If someone had sat down on July 11, 1789, to write, for a fortnightly review, an analytical account of developments in France, he—and the review—would have had a problem. You can imagine the footnote, added at last proof stage: “As we go to press it appears that one of Paris’s most important prisons may have been stormed…”

Sitting down on July 11, 1989, to write an analytical account of developments in Poland and Hungary, I have a similar problem. The changes in those countries are, to be sure, not yet “revolutionary” in the sense of the storming of the Bastille. They continue to be what, in an earlier article, I called a “refolution”—half-reform, half-revolution.1 But they are sufficiently rapid and unpredictable for a genuinely analytical account to be impossible.

All the close observer can do is to describe what has happened so far, and in the process hold fast some impressions that might otherwise be lost to the historian reflecting with the benefit of hindsight. For hindsight is also a disadvantage. Perhaps the most difficult thing of all for the historian to recapture is the sense of what, at a given historical moment, people did not know about the future.


With hindsight it begins to seem obvious that Solidarity should have won a landslide victory on Sunday, June 4, in the first round of the closest thing to a free election that Poland has had for more than half a century.2 Of course they did. They must have known! But I know that they did not know. I sat with an exhausted and depressed Adam Michnik over lunch that Sunday, and he did not know. I drank with a nervously excited Jacek Kuron late that evening, but he did not know. Nobody knew.

Certainly the campaign had gone well. Despite all the starting handicaps, the lack of organization, money, offices, staff, and, most of all, fair coverage by the radio and television, the Solidarity-opposition campaign had become a kind of festival of national improvisation. Despite all the initial advantages, the organization, money, offices, staff, and, most of all, monopoly control of radio and television, the Party-coalition3 campaign had been extraordinarily feeble. Solidarity selected one candidate for each seat it was entitled to contest under the terms of the April Round Table agreement.4 The selection procedure was not democratic, but it was highly effective. The Party-coalition side wasted weeks in quasi-democratic feuding, and ended up with several candidates for most seats.

The streets were plastered with the names of the Solidarity candidates: each in a photograph with Lech Walesa, and with the simple message, “We must win.” To find out the names of the Party-government candidates often required a lengthy private investigation. Solidarity’s posters were red and white, with the unmistakeable jumbly lettering. In several places, the Party retreated into a faded conservative blue. A typical Party slogan was “With Us It’s Safer,” a slogan better suited to contraceptives than to parliamentary candidates, as one Italian observer remarked.

Certainly things looked good for Solidarity on the actual day. In mid-morning there were long queues. “You see, it’s after Mass,” was the explanation given me in almost every case: that, and the sheer complexity of the voting procedures, with separate white ballot papers for each seat in the Sejm (some reserved for the Party-coalition side, some non-Party), a white paper for the “National List” of thirty-five prominent Party-coalition candidates, and a long pink ballot paper listing all the numerous candidates for the Senate.

Some voters came directly from their children’s First Communion, trailing little girls in long white dresses. The First Communion and the first election. And not only for the children. “Yes, sir,” confided one not-so-young couple, holding hands and simpering, “it’s our first time!” Many people did not even bother to enter the curtained polling booths, but did their work quite openly at tables or on window sills. It would need a poet to describe the almost sensual satisfaction on people’s faces as they crossed out name after official name. “At last, after so many years,” exclaimed one old man near me, as he performed his civic duty. “Enough is enough.”

For all that, it was only on Monday morning that Solidarity leaders definitely knew that they had won outright, on the first round, all but a handful of the seats for which they were competing. Three things happened together. First, the Communists lost an election. Second, Solidarity won. Third, the Communists acknowledged that Solidarity won. Logicians might call that a syllogism. Yet until almost the day before anyone who had predicted these events would have been universally considered not a logician but a lunatic. Moreover, the three things, while logically related, were also separate and distinct.

