Looking Back on the Regime Change of 1990 – from 1996

Keeping the third part of my Hungarian Review interview series on the governmental work of 1990 on the back burner, in this issue, I have proposed to print one of my unpublished talks from 1996. It is a short essay on the experience of initiation into politics, as lived by former opposition intellectuals turned government officials in 1990–94. Former Polish Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka, whom I quote in this essay, was on the panel with me. The wit she demonstrates in the anecdote quoted perhaps strikes a happy balance with the occasionally stilted tone that strikes me today in my 1996 statement. This is how I look back in 2015 on how I looked back on 1990 in 1996. But, essentially, I still read it as an authentic record.

József Antall had Tadeusz Mazowieczki among his first official visitors, or perhaps he was his very first Prime Minister visitor in the summer of 1990. At the official dinner, according to the protocol, every guest had a little booklet bound with the tricoloured thread, containing the set speech of the Prime Minister, together with the menu, placed beside the plates. When the Hungarian Prime Minister rose to speak, he brushed aside the printed text of the set speech and asked his guests to ignore it, while starting another, an improvised toast. It was a difficult job for the interpreter, but the speech went home smoothly, enriching the aura of personal attachment and accordance between Tadeusz Mazowieczki and József Antall, thus making an important step on the way towards founding the Visegrád Group.

Why did József Antall brush aside the written text? The speech that had been written by an expert of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was built up of 5–10 year old pre-fab elements, and some of its references and its style on the whole could have even been taken as an insult, as a document of the ancient Kádárian mentality. Of course, for Antall it never posed the slightest problem to improvise a toast, especially not when it concerned the Polish–Hungarian contacts, the historical parallels and common strategic interests. About all that, he had his own, original thoughts; what is more, he always preferred talking freely: he felt shackled by the texts written in advance, however well done.

That dinner proceeded in an atmosphere of confidence, common sense and humour. In spite of the fact that the two teams taking seat at the two sides of the table hardly knew each other before: they had less than a year to turn from opposition intellectuals into decision making politicians. It was not so much the change of working methods or the compliance with the protocol formalities that caused them a shock. In fact there is no better preparation for the mental concentration and stamina that politics demands, than our various routines were: the regular challenge of preparing lectures, legal cases, economic analyses or the asceticism of research. And if one has international experience and has learnt to behave – which is in fact not the privilege of the professional diplomats – he can easily pass at least two tests of this new role, the pressures of intense work and the adoption of the rules of diplomatic communication.

The real test was an ethical one: we had to face the challenge of creating a new human quality. There I would like to quote another Polish example. Once in 1993 a reporter asked Hanna Suchocka, at the time Prime Minister: “Is it true that you are the Polish Thatcher?” The Prime Minister answered: “No, it is not. I am the Polish Suchocka.” The story might be apocryphal, never mind. (It is authentic, as Ms Suchocka has told me since.) It is profound and genuine, like the anecdotes of the ancient Chinese philosophers. Its wit is a serious one, almost self-ironical. A very intelligent woman points out the fact that each similarity underlines the differences. Right now, in these differences, over all the peculiarities of place and time, a new type of active politician is born, whose career, fate and task is totally different from his ancestors.

It is Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who says: “Until 1989 the acts of the antitotalitarian opposition […] took place within the field of the so called ‘pre-politics’. Acting was restricted to the most elementary things: it referred to human and civil rights.” The Polish, Hungarian and Czech opposition, from which the new political elite was formed in 1990, had practised in fact the strategies of mental and ethical opposition for long years, in an organic unity with a particular way of thinking and culture of behaviour. Our actions during one and a half decades were mostly aimed at stretching the freedom of speech and organisation with however small steps, either in legally printed books and in the press, or in the underground, clandestine publications. The famous protest actions of campaigning for signatures against the infringements of human and political rights belong here, too. It was the western press that gave publicity to these actions. The subculture of the East Central European opposition had acquired an international character in the Hungarian–Polish–Czech–Romanian respect through ties of friends and their informational network. We, Hungarians, had a special form of fighting for human rights, in the activity organised for the rights of our Hungarian compatriots living outside the borders of Hungary, carried out in cooperation with their leaders, and regarded as a more or less illicit activity.

All of us, taking part in this widening current that started from the mid-70s, had passed through the misery, the heroics and the sweet daze of resistance. We hardly had any means, were exposed to the slighter and ruder forms of persecution and exclusion, and for all that, when looking back, this period seems to me so idyllically simple and happy. The smouldering divergences of opinions were dissolved and forgotten amid our fight against the common enemy, that is the communist totalitarian power. We believed in victory and in our efforts – the usual East Central European absurdity – we could even find allies among the members of the nomenklatura.

