30 years later, Hungary still yearns for reform

Thirty years ago, a wide spectrum of the Hungarian nation exploded in anger against the brutal communist dictatorship imposed on them in 1948. Those people wanted an end to political trials, a return to parliamentary pluralism, genuine trade unions -- and national independence.

They fought from Oct. 23 until Nov. 4, when they were crushed by Soviet military might. Most of what they fought for perished, but not all of it.

Harsh years of ``consolidation'' followed. Later, when Janos Kadar, the new leader, tried conciliation with his people, he was seen by most Hungarians as a traitor put in power by the Soviets, despite the reform options he opened up.

Although Soviet troops still hold Hungary in their grip, the changes of two decades of steady reform are now seen as a considerable achievement.

Parliamentary democracy has not been restored. But last year's election finally saw a modest advance. Plural candidatures were possible.

Economic reform is more substantial. The latest move is a bankruptcy law -- unique in a communist state -- for shutting down insolvent businesses.

And ``independence'' is still an ambivalent term. But Mr. Kadar argues vigorously for the right of small nations to pursue ``national'' interests within the alliance to which war and postwar history has committed them.

Hungarian bookshops are no longer filled with the party's ``agit-prop trash'' that the rebels made bonfires of in 1956. Dissent is defused by a prudent mix of tolerance, freedom to travel, and a periodically firm hand on dissent, as is seen just now in regime warnings against any ``embarrassing'' observance of the anniversary.

Even the most militant dissidents admit progress but rebel openly against intellectual compromises implicit in a half-freedom of speech that must avoid politics.

More striking is the open door to the outside world. With the West, Hungary has more joint-venture economic links than any other East-bloc member.

No one familiar with the bloc can visit Hungary without noting the relative superiority of its daily life to that of the other Warsaw Pact states. Yet there is a visible public air of uncertainty about the future and skepticism about further reform. Hungary's leaders face the same problems as their less pragmatic, less courageous allies. Kadar knows as well as they that economic liberalization must entail political relaxations, too, and he does not overlook the safety limits of reform.

In his less flamboyant way, Kadar is as popular a leader with most Hungarians as Josip Broz Tito was with Yugoslavs. Tito did not convert the nation to communism, but he brought about a national change of mood and acceptance. In more limited circumstances, Kadar has done something like that, too.

Yet the very different and controversial way in which he took power is not forgotten, even among ardent followers within the party. His succession to Imre Nagy -- the well-meaning but naive leader of the uprising -- is cloaked in ambivalence. He himself has never offered any complete explanation of his turnabout when Nagy's proclamation of neutrality -- as this writer and other Western observers noted at the time -- made decisive Soviet intervention inevitable.

In some way, that still seems to weigh on Hungary's inner self. Kadar refers to 1956 as ``a national tragedy,'' rather than using the hackneyed party line that it was a ``counterrevolution'' whose supporters -- communists included -- were ``misled'' by fascist anticommunists backed by the West. Recently he spoke again of a ``grave and difficult'' situation in which, he added, ``I felt I had to take a stand.''

He acknowledges that many Hungarians reviled him for his role.

Not so many still do. A less harsh -- and possibly correct -- view is that Kadar hoped to save something. He knew that the Soviet Union would not tolerate liquidation of a communist system in Hungary, just as it was to demonstrate 12 years later in Czechoslovakia, again by direct intervention, or -- with different tactics -- in Poland in 1981.

Both instances strengthen his argument that a more gradual approach to reform -- one that avoids outright provocation of Moscow -- offered (and still offers) the only chance for success. It was a tragedy the lesson was not learned in Prague and Warsaw later.

What remains much more difficult for Kadar to explain away is the execution of Imre Nagy, and he has never chosen to do so. Officials are reluctant even to discuss ``rehabilitation.'' Yet so much of what Nagy had urged well before his ill-fated final spell of power has come to pass in Kadar's Hungary.

There is the bold adoption of coexistence with capitalist criteria in current ``socialist'' economic management, the incentives for worker entrepreneurism in the factories, supports for private farming and for small business bringing color and variety to the consumer scene.

Many Hungarians ask: If seven years after his 1949 execution as a ``Tito-ist,'' Interior Minister Laszlo Rajk could be rehabilitated, why not then Imre Nagy, who perceived above all the need for the party itself to change -- just as it has in fact done under Kadar?

His style of rule largely reflects Nagy's own major thesis that the Soviet model is not obligatory for all communist states; and that each can ``learn'' from Soviet experience as it builds ``socialism'' at home in accordance with its own specific conditions, without being disloyal.

Nagy was ahead of his time. But did that justify killing him? Most Hungarians now accept ``Kadarism'' as some compensation for the aspirations of 1956. Little would be lost, they say, if the regime sought to clean the slate of a painful past -- including Nagy -- as the only way to end the spiritual dichotomy that seems to burden so many Hungarian minds.

A generation that was not involved in 1956 but that includes many now moving into substantial government -- even party -- jobs and economic management increasingly raises questions to which, so far, only samizdat (underground) publications pay any heed.

An obviously troubled younger establishment figure said recently to this writer: ``Culturally, Hungary has always belonged with the West. It still does. But we know that this little country in the heart of Europe cannot exist without a friendly, stable relationship with Russia. There is no alternative.

``But [that relationship] could be discussed and written about much more openly -- particularly over 1956 -- and so many other taboos . . . could be relaxed without disturbing it.''

The author witnessed and reported all the major upheavals in postwar communist Eastern Europe from the Czechoslovak takeover and Tito's break with Moscow in 1948 to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the 1980-81 martial-law crisis in Poland. 30--{et

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