First, and above all, the Communists lost. They did not lose power. They still had the army, the police, the Party apparatus, and the nomenklatura. But they lost the vote. While virtually all the Solidarity candidates got through on the first round, most of the Party-government candidates had to go through to a run-off in the second round on June 18. Most humiliating of all, only two of the thirty-five candidates on the National List got the requisite 50 percent of valid votes on an uncontested ballot. In other words, more than half of those who turned out to vote took the trouble to cross out, name by name or with one big cross, the prime minister, the interior minister, and the defense minister, as well as other less prominent establishment figures.5


Secondly, Solidarity won. Solidarity won not only against the Party, but also against many quite well known, even distinguished, non-Party candidates: successful managers, television personalities, representatives of more radical opposition groups, and, most formidably, Christian Democrats enjoying the explicit support of senior churchmen—indeed, of the most senior. For on the very eve of the election the Primate, Cardinal Józef Glemp, demonstratively received at his residence the Christian Democrats standing against Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron—both official Solidarity-opposition candidates, but both very much from what Michnik once called the “lay left.” Yet despite that extraordinary intervention, the Solidarity men still won hands down. “The Primate should submit his resignation,” murmured the wits.6

You might think that Solidarity need not have worried about its popularity. But worry it did. Most opinion polls suggested a fragmentation of the non- or anti-Communist vote. And whatever Solidarity’s historical legitimacy from 1980–1981; whatever the spiritual legitimacy that came from the blessing of the Pope (one up on the Primate); whatever the cultural legitimacy that came from the Nobel prize winners and film stars; whatever the trade union legitimacy that came from last year’s strikes—there is nothing, but nothing, to match the legitimacy that comes from the barrel of the ballot box.

There was only one opponent that Solidarity did not defeat. He might be called, by analogy with General Winter, General Abstention. All sides in the campaign had agreed on one thing: that everyone should turn out to vote. Yet the final turnout was very modest: just over 62 percent, which according to the (unreliable) official figures is actually less than the turnout for the referendum in 1987. Perhaps a few people followed radical opposition appeals to boycott even these elections, because they were not wholly free. Perhaps some tepid Party faithful felt so disgusted that they stayed at home. But my own straw polls suggest that the main reason was a deep tiredness and disbelief in the capacity of any political force—red, white, or blue—to reverse the country’s desperate material decline.

The third thing that happened was, in its way, almost as remarkable. The Party told the truth. On the Monday evening, when the first partial results were known, the spokesman for the Central Committee, Jan Bisztyga, appeared on the television evening news, sitting side by side with Solidarity’s veteran spokesman, Janusz Onyzszkiewicz. Mr. Bisztyga said: “The elections had a plebiscitary character and Solidarity won a clear majority.” He said other things too. For example: “If triumphalism and adventurism anarchize the situation in Poland, democracy and social peace will be seriously threatened.” (Why, one might almost mistake that for a threat.) But as the first reaction of a party that has monopolized power for more than forty years, and fought Solidarity tooth and nail for more than seven, this was remarkable. Two days later General Jaruzelski said simply: “It was the first time that voters could choose freely. That freedom was used for the crossing-off of those who were in power till now.”7 At the same time he reaffirmed his commitment to the path of “dialogue and compromise.”

Sunday, June 4, 1989, was a landmark not only in the postwar history of Poland, not merely in the history of Eastern Europe, but in the history of the Communist world. Yet as the Solidarity leaders plunged into fevered discussions, tortuous negotiations, and late-night cabals, their reaction was a curious mixture of exaltation, incredulity, and alarm. Alarm at the new responsibilities that now faced them—the problems of success—but also a sneaking fear that things could not continue to go so well. That fear was heightened by the news from China. It was an uncanny experience to watch, with a group of Polish opposition journalists, on the very afternoon of the election, the television pictures from Beijing. Martial law. The tanks. The tear gas. Corpses carried shoulder high. We had been here before.

