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Hungary's role in the 1989 revolutions

GDR citizens flood across the Hungary/Austria border in summer 1989

Brian Hanrahan

Hungary's part in the 1989 revolutions was low-key but essential. It was the country which first punched a hole in the Iron Curtain - and through it poured such a torrent of refugees that it destabilised its communist neighbours. The BBC's diplomatic editor, Brian Hanrahan, who reported on events 20 years ago, talked to the man who made this possible.

For the past few months on my travels around Eastern Europe, I've felt duty-bound to ask people if they have any regrets about what happened in 1989.

1989 file picture of Imre Pozsgay
Imre Pozsgay says he was fighting to alter the system, from the early 1980s

Their response has been to look at me as though I'm mad and then politely - as though to a simpleton - explain that nobody could want to return to a system so cavalier about human rights, so indifferent to the welfare of the people which it controlled.

I'm beginning to be wary about asking, but just recently in Budapest I found someone I thought might have reason to give a different answer.

Imre Pozsgay was a leading reformer in Hungary's Communist Party. He had fought his way up to the top of the party, and in 1989 was one of the handful of people who controlled it.

He used his position to open up the Iron Curtain which separated Hungary from Austria. He also helped persuade the Communist Party to give up power voluntarily rather than be forced out as happened elsewhere.

But were Hungarians grateful for the man who had brought free travel and free elections? Not a bit. His campaign to become president was spurned, and these days he has abandoned politics to teach political history. Surely he would have some regrets?

Coup threat

Instead, when I met him in his modest house on the outskirts of Budapest I got a very surprising answer. He told me that back in 1989 he had been less interested in reforming communism that destroying it.

Soviet tanks on Hungary's streets in 1956
In the 1980s, Hungary still had raw memories of Russian tanks putting down the 1956 revolution

"For a long time," he said, "I believed in communism. But from the early '80s I realised it was unreformable - and the only thing to do was to change that system."

Mr Pozsgay says he thought carefully about whether to resign from the Communist Party and then decided against it. "I came to the conclusion that I could do more for my country from the inside, in a position of power than as a marginalised opposition figure," he said.

So in 1989, according to Mr Pozsgay's account, one of the leading figures in Hungary's Communist Party was actively working to bring it down.

His twin concerns were hardliners in the Hungarian Communist Party and the danger of angering the Soviet Union.

Hungary still had raw memories of the way Russian tanks had put down the revolution of 1956, but Mr Pozsgay gambled that with Mikhail Gorbachev now in the Kremlin, the Soviet Union was unlikely to intervene this time.

Instead, he says, the danger came from closer to home. In April 1989 he learnt there were plans by some communist leaders to declare martial law and take control of the country.

But by now the Hungarian government was in the hands of the communist reformers, and they moved swiftly to isolate the party politburo.

Mr Pozsgay says he telephoned the party's general secretary to warn him that a military coup couldn't succeed.

"I bluffed a bit," he says, "but I was confident that the army and the security forces would not work with him. I told him that a Hungarian soldier ordered to shoot on his own people would either shoot his commander or go home to his mother. From that moment he backed down."

With the threat of a coup out of the way, the government went ahead with its plans to take down the iron curtain.

'Rotten society'

In May they removed the first stretches of barbed wire and electric fencing, and waited to see what reaction there was from Moscow. When nothing happened they pressed on.

By summer Mr Pozsgay was encouraging East Germans to cross the border even though technically it was still illegal. In the autumn Hungary changed the rules: anybody could now cross freely.

Hungary used to be a major holiday spot for East Germans. That summer many had stayed on and, once the restriction were lifted, they fled west in their thousands. It was a blow from which East Germany never recovered.

And the following year it was the Hungarian Communist Party's turn to be voted out of office.

One of the leading dissidents from that period in Hungary agrees that the communist party collapsed before it could be challenged. GM Tamas was the first opposition MP elected to the Hungarian parliament.

He believes that the party had long ceased to believe in communism, their only interest was staying in power, and once Moscow withdrew its support it couldn't even manage that.

But Mr Tamas has an interesting history of his own - he has gone from being a conservative in 1989 to a Marxist today.

So I tried out my question on him. Perhaps, given his change of mind since 1989, he might have some regrets?

He didn't hesitate for a second. "I wouldn't change it back for anything in the world," he said. "It was a rotten society, and it had to collapse."



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