Hungarian foreign policy in the Soviet alliance system, 1968–1989
[NOTE: This article was published in: Foreign Policy Review [Budapest],Vol. 3, No. 1 (2004), 87–127. In your notes and/or bibliography please, refer to the above publication. For technical reason 76 footnotes, mostly on the archival sources I used had to be omitted from this electronic version. Should you be interested in the footnotes, please, consult the original publication or contact the author for a full version to be sent to you by e-mail (email@example.com).]
On a closer look at the Hungarian communist model to determine whether this regime comprised attributes organic to “traditional” democracy, it would soon transpire that such attributes are absent from that regime and thus, parliamentary democracy and the post-1948 communist dictatorship are not compatible. Consequently, it is understandable that today in-depth historical research and analysis as regards the mode of operation of the regime in the given situation primarily focus on the characteristics of the domestic dictatorship model.
By contrast, such comparative consensus among researchers does not exist in respect of the evaluation of foreign policy. On my part, I believe that the categories of foreign policy, independent foreign policy or the concept of national interest can be assessed only within the framework of the given regime and not in relationship to the tradition and condition of a democratic state. Taking into consideration the above-mentioned assertion, it would not be too difficult to prove that the countries of the Soviet bloc could not conduct independent foreign policy and consequently, it would be a waste of energy to offer an academic corroboration thereof. Hence, the question should be phrased thus: taking the lack of freedom and independence as given attributes and in view of the apparent Soviet determinacy, what were the options for respective leaderships to exploit the available foreign political space for manoeuvre and to what extent did they want or were able to pursue national interests – within the given frame of constrains. It is probably even more important to establish the extent to which each country could separately and jointly influence and shape the attitude of successive Soviet leaderships as regards East-West relations. In order to provide authentic answers to these questions, more rigorous research would be needed in all the former Soviet bloc countries, since the results obtained so far from this type of research are emerging only now in the form of academic publications. While comparative research would carry more weight in assessing the performance of particular countries as regards the history of foreign policy, this is still in its infancy. Consequently, mostly stereotypes dominate public opinion and even academic approach: when speaking of the Soviet bloc’s international relations, Romania’s deviant foreign political conduct comes to everyone’s mind. This was spectacular indeed, and hence the logical conclusion: this kind of conduct was the only or at least the most effective method for pursuing self-interest within the bloc. Taking into account the findings of international research however, it seems more and more likely that this was only one of the options. Furthermore, if we discount the expression of deviance as a value per se, then the advantages gained by Romanian society through this “independent” foreign policy is highly questionable. By contrast, the complicated but definitely positive role Romania had played in the reorganisation of the Warsaw Pact, the CMEA and common policy making, particularly during the sixties and seventies, is just beginning to emerge.
Hence, I believe that the exploration of other quasi models, such as the East German, Polish, Hungarian, or even the Bulgarian conduct, might yield an equally striking result. The specific role played by the GDR is subjected to thorough investigation in the West and is providing evidence that warrants the upgrading of the significance of the GDR’s policies as regards its decisive influence on everyday Soviet politics. In other words, a series of events, construed earlier as occurrences initiated by the Soviet leadership, were in reality extorted by the GDR leadership, notably, the crucial role played by the East German leadership during the Berlin crisis is a proven fact. Hence, it is safe to assert today that the GDR leadership’s ability to validate its self-interests was – in its entirety – considerably more effective than that of the Romanian leaders.
One of the most important lessons yielded by the scrutiny of Hungarian foreign policy entails, first and foremost, the establishment of an international environment for the attainment of the top priorities of this foreign policy: the maintenance of political stability at all costs and the realisation of domestic and economic objectives.
On the basis of the most recent research we may also assert that Hungary’s respective foreign political manoeuvrability was not determined solely by the manifest dependency on the Soviet Union but by a more complex system of tripartite determinism. While affiliation to the Soviet empire ostensibly implied enforced restrictions, the dependence on Western advanced technology and subsequent loans, produced an equally strong bond. At the same time – bearing in mind the two former determinants – from the early sixties till the end, Hungarian foreign policy, underpinned by the active participation of all the Eastern bloc countries also, invariably had to perform a balancing act to pursue specific objectives in terms of an all-East-Central-European lobby-contest. While this tripartite determinism as regards Hungarian foreign policy always existed in some form and magnitude, the import of the three factors became relatively equal as of the mid-sixties.
