Reflections on thirty years after the historic opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border
Jozsef Martin, President of AEJ Hungarian Section
— „Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” — Shakespeare’s Hamlet
The late Margaret Thatcher, British PM between 1979 and 1990, called the year of 1989 „annus mirabilis”. Indeed, it was a „miraculous year” of the Central-European transformations. The centralised one party systems began to collapse in July in Poland, in November in the eastern part of Germany, in the so called German Democratic Republic – which has not been democratic for a second during its 40 years existence -, and they were followed in December by Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Hungary was one of the trendsetters of this tendency, one of the softest and most reformed Communist parties in Central-Europe, according to Bloomberg, decided to dismantle the whole one-party dictatorship: Hungarian politicians together with the „ordinary” people in an extremely cautious process approached step by step to a Western style liberal democracy. Of course in harmony with Mr. Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet communist empire, who recognized the simple fact, that the Soviet communist system with its heavy social and economic burden is no more capable to finance the Central-European satellite states. Under the extremely big pressure of a bulk of social and economic bankruptcies Gorbachev had to tolerate the Central European process of building a multiparty system with western type institutions based on market economy instead of the failed centrally planned system.
This year in Hungary we are commemorating the 30th anniversary of the steps of building the new system: the establishment and successful accomplishment of the six month Opposition round-table conference between the old Communist party, oppositional parties and movements and civil organisations; it created the legal framework of the transition and the conditions for free elections in 1990; we also commemorate the reburial of Imre Nagy, the martyr leader of the ’56 revolution crushed by the Soviet tanks; the dignity of the ceremony is even after 30 years alive in the nation’s memory; the „little wonders” of the miraculous year could be enumerated, but the most outstanding event by international standard was the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border on the 10th of September, 1989 paving the way of some 50000 East German refugees to Germany via Austria. After the cautious negotiations with Mr. Gorbachev prime minister Miklos Nemeth realized that the dismantling of fortifications of the painful iron curtain would be tolerated by Moscow. So it happened: the decision in Budapest contributed to the demolishing of the Berlin wall on the 9th of November, thus accelerated the process of German reunification. Chancellor Kohl and the whole Western world praised the decision of Budapest, and due to this Hungary’s popularity and authority was in 1989 as high as during and after the days of the ’56 revolution despite of its tragic end.
And what is there after 30 years, what became of dreams of the constructors of a liberal democracy? Looking around we we can be deeply depressed not by the lost Paradise, but by not having created the Paradise of our hopes. After Viktor Orban’s three consecutive upstage election victories since 2010 we have an illiberal, a quasi hegemony party-state, with a newly written Constitution, with turning upside down the system of checks and balances, with institutions headed by close allies of the Fidesz-government, with a loyal oligarchy in the main positions of economic life, with a narrow minded cultural ideology, with a steady campaign against migrants, both based on ethnic nationalism, with uneven media access. Hungary is no more a champion of European integration, but one of the harshest critics of the EU in a constant and often sharp discussion with „Brussels”.
„The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!” – complains Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and 30 years ago time was really out, but normal standards of Western political culture were coming back. Is it possible that time is again out? But now in the opposite direction: the new system is characterized be an extremely high decree of centralisation with all its consequences, corruption, limitation of pluralism, cronyism, etc. Up to date political interests are served by memory of the historical events. Viktor Orban was only one of the supporting actors in 1989 – who else could have been the 26 year old politician? -, but his merits are nowadays exaggerated, whereas Miklos Nemeth, who had a key role in opening the border in September before the masses of East German refugees, had not been invited to the ceremony in Sopron to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic organised mostly by the opposition on 19. August, 2019, a more or less spontaneous action which helped roughly 600 refugees to leave Hungary for Austria. Four years ago Orban, already prime minister, sharply criticised Chancellor Merkel for her generous attitude toward asylum seekers coming mainly from Syria and Iraq, bused and directed them to the Austrian border, fortified Hungary’s border with Serbia and Croatia, and made it practically impossible for refugees to apply for asylum in Hungary. If they wanted, but they didn’t want it in either case. As Bloomberg quoted, in 1989 and in 2015 as well Hungary was regarded as a mere transit state, and „willy nilly served as Germany’s gatekeeper.”
But there is an extremely huge difference between ’89 and 2015: 30 years ago Nemeth’s government helped East Germans to find the way in a free society, but since 2015 Orban’s government has not done anything to help people refuging from war, suffering, famine, etc. And this is a fundamental part of the illiberal democracy, namely the ethnic nationalism, the demagogue campaign against „migrants” . The propaganda against them is one of the reasons of Orban’s electoral successes.
And the question of the questions: how long can the illiberal tide last in Central Europe? Is Tony Barber, the famous opinion writer of FT right saying that the tide is in „partial retreat”? If we look at brexit and at Donald Trump’s chances to be re-elected next year, the signs are rather gloomy. And without doubt the rule of law in several Central European countries – Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic – has been eroded under the pressure the populist politics end methods of Mr. Orban and the Polish leader, Mr. Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Mr. Barber still sees some encouraging signs – the arrival of the liberal Zuzana Caputova into the Slovakian presidential palace, the heavy protests against corruption in Prague, Bucharest or Bratislava –, but he confesses his doubts whether the wrong turning of the region’s countries , e. g. ”betraying the civic democratic promise of the 1989 anti-communist revolutions” is over, or more cautiously, will be over soon.
Will or should the European Union be the champion of the liquidation of the illiberal tide? The very fragmented Hungarian opposition, which since many years has been incapable to build up a strong narrative against Viktor Orban believes by and large that it is the EU’s duty to stop or even to overthrow Orban’s system, which is a complete error, the change can and should come from the Hungarian voters. It would be also the opposition’s task to evaluate correctly the illiberal system with a flourishing organised corruption by the state and turning back the civic norms of the „negotiated revolution” of ’89, but according to many economists the macroeconomic situation in Hungary is better now than it was ten years ago. A few merits could and should be acknowledged and then the critics based on the real mistakes, errors and even sins would be much more credible to the voters.
Will government and opposition in Hungary and elsewhere learn from the past? I agree with the late Ingeborg Bachmann, Austrian poet pointing out that history is constantly teaching, but it does not manage to find pupils. Indeed, if we look around, within and outside of the Hungarian border, the classrooms are definitely – empty.