As Solidarity leaders began to engage in real politics, with all its evasions, compromises, and half-truths, many had mixed feelings. There was more than a touch of nostalgia for the simple truths and moral clarities of the martial law period. One may passionately wish Poland to have “normal” politics. But it is quite another thing to watch your own friends starting to behave like normal politicians. Yet what is the alternative? Comes the answer: “Tiananmen Square.”8


Following its election triumph, Solidarity faced three major, closely connected problems: the internal structure of the opposition movement; the nature, timing, and terms of its participation in government; and its response to the deepening economic crisis. What is Solidarity today, in July 1989? It is at least four things. First, it is Lech Walesa, whose personal popularity and authority have reached extraordinary heights, reinforced, of course, by every meeting with a Western leader, whether President Mitterrand or President Bush. Secondly, it is the parliamentary group—161 (out of 460) members of the Sejm, 99 out of 1009 members of the Senate. These new parliamentarians personally represent very different tendencies and traditions, but on that Glorious Fourth of June they were all—social democrat or conservative, Christian or Jew, bright or dull—elected because they were the candidates of Lech Walesa and Solidarity. Defeated Communist candidates remarked bitterly that if a monkey had stood as an official Solidarity-opposition candidate he would have been elected; and there is probably some truth in that. One might add that if Saint Paul had stood as a candidate for the Polish United Workers’ Party, he would probably have been defeated.

Thirdly, Solidarity is the loose structure of national, regional, and local citizens’ committees which actually organized the election campaign. Besides veteran Solidarity activists these citizens’ committees were joined by many people—doctors, engineers, teachers, journalists—who had not, or had only marginally, been politically active before. They are the essential social and organizational basis for the new members of parliament, and, as it were, the local nurseries of Poland’s seedling democracy.

Lastly, there is Solidarity as what it was first: a trade union. But Solidarity- as-trade-union has grown only sluggishly since its (re-)registration in April. There is none of the exuberant dynamism of autumn 1980, when an estimated three million people joined the newborn union within a fortnight. In mid-June 1989, after two months, its membership was estimated at about 1.5 to 2 million, and no one imagined it would reach anything like the 10 million of 1981. To put it another way, only about one in seven of those who voted for Solidarity-opposition candidates on June 4 had chosen to join the trade union Solidarity.

In the best case, the relationship between these four faces of Solidarity will take some time to work out. Thus, for example, an almighty row broke out immediately after the second round of the election when the National Executive Commission (KKW) of the trade union Solidarity passed a resolution declaring the work of the citizens’ committees at regional (voivodship) level to be “ended.” Who on earth were the trade union leaders to give orders to this nationwide civic movement? people asked. And after heated debates most of the citizens’ committees decided to continue functioning: although how exactly they do so will emerge only in practice, and may vary considerably from place to place.

Another perpetual source of controversy is Lech Walesa’s own high-handed, indeed some say “dictatorial” style of leadership, both within the trade union and in politics generally. Even in 1980 and 1981 Walesa had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward democracy inside the movement, and this tendency has not weakened with his singular elevation to the status of a Nobel prize winner and international statesman. But now as then he counters with a strong practical argument: “Can you fully democratically steer a ship through a stormy sea?”10

Increasingly his personal model seems to be Józef Pilsudski.11 “Really we should start by singing, ‘We, the First Brigade,”‘ I heard him tell the first meeting of the newly elected Solidarity-opposition parliamentarians, referring to the stirring marching song of Pilsudski’s Legions from the First World War. But when he went on to lay down, de haut en bas, what should be the form and leadership of a parliamentary group of which he is not even a member, there was instant revolt. This is “a sort of coup d’etat,” they said; we really cannot start building democracy with these “Bolshevik methods.” Walesa instantly retreated. And as it was in that meeting, so it could be in the succeeding years and larger struggles. Walesa would like to be a strong leader. There is an objective need for strong leadership. There might also, one might speculate, be some subjective desire in Poland for a strong leader. The authoritarian style that goes down so badly with democratic activists may actually commend him to a wider public.

