We Made It Happen
Anti-Communist Revolution and National Sovereignty
On June 16th 1989, Viktor Orban, a 26 year old young man made a speech on Heroes’ Square, Budapest.
“If we have faith in our own strength, we will be able to put an end to Communist dictatorship. If we are determined enough, we can force the ruling party to submit itself to the test of free elections. If we don’t lose sight of the ideals of 1956, we will elect a government that will lose no time to start negotiations on the withdrawal of Russian troops to be started without any delay.”
His words may not sound risky today, but they chilled the public to their bones then and shook up millions of TV viewers. The reason?
“Communist dictatorship”; “free elections”; “the withdrawal of Russian troops”. Those listening to these bold phrases as pronounced by that young man ducked their heads and opened their eyes wide. The world was a different place back in the summer of 1989, 25 years ago. Many expected the ceremony to be immediately interrupted, the live broadcast to be stopped, the TV screens to go black and a police detachment to be already on its way to handcuff and arrest the speaker. Why did it take more than courage to utter those words? What was the kind of regime where demanding “free elections” or mentioning the “withdrawal of occupying troops” could entail immediate and violent reaction by the authorities? What was the kind of world where speaking about “freedom” and “independence” could trigger an arrest warrant and a jail sentence?
Ladies and Gentlemen
At that time we had been living for almost half a century under Soviet imposed Communist oppression, just like other East European countries occupied by the Soviet Union after World War Two. The Communist regime persecuted everything that we valued and held in esteem, anything that linked us to our past, to our roots. In the society Communist dreamed of there was no room for nations, traditions, religion, faith, anything but the ever changing truths proclaimed by the Party. Communist rule deprived the people of their private property as well as of the freedom of thought, speech and movement. People were being discriminated according to their origins and social positions. Under the pretext of “equality”, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were deprived of a future at school, at their workplaces and in their careers. The kind of life imposed upon us became unbearable to the point of sparking a freedom fight in 1956, during which we defied an overwhelmingly powerful enemy in a desperate attempt at gaining freedom and independence. And although Hungarian freedom fighters were defeated by the Soviet Union in the ensuing bloodbath, the invaders never felt safe again in our country and after a period of merciless reprisals tried to turn a friendly face towards us. Viktor Orbán, the young speaker in 1989 was not arrested because of his speech, and this fact made it clear for everyone that along with the martyr prime minister of 1956 and his executed comrades, Communism was buried as well on that summer day. That was the start of the countdown.
What was happaning in Hungary and in the region in the years of 1989- 90? Regime switch? Regime change? Regime transition? Why are we unable even to name the events of 1989/1990? Why do we not declare at last that everywhere in our region that miraculous year marks the success of anti-Communist revolutions and freedom fights aimed at reclaiming national self-rule? After all, these peoples revolted against the Communist dictatorship everywhere, with millions of citizens demanding independence, the termination of Soviet occupation, national sovereignty, and democracy to ensure civil liberties. In 1989 hundreds of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets to protest against the communist regime and, last but not least, to organize a worthy funeral for the heroes of 1956. In 1989-90 Hungarians and the rest of the peoples of the region decided to take control of their own lives and refuse to live under foreign rule and the Communist dictatorship enforced upon them any longer. This is called a revolution. Private property instead of state ownership, a multi party system instead of the single-party system, free elections, the enforcement of civil liberties. The wave of these victorious revolutions eliminated Soviet control and Communism from our region, leaving hardly any traces behind. From one moment to the next, we retook possession of our countries and our lives. As the late William F, Buckley wrote: “When the time of changes came round in these countries at last, it was primarily owing to their own resistance.˝
From the beginning of the eighties, it was obvious that the communist regime was in a state of virtual death. Those who were not blinded by Marxism clearly saw that the communist regime, which was incapable of revival, had exhausted its reserves. By the end of the twentieth century, the Sovietunion had lost its self-confidence and belief in its own historical mission. As soon as the peripheries felt that Moscow had become incapable of controlling and preserving the unity of its huge-grown empire, they began to secede. The main moment was in 1981, when the Soviet leaders decided against restoring Socialism in Warsaw by all means, they admitted that they were no longer convinced of being the sole key to historical significance and progress. This together with the severe and painful military loss that they suffered in Afghanistan shattered their authority.
Meanwhile, they were also on the loser’s side in soft politics, i.e. in the war of ideologies and propaganda. The reason is that from the mid-seventies the western world focused its attention on human rights, which put the Soviet-type totalitarian dictatorships on the defensive.
On top of all its internal troubles, from the eighties the Soviet Union was being surpassed by the USA both economically and geopolitically. Strategic cooperation between the USA and China was a heavy burden to the Soviet Union in itself, not to mention the challenge they had to face owing to the Chinese reforms launched under Teng Hsiao-Ping in 1978. It was in this already delicate situation that came President Reagan’s famous announcement: the Evil Empire would lose the cold war and the USA was going to win. He also made it clear that he would use every means to support the peripheries in their secession efforts. SDI program associated with the name of the Hungarian Edward Teller forced the Soviet Union into a technological competition which it had backed out of before it even started. Apparently, the gerontocratic Soviet leadership could not find the antidote to the pressure it was subjected to both from the East and the West. At the same time, the old party leaders who had been in office for decades were surrounded – just like in Hungary – by an apparatus of expert careerists for whom the binding party ideology carried no value at all. In order to win and retain their positions, they joined the party and rose to high positions there, without ever believing in the viability of socialism. Since they were the ones who operated it, they knew better than anyone else that the system of planned economy inevitably had to collapse. They also saw that the socialist regime was simultaneously struggling with a crisis of legitimacy, as well as a political and structural one. When Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985, Kádár himself understood that the countdown had begun.
