German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has thanked Hungary for what he called its "historic decision" to open a chink in the Iron Curtain 15 years ago, when it allowed East German refugees to flee across the border to Austria.
An honor guard marched in front of Hungary's gothic parliament building to mark the anniversary, as Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy and German Chancellor Schroeder looked on.
The outgoing Hungarian leader was deputy prime minister in the reformist Communist government that 15 years ago decided to open Hungary's border to Austria. The move allowed thousands of East German refugees to travel to the West, despite threats from what was then Communist East Germany, which was at the time Hungary's Warsaw Pact ally.
At a news conference, Mr. Schroeder praised Hungary's historic decision to allow East German asylum-seekers to cross to the West on September 11, 1989. What was then West Germany granted automatic citizenship to East Germans who escaped. The move is considered to have paved the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall, two months later, and the subsequent demise of communism and dissolution of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. East and West Germany were united in 1990.
"I am pleased that my visit takes place at a time when we remember that the government, in which you [prime minister] took part, made a decision 15 years ago of world importance," he said. "We will never forget that, especially if disagreements arise in the future."
Referring to a point of friction, the chancellor made clear that his appreciation for Hungary does not mean Hungarian workers can now flood Germany.
Although Hungary became part of the European Union this year along with nine other countries, Mr. Schroeder said his country cannot allow unlimited access to its market.
"Hungary has an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent," said Gerhard Schroeder. "Germany has an unemployment rate of over nine percent," he explains. "Hungary needs its own working force, and when you look to the Hungarian economic situation, there are already shortages of employees in important sectors of society."
The statement came as a disappointment for Prime Minister Medgyessy, whose government had hoped that Hungary's role in dismantling the Iron Curtain would encourage Germany to have more flexible labor policies.
Mr. Schroeder on Thursday, the final day of his visit, met with Father Imre Kozma, a Catholic priest who was the main organizer of refugee camps for tens of thousands of East Germans who flooded Hungary in the summer of 1989, hoping to be allowed to cross to the West.
Some of them still return to Hungary, but, now, as tourists.