Yet the historical situation is very different. Whereas Pilsudski was surrounded by colonels, Walesa is surrounded by professors. Where prewar Poland had to deal with a Europe of dictatorships, Poland today looks toward a Western Europe of liberal democracies. At his right hand Walesa has the sage Professor Bronislaw Geremek, a delightful mixture of Macaulay and Machiavelli, but a man who knows exactly what is needed for a modern, Western, European Poland. Geremek now heads the combined parliamentary group, which calls itself a Citizens’ Parliamentary Committee. It is interesting to note that at the founding meeting Walesa himself insisted—against the pleading of some present—that the group title should not include the word “Solidarity.” For he argued that it must be open to all independent, democratic tendencies in Poland. There were now different tendencies, he said, and in the future the differences would widen. As indeed they must, if Poland is to become a real democracy.

All other things being equal (which they are not), the Solidarity leadership’s ideal program—or “harmonogram” as Polish planners have it—for the transition to democracy would be roughly as follows. For the next year or two they would work as both a parliamentary and an extra-parliamentary opposition: controlling the conduct of a more competent but still Party-led government, introducing new legislation in many fields, demonopolizing the press, radio, and television, reforming the legal system, and building up their grass-roots constituency organization as well as the trade union Solidarity. In a year or two they would have early, free elections to local government. These would bring an end to the absurdly inefficient, bureaucratic, and corrupt nomenklatura domination of those vital lower rungs of Polish public life.

Within four years—as agreed at the round table—there would then be fully free elections to the national parliament. At this point it would be reasonable to expect the formation of a non-Party government. Many mainstream Solidarity leaders privately accept that the movement would, in the natural course of democratization, split into competing tendencies: competing, notably, on the issue of economic and social policy. Many of Walesa’s remarks suggest that he, too, envisages such a diversity. Continuity and Soviet acceptance would be guaranteed by the president, elected for six years. However, with a good dose of optimism and fantasy, it is not wholly impossible to imagine Walesa being elected president in 1995, and then presiding over a regime which, while highly centralized and even authoritarian at the top, nonetheless allows both multiparty democracy and a mixed ownership, free-market economy to grow underneath. In short, Walesa would be to Poland what De Gaulle was to France. Thus the dream harmonogram, all other things being equal.

But all other things are not equal, neither externally nor internally. The internal problem is that Solidarity is being carried along further and faster than it wants to go, both by the momentum of its own political success, and by the imperative of averting total economic collapse. In this sense, and in this sense only, the situation in summer 1989 is comparable with that in the summer of 1981. Solidarity is, as it were, being sucked into power—or, as it fears, into responsibility without power. It faces choices that it never expected to face. Solidarity leaders insist that when the terms of the new presidency were being negotiated at the Round Table, the name of General Jaruzelski was never explicitly mentioned in connection with that post. But if it was not explicitly mentioned this was because any schoolboy could see that the post was designed for him. That was the deal. And the agreed distribution of seats in parliament seemed to guarantee his election.

Yet no one, neither Solidarity nor the Party, reckoned with the sheer scale of Solidarity’s victory and the Party-coalition’s defeat. When some members of the previously compliant coalition parties, the Democratic party (SD) and the United Peasants’ party (ZSL), let it be known that they did not want to vote for Jaruzelski, Solidarity found itself in the horrifying position of apparently being able to prevent Jaruzelski being elected president. Their own supporters would never forgive them if they voted for Jaruzelski. The army, police, Party apparatus, and probably Moscow would not settle for a non-Party candidate. The electoral procedure meant that abstention was effectively the same as a vote against. What on earth were they to do? And so we had the surreal spectacle of people who had been interned and imprisoned by General Jaruzelski during martial law now racking their brains to think how they could secure his election as president.

At the same time, the visible economy took a further turn for the worse. A series of price rises that had been delayed until after the election were introduced: sugar, alcohol, petrol in quick succession. Seeing further price hikes ahead, people engaged in panic buying. Shop shelves were cleared. The free-market exchange rate for the dollar soared to the unprecedented level of more than six thousand zlotys—thus making the average old-age pension, at the free-market exchange rate, just seven dollars a month. A projected wage and price freeze was shattered almost before it had been announced. Inflation was such that people almost had to take their money in wheelbarrows. It could not go on like this.

