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Csaba Békés
Back to Europe
The international background of the political transition in Hungary, 1988 – 1990

At the end of the 1980s, as had been the case over the past few centuries, the fate of East-Central Europe was determined by the superpowers and the realities of world politics. This was not always disadvantageous for each of the countries of the region; the peace treaties after World War I, for instance, explicitly favored the interests of most of the nations in the region by establishing nation states and by satisfying territorial demands at the expense of the losing countries. In the case of Hungary, however, international politics had an unfavorable impact on the state’s national interests from the 16th century up until 1989. The fall of the 1956 revolution is only the most recent example of the tragic effects of international political trends on Hungarian society. Thus, the political changes of 1989-90 resulted not only in the establishment of democracy and the restoration of sovereignty, but for the first time in their lives after a long period, Hungarians could enjoy a social experience which proved that the rivalry between the superpowers and the conditions of world politics can sometimes exert a positive effect on the enforcement of Hungarian national interests.1


Imperial status quo, imperial armament

When M. S. Gorbachev was elected as secretary general of the CPSU in March 1985, he undertook a task no less formidable than that of breathing new life into a socialist economic-political model that had already fallen into serious crisis at both the center of the Soviet Empire and its East European periphery. It would be interesting to see whether the reforms Gorbachev introduced or just envisioned could have proven to be effective a few decades earlier. By the middle of the 1980s, however, it was all too late. The arms race with the United States, the need to maintain parity of nuclear strategy, and the expenses of an irrationally oversized imperial periphery (Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, etc.) which brought no real profit had eaten up the economic reserves of the Soviet Union to such an extent that the chances for consolidation were rather slim in a socialist economic system that was in any event extremely ineffective. In addition, Gorbachev and his reformer associates did not adequately assess the severity of the upcoming crisis, even though they were aware of its inevitability. Thus, up until 1988, the reforms initially formulated with much caution in terms of perestroyka and glasnosty did not significantly improve either the political conditions or the efficiency of the economy. Although the new leadership had emphasized from the beginning its commitment to establishing a new international order that would replace the old cold war opposition, it failed to make the best of this possibility by reducing the armament costs of the Soviet Union radically and promptly. While the Soviet-American disarmament talks, which became increasingly intensive starting in the middle of the 1980s, brought a remarkable result in December 1987 with the signing of the INF agreement on eliminating medium-range and short-range nuclear missiles, up until the summer of 1988, the Soviet leadership refused to concede any unilateral steps in disarmament.2 They failed to do so in spite of the fact that the considerable Soviet advantage, especially in traditional armament, would have given them a great chance to reduce military expenses significantly. Moreover, this would also have had a positive effect upon building security and trust between East and West, which Gorbachev regarded as especially important. Because of the resistance of the Soviet military lobby and the conservative members of the leadership, as well as the traditional imperial attitude that also characterized the views of the reformers to quite a large extent, a real turn could only take place at the Warsaw meeting of the Political Consultative Body of the Warsaw Pact (WP PCB) on July 15-16, 1988. In his address, Gorbachev assessed the role of the socialist camp in shaping world politics and its chances for the future as definitely positive. On the other hand, at a closed session of the foreign ministers, Eduard Shevarnadze openly admitted that the Soviet Union was “facing a critical situation,” and it could no longer afford to run a permanent arms race with the West, given that it exceeded the Eastern block “in every possible respect.” Therefore, he stressed that the termination of the arms race had to be given absolute priority and every chance had to be grasped in order to come to an agreement.3

With a view to this, the WP PCB decided to speed preparations for their upcoming negotiations on conventional armament, to transform the structure and deployment of the armed forces of the WP (exclusively for meeting defensive needs), to develop a more flexible negotiating strategy, and in particular – after changing its former position – to take unilateral steps in disarmament. The Committee of the Defense Ministers was then commissioned to consider how the real data on the armies and the armament of the Warsaw Pact states could be made public. Typically, at its special meeting in Prague in the middle of October 1988, the Committee concluded that admitting the advantage of the WP in a number of fields before the negotiations started would have an unfavorable effect on the position of the alliance. Therefore this step, which originally intended to strengthen security and confidence, was postponed to March 1989 when the so-called CFE talks did commence in Vienna.4 The unilateral steps for disarmament, however, had been announced by Gorbachev well before this time, when he delivered his speech at the UN General Assembly on December 7, 1988. On this occasion, the secretary general of the CPSU announced that the Soviet Union would reduce its armed forces by 500 thousand troops and that this would be accomplished by pulling out some of the forces stationed in the GDR, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.5

This decision, at its own time quite radical but at the same time a rather late one in terms of consolidating the Soviet economy, was not free from inconsistency, however. The unilateral reduction of the armed forces by no means signified a cut in military spending by the Soviet military leaders. Quite the contrary: however surprising it might seem, in the summer of 1988 the Moscow leaders intended to increase the defense budget by 43% (!), including the use of the state reserves as well.6 The imminent comprehensive modernization program of NATO caught the Soviets – who wanted to maintain strategic parity by all means – in a trap out of which the only escape was to accomplish the unavoidable reduction simultaneously with or right after the Soviet army’s accelerated modernization, which would involve extremely large short-term costs. It is quite likely that it was primarily this challenge (or the failure to meet this challenge), rather than the American SDI “Star Wars” program, that eventually brought the Soviet Union to its knees in the arms race, and thus led to the fall of the communist system itself.

Although one of the most remarkable results of the Gorbachev reforms was undoubtedly the introduction of pragmatic policy making and the reduced emphasis upon communist ideology in both foreign and home policy, almost nothing was achieved in the area that had otherwise offered the Soviet Union the most profit for the least investment: maintaining, or rather, cutting down on the imperial periphery. Gorbachev was ready to replace the Soviet expansionist policy based on supporting the “liberation movements” of the third world with a more up-to-date strategy of exporting the revolution via the appeal of the new socialist model, which – in his hopes -- in the meantime had been reformed and made functional. Because of the resistance of the conservative members of the leadership and the need to consider the prestige of the Soviet Union as a world superpower, however, very few concrete steps were taken in this direction before 1988. Although the pullout of troops from Afghanistan started at the beginning of that year, to be followed by the exit of Cuban volunteers from Angola in January 1989, these happened all too late. Even in 1989, financing the imperial periphery inherited mostly from the Brezhnev era consumed huge sums (keeping Cuba alive alone cost 27 billion rubles annually), pushing the economy to the brink of total collapse.7

This inflexible imperial policy, predetermined by ideological considerations that prohibited the timely elimination of most earlier obligations, eventually led to the loss of Soviet influence over the East-Central-European region. Furthermore, as a result of constant over-expansion, or exhausting the “action radius”– a problem under which several empires had collapsed before in the course of history, the Soviet Union could eradicate the intolerable economic burden of supporting its allies only through its own dissolution.8


The Soviet Union and East-Central Europe at the end of the eighties

Up to the present, the most important question to have engaged the greatest attention is how the Soviet leadership could have eventually tolerated losing the region previously considered to be of utmost importance, and for which their predecessors had made great sacrifices for more than four decades. At the time when Gorbachev rose to power, Soviet policy continued to give the preservation of East-Central Europe as a security zone for the Soviet Union the absolute priority it had enjoyed uninterruptedly since 1945. Initially, the primary goal of the transitional policy announced by the new secretary general was to make the economic system more efficient and the political system more democratic in a limited sense: in other words, modernizing the socialist model inherited from the Stalinist era. Gorbachev believed not only that this program could be successfully accomplished in the Soviet Union, but also that the modernization of the system was an “objective necessity” deriving from the essential conditions of the age.9 Sooner or later, he maintained, the countries of East-Central Europe would follow this good example of their own accord, for it represented the only possible means of avoiding imminent crisis, or surviving it once it developed.

In similar situations, Gorbachev’s forefathers – especially the father of the de-Stalinization campaign, Khrushchev – never bothered relying on the principle of voluntarism when urging partners to follow the Soviet Union’s good example. Gorbachev, however, had good reasons not to try to impose the reforms on his allies. He regarded political stability as a key factor in accomplishing a successful transition in both the Soviet Union and East-Central Europe. At the same time, the situation was rather confused in this respect. In Hungary and Poland, where commitment to reforms was quite alive even without the Soviet influence, the economic conditions, indebtedness, and social dissatisfaction gave cause for serious alarm as early as the mid-1980s. In the GDR, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, each of which had a more conservative leadership, the political situation seemed much more sound, despite the apparent stagnation. Thus, imposing the new Soviet policy on these countries would not only not have been in accord with the new Gorbachev style, but it would also have involved the risk of destabilizing those countries in which this problem, at least, had not existed before. Therefore, in the second half of the decade Gorbachev followed the policy of patient persuasion, and attempted to achieve his goals via frequent bilateral and multilateral talks, personal visits, and public appearances.

At these meetings, Gorbachev tried to make it very clear from the beginning that he wanted to establish relations with the Eastern European allies on new foundations, although the principles of such a new policy were not codified in any way in any particular document for the public. As regards the principles or promises of this policy, not much new had to or could be offered, given that the Soviet government’s October 30, 1956 declaration – whose force had never been cancelled – stated that the socialist countries could “build their mutual relations only on the principles of complete equality, of respect for territorial integrity, state independence and sovereignty, and of noninterference in one another’s internal affairs.”10 This is not to say that Gorbachev, contrary to his predecessors, really took these high principles seriously, or that he was ready to give up the leading role of the Soviet Union within the socialist camp. It is obvious, however, that – contrary to any other former leader – he did seriously believe that a new relationship must be built which was more equal than it had been in the past: one which could put an end to the Soviet guardianship11 which could achieve real mutuality in exchanging ideas and experiences, which acknowledged the right of finding one’s own way within the socialist model in practice as well as in principle, and which could offer the chance for relatively independent policy-making provided the alliance system was still respected. One could even say that between 1985 and 1989, Gorbachev offered the entire Eastern camp an alliance system for lasting use which the Khrushchev leadership, confused by the events in Poland and Hungary, had regarded as tenable for only a single day (October 30, 1956), and even then only for Hungary.12

All this did not mean, however, the abandonment of the Brezhnev doctrine: that is, acknowledgment that the Eastern European nations were entitled to a truly free choice, including the elimination of the socialist system and the restoration of parliamentary democracy. This must be emphasized because today some of Gorbachev’s former associates tend to suggest that the rejection of the Brezhnev doctrine took place essentially in 1985-86, or even, as some argue, in 1981 when the Soviet military intervention in Poland did not take place.13 Based on currently available sources, however, it can be clearly established that no significant change in Soviet attitude occurred before the middle of 1988. Moreover, when in the second half of that year, or at the beginning of 1989, the thesis came to be adopted that in the case of potential crisis in the socialist countries, the possibility of Soviet military intervention must be excluded, this was formulated in the hope that the outcome of the radical changes would be a new model of socialism. A new model which – thanks to its capacity for renewal and thus its popularity among the public – could ensure a dominant role for the communist party in political life even after free elections.

All this was closely related to the radical changes that took place in the Soviet Union in the summer and fall of 1988. The national party conference held in June gave new momentum to perestroyka, and from this time on the major direction of the reforms was increasingly aimed at restructuring the system of political institutions, since the measures which had already been introduced in the field of economy had brought very poor results,. At the end of September, Gorbachev strengthened his position in the leadership,14 and from this time on he enjoyed the unquestionable authority that every secretary general of the CPSU is entitled to have “in times of peace.” During these few months, qualitative changes took place in Soviet policy in several respects. The program of modernizing the Stalinist model came to be replaced by an effort to develop a new model of socialism that could possibly blend the most advantageous features of both systems. This “rubber” concept – heavily influenced by the theory of convergence – went through a number of transitions in the coming years. Nobody knew what it really involved until it turned out that it was nothing else but capitalism.

