This year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Iron Curtain. 1989 was a life-changing year in the Eastern/Central European region, when, after 30 years of Soviet occupation, the chance came for Central European nations to become independent along with the emerging hope to unite Europe.
The occasion will give the opportunity for Angela Merkel and Viktor Orbán to celebrate together after a period of tension between the two leaders. As Merkel has accepted the Hungarian side’s invitation to participate in the commemoration held near Sopron, where thousands of East German citizens were able to flee to West Germany through Austria with the help of the Hungarian government in 1989.
Three decades is a considerable amount of time, over the course of which European leaders thought that dismantling socialism would take less time than it actually did. Although letting GDR citizens move to the West was just an episode during the process when communist countries were transformed into Western-type democracies, it was, without doubt, an important event. Retrospectively, it can well be seen that after Gorbachev’s reforms, it was the Hungarian leadership that went the furthest in the policy of opening windows for the West. The Soviets gave consent to opening up the western border of Hungary, enabling East Germans to go to Austria. Other measures, such as paving the way for privatization in 1988 demonstrate that Hungarian reform communists were ready to take part, or rather dominate the transition period towards a capitalist society, which was, of course, an elementary interest of theirs as well.
In the summer of 1989, it appeared that Hungary would be the closest ally of western states in the forthcoming years and the nineties seemed to prove this analysis. There are several reasons why this didn’t happen in fact, which are quite clear now. In 2010, freshly appointed Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, declared the ’Opening to the East’ policy, which highlighted Hungary’s unchanged commitment to NATO and the European Union at the same time. Conflicts have since arisen, especially with EU leadership, but America is also worried about Hungary’s amicable diplomacy towards Moscow and Beijing, though relations have definitely started to improve with Washington during the Trump administration. Orbán’s efforts to gain more freedom in shaping the Hungarian economy, while making it less exposed to western financial circles and benefitting from these sources, cannot be understood if we ignore the Kádárian heritage. It is more and more evident that the performance of the Kádár era, a sort of Potemkin village rather, was much poorer than previously thought by most analysts at the time, and even right afterwards both at home and abroad. Serious consequences of the heritage, e.g. the highest debt per person in the post-socialist world, which were accompanied by an uncritical adoption of the recommended neo-liberal economic policy in the first two decades after 1990, are still with us. Without them, the intention of the Orbán cabinet to regain some sovereignty for the state over the economy cannot be properly interpreted.
Besides this, another reason for the cooler diplomatic relations with several western states is Fidesz’ traditionally conservative political philosophy and practice. It is in contrast with the mainstream offensive liberal views in several fields like migration, gay marriage, defending Christianity etc. It wouldn’t have been so 30 years ago. Christian democracy has markedly shifted to the left with classical social democracy losing ground against liberal and green parties, while a strongly anti-traditionalist, ultra-liberal way of thinking has become compulsory comme il faut. Of course, ideology and economic interests are intertwined, as usually occurs in history.
The evaluation of the transformation from a Soviet satellite into a western democracy is going on and changing. One thing can hardly be doubted: Hungary’s breaking away from the Soviet empire was a major and positive historical event, which had no positive alternative. At the time there were illusions about an idealised image of the West and about the evolutionary potential of the Kádárian heritage as well. Also, the country has faced several negative economic and social processes since then that are civilizational challenges. We only have the chance to handle them with the hope of success if we accept that even small countries are, to some extent, responsible for their own future.