After the election, only a government with Solidarity’s clear endorsement would have the credibility to push through the painful measures of austerity and restructuring which necessarily would accompany any serious program of economic reform. As Presidents Mitterrand and Bush and Mrs. Thatcher all made clear, the West, to which all sides now looked as a deus ex machina, might offer substantial debt relief and modest direct help for the private sector even in these chaotic circumstances, but it would—indeed could—only offer serious IMF and World Bank programs to a properly constituted government with a credible economic policy.

But Solidarity was unprepared for such a role, practically as well as psychologically. The Solidarity economists had outlines of programs—worse, they had several competing programs, ranging from the radical liberal to the “socialist market”—but they had not, could not have, the practical detail that could be obtained only by sitting inside the ministries. But those ministries, and the huge pyramid of bureaucracy beneath them, were still wholly occupied by the Party placemen—the nomenklatura—while much real power still lay elsewhere, in the Central Committee building and the Party apparatus. To enter government while those basic structures remained unchanged would be to condemn yourself to failure. To change those structures required time. You cannot create an independent civil service overnight. But time is what they did not have. They had won a free election. The economy was collapsing, bringing the threat of a popular explosion. The country needed them—now.

As this article goes to press, General Jaruzelski has just been elected president by a margin of one vote above the majority required by the constitution. From the information currently available it appears that he won this hair’s breadth victory only because several Solidarity representatives deliberately did not participate in the vote, thus altering the total balance to the general’s advantage.12 As president, Jaruzelski can invite someone from the Party-coalition side to form a government. The immediate political crisis would then be resolved, and the Solidarity-opposition leadership given a breathing space. But unless the new Party-coalition government performs an economic miracle, that breathing space may be of months rather than years. All the basic dilemmas remain.


In Poland it was an election. In Hungary it was a funeral. The funeral of Imre Nagy on June 16, 1989, just thirty-one years after his death.

Exactly a year ago, when the opposition held a small demonstration to mark the anniversary of Nagy’s execution, they were violently dispersed by the police. Now those same police have assisted in preparing an extraordinary, public, ceremonial reburial of the leader of the 1956 revolution and his closest associates.

On Heroes’ Square, in the center of Budapest, the great neoclassical columns are wrapped in black. From the colonnades hang huge green, white, and red national flags, but each with a circle cut out of the center: as the insurgents cut out the hammer and sickle in 1956. Ceremonial flames burn beside the six coffins ranged on the steps of the templelike Gallery of Art: five named coffins for Imre Nagy and his closest associates, the sixth, a symbolic coffin of the Unknown Insurgent.13

Funeral music sounds from the loudspeakers as people queue under the burning sun to lay flowers in tribute to their martyrs. First, and most movingly, come ordinary people, quietly placing one or two carnations. Then come the official delegations with large, formal wreaths: local councils, churchmen, diplomats, a delegation from Warsaw for Polish-Hungarian Solidarity, and senior reformist Hungarian Party politicians, formally representing the government and the parliament, but not—emphatically not—the Party as such.

Then the speeches. Will freedom for Hungary grow from the blood of these heroes? asks Sandor Racz, head of the Budapest Workers’ Councils in 1956. There are, he says, three obstacles. The first obstacle is the presence of Soviet troops on Hungarian soil. The second obstacle is the Communist party, clinging to power. The third obstacle is the fragmentation of social forces. Last of the speakers is a raven-haired former law student called Viktor Orbán. “If we can trust our souls and strength,” he says,

we can put an end to the Communist dictatorship; if we are determined enough we can force the Party to submit itself to free elections; and if we do not lose sight of the ideals of 1956, then we will be able to elect a government that will start immediate negotiations about the swift withdrawal of Russian troops.