It was at this time that the Gorbachev-Shevarnadze duet could start accomplishing their own initiatives; this time without any significant obstacles. This resulted in a real breakthrough in the most important field, that of Soviet-American relations, and a new relationship between the leaders of the two superpowers began to be established which could not have been conceivable even a few years earlier, when President Reagan called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”

Given Gorbachev’s ardent urgings to build a new world order based on trust, mutual security, peaceful coexistence, cooperation, and the elimination of the division of Europe, normalization of the relations with the leading powers of Western Europe became extremely important. Although only in the summer of 1989 did the secretary general pay his crucial visits to London, Paris, and Bonn, the intensive exchange of ideas had began earlier, and serious reservations were replaced by qualitative changes in the attitude of the Soviet government, especially with regard to the FRG. This latter development was to a large extent due to the intervention of the Hungarian leadership, which had for some time cultivated excellent relations with the West Germans, and was negotiated by Károly Grósz during his Moscow visit in July 1988 at the request of Chancellor Kohl.15


The only means: “floating” the Brezhnev doctrine

As far as East-Central Europe is concerned, there were two fundamental changes in the Soviet policy at this time which considerably determined the fate of the region: the adoption of the principle of “socialist pluralism” and the introduction of a new strategy in the alliance – the floating of the Brezhnev doctrine.

At the 1988 June party conference, Gorbachev – without any preliminary theoretical elaboration – declared that any nation had the right to choose its own social-economic system. Jacques Levesque raises three reasons for the announcement of this very important, albeit far from unambiguous thesis. In his view, Gorbachev’s major goal was to win the confidence of the West, since in addition to his position on Afghanistan, Gorbachev’s willingness to tolerate changes in Eastern Europe was the main basis the West used to judge his true intentions. Another aim was to prepare the Soviet nomenclature and the party apparatus for the changes so that they could eliminate their old reflexes. A third goal was possibly to warn the communist leaders of Eastern Europe that in the future event of a domestic crisis, they should not expect automatic Soviet aid. This could be conceptualized as a kind of political pressure, whose aim was to nudge the unwilling allies toward adopting reforms.16

Based on currently available sources, it seems quite likely that in June 1988, these factors had only an instinctive rather than conscious influence upon Gorbachev’s intentions. The most important goal might have been the introduction of a new type of discourse on the increasingly critical topic of the Soviet Union’s relations with the Eastern European states: a discourse which could thus provide the leaders of the Soviet reforms greater room and possibility to maneuver than they had possessed before, thus giving them the chance to respond flexibly to the ever-changing situation.

The thesis cited above was repeated by Gorbachev and other leaders several times and in several forms over the course of 1988-89, and was very soon supplemented by the promise to cease the use of military force. The essence of these multifunctional declarations, simultaneously addressed to all interested parties and deliberately meant to be ambiguous, was that although they implicitly rejected the possibility of military intervention, they never stated categorically that the Soviet Union would not interfere with an ally’s domestic affairs should the political transition, horribile dictu, result in the total abandonment of socialism and the restoration of parliamentary democracy.17 In other words, this thesis concerning the free choice of individual countries could be interpreted in harmony with one’s own interests and desires, while at the same time, given the turbulent circumstances, it could also be interpreted in precisely the opposite way. In addition, all this was supplemented by a method of “orienting” and sharing confidential information on the highest levels of bilateral relations between each of the East European countries and the Soviet Union. Sometimes this “dialectical” approach manifested itself in a very concrete form. At Károly Grósz’s visit to Moscow at the end of March 1989, for example, Gorbechev stated that “today the possibility of repeating the interference into the domestic affairs of other socialist countries must be excluded once and for all,” but on the other hand, he also emphasized that “we clearly have to draw the boundaries, thinking about ourselves and others at the same time. Democracy is much needed and the interests have to be harmonized. The limit, however is the safekeeping of socialism (emphasis added – Cs. B.) and assurance of stability.”18 As for how to interpret “the boundaries,” no one in the Eastern bloc had more experience of this than the Hungarians, as the official explanation of the Soviet invasion on November 4, 1956 was based on the same logic. According to this, Soviet intervention did not mean the violation of the high principles expounded in the October 30 Soviet government declaration, but quite the contrary: those very principles were put to practice. The declaration rejected the idea of intervention only in the case of a socialist country, whereas the developments in Hungary had threatened the existence of the entire socialist system.

The initially instinctive, but later increasingly conscious tactic of floating the Brezhnev doctrine19 was successful and effective, at least temporarily. It also had a definite stabilizing effect upon the accelerated transition both in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and contributed to preserving the peaceful nature of the changes to a large extent. One can imagine what would have happened to the position of the Soviet reformers, within both the leadership and the society, if a categorical declaration had been made overnight that Eastern Europe, for which the Red Army had shed so much blood, could now determine its fate freely – including the possibility of capitalist restoration. At the same time, floating the Brezhnev doctrine also had the advantage of enabling the Soviet leadership to accustom society, and themselves as well, gradually to the idea that the Soviet Union might have to accept heretofore unheard-of radical changes in Eastern Europe.

This tactic had a similar stabilizing effect on the transition in the region, and it probably played a key role in ensuring that apart from the Romanians, the communist leaders were too unclear concerning Soviet intentions to dare to engage in any kind of repression against the mass movements that emerged in the fall of 1989. The same blocking effect deriving from uncertainty can be generally observed in the policy of the opposition forces, although it manifested itself in different forms in the two leading reform countries, Poland and Hungary. At the roundtable talks in Warsaw starting in February 1989, the position of Solidarity and its readiness for compromise was strongly influenced by the need to consider the difficulty in assessing the tolerance level of the Soviets. In the June elections held after preliminary agreement, however, this consideration did not prevent Polish society from giving nearly all its mandates to representatives of Solidarity, thus inflicting a crushing moral defeat on the communist regime.20 In Hungary, the opposition appeared to be less worried about the Soviet attitude – at least this might have been the impression of a contemporary observer, given that the Opposition Roundtable (OR) established in March 1989 was able to come to agreement with those in power at the negotiations started in June and concluded in September that a Western-type parliamentary democracy with virtually no limitations and free elections based on real competition should be introduced into the country. In fact, the element of uncertainty was always in the air during the negotiations. It was no accident that the OR insisted that one of the six committees discussing the various aspects of the transition be concerned with legal guarantees that could prevent any kind of retreat to the old system.21

The deviation from the Polish model and the special nature of the Hungarian transition are well reflected by the fact that at the beginning of 1989, the Hungarian leadership was just as interested in eliminating the Brezhnev doctrine as the opposition, since they hoped to transform the basis of their legitimacy from Soviet support to the potentially positive outcome of the upcoming elections.22 Strangely enough, the opposition expected its political rival, the HSWP, to provide the external conditions for a peaceful transition and to give them a guarantee that the Brezhnev doctrine was no longer in force. The representatives of the OR posed an explicit question on this issue to defense minister Ferenc Kárpáti on August 30, 1989, when he gave them confidential information on current military-political issues.23

Beyond all this, from the middle of 1988 the floating of the Brezhnev doctrine was virtually the only “weapon” left to the Soviet leadership with which it could, at least for a short time, have an influence on the political processes running their course in Eastern Europe. After all, by that point Gorbachev and his associates had given up on the possibility of military intervention. Unlike their predecessors, who possessed much more modest goals, the Soviet reformers striving for a radical reformation of East-West relations and a new world order based on cooperation could simply not afford any kind of armed intervention aiming at restoring order and the old system without jeopardizing the results that had already been achieved. This danger not only would have emerged in world politics, but also would have caused the West to lose its confidence in Gorbachev. This then would have meant the fall of perestroyka, the program of transformation, Gorbachev’s first priority.

It was at this time that the fate of Eastern Europe was subordinated to two factors of a different order: the highly ambitious goals of the Gorbachev leadership in world politics on the one hand, and to the success of the Soviet transition on the other.24 The latter – based on the available sources and with knowledge of the later events – might well be called a life-or-death fight for the survival of the Soviet Union. Thus, I believe that the main reason why the Soviet Union agreed to let Eastern Europe go so easily was that this was the first time since the Russian civil war that the Soviet state – paradoxically, still a leading superpower of the bipolar world order in a military sense – found itself in a situation in which its own survival was at stake. Giving priority to saving the imperial “center” was a logical and necessary step, with respect to which the Eastern European periphery gradually lost its significance. If one tries to find a historical parallel, this could be described as a Brest-Litovsk syndrome. At that critical moment of the civil war, Lenin also argued for a peace treaty to be made with the Germans that while requiring the loss of significant territories, would nonetheless preserve the Soviet state. Lenin proved to be right about this, but like the Soviet Union itself, his later successor, Gorbachev, was to be surpassed by history.


Soviet prognoses on Eastern Europe

Starting in the beginning of the summer of 1988, the Soviet leadership began to realize that both the Soviet economy and most of the countries in the socialist camp were either in a state of crisis or on the verge of falling into one. In a report made at the beginning of October 1988, Georgi Shahnazarov, Gorbachev’s chief advisor in charge of Eastern European affairs, assessed the situation as follows: chances are great that several socialist countries will soon go bankrupt at the same time, since some of the allies (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Cuba and the GDR) are “on the brink of monetary insolvency.”25 Though several of the leaders surely must have already been worried about the situation, Shahnazarov was the first to state the dilemma in drastic form: “What shall we do, if social instability that is now taking an increasingly threatening character in Hungary will close up with another round of trouble-making in Poland, demonstrations of “Charter-77” in Czechoslovakia, etc., in other words, do we have a plan in case of the crisis which might encompass the entire socialist world, or a large part of it?”26 Since the question was rhetorical, the adviser suggested that the newly formed International Committee of the CPSU CC should have some analyses made on this issue and that the Politburo should discuss the report with some experts no later than in January 1989. In fact, by the beginning of the following year, four reports were completed by the “Bogomolov Institute,” the Department of International Relations of the CPSU CC, The Foreign Ministry, and the KGB. Thanks to the research of Jacques Levesque, the first three are public now.27

In reviewing these reports, we can agree with Levesque’s assessment that the first represents a radical reformist position, the second a centrist one, and the third one a combination of conservative and reformist ideas. Thus, the three reports contain significant shifts of emphasis in assessing the potential developments in Eastern Europe.28 However tempting it would be to analyze and compare these documents in detail, for reasons of space I will confine myself to examining those common features which represent the views and prognoses of the experts preparing the decisions (and, indirectly, of the decision-makers as well) as tendencies at the very beginning of 1989:

In the first two reports, the assessment of the situation is identical: the Eastern European countries are in general crisis, and the relations between the Soviet Union and its allies have also become critical.

In all three reports, the main theoretical objective is to ensure the success of the new model of socialism and to preserve the foundations of this renewed system.

At the same time, all three reports reckon with the possibility that the transition might go beyond these lines, which would then lead to the total abandonment of socialism and the restoration of a Western-type parliamentary democracy.

According to the first two reports, the Soviet Union should not try to prevent such a development.29

Therefore – and even the least reformist Foreign Ministry report agrees on this – the possibility of a Soviet military intervention in the case of a crisis in an Eastern European country must be rejected.30

According to the first two reports, if socialism is abandoned, the Soviet influence could be maintained through the “Finlandization”31 of the region, with the important modification that the existing alliance system – that is, the Warsaw Pact – should be maintained permanently.32

The significance of these analyses lies above all in the fact that they represent the first time that the drastic consequences of abandoning the Brezhnev doctrine were put in explicit terms (albeit strictly for confidential use): there is a real chance that the transition process in Eastern Europe will lead to the total abandonment of socialism and the restoration of capitalism, and if the situation develops in this way, the Soviet Union should not prevent it.