In the relationship with the Soviet Union, Hungary – even after the sudden replacement of Kádár’s patron Khrushchev in October 1964 and even until 1989 – played the role of a loyal, dependable and predictable partner. Two main factors justified Kádár’s conviction that the maintenance of this political line was the most advantageous. One of these involved the exigency as regards bolstering Western economic relations pivotal to the modernisation of the Hungarian economy. During the sixties this process demanded some verification as regards Hungary’s unswerving loyalty, as well as the indivisibility of the bloc, since Brezhnev purposefully emphasised at the Warsaw Pact Political Consultative Committee meeting in Warsaw in January 1965 that “the imperialists are trying to extend their contacts to the socialist countries to influence their domestic lives in the direction favourable to them and to undermine their unity by offering economic, technical and scientific incentives. Hence, it is of the utmost importance to prevent their ideological penetration and subversive endeavours.” A second and equally important factor entailed the preparations for reforming the economic mechanism. Plans to reform the Hungarian economy proved to be the most significant structural change economy since the establishment of the Stalinist-Leninist-type communist system and thus, it was essential to reassure the Soviet leadership that the reforms applied solely to the sphere of the economy. Hence, Hungarian foreign policy vis-a-vis Hungarian-Soviet relations aimed to apply the policy of “constructive loyalty”. The main features of this conduct entailed conflict prevention on the one hand – primarily with regard to political issues – flexibility and uninterrupted adjustment to Soviet requirements and willingness to cooperate, on the other. In this context, throughout this period, Hungary played a mediating role in the Warsaw Pact, the CMEA and in multilateral negotiations in order to propagate perpetual Soviet interests. By contrast, constructive loyalty implied that despite all these factors, the constraints could be gradually loosened: the content of this principle until 1988 implied that ‘what is not forbidden is allowed’. Another important aspect of this policy implied that the Hungarian leadership – taking advantage of the credibility-status acquired through loyalty – tried to influence the Soviet leadership within the framework of bilateral relations, which served the concrete interests of Hungary and the other East Central European countries. Whereas this endeavour did not always yield results, in a number of instances it was possible to exercise positive influence on the Moscow leadership in respect of fundamental issues affecting East-West developments. Constructive loyalty yielded another result, too. Since the fundamental and perpetual aims of the Hungarian leadership following 1956 entailed the preservation of the conditions of relative independent domestic development, Soviet-Hungarian economic relations and, first and foremost, the guarantee for the uninterrupted supply of Soviet raw materials and energy carriers to sustain the domestic economy – were of primary importance. In exchange for overtly preventing conflicts in political matters by the Hungarian leadership, in most cases, the Soviets turned a blind eye to the fact that the specialists negotiating more favourable conditions were extremely hard bargaining partners during bilateral economic talks and on the whole, they managed to extort economic concessions in return for political cooperation.
First and foremost, Hungary’s economic needs dictated the continual fostering of relations with the West. Only a functioning and gradually growing economy would secure political stability and a rise in the standard of living, as set out by the Kadárist concept. The rapidly advancing modern technology gained a bigger role in the emerging global economic environment. However, the country indisputably depended on Western relations in this respect, since – excepting military equipment and space research – Soviet technology lagged behind the West at least as much as at the beginning of the fifties and the gap progressively widened. In the given situation – due to the economic deficiency – products of the required standard were short, since the Soviet Union, for the most part, simply could not deliver. The policy of embargo applied against the countries of the Eastern bloc also became an incentive for fostering relations with the West, since the Hungarian leadership could expect the lifting of the restrictions only from a radical change in East-West relations. Consequently, from the mid-sixties on, Hungary – within the prevailing threshold of Soviet tolerance – intensively broadened relations with West European countries and became one of the main driving forces behind the evolution of rapprochement politics. The spectacular developments as of the seventies did not produce just positive effects: the country, suffering from a perpetual shortage of capital, relied heavily on western loans, which – with the consequences of the oil crisis – pushed the country towards a threshold of spiralling indebtedness that contributed significantly to the country’s virtual bankruptcy by 1988-1989 – the time of the regime change. In the political sphere, from the seventies on, the inevitable enhancement of relations with the West forced the Hungarian leadership to make concessions to the budding democratic opposition on the one hand, and presented a constant struggle against the subversive western ideology on the other. However, this endeavour was doomed to failure from the start and hence, by the end of the eighties, not only did the majority of Hungarian society reach the psychological threshold for a regime change, but a large section of the ruling party and its members also endorsed a new political orientation designed to transfer power peacefully.
