Obituary: Kroly Grsz

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Kroly Grsz, the last leader of Hungary's ruling old-style Communist movement, the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (HSWP), was at the centre of power for barely two years but, in the course of his meteoric rise and fall, he oversaw Hungary's transition from one-party rule to the beginnings of democracy.

During that period, from 1987 to 1989, he initiated far-reaching changes - mostly in economic affairs - and resisted many other radical measures designed to bring Hungary closer to a Western-style multi-party system. Though he appeared determined, decisive and dynamic at the start of his brief stint at the top, by the end he had become confused, hesitant and exhausted.

Grsz was born in 1930 in Miskolc, centre of Hungary's north-eastern industrial heartland, into a working-class family of ethnic German descent. Initially he followed his father into the printing trade, but his political commitment and ambition destined him for a different career. He joined the Communist Party when he was only 15 and within three years was working in his home town as a full-time, professional Party activist. He served as a political officer in the army in the early 1950s, during the darkest days of Stalinism when loyalty to the regime counted for more than military training or experience.

Grsz resumed his civilian career in 1954 as a junior official in the Communist propaganda apparatus. He was in Miskolc during the 1956 pro-democracy uprising, and later in life he claimed to have helped Communist officials who had gone into hiding. At the time he approved of the Soviet army's intervention which crushed the uprising. But later he expressed regret for the Communist regime's reliance on Soviet military might, because in the decades that followed it limited the freedom of manoeuvre of Hungary's paramount leader, Jnos Kdr, who had been installed in power by Soviet troops in 1956. In any case, Grsz was bewildered by the events unfolding in Hungary and for a time contemplated leaving Kdr's newly formed HSWP and abandoning his political career until his father persuaded him to stay on.

Grsz's progression thereafter was steady if unspectacular. From 1958 to 1961, he edited the provincial newspaper Eszak-Magyarorszg, and then moved to Budapest, where he became HSWP Secretary at Hungarian Radio and Television - a key job supervising appointments and censoring the output of the Communist state's main media outlets. He stayed in the job until 1968. For the next 13 years he worked almost entirely in the HSWP's Agitation-Propaganda Department, rising to the top post in the unit. He was getting close to the inner core of power, the Party's policy-making Politburo, but his ambitions suffered a reverse in 1979 when Kdr sent off the plain-speaking and ambitious Grsz to head the HSWP organisation in his native Borsod county.

The early 1980s were a high-water mark in the Kdr era: after years of improving living standards - the period of "goulash Communism" - the new experience of economic stagnation, coupled with increasing foreign indebtedness, led to the steady erosion of Kdr's popularity. Grsz was among the senior figures who began to criticise the ageing leader and his closest colleagues. As the pressure to stop the policy drift increased on Kdr, Grsz was recalled to Budapest to take over the capital's HSWP organisation in 1984 and the following year he joined the Politburo.

It was at this time that Grsz shot to prominence with his advocacy of far-reaching economic reforms. Although earlier he had had the reputation of a hardliner, he was a pragmatist at heart who was exploiting the twin strategies of restructuring and openness - perestroika and glasnost - pursued by the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

As Hungary was struggling to overcome a mountain of economic problems under its ineffectual geriatric leadership, the energetic Grsz introduced a strong dose of criticism into the Communist policy-making establishment. It was partly to saddle Grsz with the blame for a series of much-needed but unpopular austerity measures that Kdr sanctioned his appointment as Prime Minister in June 1987. A wily operator and great survivor, Kdr thought that power would remain in his hands as the HSWP's General Secretary while Grsz, as head of government, would have to carry the onerous responsiblity for making the necessary changes.

But the dynamic Grsz, working 14 to 16 hours a day, turned the tables on his boss by beginning to transform the government into a second centre of power and undermining Kdr's position within the HSWP. As a result, Kdr was removed from the post of Party leader - after 32 years - at a special conference in May 1988. Grsz was elected to succeed him.

For the next six months Grsz combined the posts of HSWP General Secretary and Prime Minister. Throughout 1988 he was introducing a series of radical reforms. Hungary became the first Communist-ruled country to establish a system of universal personal income tax and VAT. These changes were not welcomed by Hungarians, who joked at the time that Grsz had successfully combined Swedish levels of taxation with Ethiopian wages. But they helped lay the foundations for a more rational financial system.

Meanwhile, Hungary was also forging ahead on the road to restoring capitalism by legalising large-scale private enterprise and beginning the process of privatisation. Grsz was among the first leaders in Eastern Europe to express admiration for Margaret Thatcher's economic policies when he visited London. And under him Hungary also pioneered the practice of virtually unrestricted travel to the West.

All these momentous changes were happening in 1988 when Grsz was emerging as Hungary's undisputed leader. But, with much of his planned legislation in place, Grsz stepped down as Prime Minister in November 1988. He was already being assailed by more radical reformers within the Communist leadership, headed by Imre Pozsgay, who envisaged Hungary's transition to a quasi-democratic society. Grsz's reluctance to go along with their advocacy of a multi-party system turned him almost overnight from a reformist into a conservative figure. He also found it hard to break with the orthodox Communist interpretation of the 1956 uprising as a counter-revolution and to recognise it as a genuine national revolt.

At a meeting of the HSWP leadership in February 1989 the radical reformers' views on these key issues prevailed and from then on Grsz's influence dramatically declined. Four months later later he was forced to share power with three of his radical rivals, including Pozsgay, in a newly established collective leadership.

Grsz was losing the will to continue his rearguard action and announced that he would not stand for re-election at a Party Congress scheduled for October 1989. When the HSWP became at that Congress the first ruling party in the Soviet bloc to transform itself into a Western-style social democratic organisation - the Hungarian Socialist Party - Grsz left with a minority of party officials to carry the banner for a slightly reformed but still distinctly Communist movement which retained the name of the HSWP. But he took no office in the party, and it has remained on the margins of Hungarian politics, having failed to win any seats in parliament during the two elections of the early 1990s.

At the end of 1989 Grsz effectively retired. He spent the final years of his life as a widower in an architect-designed igloo-shaped house in the quiet town of Godollo, on the eastern outskirts of Budapest, where he died after a long fight against cancer.

Kroly Grsz described himself as a Marxist - but no longer a Leninist. He was highly critical of Hungary's mainstream politicians - including his one-time Communist colleagues - because of their whole-hearted espousal of the market economy and their pro-Western orientation. The "Hungarian Gorbachev", he had wanted to bring about far-reaching reforms within the Communist system but he did not stand for a break with Communism itself.

Kroly Grsz, politician: born Miskolc, Hungary 1 August 1930; First Secretary, Budapest HSWP 1984-87; Prime Minister of Hungary 1987-88; General Secretary, HSWP 1988-89; married (two sons): died Godollo, Hungary 7 January 1996.