Thus, the first two months of 1989 represented a turning point in the transformation of the Soviet position concerning the fate of Eastern Europe: the period of becoming accustomed to the idea of change was over, and now the ball was in the other court At the January 21, 1989 meeting of the CPSU Politburo, Gorbachev himself formulated the problem as follows: “The peoples of these countries will ask: what about the CPSU, what kind of leash will it use to keep our countries in? They simply do not know that if they pulled this leash stronger, it would break.”33 As the previous discussion made clear, it is no wonder they did not know. The last tool in the hands of the Soviet leaders for maintaining their influence upon the developments in Eastern Europe was to continue floating the Brezhnev doctrine as much as they could. Their explicit aim thus now became the concealment of this secret from the countries’ ruling parties and oppositions as long as possible.

Moreover, the leadership continued to attempt to convince themselves and others too that if the radical changes were initiated by the communist party and the transition took place under their control, then the result – even though it would start greatly resembling a Western democracy – could still be called a new model of socialism. Gorbachev himself, however, appeared to view the developments with much less illusion at this stage, and he thought the historic defeat of socialism would be a reality not only in Eastern Europe but in the Soviet Union as well. According to a diary note made by his closest associate, Anatoli Chernayev on May 2, 1989 “He is prepared to go far. […] His favorite catch-word is ‘unpredictability’. And most likely we will come to a collapse of the state, and something like chaos. He feels that he is loosing the levers of power irreversibly, and this realization prevents him from ‘going far’.[…] He has no concept of where we are going.”34


The Changes in Eastern Europe and the West

Gorbachev’s rise to power, and his reforms and initiatives in the field of international politics and domestic relations, posed great challenges to the Reagan administration that had ruled the US since 1981. Before Gorbachev’s era, the American leadership viewed its historical mission to be ending the Cold War in such a way that the new round of the arms race, which had resumed in the second half of the 1970s, would bankrupt the Soviet Union. The primary means of executing this new strategy would have been the Star Wars (SDI) program. When it became increasingly more obvious, however, especially over the course of 1987-1988, that Gorbachev’s dynamic personality made him more than just another Khrushchev, and that his initiatives aimed at eliminating confrontation should be taken seriously, another, no less tempting alternative began to unfold. This alternative envisioned the possibility of agreement and long-lasting cooperation which would have made possible radical reduction in armaments as well as international tension. Due to its budget deficit, the United States also had an interest in reducing military spending, although it is quite likely that if needed, it would have been able to find the necessary resources to finance the SDI program, albeit at the cost of great sacrifice. Such a pact between the superpowers would have also had the advantage of strengthening the leading position of the US in relation to Western Europe, unifying into a potential “third power.” The December 1986 summit meeting in Reykyavik between Gorbachev and Reagan can be regarded as a step in this direction, which provoked heated criticism from the United States’ Western allies. The Malta summit between Bush and Gorbachev three years later belongs to this same category of meetings, and is regarded by many as the concluding act of the Cold War.35 In fact, however, the Reagan administration hovered between these two alternative concepts, and it was only after George Bush’s inauguration at the beginning of 1989 that a significant step forward was made.

No significant change can be discerned in the United States’ Eastern European policy before 1989. This policy involved a different approach to each of the countries of the region, and the goal, realistic under the given circumstances, was to soften and liberalize the communist systems by several means: exerting economic pressure, continuously calling these countries to account for their human rights records, and supporting the opposition movements. Strangely enough, during the period between 1985 and the end of 1988, American and Soviet views concerning the desired transition of the region had gradually come closer. For the Soviets, more and more things could be regarded as part of the democratization process and the concept of a new socialist model, while for the Americans, there was still not much hope for a radical change in the situation – that is, the restoration of parliamentary democracy.

The first important change took place in the spring of 1989 when President Bush took office. This was not due, however, to the new leadership taking a completely new approach to the question, but rather to the fact that in the meantime, a turn of historical importance was beginning to emerge in Eastern Europe. At the beginning of February, roundtable talks between the government and the legally-acknowledged Solidarity began in Poland. By April they came to an agreement, and the first “semi-free” elections could be held in June, resulting in a sweeping victory for the opposition, which won most of the seats under competition. In Hungary, the Central Committee of the HSWP accepted at its February 10-11 meeting the introduction of a multiparty system, and it also adopted the position that the 1956 events in Hungary constituted a popular uprising and not a counter-revolution. In June, roundtable negotiations began between the state party and the members of the Opposition Roundtable. Although the position and the social legitimacy of the Hungarian opposition was much weaker than that of the Polish, what was at stake was no less than the total demolition of the party-state, the restoration of the constitutional state, and the preparation for free elections.36

Assessing this from the American viewpoint, the most important factor was that these events, which would have seemed unbelievable even a year before, took place without any Soviet retribution, or even any sign of disapproval. In the spring of 1989, the Bush administration that had just taken office began to accustom itself to the idea that the old American dream originated by President Eisenhower was about to come true: the peaceful self-liberation of Eastern Europe under Soviet approval. All that was needed for success was for United States, and Western Europe in general, to give the Soviet Union – as far as it was possible – the opportunity for a dignified withdrawal from the region.37 The historical merit of the Bush administration is that it did not cave into pressure, and with a restrained, cautious attitude waited for the communist systems in Eastern Europe to collapse of their own accord. When visiting Budapest after a trip to Warsaw in July 1989, President Bush explicitly stressed at the negotiations with the leaders of the Hungarian government and the HSWP that the United States would show a neutral attitude concerning the Hungarian transition.38 Essentially the same position was communicated at the meeting with the leaders of the opposition, which left President Bush with a rather poor impression. He explained to his associates that “these really aren’t the right guys to be running this place. At least not yet.”39 At the December 1989 summit in Malta, Bush outlined the essence of his policy to Gorbachev in very clear terms: “I hope you noticed that while the changes in Eastern Europe have been going on, the United States has not engaged in condescending declarations aimed at damaging [the prestige of] the Soviet Union. There are people in the United States who accuse me of being too cautious. It is true, I am a prudent man, but I’m not a coward, and my Administration will seek to avoid doing anything that would damage your position in the world. But I was insistently advised to do something of that sort – to climb the Berlin Wall and to make broad declarations. My Administration, however is avoiding these steps, we are in favor of reserved behavior.”40

Gorbachev’s entrance into the scene posed a great challenge not only to the United States, but also to Western Europe in at least two respects. One was the security of the Western part of Europe: in other words, the problem of the potential Soviet threat, which since 1945 had always been a cardinal issue for both Western politicians and the public. The new Soviet policy promising the elimination of confrontation and the peaceful coexistence of the two systems offered a chance for a lasting solution in this respect, especially after December 1988, when the unilateral reduction of the armed forces of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact started, and when in January 1989 promising talks began in Vienna concerning the radical reduction of conventional armaments in Europe. Gorbachev’s vision of a “common European home” had the direct implication that a much less divided Europe could play a more significant role in the bipolar world order than previously – and with the able support of one of the superpowers. Therefore, Western Europe received the Soviet initiatives with great sympathy, especially over the course of 1988-1989. It is a historical irony that in the Soviet assessment, the most positive reactions came from the Soviet Union’s two main enemies during World War II: the FRG and Italy.41

Since up until 1989, no one in Western Europe had expected that the developments in Eastern Europe could lead to the total collapse of communism, much less the fall of the Soviet Union, the fate of the region – as had always been the case over the previous decades – was logically subordinated to the interests of Soviet relations, which were becoming better and increasingly more promising. The main consideration for politicians interested in the success of perestroyka was ensuring the security interests of the Soviet Union, and they viewed the maintenance of the Eastern European status quo as its primary guarantee. Although on moral grounds they did support developments pointing toward a democratic transition in these countries and the opposition movement fighting for this course, maintaining stability at any cost was of primary importance. This position was not only motivated by concern about the potential Soviet reaction, but also by the worry that the total collapse of the Eastern European countries on the verge of economic bankruptcy might result in social explosions, ethnic conflicts, etc., which would have a negative influence on Western Europe as well. Such conflicts would endanger the process of integration, and more importantly, they would jeopardize the stability of the entire continent.

Therefore, the leaders of the Western European countries did not simply want to stay neutral, but rather they intended to exercise a blocking and moderating effect on the process of Eastern European transition. They envisioned the transition as a slow process that would last for years, much as the communist reformers had originally envisaged. Thus, when in the first half of 1989, developments in Hungary and Poland accelerated – partly as a result of the initiations of the reformers – most Western European leaders judged the pace of transition to be too rapid. Therefore, they intended to exert a moderating influence in two different directions: on the one hand, they periodically assured the Soviet leadership and Gorbachev himself that the West would not interfere with the events in Eastern Europe and would not do anything which would cause destabilization in these countries. On the other hand, they sought to convince both the communist and opposition leaders in Hungary and Poland that they should slow down the pace of the changes in order to maintain stability. At his meeting with Gorbachev on June 12, 1989 in Bonn, Chancellor Helmut Kohl explicitly stated: “[…] I am not doing anything to destabilize the situation. This applies to Hungary and Poland, as well. To interfere with anybody’s internal political development now would mean to take a destructive line which would throw Europe back to the times of caution and mistrust.”42

At her April 6, 1989 meeting with Gorbachev in London, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher not only expressed her conviction with the Soviet leader that Jaruzelsky was “a prominent and honest politician” who “does everything he can for his country at a very difficult stage in its development,” but she also declared that she had warned the leaders of Solidarity “to seek a dialogue, not limit themselves to confrontation. I said to them that you can never leave the negotiating chair empty, it would not lead to anything and I can see that they have listened to my advice.”43

This moderating role was taken so seriously by the FRG leadership that even in the summer of 1989, they believed the desired stability could only be maintained by avoiding the change of the whole system: that is, the political transition itself. At his meeting with Gorbachev on June 14, 1989, Helmut Kohl outlined his position on the Hungarian transition as follows: “We have rather good relations with the Hungarians. However, we also do not want destabilization there. That is why when I meet with the Hungarians, I tell them: we consider the reforms that are underway in your country your internal affair, we are sympathetic. However, if you would like to hear our advice, we recommend that you do not accelerate too much, because you might lose control over your mechanism and it will start to work to destroy itself [emphasis added – Cs. B.].”44

The political transition and the foreign policy of Hungary

Since the end of the 1970s, Hungarian foreign policy had enjoyed a kind of special, relatively independent status. One important aspect of this special status was that it enabled Hungary to develop intensive economic and political relations with Western states precisely during those years when, due in part to the gradual alienation in the late 1970s and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, East-West relations were at a low unprecedented since the Cuban missile-crisis. The Hungarian leadership did not achieve this status in opposition to Moscow’s wishes, however, but rather with their knowledge and consent. Kádár managed to convince Brezhnev and his successors that because of the ever-worsening economic situation, this was the only means of maintaining the stability of the political system in Hungary.