The subdued crowd, perhaps some 200,000 strong, is finally roused to fierce applause. Everything is shown live on national television.14

Later, a small group travels to the remote corner of the cemetery where, some time after the execution, the mortal remains of Nagy and his associates were cast into a common grave. I was here just a year ago, at this now legendary Plot 301, and as I write I have before me my photographs of the dusty wasteland, and, yes, the rubbish dump where now the ground is at last prepared for decent burial. They have laid a new road to Plot 301, and lined it with a guard of honor.

One name is not mentioned in any of the speeches. One name is in everyone’s mind. It is the name of János Kádár, and Kádár remembered not as the leader of the West’s favorite “liberal” Communist country in the 1970s, but as the traitor who took over from Nagy on the back of Soviet tanks, the man who was directly responsible for the murder of Imre Nagy. Where is he today, that sick old king? Is he watching on television? He is Macbeth, and Banquo’s ghost lies in state on Heroes’ Square. This is not the funeral of Imre Nagy. It is the resurrection of Imre Nagy, and the funeral of Jánós Kádár.

That is what I thought and wrote at the time. Next day, there were rumors that Kádár and his wife had committed suicide as Imre Nagy was finally laid to rest. In fact Kádar died three weeks later, on the very day when the Hungarian Supreme Court announced Imre Nagy’s full legal rehabilitation. Shakespeare would not have risked such a crude tragic irony.15

The Hungarian funeral, like the Polish election, clearly is another landmark in the postwar history of Eastern Europe. It marks the end of the post-1956 period which is inextricably associated with the name of János Kádár. Kádár died with his time. But whether, and of what, it marks the beginning is much less clear. Many people had mixed feelings about the entire event because, although it was organized by the family and surviving associates of the victim, it acquired the character almost of a state funeral. It seemed that the authorities had at least partly managed to reclaim the revolution for themselves. One picture that went around the world was of leading Party reformers such as Imre Pozsgay, the prime minister, Miklós Németh, and the president of the parliament, Mátyás Szürös, standing guard beside the coffin of Imre Nagy. For them this was a gift. They could now say that the whole chapter was closed, and open a new one, with a revamped or even a new party, with a new name.

At a Central Committee plenum just one week later they effectively toppled the opportunist Party leader Károly Grósz (hailed by Mrs. Thatcher only one year ago as a man in her own image), and replaced him with a four-man presidium in which he is a minority of one beside Pozsgay, Németh, and the veteran economic reformer, Rezsö Nyers. It was then Nyers, not Grósz, who represented Hungary at the Warsaw Pact summit in Bucharest. The plenum also announced the date for an extraordinary Party conference: October 7. Much can change in the frenetic inner-Party politicking which is sure to fill the next few months, but at the moment it does seem that the leading “reformists” have a chance not merely of redirecting but to some extent of remaking the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ party (HWSP)—that is, let it clearly be recalled, the post-1956 Communist party.

The “reformists” are not, of course, a homogenous, let alone a conflict-free group. But there is now a major alignment of politicians, at or near the top of the Party, government, and parliament, who can justly be described as reformist—albeit different kinds of reformist. From what they are saying at the moment, it appears that they wish to transform that party, over the next year, into something closer to the Italian Communist party than to a traditional Soviet-type ruling Communist party. They talk freely of wishing to change its name. Perhaps they could simply drop the “Workers” and call it the Hungarian Socialist party: HSP. (After all, if they push ahead with their economic reforms, they’ll have to ditch most of the workers anyway.) The biographical fact that Rezsö Nyers was originally a Social Democrat is not, in itself, of major importance. The East German Communist party, the Socialist Unity party (SED), long had a number of former Social Democrats in very high places, and scant difference that made. More important is the fact that the west and south European socialist and social democratic parties that are members of the Socialist International offer at once more credible ideological models and attractive, sympathetic partners in Hungary’s journey “back to Europe.”

