The Spirit of Imre Nagy Returns to Hungary

AFTER Solidarity's stunning electoral victory in Poland, the peoples of Eastern Europe are bracing themselves to witness a symbolic, yet momentous juncture in their current campaign for democracy and self-determination. Former Hungarian Premier Imre Nagy, the first communist leader to break with the dominant Soviet model of socialism - and to withdraw his country from the Warsaw Pact - is soon to be posthumously rehabilitated. He is a national hero in Hungary. His reburial on June 16, officially a day of mourning and remembrance, drew a massive crowd in support of the new opposition parties and the reform wing of the ruling Communist Party. His memorial will not only be the latest addition to the national pantheon of major historical figures, but a potent symbol of the political aspirations of Hungary and Eastern Europe.

The speed at which this pariah of yesteryear has become the focus of recurring international pilgrimage is breathtaking, indeed. There have been suggestions that, during his July trip to Hungary, President Bush should visit the shrine too.

Less than a year ago, Karoly Grosz, leader of the Hungarian communists, ruled out any radical redefinition of the party line on the martyred premier, calling him the leader of the counterrevolution. But in response to the growing influence of its own reform wing, the party's leadership is now locked in a debate on whether to grant Mr. Nagy and three fellow martyrs full political retribution. At stake is the secretary general's position and the party's future.

The beleaguered centrist leadership around Mr. Grosz clings to portfolios of authority, claiming credit for each and every decree in support of political reforms which it has been forced to undertake under relentless pressure from the opposition and the party's reform wing. Sandwiched between a minuscule bunch of veteran hardliners and the increasingly popular reformers, Grosz stands to lose his job at the emergency party congress to be held this autumn. His fate, however, was sealed as early as last August when, at a hastily arranged summit with Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, Grosz failed to take up the desperate plight of the 2 million-strong Hungarian minority in Transylvania.

Grosz is a typical apparatchik, whose skill as an accomplished administrator helped him to climb to the pinnacle. But when he ousted 76-year-old Janos Kadar, he was just a compromise candidate, elected by a wafer-thin margin. Wildly misjudged by the Western media, he appeared to be an energetic leader with an inexhaustible capacity for puffing out reformist slogans. His economic dilettantism and lack of vision have by now become abundantly clear even to most of his former associates.

He unsuccessfully pleaded with Mikhail Gorbachev earlier this year for intervention, or endorsement of martial law in Hungary; and there is little doubt that it was the Kremlin's flat refusal to support the ``iron fist policy'' against the opposition that plunged Grosz into a prolonged lethargy, if not despair. When he recovered sufficiently to ponder the next step, the party's private pollsters signaled a warning: The patriotic fervor generated by the preparations for Nagy's reburial would make such a clampdown a monumental mistake. Nagy's specter has finally returned to haunt Hungary. And if anything, the late prime minister's mystique is the very force capable of mobilizing the Magyar working classes.

It is no exaggeration that Imre Nagy will soon be for Hungarians what the Black Madonna of Cz,estochowa has been for Poles in the last 200 years; more important, Nagy may turn out to be a catalyst that helps bring about long-desired consensus.

A critical mass of workers and intelluctuals is slowly forming in Hungary. The drama of the late premier's reburial, beamed to every living room on television, could transform the widespread passive support for political revival into an exuberant nationalism. It may also help the nation to shake off the streak of endemic self-pity, bred in the misfortunes of Hungarian history from the 13th century right up to 1956. The game is certainly up, as yet not because of a wondrous, all-embracing solidarity as in Poland, but because of the regime's economical failure, the strength of the Communist Party's own reform wing and the challenge of the opposition.

In the stirring atmosphere of Nagy's apotheosis, the impassioned crowd may be susceptible to provocation; the mighty of yesterday - and scores of them armed - lie in wait for their chance to bounce back. The infamous 60,000-member Worker's Militia, a reminder of the neo-Stalinist old guard's distrust of the Army, is still extant. A carelessly dropped invective on either side might spark off mutual vilification that could spell a rush to confrontation. However, a dignified display of national aspirations can only point to an early reformist takeover in the communists' top echelon, turning them into a kind of west-European-type social democratic party, with Imre Pozsgay as undisputed leader.

On the bumpy road to Hungarian democracy, the present phase is of paramount importance. The magic of history in the making may rouse the fiery Magyar temper; but the delicate international relations demand a good deal of restraint and moderation. I trust Mr. Pozsgay's clout and horse sense will guarantee a safe passage to a truly democratic socialism.

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