Hungary’s increasing use of Western credit appeared advantageous to the Soviet Union as well, since it indirectly removed burdens from the Soviet economy while the person of Kádár himself guaranteed unquestionable political loyalty to Moscow. This is how Hungary was able to join the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1982. Moreover, as early as 1981 some exploratory talks were already underway concerning a potential agreement with the European Economic Community. This was later prevented not by the Moscow leadership but by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who was worried about the potential negative effect of such a step on his own country’s relations with the Soviet Union. He explicitly talked Kádár out of this plan on his visit to Bonn in April 1982.45 During this period, high-level relations with Western countries became very intensive. Kádár paid visits to Bonn and Rome in 1977, to Paris in 1978, to Bonn again in 1982, and to London in 1985. Hungary, in turn, was visited by French Prime Minister Raymond Barre in 1977, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1979, French President Francois Mitterand in 1982, Vice-President George Bush in 1983, and Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, and Bettino Craxi in 1984. Since Poland lost the sympathy of the Western states after the introduction of martial law in 1981, as did Romania due to its repressive policy, Hungary become the number one favorite in the eyes of the West as the most presentable country of the Eastern bloc. After Gorbachev entered the scene, the situation changed in as much as the Soviet leadership took over the role as the primary promoter of dialogue between East and West. The initiating and moderating nature of the . Hungarian foreign policy was preserved all along, now only as second fiddle.

The first qualitative turn in foreign policy – just as in the transition within the country – took place in 1988. This turn had nothing to do with the removal of Kádár or with the party conference in May, however, but rather with the significant positive changes taking place on the international political stage. This was the time when a new concept was being outlined which could possibly give Hungary the role as a sort of bridge in East-West relations based on a new world order of cooperation. This concept still assumed the preservation of the given alliance frameworks (Warsaw Pact, Council of Mutual Economic Assistance), but it also expected that these organizations would undergo necessary democratic changes, and as a result they would no longer hinder Hungary in establishing relations with other countries or organizations which would satisfy her own national interests.

The old foreign policy deriving from the 1970s was built on a relative autonomy, which in simple terms meant that whatever is not forbidden is allowed. In turn, the new concept meant – to borrow the terms of the “rules of the road” – that if a policeman tells you to stop, don’t lose heart but rather try to convince him to let you through. Indeed, if you feel it to be justified, you can even run the risk of later admonition by ignoring the policeman and simply driving through the intersection. This new, dynamic, and proactive foreign policy was in practice aimed at accomplishing a kind of quasi-neutrality, although this thesis was never articulated in explicit form for either the public or confidential use. Today, however, we can establish that this characterized the Hungarian endeavors between 1988 and the 1990 general elections.

The question is how this new approach exert its influence in the most important fields listed below: 1. Hungarian-Soviet relations; 2. the conflicts with the countries of the Eastern bloc; 3. the issue of reorganizing the Warsaw Pact and the issue of neutrality; 4. the reduction of military force and the pullout of the Soviet troops; 5. in restructuring of the CMEA; 6. opening towards to West and joining the European integration processes.46


The Moscow-Warsaw-Budapest triangle

Hungarian-Soviet relations were characterized by a particular dichotomy concerning the questions of perestroyka, glasnost, and the reforms in general. Hungary simultaneously played the part of best student and teacher. It was no accident that Gorbachev’s policy was received most favorably in Hungary, for the Hungarians considered it to be subsequent justification of the reforms that had been going on since the 1960s in adverse Eastern “winds.” After carefully considering Hungarian experiences, the Soviets introduced several innovations and changes, such as reorganizing agriculture, accepting the role of the market in a limited sense, and accepting more than one candidate in the general elections. Moreover, in the fall of 1988, after studying what the Hungarians had accomplished a few months before, different special committees of the CPSU CC were formed, among them the new International Committee headed by Yakovlev.47

Over the course of 1988-1989, an informal Moscow-Warsaw-Budapest triangle was formed, which was referred to in contemporary Hungarian documents as “those in close cooperation.”48 The leaders of the three countries tried to harmonize their views on economic and political reforms at bilateral negotiations, and, since they were in numerical minority in the Warsaw Pact and the CMEA, they attempted to establish a unified position within both organizations so that they could exercise pressure on the countries with a conservative leadership. This special relationship most likely made a significant contribution to the positive Soviet attitude and the Soviets’ tolerance of the transition in Hungary and the pioneering efforts of the country’s foreign policy.

Close cooperation had its drawback too, however. Coordinated action very often meant that the Soviet leadership requested support for a position which although more progressive than that of the conservative camp, did not fully, or even partially, represent the interests of Hungary, which was well ahead of its partners in the transition process. A significant compromise was imposed on Hungary with respect to the handling of the Hungarian-Romanian conflict that became public by 1988. In July 1988, Gorbachev explained to Károly Grósz on his visit to Moscow that the Soviet leadership definitely took Hungary’s side in the debate, but that they could not represent this position officially, because such a move – with respect to the separatist movements and the ethnic conflicts within the empire – could have unforeseeable consequences in terms of the inner stability of the Soviet Union. While Gorbachev was absolutely right about this, he was wrong in persuading the explicitly unwilling secretary general to take a step – the meeting with Ceausescu in Arad – which not only destroyed Grósz’s prestige as a leader, but also undermined the position of the HSWP.49 This is because the meeting, which public opinion viewed as a betrayal of Hungarian national interests, “naturally” had to be “sold” as an autonomous Hungarian decision. The only possible explanation for Gorbachev’s aggressive intervention into Hungarian politics is that the Soviet leader was not merely worried about the possible outcome of an open endorsement of the Hungarian position, but regarded the mere fact of a Romanian-Hungarian conflict as a source of danger which could further erode the already weak inner cohesion of the Warsaw Pact, and – even worse – could easily lead strengthen centrifugal forces in the multinational Soviet Union itself. It is only in this context that we can understand what made Gorbachev request his close ally to make such an unfortunate compromise with a Romanian leadership which had already accused the Soviet Union of betraying socialism, and of which the Soviet secretary general himself had a very low opinion.50 In fact, what was at stake here was no less than the survival of the imperial center which, as has been seen, was given utmost priority.

At the same time, there were two turning points in the Hungarian transition at which the expectation of Soviet intervention was not fulfilled. In the spring of 1988, the reformers of the HSWP believed they could rightly expect Soviet support for the removal of János Kádár, who now stood in the way of radical changes. However, Kádár – after Gorbachev – was still the most respected and presentable leader of the Eastern camp in the West. Considering his “competitors,” this was not a remarkable achievement in itself, but it was viewed as such by the Soviet leaders, for whom attempting to improve East-West relations was an important factor. In addition, despite the stagnation under Kádár, the Hungarian transition was still well ahead of the Soviet reforms. Gorbachev thus had no interest in speeding up the reform process in Hungary.51 Nonetheless, when Károly Grósz and his associates solved the problem on their own at the 1988 May party conference, the Soviets simply acknowledged it without a word.

The first important development in the course of the Hungarian transition for which there was no Soviet consent was the January 28, 1989 interview with Imre Pozsgay – or more precisely, his assessment of the 1956 October events as a popular uprising. This announcement is even more significant when we consider that it was also the first “anti-Soviet” move by the Hungarian leadership, since the new interpretation of the events meant that on November 4, 1956, the Soviet Union had cracked down upon a democratic national movement and not a counter-revolutionary uprising. This thesis was so far removed from current Soviet views that although the 1968 Czechoslovakian invasion was denounced in December 1989, a similar step was never to be taken during the existence of the Soviet Union.52 Therefore, it would have been a logical step to reprove the Hungarian leadership. Today we know that a draft letter was written which at the explicit order of Gorbachev was never sent to Budapest. Gorbachev must have understood very well that this genie could never again be ordered back into the bottle, while at the same time he might have hoped that the HSWP’s position could be greatly strengthened if the party itself dealt with the matter rather than letting the opposition capitalize upon it politically. Moreover, the proper “dialectical" nature of handling the problem made it possible to avoid having to address the direct historical responsibility of the Soviet Union. From a formal aspect, this need was basically met by the text of an announcement issued after the February 10-11 meeting of the HSWP CC, declaring that on October 23, 1956 a popular uprising broke out, but that, in reference to the inevitable outcome, by the end of October counter-revolutionary developments had started to unfold.

All this coincided with a radical turn in the previously-outlined Eastern European policy of the Soviet Union, as a result of which four decades of firm control was replaced by an automatic process whose central element was floating the Brezhnev doctrine and maintaining the uncertainty deriving from it. This turn was not perceived even by those involved for some time, which was exactly how it was intended. We have already discussed Károly Grósz’s experiences in this respect during his visit to Moscow in March 1989. The best example of the almost unsolvable dilemma it brought to the Hungarian leaders can be found by comparing two contemporary statements made by Gyula Horn. As a secretary of state at the Foreign Ministry, Horn said the following in his speech on the second day of the February 20-21, 1989 meeting of the HSWP CC: “Today there is no question at all of an intervention within the Warsaw Pact – we have long surpassed the Brezhnev doctrine – as is well exemplified by the decision on a multiparty system which was our own sovereign decision.”53 Four months later at the end of June, however, Horn, already in the role of foreign minister, cautioned the members of the Central Committee against any illusions: “… our situation should not be confused with that of any other democratic country. In Hungary there is no rotation in politics. […] If the HSWP falls as a governing party, this would be equivalent with a political transition, a different political system. I wonder whether it will be tolerated by the alliance system. I do not think so.”54 That was what a Hungarian politician, who very likely had the most information concerning the intentions of the Soviet leadership, predicted after the victory of Solidarity in the general elections in Poland in June. In a confidential analysis made a few weeks before, it was explicitly stated that “the present guarantees do not exclude the possibility that in case of a retreat to the old system [in the Soviet Union] a unilateral or multilateral military action should take place in the name of defending socialism [in Hungary].55 The success of the Soviet tactic is well reflected by the fact that 10 years after the events, Rezső Nyers marked July of 1989 and Imre Pozsgay November of the same year as the point in time when it looked sure to them that the Soviets would not intervene in Hungary, even if the transition was to lead to a total abandonment of socialism.56



Conflicts with the countries of the Eastern bloc

The structure of the conflicts within the Warsaw Pact had changed radically by 1988-1989: the earlier scenario (Romania against the rest of the countries) was replaced by an opposition between the reformers and the conservatives. Even in the summer of 1989, however, the public had very little knowledge of these conflicts, thanks to the great efforts of the Soviet leaders, who all along tried to maintain unity by all possible means. Paradoxically, Hungary – known earlier for its loyalty to Soviet interests – simultaneously assumed the double role of leading reformer as well as primary trouble-maker in the Eastern bloc. This is because Hungary not only fell into serious conflict with three of the four conservative countries – Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the GDR – but even worse, these conflicts took place openly before the public.

Since 1956, and especially after Nicolae Ceausescu came into power in 1965, the human and collective rights of the two million Hungarian minority people have been more and more drastically restricted in Romania. The situation became especially serious with the 1972 announcement of the national homogenization program aimed at the total elimination of national minorities and the establishment of a Romanian nation-state. By the end of the 1970s, this resulted in a serious tension in the relations of the two countries. Since Hungarian attempts to resolve the problem on the basis of bilateral negotiations all met with failure, Hungarian foreign policy tried to achieve the international denunciation of the Romanian policy in international forums indirectly, by placing the issue of human rights into the limelight.

This tactic was motivated by two different but related factors: on the one hand, it took place at a time when the Western states placed great emphasis on human rights issues and human rights records in the Eastern bloc countries. On the other hand, the Hungarian leadership could take advantage of its special position as the country whose internal situation most closely fit Western expectations during those years. The first open step was only taken in March 1987 at the Vienna follow-up meeting of the conference on European security and cooperation, when Hungary joined the Canadian proposal which was formally aimed at strengthening the rights of European minorities but was essentially a call upon the participating nations to denounce Romania. The situation got even worse at the beginning of 1988, when Romania launched its so-called “systematization” project whereby they intended to destroy several thousand villages, while at the same time masses of Hungarian Romanians started fleeing to Hungary because of increasing discrimination. The August 28, 1988 meeting of the secretary generals of the two parties in Arad was held under Soviet pressure and initiative – Ceausescu gave the Hungarian leaders two days (!) to consider accepting his offer for negotiations – and did not bring any improvement in the relations of the two countries.