But the communist regime was not overthrown by them but by those dedicated revolutionists who realized that it was time to take action. Because the people wanted freedom and independence both in Hungary and in the entire region. The socialists who began to call themselves “reformcommunists” or “reformsocialists” did not want to destroy the socialist regime, what they aimed was to reform it, to make it suitable in order to maintain their leading role. They were sure after introducing some „reforms”, they could remain in power for decades. They hoped they could have everything under their control. They forgot that the people tolerated their rule only because of the presence of the Red Army, and the lessons they had to learn from 1956 and 1968, which showed, that there is no foreign help. As soon as it became clear that the Soviet Army will not interfere in the region anymore and the visit of President Bush in July1989 in Budapest and Warsaw let us understand that this time the USA will support our fight for freedom, so we began to overthrow the Communist regimes. On the 11th of July President Bush said to the Hungarian people listening to him in a heavy storm; that he came as a friend, and that he would always stand on our side and would never leave us alone any more. The mere fact of a visit by the President of the United States was proof that we had put ourselves onto the World map, and the leader of the world’s most powerful nation is paying attention to how we are faring. That was a source of self-confidence and hope for all of us. The day after, President Bush met not only with leading Communist party and government officials at the residence of the US ambassador Mark Palmer, but also received, and by receiving, legitimized, the leaders of the opposition. G.H. Bush realized that the course of the events were not any more being determined by the frightened party leaders, but by their impatient and resolute opponents. He understood that the Hungarian people took their own destiny in their hands because they wanted freedom and independence.
The Hungarians made an anticommunist revolution, and so did the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Czechs, the East Germans, and all the others. With our anticommunist revolutions we created a new political system, regained our national sovereignty.
The conditions of a democratic market economy based on a multi-party system were guaranteed by a provisional constitution as well as by the Constitutional Court in Hungary, which came into office before the first free government was formed. In 1990 we had our first free elections after almost half a century. We felt ecstatic about freedom and independence, about democracy and market economy. Socialism collapsed and the economy was lying in ruins.
Since at the end of the cold war we were once more on the loser´s side, we also had to bear the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet empire. Millions lost their jobs and found themselves temporarily or sometimes permanently worse off than before. The new Hungarian democracy inherited a foreign debt of 21 billion dollars, and only 600 million dollars in foreign exchange reserves, accelerating inflation and an enormous amount of public debt. In accordance with the public consensus, we wanted market economy based on private ownership, but it was also evident that such a massive scale of privatization that would affect the entire national economy was unprecedented. Nevertheless, our decision-makers broke with the Hungarian historical traditions, that is, the traditional wait-and-see policy, and immediately started to turn public assets into private property. They had two alternatives. Either to let wealthy foreign investors grab everything, or to leave something also for members of the Hungarian elite who were near the ring. It was quite obvious that since this process had begun in the summer of 1987, well before the first free elections, in the framework of the so-called spontaneous privatization, the comrades were the first ones to take their portion from the bowl. They became the first capitalists. The reason for this was that unlike in the other former Socialist countries the Hungarian Constitutional Court did not approve of restitution. Although there were some compensation efforts and resourceful attempts at providing some sort of a solution, such as the compensation tickets, preference shares, etc., the bottom line was that those deprived of their properties by the Communists never got them back.
In addition to inhibiting restitution, the Constitutional Court also protected those who had committed capital crimes under the Communist regime from being indictable. Thus, never since the collapse of the communist system has historical justice been enforced in Hungary. Our public life has not been purified through any kind of screening, nor have former political police agents have been called to account. That is why those tortured, humiliated and wrecked by the dictatorship will never accept that the former supporters and officials of the totalitarian regime could equally remained the policy-makers of the democracy without having ever been condemned. The actual culprits have never been named and the crimes that they committed have not been publicly condemned, thus there have been no cathartic social shocks and, consequently, no sins to forgive have ever been revealed. Instead, the converted members of the dictatorial elite – supported by those instructing them from the background – immediately started to play down their own responsibilities, while posing as the reformers of the system. As a matter of fact, all they did was to find a way to transform the regime in order to save their leading positions, while Communism was actually eliminated and overthrown by the rest of us.
Ladies and Gentlemen
Twenty-five years later we can declare that the anticommunist revolution and through it the regaining of our national independence was a success story in Hungary as well as in the region as a whole. The old-new institutions have been established. State ownership has been replaced by private property. The country has grown a lot. Our towns have been embellished and new motorways have been built. The inhabitants of our country use more than 1 million cell phones. Some four million people drive modern cars. We have access to the whole world via the internet. Our youngsters get scholarships to study at foreign universities, and they have opportunities to gain experience and work in far away countries. In 1997, citizens decided in a referendum, to join NATO, in 2004, we joined the European Union. Of course, neither organization has lived up to our expectations, but this only proves that we must have expected too much.
We made all that happen together. That is a success shared by all. What we had dreamt of, what we had fought for, came true at last. We became free and independent. The example set by Hungary and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain in the summer of 1989 was a powerful inspiration for neigbouring peoples. Poles, East Germans, Czechs, Romanians and Bulgarians got rid of Communism and foreign occupation almost simultaneously. The Soviet Empire would fall into pieces shortly thereafter. Thus we can be proud of our achievements. We have all the necessary means at our disposal, since we could enter the 21st century as a free and independent country. This is a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility at the same time.