But establishing credibility abroad is the easy part. After all, they did that already under Kádár. The more difficult task is to establish credibility at home. Yet there is still an important contrast with Poland here. For years, during and after martial law, Poland’s leader’s continued to claim that they were following the “reformist” course of the July 1981 Tenth Party Congress. In recent months they have actually, finally, taken bold and courageous steps: above all, the decision to negotiate with Solidarity pushed through at the Tenth Plenum of the Central Committee in January 1989. But as General Jaruzelski mournfully remarked to a postelection plenum: “I am well aware that public opinion associates me more often with martial law and much more rarely with the line of reform, with those significant decisions of the Tenth PZPR Central Committee Plenum.” 16 Some Polish Party reformists also talk of renaming their party, indeed of building a new left-wing party in alliance with the social democratic wing of the opposition. But even though some of Solidarity’s strategists see an alliance with Party reformists as indispensable,17 the great mass of Solidarity members, and Solidarity voters, would view that as little short of betrayal.

In Hungary, by contrast, the Party is not burdened with martial law. It is burdened with the murder of Imre Nagy, and responsibility for the whole post-1956 counterrevolution. But as we have seen, at the funeral the reformists somehow managed to put themselves on the side of the victims. In Imre Pozsgay they have a genuinely popular politician, one who, from his ample stomach to his style of speech, seems to embody the aspirations of many Hungarians. If the reformists succeed in remaking the Party by the early autumn, then they will have at least six months to campaign for the planned free election.

In Poland, the so-called “horizontal movement” for reform by groups within the Party was effectively defeated in the summer of 1981. In Hungary, a similar “horizontal movement,” the Reform Circles, is discreetly encouraged from the top, and (up to a point) serves the leaders’ purposes. Even if, as some suggest, the reconstructed Party might have fewer than 500,000 members rather than the present approximately 800,000,18 it would still be, on present trends, much the largest and best organized political force in the land. Moreover, Pozsgay has initiated a new political movement to support reform, the Movement for a Democratic Hungary. This may be a real chance of involving or appealing to people who would otherwise (or also) support the populist Democratic Forum or the revived Social Democratic party. With all these advantages, it therefore seems not inconceivable that a reconstructed and revitalized Party could emerge from a genuinely free election as the senior partner in a coalition government.

Yet we should beware of falling into the press cliché that I noticed at the time of the Bush visit to Poland and Hungary: “Whereas in Poland change is led by Solidarity, in Hungary it is led by the Party.” The Party in Hungary may be a more convincing and inventive force, but it is still retreating. Retreating in good order perhaps, and, as was libelously reported of Italian troops in the First World War, retreating to loud shouts of “Avanti! Avanti!”19 but nonetheless, still retreating. The opposition in Hungary may still be weak and fragmented, but it is advancing. Moreover, it is advancing in better order than many thought possible even three months ago. The main field—or rather, chess board—of these advances and retreats is now a set of complex, formalized political negotiations.

These negotiations may loosely be compared to the Polish Round Table. But whereas the Polish Party negotiated with Solidarity at a round table, the Hungarian Party is negotiating with a round table. The Opposition Round Table is an umbrella group that brings together the most important opposition parties.20 It was founded shortly after the March 15 demonstration, which had shown just how effective joint initiatives could be. It is coordinated by a group acceptable to all parties, the Independent Lawyers’ Forum, of which its main spokesman, Imre Konya, is a member. The specific goal of the Opposition Round Table—and, one might add, what keeps such diverse parties together—is that of negotiating, with the authorities, the terms and timing of the political transition, and, above all, of free elections.

The authorities originally wanted a Polish-style round table. The Opposition Round Table wanted a two-sided table: us and them. The compromise, agreed on June 9 and 10, was a three-sided table, with the third side consisting of representatives of what have been known in Britain as “quangos”—quasi-nongovernmental organizations—although in the Hungarian case they should perhaps rather be called “quapos”—quasi-non-Party organizations.21 The talks are chaired by the president of the parliament, Matyas Szuros, who sits alone on a fourth side.