The historical reconstruction of Hungary’s relations with the other East-Central European states is more challenging than the disentanglement of the two relationships discussed above. This is due to the following: since the beginning of the sixties, the relationship between the Soviet Union and its European allies was incredibly convoluted and evolved into a rapport that was in a constant state of flux. Since that period, these countries sought to pursue their own particular set of economic, political and strategic interests, not only vis-a-vis Moscow, but also with regard to each other. As a result of this perpetual lobby-political contest, coupled with intensive infighting – of what it was solely the deviant Romanian position that became public at the time – n the evolution of a number of permanent ad hoc-type virtual sub-blocs within the Soviet bloc. One of the most important and enduring grouping that evolved on the basis of the level of development: while the developed group comprised Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and the GDR, the least developed included Bulgaria and Romania. Even this equation was not as simple as that. For instance, while in the developed group, the relatively less-developed Poland and Hungary for the most part joined the struggle of the more developed countries as regards reforming the CMEA and integration, yet they frequently lent support to the less developed group to protect their own economic interests.
From the early sixties, one of the central issues that concerned the Soviet bloc entailed the settlement of the German question. At this juncture, the interests of the “problematic” and the “unproblematic” bloc reached the point of departure. While Czechoslovakia, Poland and the GDR were prepared to settle diplomatic relations with the FRG only on condition that the contemporary German position was abandoned completely, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania had no unresolved problems with that state, but they had a vested interest in the intensive expansion of economic relations. As regards the question of European security – the central issue being the settlement of the German question – the positions were roughly the same as in the previous equation. Hence, Hungary conducted a specific-type of pragmatic politics within the Soviet bloc, which was determined by the country’s perpetual interests. This highly complex system of relations can be best illustrated by a number of noteworthy examples in respect of the period under scrutiny.
Polish-Hungarian relations were excellent throughout and the leaderships of the two countries were in unison overall as regards international politics designed to promote East-West relations. In some instances, however, they represented different points of views, notably, during the early phase of the preparations for the European security conference, when Hungarian diplomacy formed an alliance with the Soviets to restrain the apparently over-zealous Polish ambitions.
In the case of Romania, the equation was the reverse: bilateral relation were burdened by serious problems, i.e. the discrimination against the Hungarian minority, which evoked strong antipathy within the ranks of the Hungarian leadership – often eliciting harsh critique and even nationalistic indignation – toward Bucharest. By contrast, the interests represented by the two political leaderships were frequently identical or similar as regards fostering East-West relations and the issue of European security, and on several occasions, in the field of political and economic cooperation within the Soviet bloc. While the Hungarian leadership overtly refrained from supporting the customary Romanian stance at multilateral negotiations, it often employed the tactic of benevolent passive neutrality to facilitate its accomplishment. In the system of bilateral Soviet-Hungarian relations, however, Hungarian representatives regularly supported proposals that unequivocally served the above mentioned joint Hungarian-Romanian interests.
Hungarian-GDR relations were unique in character. Apart from the Soviet Union, the GDR was the most ardent critic as regards the progression of Hungarian economic and domestic policy. Moreover, on some occasions, GDR functionaries “spied” on the internal developments in the field of Hungarian cultural life. At the same time, in internal political discourses, the Hungarian leadership on the whole perceived the East Germans as orthodox in terms of politics and ideology and criticised them on a regular basis. Furthermore, it treated the cynical East German tactics with scepticism whereby the Berlin leadership acted as a chief proponent of true Marxism-Leninism towards the other countries of the Eastern bloc on the one hand, but at the same time, the leadership did everything in its power to extort as much extra profit from GDR-FRG economic relations as it could, as well as conceal from the other countries the real nature, magnitude and details of the “intra-German business”, on the other. It might also be said, however, that in the field of economic interactions Hungary had the most balanced relationship with the GDR within the bloc and this relationship proved the best for obtaining (relatively) advanced technology within the Soviet bloc. During the sixties and seventies, Hungarian diplomacy vigorously supported the struggle for securing international recognition for the GDR. This moral support partly stemmed from solidarity based on historical experience, since after the revolution, between 1956 and 1963, Hungary fought a similar battle to escape from foreign political isolation. It was even more important that after February 1967 it transpired that settling diplomatic relations with the FRG could only take place within the framework of a universal settlement of the German question. It is an irony of history that after decades of sustained moral support, a singular Hungarian diplomatic action in September, 1989 – namely the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border to East German refugees – facilitated the collapse of the East German communist regime and ultimately led to German unity and thus, to the extinction of the GDR.