This unsuccessful action had fatal consequences for the HSWP, in spite of the fact that afterwards, in the second half of 1988 and in 1989, Hungarian official authorities took a firm stand on defending the interests of Hungarians living in Romania and openly admitted their conflict with the Romanian leadership. The meeting in Arad cast a long shadow on these attempts. It was therefore the opposition rather than the ruling party that was able to capitalize upon the rehabilitation of national feelings and sentiment.

The last attempt of the Hungarian leadership to resolve the conflict through bilateral negotiations was made at the session of the Political Consultative Body of the Warsaw Pact at the beginning of July 1989 in Bucharest. This time, Ceausescu invited chairman of the HSWP Rezső Nyers, Prime Minister Miklós Németh, and foreign minister Gyula Horn on the spot to an “unofficial” meeting, which the Hungarian delegation – possibly following Soviet advice again – accepted. Although at the Arad meeting Károly Grósz was forced to retreat into a defensive position against the Romanian leader, this time the Hungarians were able negotiate in a quite different position. They imposed conditions on regulating the relations between the two countries: the Romanian side should cease its discrimination against the Hungarian minority as well as the propaganda and the military threats against Hungary, it should abort the fulfillment of the systematization project in the regions inhabited by Hungarians, it should allow Hungarian cultural products into the country, and it should stop the humiliating harassment of masses of Hungarian tourists at the Hungarian-Romanian border. In addition, Gyula Horn indicated that if necessary, Hungary would propose international supervision of the situation of the national minorities and the systematization plan. Although under the given circumstances there seemed little hope that the Hungarian demands would be fulfilled, in order to continue with the tug-of-war, the negotiating parties agreed to have a meeting of the prime ministers. Furthermore, they agreed to exchange a parliamentary-local council delegation with the provision that the Hungarian delegation should have a chance to visit areas inhabited by Hungarians when studying the accomplishment of the systematization plan. None of this materialized, however, because of the events of the fall and winter of 1989.58 Thus, the renewal of Hungarian-Romanian relations took place only after the radical turn in December 1989.

In 1989, three fundamental questions caused serious tension in Hungarian-Czechoslovakian relations: the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam, the situation of Hungarians in Czechoslovakia, and the reassessment of the 1968 intervention.

In 1989, the Hungarian government, partly for economic reasons and partly as a result of social pressure that had been intensifying for years, unilaterally stopped the process of building a dam on the river Danube based on a contract made between the two countries in 1977. Since the Czechoslovakian government – also referring to social pressure – insisted that the dam should be built as planned, a long-lasting conflict on this issue emerged between the two countries which continues to this day.

The Hungarian minority in Czechoslovakia did not have to endure a drastic policy of discrimination similar to that in Romania, but this by no means signifies that the Hungarians were able to exercise their collective and human rights without any restriction. The Hungarian media, which became increasingly independent and outspoken starting in the beginning of 1989, discussed this issue quite frequently, thus provoking resentment in the Czechoslovakian leadership. Fearing the establishment of a Czechoslovakian-Romanian “axis,” the official Hungarian leadership explicitly refrained from addressing this issue, and stressed at the bilateral meetings that its conflict was essentially with Romania.59

The greatest tension between the two countries, however, was caused by Hungarian developments concerning the “Prague Spring” and the military intervention in Czechoslovakia. Since their own legitimacy was at stake, the Czechoslovakian leadership had every reason to be worried. First they expressed their resentment concerning an interview with Alexander Dubcek aired on Hungarian television.60 Then, at the beginning of August, they indignantly objected to an interview in which the head of the foreign affairs department of the HSWP CC envisaged the reassessment of the 1968 events.61 The Czechoslovakian ambassador to Budapest commissioned to mediate in this matter, however, also stated as his private opinion that the Czechoslovakian leadership would accept a scenario in which initially Hungary had supported a political settlement of the problem, and later only under international circumstances decided to participate in the intervention. The official communiqué issued by the Hungarian party leadership on August 17 did take this proposal into consideration. While the declaration was meant to be cautious, however, the fact that a member state of the WP which had also taken part in the intervention said that it “does not identify with” the intervention doubtlessly contributed to the destabilization of the Czechoslovakian situation a few months later.

Inarguably, the decision which had the greatest impact on the collapse of the Eastern European communist systems was the one which made it possible for GDR citizens staying in Hungary to leave for the FRG through Austria on September 11, 1989. Paradoxically enough, this German refugee situation was the only one in which the Hungarian leadership considered itself absolutely innocent, since it had no interest whatsoever in destroying relations with the GDR that were fairly balanced under the given circumstances. Indirectly, however, this conflict was initiated by the Hungarian side when at the beginning of May 1989, in accord with the policy of opening up to the West, Hungary decided to remove its electronic signaling system and barbed wire – the “iron curtain” – from the Austrian-Hungarian border.62 As a consequence, tens of thousands of East German tourists traveled to Hungary in the hopes that they would be able to flee through Austria to the FRG via the now open “green border.”63 A few hundred people did succeed, although very soon it became clear that the settlement of the problem required political means. The leadership of the GDR demanded that Hungary comply with the 1969 bilateral treaty, on the basis of which the trespassers should have been deported back to their own country. The Hungarian leadership was not willing to do this, and for some time it hoped the two German states would reach an agreement in order to resolve the crisis. After they failed to do so, and the Hungarian-East German attempts also met with failure, Prime Minister Miklós Németh and foreign minister Gyula Horn discussed the issue on August 25 with Chancellor Helmut Kohl and foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in the Gymnich castle, where they presented a Hungarian plan according to which the Hungarian government would make it possible for the GDR citizens to freely leave the country.64 In some sense, this step meant crossing the Rubicon, for an internal issue of the Eastern bloc was at stake, and according to the practice of the past couple of decades was that the Soviet Union should also have been consulted on an issue of such great import.

By the summer of 1989, it had become characteristic of the radical changes in international politics that while the Hungarians agreed on the settlement of an issue with the NATO member FRG without consulting the Soviets, Chancellor Kohl, despite his promise to the Hungarians, called Gorbachev to learn what Soviet reaction should be expected concerning the planned Hungarian move. “The Hungarians are good people” was the obscure answer,65 and as it turned out later, it meant Soviet approval of the situation.

It still begs an answer why Gorbachev’s reacted so weakly to this rather significant challenge. Now not only the question of Eastern Europe in general was at stake, but the German question as well, which since 1945 had always been regarded as the cornerstone of the foreign policy of any Soviet leadership. Most likely the Soviet leaders -- like the other players of the game – did not estimate the potential consequences of such a decision, and hoped that if disillusioned people left the GDR, it would have a pacifying rather than a destabilizing effect, and could even facilitate the acceleration of the transition in the country in a controlled manner.

By now we know that exactly the opposite took place, and the mass movements emerging in the fall of 1989 not only led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the GDR, but also to the accomplishment of German unification without significant restrictions, something that in the summer of 1989 would have been called illusory by many even in the FRG.

As has been seen above, Hungary’s engagement in such open conflicts was not motivated by an intention to raise tension in any of these situations. On the contrary, in all the three cases the Hungarian leadership acted only after lengthy agony and under the influence of external forces and pressure. All in all, each of these steps in Hungarian foreign policy represented new milestones on the road towards true autonomy; these were the first cases when the leadership decided to prioritize national interests over those interests of the alliance system (and also the Soviet Union). All this, however, had another dimension as well: beyond indirectly contributing to exporting “counter-revolution” through her own example as a leading fighter on behalf of reform Hungary directly facilitated the fermentation process and the destabilization of the communist systems.

The restructuring of the Warsaw Pact and the issue of neutrality

After rising to power, Gorbachev not only promised a new relationship with the Eastern European allies, but from the very beginning he urged that the mechanism of cooperation within the Warsaw Pact be modernized. To this effect, as early as October 1985 he proposed establishing a permanent political body whose task would be the improvement of coordination between the member states. No significant change was accomplished in the structure of the WP, however, until it was dissolved in 1991. The outcome of spontaneous democratization under the influence of the new Soviet policy of emphasizing the importance of partnership was, among others, that in addition to the traditional dissenter Romania, the other member states also started to enforce their own special interests. Thus, for example, the above proposal – which could have become the means of not only coordination but centralization as well – was accepted by the Hungarian leadership, which had been in close cooperation with the Soviet Union all along, only in July 1988.66

Strangely enough, a real debate over the reformation of the Warsaw Pact was initiated by a Romanian motion submitted at approximately the same time. Basically, it suggested that the Political Consultative Body of the WP should be dissolved, and the organization should be turned into an exclusively military alliance.67 At the Warsaw session of the WP PCB in July 1988, an expert committee was formed to study the questions related to reforming the organization, and based on this work the Hungarian leadership framed its position by March 1989.68

By this time, however, thanks to the political changes in the country, the issues concerning Hungarian relations with the alliance system were no longer under the exclusive jurisdiction of the HSWP. In the spring of 1989, Hungary had a de facto multiparty system; moreover, after the Assembly Act was passed in January, the opposition parties mushrooming all over Hungary could function legally. At the beginning of that year, the Alliance of Free Democrats suggested that Hungary should request a special status in the Warsaw Pact, and that following the “French model,” it should not participate in the military cooperation of the organization. Then, on April 16, the governing board of the AFD proposed in its statement that the government should declare Hungary’s neutrality.69

The tradition of the 1956 revolution, at least in political rhetoric, served as the starting point for nearly all the opposition organizations, and in addition, the November 1, 1956 declaration of neutrality (which was in force for three days) had an impact on the foreign policy of several parties for some time.70 Moreover, the only joint declaration concerning the country’s foreign orientation that was endorsed by all the opposition organizations over the course of the political transition was point No. 12 of the communiqué entitled “What does the Hungarian nation demand,” which was read out on the national holiday of March 15, 1989 and set the goal of achieving neutrality. Although this demand could be regarded as more of a symbolic position based on an emotional approach than a mature and coordinated plan by the opposition, the leadership of the HSWP had every reason to be concerned, especially because the declaration was also signed by those historical parties with whom they intended to form a coalition after the general elections. While the Hungarian leadership considered neutrality to be a possibility in the long-term, after the dissolution of the two political-military blocs, in the short-term it did not believe it to be a realistic goal but rather a factor jeopardizing the peaceful transition in the country.71 This was not a groundless view, for at this stage the Soviet Union – and more importantly, the Western partners which otherwise supported the Hungarian transition – consistently sent signals warning Hungary that such an endeavor should not expect endorsement in international politics. At Károly Grósz’s visit to Moscow at the end of March 1989, Gorbachev stressed that “under the present conditions it is the modernization of the WP that should be the main target, and not neutrality.”72 In April 1989, Volker Rühe, deputy leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group also declared to his Hungarian negotiating partners that on a number of issues “the Hungarians entertain illusions, such as the issue of neutrality, Hungary’s rapid withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, and instant integration with the West." Egon Bahr, member of the Presidency of SDP, warned that “today the Soviet Union recognizes the sovereignty of its allies and allows them to choose their own course of internal development. The line for the Soviet Union is drawn so that this course of development should not endanger the unity of the Warsaw Pact. It is very important that all the Hungarian parties reach a consensus on not going beyond this line.”73