No matter how risky this kind of resistance might have been, the fact that it grew out of lethargic societies bereft of action and vision, left deep traces on the resisting elites until 1980, when Solidarnost was formed. The experience of the dreadfully overwhelming power of the occupiers joined with the aftermath of the Auschwitz experience and the strange interference of the anti-institutional feeling of the western Sixties. Loss of speech, the inauthenticity and impossibility of positive communication, an absurd self-irony became our ethos in the works of poets like János Pilinszky, Zbygniew Herbert, Slawomir Mrożek and Vladimír Holan. In this ethos worldly power and any activity aiming at this world appeared as metaphysically evil, or at best, as grotesque.

History took its noble vengeance on us, as the fulfilment of our desire, the political freedom seemed nearer and nearer from 1985 on, and was indeed accomplished by 1990. Due, to a good extent, to our own efforts. This change demanded a psychological re-adaptation from us for which we were not prepared. It took a long time for most of the “different-minded” East Central European intellectuals to awake, in fact many are still not able to make the switch.

From 1988 on, the precipitating events produced newer and newer demands in quick succession. We were required to come up with programmes, ever more detailed ones, and then programmes that were able to outline governmental action. It was then, when we tried to draw up the first, mostly incomplete and inconsistent programmes, that we had to realise how different and diverse our ideologies and our visions were. The formation of parties, that represented these different attitudes, was inevitable. Later, in 1990, some of these formations had to undertake the responsibility of governing.

This brought crises for us, but also for our followers and our electorate. It turned out soon that the mass of East Central European citizens, kept completely ignorant about politics, however regarded politics as almighty, which was no wonder after the dominant experience of four decades. Indeed, communist politics seemed to be almighty, aimed to seem almighty and declared even its western adversaries almighty. The newly free citizen of East Central Europe had almost no idea whatsoever about such things as the practical sphere of activity of a civic society, the self-movements of the economy, the inevitable imperfection and fallibility of politics, or of the ethics of compromise. They were not aware and could not accept the agonies of freedom and the responsibility of freedom. They found it difficult to step out of their infancy, which had been forced on them for so long.

Probably this explains the irrational, fundamentalist anger with which the new opposition attacked their earlier companions who took over governing between 1990 and 1994. They were inclined to see the revival of the petrified Power and Evil of their imaginations in the new democratic government and even in the Parliament. They retouched the previous, loathsome enemy on their image of the government, and in fact they hardly ever saw the real picture. This feeling was reinforced by the tradition of plebeian outsiderism, which is not a Hungarian speciality among the East Central European nations that were often deprived of their own independent statehood and elected political representation. In a way, this delusion seemed to be justified by all the faults, delays or passiveness of the Kádárian bureaucracy that was left in place in many areas.

This error might explain that even in our own ranks there were people who believed that we should have solved all the problems of 40 years in only four, and they were willing to take upon themselves these absurd and tragically naive expectations.

In others, the crisis of the historical urge to act, which almost each of us lived through as a crisis of self-definition, accelerated the formation of a more mature political, civic mentality. Day after day, they had to re-live the command to act, because non-acting is the divine privilege of the immovable mover. You have to make your decision: to choose between better and worse, good and good, bad and bad.

On behalf of Prime Minister Antall, Gyula Kodolányi receives Polis prime Minister Hanna Suchocka arriving on an official visit in September 23, 1992, at Ferihegy Airport. Photo by courtesy of MTVA

Faith, the great, living sacred tradition of humanity might help the politician and the citizen to accept the ethics of political action. It can offer a perspective and a sense of proportion where the criticisms aimed at demigodly perfection, the political utopias, the Savonarolian ardours find their proper place in the world of absurdities. It gives a measure and moderation: politics cannot redeem people, and it can hardly do anything for those who do not help themselves. Catholicism has also taught us that we have a free will. Thus we can choose and change, we have to believe in the ability to change in others, we have to believe in their sincere intention to change. This reminds me of the key notions of patience and tolerance.

Patience, sense of proportion and dimension, moderation, equilibrium, participation, solidarity – these values form the basis of the political practice of democracies, where they have become inbred by now, so one can hear little about them. In a well-tested systemic operation each rule seems to be pragmatically natural. No wonder that in the West, the abstract question of ethics emerges rarely when it comes to politics; some people even consider the two spheres totally separate.

They are wrong, however. This is what we learnt from our everyday struggle, which is far from being finished.

(Read at the symposium “Politics and Ethics”, Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Piliscsaba, Hungary, April 1996.)

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