However, at this juncture it is not yet possible to provide a comprehensive, archive based study and synthesis of Hungarian foreign policy covering the whole period between 1968 and 1989. The ongoing analysis of vast source materials in the party and state archives – even as regards the mapping the main trends – will take years and researching bilateral relations and other important areas, such as foreign economic relations, will probably take a decade. On my part, I want to focus on the above-discussed tripartite determinism, namely, the targets and achievements of Hungarian foreign policy in respect of the complex coordinate system of relations comprising the Soviet Union, the Western countries and the East Central European states. Therefore in terms of historical evaluation, in this study I endeavour to examine four developments of key importance, which are based on the exploration of extensive archival sources: 1. Hungary and the Prague Spring. 2. Hungarian diplomacy and the prelude to the European security conference. 3. The role of the Hungarian leadership in the crisis management of the East-West conflict following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. 4. The regime change and Hungarian foreign policy.
January 1968 brought caesura-type changes for both Hungary and Czechoslovakia: In Budapest, with the introduction of the new economic mechanism, the most marked structural change took place since the creation of the Stalinist-type communist model. In Prague, a radical political reform process commenced that led to the military intervention by five member countries of the Warsaw Pact in August.
As regards the domestic effects of the Prague Spring in Hungary, it evoked two contradictory interpretations: the Czechoslovak reforms – if not applied strictly to the economy – would sooner or later, exceed the Soviet leadership’s threshold of tolerance and lead to the suppression of this movement, as it did in Hungary in 1956. At the same time, all such solutions might discredit every form of reform in the Soviet bloc and hence, it would seriously jeopardise the future of Hungarian economic reforms, too. The other theory stipulated that while Prague’s economic reforms coupled with political reforms would not be acceptable to Moscow, a limited-type transformation in Hungary, which would not threaten political stability – being the lesser of two evils – would receive the green light. By contrast, a comparison between the two diverse processes might, perhaps, evoke some sympathy in the ranks of the Soviet leadership vis-a-vis the Hungarian reforms, which sought ostensibly to improve economic performance only.
Hence, the Prague Spring was the first internal Soviet bloc conflict that seemed irresolvable for the Hungarian leadership for some time. According to the dialectic principles formulated by Kádár in 1957, it was in the country’s “national interest” to support the new Czechoslovak leadership as long as possible, since many of its reforms had similar features to the ones in Hungary and in case they would jointly succeed, the two countries might have served as an example to the others. By contrast, “internationalist interest” demanded that Kádár should not get into conflict with the Soviets and the other countries of the bloc by supporting the Dubćek-leadership. Kádár’s role is well known today: while he warned the Czechoslovak leadership early on to exercise more caution and slow down the reform process, he tried to persuade others at various multilateral meetings held during the period until the middle of July to show more patience vis-a-vis the Prague developments, insisting that the future of socialism was not in danger there. Meanwhile, Kádár also tried to mediate between Moscow and Prague, primarily on Brezhnev’s request and thus, the two party leaders exchanged lengthy telephone conversations about the situation in Prague almost every week. However, by mid-July, Kádár was not convinced at all that the crisis could be resolved by political means. It is noteworthy that Kádár, who ultimately supported military intervention, insisted even after the joint military intervention on 21 August 1968 that the Czechoslovak events were analogous to the 1956 Polish crisis and not to Hungary’s as perceived by the Soviets. At this juncture, however, Kádár’s legendary perception for reality deceived him: in August, Moscow’s insight was closer to the reality and hence – as regards the interests of the Soviet empire – intervention became inevitable for the Kremlin. It must be clarified, however: while it is true that in August 1968 the Czechoslovak Communist Party still held the reign of power, recently discovered documents, coupled with an analysis of similar movements during the course of history, unequivocally revealed that without external military intervention, a Western type system of parliamentary democracy would have soon evolved in Czechoslovakia, as it indeed did under the favourable international conditions that prevailed in 1990.
Consequently, Kádár did not have to resolve the irresolvable conflict, for him, the situation resolved itself.
III. Hungary and the Preparations for the European Security Conference
The idea as regards the creation of a collective European security system, initiated by Khrushchev during the mid-fifties, re-emerged at the end of 1964, but this time it was proposed by the Poles. The proposal was presented in January, 1965 at the Warsaw meeting of the Warsaw Pact’s Political Consultative Committee, without any prior preparation or consultation. While the issue did not even feature on the original agenda, the member states unanimously supported the proposal. As a consequence, the declaration published at the meeting contained a statement to the effect that the WP member states had come to the conclusion that it was necessary to convene “a conference of European states to discuss measures to ensure collective security in Europe.”
