#39 - JRL 2009-177 - JRL Home
RIA Novosti
September 23, 3009
Hungary: The gap in Iron Curtain turns 20

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Dmitry Babich) - Twenty years ago, the West saw an unheard-of inflow of immigrants from the Soviet bloc countries. Soviet Jews rushed to Israel, Poles flooded Western Europe, while stores in eastern Austria had to hire assistants who could speak Hungarian to serve the growing numbers of Hungarian-speaking shoppers.

However, it was the exodus of eastern Germans from the GDR that posed the greatest danger to the "socialist community." After the Hungarian authorities began, on September 10, 1989, letting eastern Germans through to Austria, some 50,000 GDR citizens rushed out through the gap that opened up in the Iron Curtain.

East Germany's government expressed indignation and accused the Hungarian People's Republic, still officially run by the Communists, of betraying "the socialist ideals," as both Hungary and Eastern Germany had mutually agreed to prevent people's exit to third countries under a 1969 tourism agreement.

But the Hungarian authorities of the time were already drifting toward the West and planning to drop the word "People's" from the name soon.

First barbed fences on the Hungarian-Austrian border were destroyed as early as May 1989, and the tourism agreement was suspended in late summer that year.

So Hungary became the second socialist-bloc country after Poland to openly opt for a pro-Western line.

These days, some older people, and some young as well, tend to muse that, if [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev had stamped his foot then, he could have stopped the break-up in an instant. But he didn't. Moscow's response to a cautious request from the Hungarian comrades in late summer was silence. Hungary interpreted the silence as consent.

However, looking at facts in Hungary's life at the time, one can say that however strongly Gorbachev might have been stamping his feet, all he could do was hold up the Soviet bloc's collapse for a few months.

The facts are as follows. By 1987, Hungary's debt to western creditors was $17.8 billion, and reached $21 billion by 1990. If we compare what the dollar was worth then with what it is worth now, the picture becomes apocalyptic. The GDR was close to default on its own debts - to its own antagonist, Western Germany. Poland had by that time defaulted on its western debts, even for all the generous sponsorship of the Soviet Union, which provided it with cheap energy resources.

Socialist countries' foreign debt in the 1980s was skyrocketing because their own products could not compete with western ones and people would go any length to buy imported goods. The "clearing ruble" used by Comecon members for their internal settlements could buy camels in Mongolia, but couldn't be used to pay for the craved western supplies. The debt pyramid thus continued to grow.

The Soviet Union's foreign debt was growing too, as we can remember. It is amazing how similar the processes in the Soviet Union and its allies were in the 1989-1990. Differences emerged later, and they were against the Soviet Union, in fact.

But let us look at the similarities first. First, the change of regime was relatively peaceful. Hungary never even saw anything like our almost bloodless "coup" of August 1991; there were no riots, conflicts or public castigations. The liberal policy practiced by Hungary's Socialist Workers' Party (the local analog of the CPSU) for years also played its role.

Second, all sorts of various "people's fronts" and self-proclaimed public associations mushroomed at the time and gained such popularity that they were able to compete easily with the communist parties in the first free elections. Hungary allowed non-communist parties even in early 1989, but no one could expect those inexperienced groups to defeat the Hungarian Socialist Party (successor to the HSWP), which scraped a mere 9%.

Third, former communist officials rapidly resumed their old posts in the economy and government. The Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which won the 1990 elections, put former teachers and engineers into parliament, but soon realized that they were unable to run the country. The socialist party led by former communist officials swept parliament as early as in 1994. Surprisingly though, former Hungarian communists did not use the power they regained to silence their political opponents.

This last observation is probably the key difference between the outcome of the 1990s reform in Russia and Eastern Europe. Following "the winner takes all" principle, Russian elites failed to work out a procedure for rotating administration teams in power. Whereas in Hungary, regular replacement of ruling parties is helping smooth out the conflicts emerging in the country, which are many. Radical left and right-wingers have grown stronger over the past few years, and the footage of 2006 youth riots raging across Hungary has been shown around the world. Former dissident Agnes Heller, who left Hungary in 1977 and now returned to teach, admits: "When we say capitalism, young people take it to mean privatization, loss of job, foreign capital."

Isn't this picture familiar? But there are differences too. During the youth riots, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, who established the country's bipartisan system in association with main opposition Fidesz leader Viktor Orban, used force against unruly youths vandalizing shops and smashing cars. But using force against a peaceful demonstration of opposition parties, even the most radical ones would have been a political suicide.

Russians do not seem to fully realize this, otherwise they wouldn't go around criticizing Gorbachev for letting Eastern Europe go. His attempt to curb the allies' shift in policy toward the West could have delayed it, but not stopped.

Moreover, if the delay had been too long or had been aggravated with bloodshed, the Soviet Union's and then Russia's relations with Eastern Europe would have been seriously affected.

This gives us reason to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Russia's wise inaction.

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