The content of these talks is as complex as their form. The first meeting was held on June 13, three days before the Nagy funeral, with the Party delegation led by Karoly Grosz. A second meeting was held on June 21, with the Party delegation now led by Imre Pozsgay. As in the Polish case, the Party was especially keen to get the opposition to share responsibility for painful and unpopular economic measures, while the opposition was interested primarily in the political steps to free elections, a new constitution and so forth. In a compromise, there are now two sub-tables: one on politics and one on economics. But the authorities made an important concession by agreeing that no new laws on the major issues under consideration would be brought before parliament until they had been agreed on at the table. Whereas in the last two years the parliament, although not freely elected, has acquired a certain autonomous significance, it is now sidetracked. The table is placed before, and above, the parliament.

This somewhat recalls the situation in Poland, where, in agreeing on a compromise to fill the seats left vacant by the failure of the Party-coalition National List, and in discussing the presidency, both Solidarity and Party leaders spoke as if the round table was the highest authority in the state: higher even than the letter of the electoral law and the clearly expressed will of the electorate. Moreover, whatever the government formed in Warsaw, it seems clear that crucial political decisions will continue to be taken on the basis of mini-round table negotiations between top leaders of Solidarity and those of the Party, army, and police. Thus both Poland and Hungary may soon have a form of government that is not to be found in any constitutional handbooks or histories. One might call it “government by table.”

Conventional wisdom has it that the Hungarian table has a better chance than the Polish one of arranging an unprecedented political transition, and the conventional wisdom is probably right. Hungary’s advantages are many: a less sensitive geopolitical situation, a less deep economic crisis, a more stable society, a continuum between government and opposition, habits of compromise, Austria and West Germany as economic allies. But a word of caution is in order. Hungary’s economic situation may be less bad, but it is still very bad, with inflation well into two digits, a budget deficit so out of line that it provoked the IMF to postpone one installment of agreed payments, the highest per capita hard currency debt in Eastern Europe, with interest payments of $1.2 billion last year, and an estimated $1.3 billion this year.

Hungarian society has been more stable, passive, and divided than Polish society: divided by the differentiation of economic interests, by culture and history. But shared economic adversity can be a great unifier. And who knows what will be the longer-term effects of an event like the funeral of Imre Nagy? On the next day, Imre Pozsgay might have been a happy man. There had been a few fiery speeches, but the crowds had been smaller than expected, they had been mournfully subdued, and they had dispersed peacefully. He had his picture next to the coffin of Imre Nagy.

Yet the quietness of that crowd was not the quietness of tranquil satisfaction. Not at all. There was what I can only describe as a suppressed electricity in the air. The next day, Viktor Orban of the Alliance of Democratic Youth (FIDESZ) told me that the Nagy funeral would be to Hungary what the Pope’s first visit, in 1979, had been to Poland. It did not look like that. For on the morrow of the Pope’s visit everyone knew that something fundamental had changed; it was a clear and unambiguous manifestation of social unity, against, or in spite of, the authorities. Not so in Hungary. But who knows what the delayed psychological effect may be?

Opening the table talks for the opposition, Imre Konya said: “We must now carry out peacefully the tasks of three unfulfilled Hungarian revolutions.” For more than thirty years the Hungarian people were compelled to forget, and officially to defame, the last of those revolutions. Now, suddenly, they are told to remember, and to honor that memory. The habits of compromise, ambiguity, and treble-think with which the name of Hungary is associated in the contemporary world are above all the habits of the post-1956 era: the era that has died with János Kádár.

Is it easier to move, as in Hungary, from mendacious pseudo-compromises, based on terror followed by corruption, to genuine, open, political compromises, or is it perhaps, after all, easier to move, as in Poland, from open confrontation to open compromise? I do not know. Nobody knows. But I do know that looking at the suppressed electricity in the eyes of that crowd on Heroes’ Square, I felt a tingling at the nape of my neck. Only the future will tell if that was merely a trick of the burning sun.

July 20, 1989

This Issue

August 17, 1989