However, this message – although it may be considered as the starting point of the process eventually leading up to the signing of the Helsinki Final Act – was presented in a rather marginal way in the document. This was due to the chaotic nature of the PCC session, held just a few months following the fall of Khrushchev and the first PCC meeting since 1956 where real debates took place among the representatives of the member states. At the meeting numerous, currently more important but historically less relevant issues such as the East Bloc’s reaction to the Western plan for a Multilateral Nuclear Force, had to be discussed. Consequently, the declaration – besides stating that in the case of the execution of the MNF plan the Warsaw Pact “would be forced to carry out the necessary defense measures” – put forward a series of formerly suggested confidence-building proposals, such as the establishment of a nuclear free zone in Central Europe, signing a non aggression pact with the NATO countries, a commitment on the nuclear free two Germanys, etc.
By the second half of 1965, Soviet diplomacy assumed responsibility for the security conference and henceforth – closely intertwined with the endeavours for resolving the German question – it prevailed as a central strategic issue for the Soviet bloc until the mid-seventies. Following a set of protracted multi-round and multilateral negotiations, the WP PCC conference held in July, 1966 in Bucharest issued a declaration calling on the leaders of the European states to hold preliminary consultations in respect of the staging of a European security conference. At the same time the Eastern bloc’s conditions were defined: the West should endorse the existence of the two German states, the FRG should relinquish its claim on being the sole representative of the German people and recognise the Eastern borders. The document also insisted on – instigated by Romania – the withdrawal of foreign troops from European territories, the elimination of foreign military bases, as well as the simultaneous dissolution of the two military-political alliances. The Bucharest declaration of the WP PCC encompassed the first serious initiative of the Eastern bloc for the institutional settlement of East-West relations and it was also the first major step towards the signing of the Helsinki Final Act. While reactions to the declaration in the West were not unfavourable on the whole, most European countries were not prepared at the time to endorse the conditions for staging the conference. Nevertheless, the substance of these basically defensive-type demands was not at all unrealistic: a few years later – between 1970 and 1973 – as regards the overall settlement of the German question, the West and the FRG accepted all the conditions formulated in Bucharest.
The Bucharest declaration of the Warsaw Pact, however, failed to instigate preparations for the conference. The neutral, and in some cases positive reception in the West, nevertheless, subsequently induced the Soviet leadership to empower some WP countries to convince the West European countries during bilateral negotiations of the import of the Eastern bloc’s initiative as regards fostering East-West relations. This development prompted unprecedented activities in some East Central European countries, including Hungary, as regards participation in international politics, which ultimately contributed considerably to their eventual emancipation. These negotiations helped reduce international tension, inspired confidence between the representatives of the two sides and ultimately contributed to the evolution of a virtual common European identity. The active and intensive participation in the process of East-West dialogue, albeit still focussing on generalities, prepared these states for a specific role, which they performed in the process that ensued from the Budapest declaration of the WP PCC issued in March 1969. Consequently, the Soviet Union’s allies were not simply the executors of Soviet will in the protracted preparatory negotiations as regards the Helsinki conference, but on several occasions, and in a number of quarters acted as more or less independent agents fighting for their own national interests. Furthermore, they frequently assumed central roles in directing developments.
The Bucharest WP declaration also had a major impact on the evolution of Hungarian foreign political thinking. In January 1967, Foreign Minister János Péter presented an all-embracing concept to the HSWP CC, which designated a major role to Hungary as regards the entrenchment of the rapprochement process and the intensification of East-West relations. It recommended intensive involvement at the official and personal level in the promotion of a security conference, first and foremost with Austria, Great-Britain and France, as well as smaller West European countries, including Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. One of the most noteworthy points of the plan referred to intensified cooperation between the “countries of the Danube Basin and Central Europe” (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Austria). While the realisation of this rationally conceived concept materialised only twenty years later and in a significantly altered environment, it signalled that Hungarian foreign policy sought to participate actively in the processes as regards the transformation of East-West relations.
Hungarian diplomacy also participated in the campaign initiated by the Soviets for popularising the European security conference by organizing consultative negotiations with a number of West European countries at the foreign ministerial, deputy foreign ministerial or expert level. In March 1968, for the first time since 1946, the Hungarian prime minister travelled to Western Europe: Jenő Fock visited Paris and held talks with President De Gaulle and Prime Minister Georges Pompidou.