Taking these signals into consideration, the Hungarian leadership essentially took a pragmatic position on the issue of the Warsaw Pact. They reckoned that on the one hand the WP – or more precisely, the Soviet nuclear umbrella – would continue to ensure the security of the country, and on the other hand, the positive Soviet attitude would enable the country to fulfill its peaceful transition. Thus, the main goal of Hungarian diplomacy should be to ensure the highest possible degree of national sovereignty that is achievable under the given conditions. As a result, the Hungarian position on the status of the Warsaw Pact gave priority to the benevolent attitude of the Soviet Union, and although in any event Soviet ideas were largely in harmony with Hungarian proposals, Hungarian tactics were aimed at ensuring the three “reformers” could efficiently represent their position against the four “conservatives.” Therefore, they endorsed not only those proposals which were meant to change the political nature of the organization, to improve its efficiency, to strengthen the democratic process of its decision-making, and to eliminate the principle of mandatory consensus, but – against their better judgement – also those that sought the establishment of a permanent political body or the deepening of cooperation between the parliaments of the member states.74

From time to time, this compromise-seeking policy also claimed some sacrifices. In June 1988, the Hungarian side submitted a proposal at the Warsaw meeting of the PCB of WP suggesting the creation of a permanent committee of deputy ministers responsible for humanitarian issues and human rights that would also facilitate the constant supervision and the discussion of the situation of national minorities. When it turned out, however, that on the one hand, the Soviet Union was ready to obstruct the Romanian plan proposing devoting a separate session at the 1989 July meeting in Bucharest to the issue of endangering the cause of socialism in Hungary and Poland, but on the other hand, they also indicated that they would not support the motion concerning the human rights committee either, the Hungarian leadership decided to give up on this idea, even though it had been regarded as extremely important all along.75



Reduction of armament and the pullout of Soviet troops from Hungary

From the very beginning, the new leadership that rose to power in May 1988 in Hungary considered the reduction of military spending to be the primary means of surviving the economic crisis. This intention luckily coincided with the July 1988 Soviet decision that made it possible to take unilateral steps in the reduction of armament. This explains why, upon Károly Grósz’s visit to Moscow, Gorbachev simply acknowledged his declaration that for economic reasons, Hungary was not able to comply with the agreement on the military cooperation of the WP in force until 1990, and at the same time was compelled to reduce its military production by half a billion rubles.76 As a result, without making this fact public, military spending was reduced by some 10 billion HUF by the end of 1988.77 Then, at the end of that year, it was officially announced that Hungary’s 1989 military budget would be reduced by 17% in real value as compared to the previous year.

Since these modest results in the field of reducing the military spending could liberate significant financial resources, in August 1988 the Hungarian leadership indicated to the Soviets that they would gladly play an initiative and coordinating role in the armament reduction of the WP member states.78 A month before, they had already managed to win Gorbachev’s support for a very promising concrete initiative. Hungarian diplomacy, after having consulted with the Italian government (!), suggested that the Soviet Union should offer to pull out their air regiments stationed in Hungary if the F-16 fighter planes to be withdrawn from Spain were not deployed in Italy. Soviet support for this intricate political game, however, proved to be insufficient, and this proposal was to meet with failure because of the position of the United States.79

Another especially important step for Hungarian diplomacy was its August 1988 public declaration that the forthcoming international agreement on the reduction of conventional armed forces in Europe should extend to the troops stationed in Hungary already in the first phase.. This opportunity, however, was only possible if Hungary were to be grouped into the Central European theater, which could by no means be taken for granted. Because Warsaw Pact had decisive advantage in this region, it was in the interest of the organization to put Hungary into the Southern European theater, so as to improve the ratio figures where NATO had the upper hand. In that region, however, it was the Western allies who needed to make significant reductions, so the Hungarian endeavors would have met with utter failure. Although the Hungarians managed to win the Soviet leadership’s support for their position, the differing interests of the other member states proved to be a significant factor of uncertainty, even in the spring of 1989.80

It was characteristic of Soviet behavior that Gorbachev reacted positively to Prime Minister Miklós Németh’s announcement during his March 1989 visit to Moscow that the Hungarian government had decided to reduce its army by 30-35% by 1995. He “merely” requested that this be kept secret, since publicizing it would greatly weaken the position of the Warsaw Pact at the upcoming negotiations on armament reduction in Vienna.81

While the reduction of national military spending was motivated primarily by economic considerations, the call for the withdrawal of the Soviet troops stationed in Hungary mostly served a political cause. The issue was raised based on the 1988 Soviet announcement that the Soviet Union would pull out all its forces from foreign land by 2000. Therefore, as early as August and September 1988, Hungarian foreign policy experts tried convince their Soviet partners that the speedy withdrawal of Soviet troops would have a very positive political, moral, and economic impact on Hungary.82

The need for a partial reduction had already been proposed by the Soviets as well, as a result of which in December 1988, according to the unilateral step mentioned above, it was announced that some ten thousand Soviet troops and their technical equipment had been pulled out of Hungary. A similar partial withdrawal had already taken place before, in 1958, but it had not resulted in any significant change. The real question was whether the Hungarian leadership could end the Soviet occupation of the country, which had been a major grievance for most of population for the past four decades. The other important question was whether the HSWP could capitalize upon this sufficiently in the course of the political transition.

As a result of the persistent work done by Hungarian foreign policy-makers, who consistently attempted to strengthen elements of national sovereignty while at the same time adjust their course of action according to Soviet interests, Moscow sent a signal in the middle of May 1989 that at the next meeting of the WP PCB to be held in Bucharest, Gorbachev would be ready to start negotiations with the Hungarian delegation on the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops.84 Real negotiations finally took place when Károly Grósz and Rezső Nyers visited Moscow at the end of July, when Gorbachev agreed to issue a memorandum stating that under the appropriate international conditions, the pullout of forces already underway might lead to the full withdrawal of the Soviet troops. Further negotiations began between the two governments in August, and as a result, an agreement was signed in Moscow on March 10, 1990 on the withdrawal of Soviet troops by June 30, 1991.

The process of the pullout was not free from disputes but the Soviets met the deadline: the last Soviet soldier left the country on June 19, 1991. Thus, one year after the inauguration of its first freely elected government Hungary regained its sovereignty in full.85



The transformation of CMEA

As early as the spring of 1988, the Soviet leadership had a very critical opinion about the operation of the CMEA. Gorbachev characterized the situation at the March 10, 1988 meeting of the Politburo of CPSU as follows: “In COMECON we almost have no trade. Only primitive exchange. […] It has become excessively hard for us to conduct business as we have been doing for the last decades. The program [of socialist integration] is dead”.86

Soviet reformers thought the resolution of the CMEA crisis should blow fresh life into the organization in such a way that it would also be capable of responding collectively to the challenges presented by the Western European integration to be accomplished in 1992. This did not appear to be an easy task, since very different views existed among the member states concerning to the future of the organization. In addition to the three reform countries, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia both supported the transformation, but apart from the Hungarian leadership, everybody wanted to accomplish this goal by a top-down process – using political rather than economic means.

By the beginning of 1989, the Hungarian transition in the economy was so much ahead of all the others that a compromise would seriously have jeopardized the success of the Hungarian changes. As the Hungarian leadership was not willing to do so, the March 14, 1989 meeting of the Politburo of the HSWP accepted a resolution which gave priority to opening the country to world economy and trading.87 One week later, another basic principle was adopted on CMEA integration stating that Hungary was interested in developing cooperation within the CMEA inasmuch as it facilitated opening the country to the world. As for the concrete Hungarian position, the following principles were laid down by the Politburo: 1. The mechanism of cooperation within the CMEA must be transformed radically, and in this framework, cooperation among the member states must be built on bilateral and multilateral relations instead of seeking consensus; 2. The development of economic integration is a task to be performed by the member states: any ideas, endeavors and institutions over and above the participating nations must be rejected; 3. A unified socialist market is a reality only when the national markets are already established, therefore this goal is not realistic at the moment; 4. The CMEA must adopt the principle that “the most important prerequisite for the transformation of socialist economic cooperation is the modernization of internal market forces building on the conditions of goods and finances.”88

The Hungarian leadership firmly represented this position throughout the internal disputes concerning the transformation of the CMEA; moreover, at the January 9, 1990 Sofia summit of the organization, Prime Minister Miklós Németh made the Cassandra prophecy in the name of the – by then totally autonomous – Hungarian government that in case the CMEA was not capable of total transformation to its foundations, it was doomed to extinction.



Opening to the West and joining the European integration

The likely integration of Western Europe expected by 1992 presented a serious challenge to Hungarian foreign policy as well, for what was at stake was no less than the question of whether it was possible to preserve the extraordinarily good positions acquired before with respect to Western relations. If not, then Hungary too – like all the other nations of the Eastern bloc – would have to face the danger of separating from the Western world. It was viewed as a significant achievement that thanks to the persistent work of several years and most of all to the efficient support of the FRG,89 Hungary was the first in the socialist camp to make an agreement concerning economic cooperation and to enter into diplomatic relations with the European Economic Community in 1988. The particularly close and fruitful relationship between the Hungarian and the West German leadership was a positive development with much promise and good prospects for the future, and as a result, Hungary received altogether 2 billion DEM credit in 1987-1988 to transform and modernize its economy. In July 1989, the Bundestag, in a symbolic act unique in the Western world, accepted a declaration endorsing the Hungarian democratic transition.90

In the spirit of preparing for the situation after European integration, in as early as January 1989, the Hungarian leadership elaborated a detailed analysis and plan concerning the necessary steps to be taken,91 and at the March 14 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, priority was given to opening to the world economy, which essentially marked the beginning of a shift in economic orientation.92

This opening to the West was well served by two successful, pioneering initiatives of Hungarian foreign policy, as a result of which in February 1989, Hungary entered into diplomatic relations with South Korea by exchanging ambassadors, and in September, diplomatic relations broken off in 1967 were restored with Israel. Both steps had been preceded by lengthy preparatory work, over the course of which Hungary gradually managed to win the approval of the Soviets.93 In both cases, the Hungarian leadership expected significant economic advantages from these unprecedented steps of high import. A precondition with South Korea was the deposit into the Hungarian National Bank of 1-1.5 billion USD, which was meant to lessen the liquidity problems of the country.94 In the case of Israel, above all it was hoped that this “historic” act would exert a positive influence on US Hungarian policy, and in general upon Western financial circles, especially the World Bank.

Based on the relations developed in the 1980s, Hungarian diplomacy also made intensive attempts to play a mediating role in promoting East-West rapprochement in 1988-1989. With this knowledge, in the spring of 1988, the Soviets requested the Hungarian leadership host a conference to be attended by European political parties and which, according to the original idea, would have paved the way for the “second Helsinki” conference proposed by the Soviet Union. The conference, entitled “Europe and the future of European cooperation on the eve of the 1990s,” was held in Budapest on May 11-13, 1989 and attended by 23 different parties. The outstanding significance of this conference was that for the first time, the representatives of every major political trend of the parliaments of the states participating in the European security and cooperation process had a chance to exchange their ideas and views in an informal manner: communists, social-democrats, centrists, liberals, Christian democrats and conservatives.95

The dialogue between East and West was further intensified by the Warsaw Pact’s adoption of the Hungarian proposal that the representatives of the above 35 states should hold regular summit meetings in the future.

In the spring of 1989, Hungary took steps to pave the way for establishing official relations between the WP and NATO, after secretary of state for foreign affairs Gyula Horn – as the first representative of the Eastern bloc – participated and delivered a speech at the NATO general assembly in Brussels in November 1988.

In addition, the Hungarian leadership also undertook some rather confidential missions from time to time: Károly Grósz not only lobbied Gorbachev on behalf of West German interests, but earlier as Prime Minister, he played an important role in facilitating the improvement of the relations between Poland and the FRG at the request of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.96


Like the physical removal of the iron curtain, there was symbolic as well as political significance in the European Council giving Hungary – together with Yugoslavia, Poland, and the Soviet Union – special status as an observer on June 8, 1989. A few months later, in November 1989, the Hungarian government submitted its application for membership in the Council. Following the free general elections in the spring, the Council recognized the democratic transition of historical importance in the country, and on November 6, 1990, Hungary was admitted as a member state. Symbolically speaking, for Hungary this represented the end to the era of four decades of exclusion.



