The drive for historic change and development in Europe had set in motion in these countries forces of revolutionary spirit that pressed for freedom and human dignity, for national independence, and for such political, material and cultural conditions which would allow a bearable quality of life for all citizens and peoples.
The basic revolutionary changes which created the impetus towards these ends in Hungary were due to driving forces generated by a number of major developments. These included the political and economic crisis which the communist dictatorship was unable to handle, and the values and demands of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which lived on in the people. Thanks to 1956, more and more citizens felt committed to the political struggle for liberty, democracy, independence, and economic and cultural well being. The pressures and massive demonstrations demanding these through various fora and groupings of the people gathered momentum.
One of the most radical and cathartic experiences was the reburial ceremony for the hundreds of martyrs of ‘56, and commemorating the many thousands who fell during the Revolution. Hundreds of thousands participated on Heroes’ Square in Budapest on 16 June 1989. A comparable effect was brought about by the failure of the liberalizing reforms of the eighties, which proved that the command system of planning could not be saved and could not satisfy the pressing demands of the people. Another contributory factor was the growing impact of political, economic and cultural developments in Europe on the mind and will of the people.
Finally, there was a growing public awareness that peaceful pressure on the Soviet Union from the Western Allies would grow and ultimately result in progress towards freedom and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.
The revolutionary changes swept through all the countries of the region, though they evolved in different forms. In Hungary and Poland, negotiated small steps and moves followed, influenced by the historical experience of the Revolution of 1956 in the former, and the long struggle of the Solidarity movement in the latter. In Czechoslovakia and East Germany mass demonstrations toppled the regimes. In Romania the dictatorship was destroyed in bloody and heroic battles in a relatively short time, in a series of violent events with much in common with classical revolutions.
In Hungary a negotiated process materialised into a peaceful revolution – a process referred to by József Antall in his inaugural address as Prime Minister of the first freely elected Hungarian Parliament on 22 May 1990.
The gradual progress of the revolution took place in Hungary through 1989 and 1990, and matured through the following years.
The following relevant major acts and developments can be identified.
The most spectacular beginning was the National Round Table Conference from 23 June to 18 September 1989.
Due to the historic forces referred to above, the ruling communist party was ready to sit down with the parties of the democratic opposition to negotiate a peaceful transition to democracy and national sovereignty. This fact that the communist party, which ruled alone, consented to a transition to a pluralistic constitutional structure and the rule of democratic governance, was a vital element in the peaceful revolutionary developments.
The political actors in 1989 rightly claimed that the elimination of the totalitarian one-party system amounted to the crossing of the Rubicon; that the reforms under way and those contemplated added up to a genuine revolution, and were not mere attempts at systemic reform.
Soon after the end of the National Round Table Conference on 10 October 1989, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (the ruling communist party) ceased to exist and was converted into the Hungarian Socialist Party. The new party laid claim to the political tradition of social democracy, despite a certain historical continuity with many aspects of the former one-party regime. This gradual fading away of the exclusive one-party regime was accompanied by the dissolution of the communist party’s armed militia (the Workers Guard).
The National Round Table Conference bequeathed a number of basic principles and laws, which were subsequently enshrined into law by Parliament. This process began even before the democratic elections of March-April 1990. The new laws included a radically amended version of the 1949 Constitution – comprehensively adapted to its new democratic mission.
They were enacted by Parliament amid vibrant debate on such vital issues and principles as the rule of law, the social market economy, and active responsibility for the well-being of Hungarians living beyond the borders. The debate ranged from such fundamental issues as the right of national communities to be identified as ‘constituent peoples’ rather than minorities, the creation of the Constitutional Court, the legalized activity of the new parties, the modernization of the Criminal Code, and the proper conduct of free elections.
The struggle and dialogue between the post-communist forces and the democratic parties continued in both the new Parliament of May 1990 and in other political arenas. The new democratic forces successfully focussed attention on basic constitutional laws to regulate municipal councils, national and ethnic minorities, and the restitution of the property, free activity and social and educational role of the churches. They also established the role of civic organizations like the trade unions, and the right of assembly, to strike, to the freedom of the press, and constitutional guarantees of human rights.
There were, however, principles and issues on which the political actors of the new democracy could not reach agreement, either in the Parliament or in public debate.
Examples of these include the accountability for acts against the nation and the citizens under the communist regime, and the replacement and exclusion from public office of members of the former single-party political elite.
In the first year of democratic governance, important initiatives and actions were taken to
dissolve the Warsaw Pact and COMECON (The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance – the organisation which oversaw economic cooperation between countries in the Soviet bloc), and to finalize the withdrawal of Soviet armed forces by June 1991, whereby Hungary regained her independence and full sovereignty after almost fifty years.
In order to overcome the security and stability vacuum, the new democracies entered bilateral mutual stability agreements and developed their national defence and security institutions.
Actions and decisions were also made to prepare and enhance Hungary’s access to NATO and the European Community.
All of this was preceded by an event of great historical importance: on a warship off the island of Malta, the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and American president George Bush held talks on a better world. And on 3 December 1989, the Soviet spokesman declared that “the cold war came to an end today at 12:45 pm”.
During the tenure of the first democratic parliament (1990–1994), a wealth of fairly good quality legislation was passed to define and protect the essential civic freedoms and to lay the foundations of the market economy.
Laws were enacted on the freedom and protection of ownership, the development of an efficient social market economy, free enterprise and the freedom of business activity, the encouragement of investment and banking, economic association and cooperation, farming – both individually and in rational forms of real cooperatives, and on free internal and foreign trade.
Laws and government decrees were passed on privatization, to transform the state-run command economy to one centred on private property, to restore ownership and pay compensation, to restore alienated property and to compensate such high human values as life and liberty which were destroyed for so many people by the communist regimes.
Other laws included the guarantee of the freedom of speech and research, as well as the right to property, to leave and to return to one’s own country, to the free flow of information, to have access to a high standard of education, to establish educational institutions appropriate to the heritage of Christian Europe, and to forge new paths for the nation in all these directions.
To sum up, it is my conviction that we have done a relatively good job in our work to bring the peaceful Hungarian revolution to a successful conclusion; that we have satisfied the responsibility laid on us by our political forefathers and our generation in the eyes of God.
And that this is a worthwhile legacy for those who come after us.
This remains true even though, or especially because many actors contemplated other, less viable ways and directions, and because developments since may demand the rethinking of strategies and achievements. These should also be part of the legacy, to serve the best possible outcome.
* This article was written at the request of Former Romanian President Emil Constantinescu (1996–2000).