steps in weakening the foundations of the regime. They did not substantively change it, however, but only followed the events as they unfolded. Then in summer 1989 the focus of the constitutional changes became the Opposition Round Table in the first stage, and the government led by Jozsef Antall in the second. But the true credit should go to the Hungarian people, who in 1956 rose up against the Communist regime and opposed despotism with exemplary solidarity, gave political support to the peaceful revolution, and then after 1990 patiently endured the serious consequences of decades of Communism and the other, unrelated difficulties caused by the regime change. Freedom did not come without a price. We suffered and struggled for it, and compromised where necessary.
As already noted, and contrary to the belief of many political analyses, there were many active participants in the regime change, both well-known and anonymous alike. They included all those who were active in independent organisations, whether legally, semi-legally or illegally, and those who took part in greater or smaller events held by independent groups, and later in the opposition demonstrations that mobilised vast numbers of people. We should not forget that the Opposition Round Table was given its legitimacy by the crowds of people who heeded the opposition’s call and marched on 15 March 1989; and the hundreds of thousands who attended the reburial of Imre Nagy and the martyrs of the 1956 Revolution on 16 June also contributed greatly to the success of the constitutional programme codifid Round Table talks. Those who joined the opposition parties were active participants in the regime change, but neither should we forget about those Communist (HSWP) Party functionaries who, through their participation in reformer groups, accelerated the erosion of the party state. An important role was also played by those who, at the by-elections held in 1989 following the dismissal of discredited party state leaders, elected opposition MPs for the first time ever in East Central Europe to the Parliament of the party state, as well as those who campaigned in the four-part referendum of 1989 which gave power to the people to elect a President by popular vote. Finally, all those who took part in the free parliamentary elections in spring 1990, and in the local elections that followed in the autumn, were active participants in the regime change whoever they voted for.
It is a sensitive, but unavoidable duty at the end of such a broad overview to also name those who I consider to be the key actors in the regime change. Having experienced the negotiations at first hand, with considerable inside knowledge, I am still aware that I am also partial. However, I hope that my judgement is not clouded by who was a friend and who was an adversary at the time, or by my opinion of participants’ later actions.
The leading figures in the two mainstream factions of the opposition, the national democrat and the civic-radical groups within the movement, Sandor Csoori and Janos Kis, were key players during the many years of preparation leading up to the change of regime, creating the cores of the later MDF and SZDSZ. These were the universally recognised leaders of the two mainstream factions, but I could also name their historical “forerunners” in both camps. And it is here that I have to mention Imre Pozsgay, a member of the party-state leadership who – perhaps willingly to a certain degree, but probably mostly involuntarily – played an important role in the dismantling of the party-state apparatus.
Within the Opposition Round Table – without any pretence of exhaustiveness – I would like to highlight Gyorgy Szabad – the future Speaker of Parliament – and Laszlo Solyom – a future President – of the MDF, Peter Tolgyessy and Balint Magyar of the SZDSZ, Viktor Orban and Laszlo Kover of Fidesz – at present the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament –, Imre Boross of the Independent Smallholders’ Party, who like Gyorgy Szabad sadly did not live to see this thirtieth anniversary, Csaba Varga of the Hungarian People’s Party and Karoly Vigh of the Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Society.
But among the many important actors, the most important was Jozsef Antall. I do not believe any historian with a good knowledge of the era would cast any doubt on that. It was Jozsef Antall who devised and carried through the compromises needed to resolve the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between the party state and the Opposition Round Table.
Then after 1990, in spite of all the petty squabbling and while struggling against terminal illness, as the democratically elected Prime Minister it was Jozsef Antall who directed the process of regime change, turning the country from the East to the West and steering it to the “opposite shore”.
It is good to know – and hear and read – that today Jozsef Antall’s achievements are also recognised by his former political opponents. Because, as Speaker of Parliament Gyorgy Szabad put it on the day after the Prime Minister’s death in December 1993: “The greats of a nation who are elevated to immortality – however tragic the end – are never unfortunate. But it is always unfortunate if a nation fails to understand its greats and thus cannot follow their lead. Jozsef Antall sowed so that this nation may reap. Whether we do so depends on us.”
Translation by Daniel Nashaat