[1] For obvious reasons, archival documents on the international conditions of the period are not yet available to the same extent as the sources of the Hungarian political transition. Thanks to the international research project founded in 1997 by the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. (Project on Openness in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union), however, significant results have recently been achieved in this field as well. Thus, much has become known about the state of contemporary American policy and even more about the opinion of the Soviet leaders, especially that of Gorbachev and his immediate circle; see: The End of Cold War in Europe, 1989. “New Thinking and New Evidence.” [A Compendium of Declassified Documents Prepared for a] Critical Oral History Conference organized by the National Security Archive, Washington, D.C., Musgrove, Georgia, May 1-3, 1998.

The sources which published the documents of the political transition are also significant for their examination of the international background of the Hungarian transition.  See: A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. évi jegyzőkönyvei. [The 1989 Minutes of the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party] Vols. 1-2., Anna Kosztricz, János Lakos, Karola Vágyi Némethné, László Soós, György T. Varga, (eds.) Hungarian National Archives, Budapest, 1993, A rendszerváltás forgatókönyve. Kereksztal-tárgyalások 1989-ben.[The Script of the Political Transition. The Roundtable Talks in 1989], Vols. 1-9, András Bozóki, Márta Elbert, Melinda Kalmár, Béla Révész, Erzsébet Ripp, Zoltán Ripp (eds.), Magvető (Vols. 1-4) Budapest, 1999, Új Mandátum (Vols. 5-8) Budapest, 2000.  A conference was held in Budapest in June 1999 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Hungarian political transition; its organizers – the National Security Archives (Washington D.C.), the 1956 Institute, and the Cold War History Research Center (Budapest) – compiled a collection of documents in English and Hungarian, see: Rendszerváltozás Magyarországon 1989-1990/Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990. Csaba Békés, Malcolm Bryne, Melinda Kalmár, Zoltán Ripp, Miklós Vörös (eds.); the documents were collected and complied by:  Magdolna Baráth, Csaba Békés, Melinda Kalmár, Gusztáv Kecskés, Zoltán Ripp, Béla Révész, Éva Standeisky, Mikós Vörös, Budapest, 1999;  (Manuscript, to be published by Új Mandátum publisher in Budapest) For recently published Hungarian and Russian sources on Gorbachev’s policy towards Hungary see: Gorbacsov tárgyalásai magyar vezetőkkel, Dokumentumok az egykori SZKP és MSZMP archívumaiból, 1985-1990 [Gorbachev’s talks with Hungarian leaders. Documents from the archives of the former CPSU and HSWP, 1985-1990] Magdolna Baráth, János M. Rainer (eds.)  1956-os Intézet, Budapest, 2000. No one has yet produced a synthesis of the international context of the Hungarian transition; among the sources used in my paper, mention must be made of Jacques Levesque’s book, which devotes Chapter 7 to the role of Soviet policy played in the Hungarian transition. Jacques Lévesque: 1989, La fin d’un empire: L’URSS et la liberation de l’Europe de l’Est, Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Paris, 1995. For the English edition, see: Jacques Lévesque: The Enigma of 1989. The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe, University of  California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1997. All the following quotes are taken from this edition. 

[2] Within the Warsaw Pact, it was only Romania that for years had urged for unilateral steps by the member states, and in spite of a definite Soviet “request,” it reduced its armed forces by 5% in 1986.

[3] Report to the Politburo and the Council of Ministers on the Warsaw meeting of the Political Consultative Body of the Warsaw Pact Member States, July 18, 1988. Hungarian National Archives (hereafter HNA) 288. f. 11/4453 ő.e.

[4] Comment made by Ferenc Kárpáti, Minister of Defense, at the November 22, 1988 meeting of the HSWP CC, HNA M-KS- 288. f. 4/246. ő.e.

[5] Altogether, he planned to withdraw some 50 thousand Soviet troops from these three countries. The worsening of the political-economic situation in the Soviet Union by this time and, as a result of this, the significantly more flexible attitude of the Soviet leadership are reflected by the fact that half a year earlier, at the July 1988 Warsaw meeting of the WP PCB, Gorbachev had maintained that the total Soviet reduction could concern only some 70 thousand troops and their armament.

[6] Comment by Károly Grósz at the July 22, 1988 meeting of the HSWP CC, HNA M-KS- 288. f. 5/1031. ő.e.

[7] Notes taken by Anatoli Chernayev at the meeting of the CPSU CC on March 10, 1988, In: The End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989, document No 4.

[8] One proof of the survival of this imperial approach is the fact that although the ten year occupation of Afghanistan cost the Soviet Union 5 billion (!) US dollars per year, for the sake of maintaining Soviet influence, even after the pullout the leadership reckoned with an annual cost of 3 billion. – Károly Grósz’s comment made at the July 12, 1988 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-233. f. 5/1031 ő.e.

[9] Károly Grósz’s comment made at the July 12, 1988 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-233. f. 5/1031 ő.e.

[10] Pravda, October 31, 1956. For a recent English translation of the declaration see: The 1956 Hungarian Revolution. A compendium of declassified documents. (eds.) Csaba Békés, Malcolm Byrne, János M. Rainer.  Central European University Press, Budapest, 2001.

[11] At the November 1986 Moscow communist summit meeting, Gorbachev explicitly emphasized the need to abandon the policy of “guardianship.” – Comment by János Kádár at the November 18, 1986 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-288-5/983 ő.e.

[12] For Soviet policy concerning the 1956 Hungarian revolution, see: Döntés a Kremlben, 1956. A szovjet pártelnökség vitái Magyarországról. [Decision in the Kremlin, 1956. The debates of the Soviet Party Leadership on Hungary]. János M. Rainer, Vyacheslav Sereda (eds.), the 1956 Institute, Budapest, 1996; The “Malin notes” on the Crises in Hungary and Poland, 1956, translated and annotated by Mark Kramer, CWIHP Bulletin, Issue 8-9, Winter, 1996-Spring, 1997, pp. 385-410; Csaba Békés: Hidegháború, enyhülés és az 1956-os magyar forradalom [Cold War, Détente and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution], Yearbook V. 1996-1997, the 1956 Institute, Budapest, 1997, pp. 201-213.

[13] Over the past few years, Anatoli Chernayev and Georgi Shahnazarov have been the primary proponents of this thesis, which they have presented at a number of conferences, including the May 1998 Musgrove conference cited in note 1.

[14] Jacques Levesque, op. cit. pp. 76-77.

[15] Károly Grósz’s comment made at the July 12, 1988 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-233. f. 5/1031 ő.e

[16] Jacques Levesque, op. cit. pp. 80-81. For the Soviet Union’s policy in Eastern Europe, see also: Charles Gati: The Bloc that Failed. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis,  1989.

[17] One rather characteristic example of this attitude is that at the June 14, 1989 talks between Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, the Soviet leader stated that the Brezhnev doctrine was no longer in force, only later to maintain that only a new model of socialism would satisfy the interests of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. In: The end of Cold War in Europe, 1989, document No. 42.

[18] Report for the members of the Politburo on the visit of Károly Grósz to the Soviet Union on March 23-24, 1989, In: Political Transition in Hungary, 1989-1990, document No. 16.

[19] From all this, we can gather that the doctrine linked to the name of Brezhnev after the 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia might just as well be called the Khrushchev doctrine, after the crackdown on the 1956 revolution in Hungary. In reality, this thesis is nothing but an organic part of the Stalinist tradition. It is merely history’s irony that Stalin himself never had to resort to it.

[20] On the Polish transition, see the publications and lectures of the conference held between October 20-24 in Warsaw-Miedszyn under the title “Poland 1986-1989: The End of the System”:  Polska 1986-1989: Koniec Systemy. Dokumenty, Institut Studiów Politycznych Polskej Akademii Nauk, The National Security Archive, the George Washington University, The Cold War International History Project, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1999; Poland 1986-1989: The End of the System [A Compendium of Declassified Documents and Chronology of Events], Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, The National Security Archive, the George Washington University, 1999. The English language manuscripts of the six main conference lectures can be found in the 1956 Institute library in Budapest: Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski: Public Feelings in the Years 1986-1989; Piotr Marciniak: Spiral Movement Towards Democracy. Social Pressure and the Fall of the Communist System in Poland (1986-1989); Leszek Gilejko: Party Elites in the Epilogue Period; Jan Skorzynski: Solidarnosc on the Way to the Round Table. Political Strategy of the Opposition 1985-1989; Andrzej Friszke: The Origin and the Course of the Round Table; Antoni Duduek: Decisive Months (Poland, April-August, 1989).

[21] The documents of the committee are published In:  A rendszerváltás forgatókönyve, Vol. 6.

[22] According to polls, in the summer of 1989 the HSWP had reason to expect to win 36-40% of the votes.

[23] A rendszerváltás forgatókönyve, Vol. 6. document No. 03.

[24] ib.

[25] G. Kh. Sahnazarov’s preparatory minutes for Gorbachev for the October 6.,1988  meeting of the CPSU Politburo, In: G. Kh. Sahnazarov: Tsena svobodi. Moscow: 1993. pp. 368–369., published in English In:  The End of Cold War in Europe, 1989. Document No. 11. Quoted in Jacques Levesque op. cit., p. 86.

[26] ib.

[27] The reports by the CPSU CC Department of International Relations (DIR) and the Bogomolov Institute are published in: The End of Cold War in Europe, 1989, documents No. 23 and No. 24, and reprinted in: The Political Transition in Hungary, 1989-1990, documents No. 9 and No. 13. The report by the Foreign Ministry is reviewed in: Jacques Levesque, op. cit. pp. 107-109.

[28] In Chapter 5 of his book, Jacques Levesque analyzes all three reports in detail, op. cit., pp. 93-109.

[29] In the DIR report, this scenario is ranked as the second most desirable. The four scenarios are as follows: 1. a new model of socialism (in the form of “presidential socialism” in the cases of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia). 2. Peaceful restoration of civil democracy. 3. Maintaining the old system. 4. Total collapse and chaos. The Bogomolov Institute report argues quite openly that this direction of development would be explicitly advantageous for the Soviet Union. It was only the Foreign Ministry’s report which maintained that giving up power would result in serious consequences, and that therefore the erosion of socialism in the region should not be allowed. (Levesque, op. cit. pp. 108-109.)

[30] In the DIR report, a Soviet military intervention would only be justified if “an external military force interfered directly and openly with the domestic affairs and events of a socialist country.” The report also suggests that a sense of “vagueness” should be maintained concerning Soviet intentions. A similar proposal is contained in the Foreign Ministry report. (Levesque, op. cit. p. 109.)

[31] The possibility of Finlandization is discussed implicitly in the DIR report and explicitly  in the Bogomolov Institute report.

[32] The Bogomolov Institute report regarded only Romania’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact as tenable, as it would not be a great loss for the Soviet Union and, in the words of the memorandum, “in its geopolitical position, the thus isolated Romania will have to consider our interests.” In: The End of Cold War in Europe, 1989, document No 24.

[33] Recorded by Anatoli Chernayev at the January 21, 1989 meeting of the CPSU Politburo. ib., document No. 20.

[34] ib., document No. 35.

[35] ib. document No. 69.

[36] On the HSWP’s policy concerning the transition, see: Rudolf Tőkés: Hungary’s Negotiated  Revolution. Economic Reform, Social Change and Political Succession, 1956-1990, Cambridge University Press, 1996; Melinda Kalmár: From  Model Changing to a Political Transition In: The Script of the Political Transition, in this volume.

