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20 Years Later, Hungarian Revolution Still Resonates in Europe

The 1989 Revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe profoundly altered the lives of people in the region and helped restructure European politics and economics. This month Hungary marks the 20th anniversary of its decision to allow tens of thousands of East Germans to cross its border and flee to the West. Many analysts say that decision contributed to the collapse of the Iron Curtain and set the stage for the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A Hungarian Retrospective

“It led to the end of the division of Europe,” former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth would later observe of the June 1989 events, begun when the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria symbolically cut through the barbed wire along their border. A few months later, East Germans would begin to cross into Austria and from there into West Germany and other non-Communist states.

“It was really a courageous act on the part of the then-Communist government,” says Hungarian journalist Andras Biro. “No one could have known what would happen because the relatively liberal approach of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev could have been stopped at any moment by the army,” he recalls.

A German Perspective

Matthias Rueb, Washington correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, agrees that Hungary played a pivotal role, but he disagrees with Biro about the risk involved. “I think it was not that risky because the leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party was in constant contact with the leadership in Moscow, with Gorbechev. They knew Gorbachev would not intervene in any way.”

Hungary Struggles Toward Democracy

Biro says Hungary has lagged behind in fulfilling what seemed to be the promise of 1989.

“You cannot have democracy without democrats. And unfortunately, our country doesn’t have democratic traditions,” he explains. Biro views Hungarians as having “an infantile attitude toward power,” thinking everything depends on the government. “I must say that I’m extremely disappointed by the Hungarian political class – both left and right,” he says. “In the last 20 years, we’ve had mostly socialist-liberal coalitions that have demonstrated they were politicians but not statesmen.”

Specifically, Biro sees two significant political issues: the economy and radicalism. He says a series of Hungarian governments have mismanaged the economy, and in an effort to control the burgeoning budget deficit, the current government has undermined the education, health, and welfare sectors.

“At the same time, the extreme right, neo-Nazi party participated in the elections for the European Parliament and won four seats with 14 percent of the vote, which is tragic,” says Biro. “And they have found a scapegoat in the Roma (Gypsy) population, which is totally excluded from social and economic life.”

German journalist Matthias Rueb sees the situation differently. He says despite all its economic problems, Hungary has remained a stable democracy. But he does agree that Hungarians tend to rely on the state too heavily and they have failed to reform an over-bloated system of social security and health care. He also agrees that the Roma minority continues to live in dire conditions. “Not a single government has really been able to bring about meaningful change for the Roma, and that’s the deepest scar on the young history of the Hungarian democracy since 1989,” Rueb says.

Lingering Impact of 1989 Hungarian Experience on Russia

“There is no question the opening of the Hungarian border and the outflow of East Germans to West Germany through Austria forced Moscow’s hand not to come to the support of the East German government,” according to Eurasian expert Paul Goble. That experience, he says, led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Russians saw it as an indication that the Soviet government was no longer prepared to use military force to defend its socialist allies,” Goble says. And, he adds, many people today tend to forget how closely related the Revolutions of 1989 were to the dissolution of the former Soviet Union in 1991.