Podium: When did Communism end?

From a speech by the Hungarian Prime Minister to a conference on post-Communist Europe, held in Vienna
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE the privilege to present to you our special Hungarian perspective on 1989. My contribution to this conference is to speak to you about the peculiar year of 1989 itself.

In fact, there are two ways to think of that year. Many regard it in a vague sense as the first year of liberty. Others consider 1989 to be the last year of dictatorship, the year of mass demonstrations against the Communist regime which paved the way to free elections and democracy in 1990.

At first glance, the distinction between 1989 and 1990 may appear esoteric and even vain. In reality, the implications of the difference are profound. I can speak for Hungary only, but I can tell you they hide the two opposing concepts of the transition.

In Hungary it does matter how the different political forces date the end of Communism and the beginning of democracy: from 1989 or from 1990. The distinction is so important in the case of Hungary that we can even name these patterns the concept of the "89ers" and the concept of the "90ers".

Allow me to start with the shortest possible definition of the two concepts. The concept of the 89ers in Hungary is that of continuity, what we call in Hungary "post-Communist society". And we call the concept of the 90ers the "competition-based society. As for myself, I have to tell you that I believe that 1989 was the last year of dictatorship. I think the less that remained from 1989 the better consequently.

What we believed in 1989 was that as long as there are no free elections, there is no democracy. Consequently, everything before the free elections is part of the dictatorship, even if a soft dictatorship. My apologies to the organisers again, but in my thinking it is the year 2000 that will see the 10th anniversary of the democratic changes. John Stuart Mill once wrote that he who knows only his own side of the case, knows little. In my remarks today, I would like to outline both strategies of the democratic transition in Hungary.

When we first started the so-called "Round-Table discussions" in Hungary the Communist party representatives proposed that the Polish model be followed. The gist of this was to establish a fixed percentage of seats in Parliament to go to the Communist Party in the elections, while the political forces could run for the remaining seats only.

When they failed in having us accept this concept they started to work on selecting the political forces that they wanted to become the players - and their political coalition partners - in the future multi-party parliament.

The goal was that the reformed Communist party should be the one dealing the cards for a long time after the democratic transition in parliament. The idea of the 90ers was to give space for those political forces which were emerging by themselves. We believed that only by allowing free room for genuine political initiatives and for genuine competition in the political arena was it possible to create real parliamentary democracy.

The media is another key area where the view of the 89ers is totally opposed to that of the 90ers. A fundamental interest of the 89ers was to prevent any interruption in continuity in the media.

What they wanted was for the first freely elected parliament and government to have no right to interfere in media matters, and - for continuity in the media - foreign investors to be involved in order to provide a shield. This is why privatisation of the press came the soonest; it started as early as 1988-1989. Through this, the same people could retain practically all media positions.

The 90ers, on the other hand, wanted profound changes in state-owned media, and for media privatisation to start only after the free elections and on the basis of the rules set up by the new democratic parliament.

You have heard what I have in mind when I think of 1989 and of what remains from then. The opposition between the "fake competition" of post-Communism and the competition-based society is now practically history in Hungary. We continue to have some signs of it, but they are no more than the final rearguard actions of the past. The battle is, by and large, over, and the politics of competition won. This does not mean that Hungary has no more problems. But we can say that instead of problems of a post-Communist society, we are increasingly facing the problems of a Western society.

Kissinger was right when he said that the solution of each problem is a door to a new problem. But this is another and far happier story. Thank you for your attention.