[37] On US policy concerning Eastern Europe, see: M.R. Beschloss, S. Talbott: At the Highest Levels, Boston, Little, Brown, 1993;  Robert L. Hutchings: American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War. An Insider’s Account of US Policy in Europe, 1989-1992, The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington D.C., The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, London,  1997; George Bush, Brent Scowcroft:  A World Transformed. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998; On the US position concerning the Hungarian political transition, see: László Borhi: The United States and the Hungarian transition. Paper presented at the international conference “Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990,” (manuscript).

[38] Report on President Bush’s visit to Hungary, July 15, 1989. In: Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990, document No. 81; report by Rezső Nyers at the July 28 Meeting of the HSWP CC, In: A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. évi jegyzőkönyvei, Vol. 2, pp. 1294-1295.

[39] M.R. Beschloss,  S. Talbott op. cit. p. 91, cited by Levesque: op. cit. p. 138.

[40] Records made by Anatoli  Chernayev on the summit in  Malta, December 2 and 3, 1989. In: The End of Cold War in Europe, 1989, document No. 69.

[41] Report by Rezső Nyers at the July 28 Meeting of the HSWP CC, In: A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. évi jegyzőkönyvei, Vol. 2, p. 1293.

[42] Private talk between Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of the FRG, on June 12, 1989, In: The End of Cold War in Europe, 1989, document No. 40. The same was confirmed by French President Francois Mitterand during his conversation with Gorbachev on July 4, 1989 in Paris. ib., document No. 43.

[43] Margaret Thatcher’s talks with Mikhail Gorbachev on April 6, 1989. ib., document No. 33.

[44] Private talk between Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of the FRG, on July 14, 1989, ib., document 42. Many other documents confirm that this was not merely intended to reassure Gorbachev. See e.g. Proposal submitted to the Political Executive Committee of the HSWP [Western views on the policy of the HSWP], August 30, 1989. In: Political transition in Hungary 1989-1990, document No. 104.

[45] István Horváth,  István Németh: ....És a falak leomlanak. Magyarország és a német egység (1945–1990). [And the Walls Come Down. Hungary and German Unity (1945-1990)], Magvető Publishers, Budapest, 1999, pp. 173-176. Eventually, in 1988, the contract was made and diplomatic relations between Hungary and the EEC were established.

[46] In 1998, a research project was initiated to investigate the international background of the Hungarian transition. This projected was supported by the Hungarian Program of the Project on Openness in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. In addition to the present author, Magdolna Baráth and Gusztáv Kecskés conducted work in the Hungarian archives, while Magdolna Baráth also worked in the Gorbachev Archives in Moscow.

[47] Károly Grósz’s comment made at the July 12, 1988 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-233. f. 5/1031 ő.e.

[48] See e.g. the Report to the Politburo and the Council of Ministers on the Warsaw session of the Political Consultative Body of the member states of the Warsaw Pact, July 18, 1988. HNA M-KS-288 f. 11/4453. ő.e.

[49] Although the Hungarian leadership had already made it clear that they were ready to negotiate with Romania, by July 1988 they declared that only a meeting between the Prime Ministers would be possible. (In this way, Károly Grósz could have avoided  negotiating personally with Ceaucescu, given that Grósz held the positions of both party first secretary and Prime Minister at that time.) Károly Grósz’s comment at the July 12, 1988 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-233. f. 5/1031 ő.e.

[50] ib.

[51] We now know that before the HSWP national party conference in May, 1988 Gorbachev sent KGB head V.A. Krjuchkov to Budapest to meet Kádár.  Nothing of their discussion however, became public up to date. So while assumptions that his task was to convince the aging Hungarian leader to leave may prove to be true eventually, evidence for this can be produced only by the further opening of Russian archives. See: Gorbacsov tárgyalásai magyar vezetőkkel. p.25.

[52] Levesque, op. cit. p. 130.

[53] Gyula Horn’s comment at the meeting of the HSWP CC on February 21, 1989, In: A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. évi jegyzőkönyvei , Vol. 1, p. 362.

[54] Gyula Horn’s comment at the meeting of the HSWP CC, July 23-24, 1989, ib., Vol. 2, p. 1174.

[55] Document of the meeting of the International, Legal and Public Administration Committee of the CC of HSPW held on July 9, 1989, HNA M-KS-288. f. –62/5 ő.e

[56] Reply given by Imre Pozsgay and Rezső Nyers to a question posed by the present author at the international conference “Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990.”

[57] According to the report given by Rezső Nyers to the HSWP CC on July 28, 1989, during the visit of the Hungarian leaders to Moscow on July 24-25, 1989, Gorbachev stressed that “you must negotiate.” In: A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. évi jegyzőkönyvei, Vol. 2, p. 1298.

[58] Not much earlier, in March 1989, Hungarian diplomacy officially supported the resolution of the Human Rights Committee of the UN – accepted at the initiation of Western countries – which ordered the investigation of human rights in Romania.

[59] Report given by Rezső Nyers to the HSWP CC on July 28, In: A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. évi jegyzőkönyvei, Vol. 2, p. 1300.

[60] Talks between Rezső Nyers and Milos Yakesh at the Bucharest meeting of the PCB of the WP, memorandum, July 12, 1989. In: Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990, document No. 80.

[61] Memorandum for the Presidency of the HSWP [Czechoslovakian objections concerning Imre Szokai’s interview], August 14, 1989, ib., document No. 92.

[62] Since after the resolution of the May 19 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, a so-called world passport was introduced which allowed any Hungarian citizen to travel freely to any country of the world any number of times, the sealing of the borders lost its significance. Therefore, as early as the summer of 1987 the removal of the technical closing system was proposed, and starting in the summer of 1988 it was also urged by the Ministry of the Interior. Finally, at the proposal of Minister of the Interior István Horváth, on February 28, 1989 the HSWP Politburo decided to remove the technical closing system on the Hungarian-Austrian and Hungarian-Yugoslavian borders by 1991. In reality, the work was completed in the summer of 1989. cf.: István Horváth, István Németh, op. cit., pp. 329-332.

[63] Before the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 1989), some 60 thousand GDR citizens left for the West through Hungary. ib., 373.

[64] The two German records made on the meeting can be found in: Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990, document Nos. 99 and 100.

[65] ib., p. 363.

[66] Current questions related to the development of the Warsaw Pact (joint proposal of the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense), March 6, 1989. Document of the March 13, 1989 meeting of the International, Legal and Public Administration Committee of the HSWP CC, HNA M-KS-288 f. –62/3. ő.e.

[67] Proposals of the RCP on the improvement and democratization of the activities of the Warsaw Pact bodies, July 8, 1988. ib.

[68] ib.

[69] Miklós Szabó: From Big Elephant to Paper Tiger: Soviet-Hungarian Relations, 1988-1991. In: Béla Király (ed.), András Bozóki (associate ed.) Lawful Revolution in Hungary, 1989-1994, Social Science Monographs, Boulder, Colorado, Atlantic Research and Publications, Inc., Highland Lakes, N. J., 1995, pp. 395-411.

[70] cf.: “Merre tartsunk? Külpolitikánk a változó világban.” Kerekasztal-beszélgetés. [Which way to go? Our foreign policy in the changing world. Roundtable talk]. Kritika, 1989. No. 12.

[71] Comment by  Gyula Horn at the meeting of the HSWP CC on February 20-21, 1989, In: A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. évi jegyzőkönyvei , Vol. 1, p. 362.

[72] Report to the Politburo on Károly Grósz’s negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, In: Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990, document No. 16.

[73] Information issued for internal use by the Department of International Relations of the HSWP CC, HNA M-KS-288 – 11/4508. ő.e.

[74] In addition, several Hungarian initiatives were proposed by the foreign ministry and the ministry of defense in the spring of 1989: 1. The Soviet WP communication officers stationed in each of the member states must be withdrawn. Instead, the permanent delegates of the member states staying in Moscow must be given more responsibility in matters of coordination. 2. The passage enforcing the Brezhnev doctrine must be removed from the text of the peace and war resolution of the Unified Armed Forces of the WP. 3. The Military Council must be dissolved.

[75] Minutes of the meeting of the May 16, 1989 meeting of the HSWP Politburo,  HNA M-KS-288-5/1065. ő.e.

[76] On the highest-level Soviet-Hungarian relations, see: Baráth Magdolna: “A “csúcsról” szemlélve: a Szovjetunió és a magyarországi átmenet. [Viewed from the “top”: The Soviet Union and the Hungarian transition.] Paper presented at the international conference “The political transition in Hungary 1989-1990.” (manuscript). See also: Gorbacsov tárgyalásai magyar vezetőkkel.

[77] Károly Grósz’s comment made at the September 27, 1988 meeting of the HSWP CC, HNA M-KS-288. f. 4/242. ő.e.

[78] Magdolna Baráth, op. cit. p. 4.

[79] Károly Grósz’s comment made at the July 12, 1988 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-288. f. 5/1031. ő.e.

[80] The security situation of the Hungarian People’s Republic and some military objectives. Memorandum by István Földes, advisor of the secretary general of HSWP, March 7, 1989. Document of the March 13, 1989 meeting of the International, Legal, and Public Administration Committee of the HSWP CC, HNA M-KS-288 f.-62/3. ő.e.

[81] Records of the negotiations between Miklós Németh and Mikhail Gorbachev, Moscow, March 3, 1989, In: Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990, document No. 22.

[82] M. Baráth, op. cit. p. 4.

[83] Minutes of the May 16, 1989 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, MOL M-KS-288-5/1065. ő.e.

[84] Rezső Nyers and Károly Grósz’s negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev. Report to the Political Executive Committee of HSWP, July 30. In: Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990, document No. 84.

[85] On the process of pulling out the troops and the Hungarian-Soviet disputes over the withdrawal, see: Keleti György: Szovjet csapatkivonások – Magyarország katonai függetlenségének története - a jugoszláviai konfliktus. [Soviet withdrawals of troops – the history of the military independence of Hungary – the Yugoslavian conflict],  In: Kurtán Sándor – Sándor Péter – Vass László (eds.) Magyarország politikai évkönyve, 1992. [The Political Yearbook of Hungary] Budapest: DKMKA, 1992.  pp. 381–409. 

[86] Notes by Anatoli Chernayev on the meeting of the Politburo of CPSU, March 10, 1988. In: The end of Cold War in Europe, 1989, document No. 4.

[87] Minutes of the March 14, 1989 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-288 f.-5/1057. ő. e.

[88] Minutes of the March 12, 1989meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-288 f.-5/1059. ő. e.

[89] On the role of the FRG in supporting the Hungarian transition, see: István Horváth, István Németh, op. cit. chapters 8, 9, and 10.

[90] ib., pp. 336-342.

[91] Proposal submitted to the HSWP CC on the political strategy concerning European political and economic development and the issues of integration, January 1989, HNA M-KS-288. f. 5/1051. ő.e.

[92] Minutes of the March 14, 1989 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-288. f. 5/1051. ő.e.

[93] Even in July 1988, Gorbachev was still stressing to Károly Grósz that as far as the relations with Israel were concerned, “the clocks” must be synchronized; whereas in the case of South Korea he particularly warned against establishing diplomatic relations at the level of embassies. – Károly Grósz’s comment at the July 12, 1988 meeting of the Politburo, HNA M-KS-288 f. /5 1031- ő-e.

[94] ib.

[95] Report to the Politburo, May 15, 1989. In: Political Transition in Hungary 1989-1990, document No. 45.

[96] Károly Grósz’s comment made at the July 12, 1988 meeting of the HSWP Politburo, HNA M-KS-288. f. 5/1031. ő. e.

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