The explicit purpose of the Soviet bloc’s campaign involved an all-encompassing effort to set in motion one of the most important strategic targets of the period, namely, the staging of the European security conference and thus, to sanction the post World-War II European status quo. Meanwhile, during the course of intensive bilateral negotiations, the East Central European states, including Hungary, “legally” augmented their ties with the West and acquired a negotiating competence they never had before, which hastened their fast-track emancipation within the framework of East-West relations. This development also upgraded Hungary’s role in the Eastern bloc. While due to 1956, Hungary started with a serious disadvantage, this gap virtually disappeared by the mid-sixties and the country became a model state for the West in the context of de-Stalinisation and internal liberalism. Apart from the Soviet Union, Poland and Romania, Hungarian diplomacy also assumed a decisive role in international politics, and this position strengthened further when Hungary became a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for two years as of January 1968. Since only Romania failed to participate in the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the other Warsaw Pact member states were construed as equally “guilty”, namely, the West judged them according to their pre-August 1968 performance. Hence, Hungary gradually assumed a leading position alongside Romania and Poland to develop East-West relations and promote the cause of the European security conference and moreover, by this time, with some advantage: the Hungarian economic reform, launcehed in January, 1968 was perceived in the West as a shift towards market economy and, per se, it was assessed positively, while the anti-Semitic campaign that emerged in Poland after the 1967 war in the Middle East, indisputably damaged the international standing of the Warsaw leadership.
The making of the Budapest declaration
The Budapest declaration of the Warsaw Pact issued at the PCC session on 17 March 1969 became a milestone in the history of East-West relations since this initiative of the Soviet bloc commenced the process that led to the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. This was both a novelty and success since – contrary to the Bucharest declaration – it called on the European countries to hold a security conference without setting any preconditions. Incidentally, a paradoxical situation emerged, i.e., that the same conditions (regarding the German question), which led to the failure of the initiative in Bucharest, now, beginning in 1969 – due to the favourable changes in international politics – were realised without exception in the course of only three years, while the “flexible” position of the Warsaw Pact could remain the same all the time. Namely, that the Soviet bloc would not set any conditions for staging the security conference. Of course all this was not accomplished as easily as that.
Firstly: various sources have revealed that the Budapest declaration was not the result of a well-conceived and prepared synchronised action as it seemed at first sight and on the basis of unprecedented media coverage at the time. In truth, it was a document published by the WP member states at the end of a surprisingly short, ad hoc-type process comprising numerous improvised elements, nevertheless, ultimately of historic value.
From the reconstruction of the events it would seem logical to conclude that the round of the WP PCC session – at which the historic document would be issued – was held in Budapest on Soviet insistence as a reward for the Hungarian leadership for promoting the cause of the security conference among the Western partners, as well as for the intense diplomatic activities thereof - described earlier.
In reality, however, in the rotational system that prevailed since 1965, Budapest was a logical choice for venue on the basis of elimination, since among the member states – excepting the GDR –Budapest was the only capital that never staged a PCC session previously. It was decided in the autumn of 1968 that the next PCC session would be held in Hungary in December and no mention had been made of a declaration and only one issue appeared on the session’s agenda at that time: the revision of the WP military structure. The Romanians vehemently opposed this eventuality since 1965, but following the Warsaw Pact’s intervention in Czechoslovakia they unexpectedly agreed to military reforms, albeit with some reservations. Preparations were made for the PCC session and mid-December 1968 was set as a target date. However, due to the protracted process of consultations with the Czechoslovak, Polish and Romanian partners, as well as the introduction of several amendments, the session was finally delayed to the following March.
The raison d’etre for issuing a document, which became known as the Budapest declaration, did not emerge until the beginning of March 1969, whereas such a proposal was presented by the Soviets only immediately before the 17 March PCC session. During Kádár’s visit to Moscow in February, allusions were made to a declaration in general terms that would routinely deal with the main problems of world politics. Brezhnev mentioned at the time that it would be a political success to agree at the Budapest session to issue a joint declaration hand in hand with the Romanians. Since only five months had passed since the WP intervention in Czechoslovakia, which was publicly condemned by Romania, the pessimism of the Soviet leaders seemed justified in this respect.
The proposal for the declaration was outlined in a letter addressed to János Kádár by the CPSU CC on 7 March, albeit the question of the security conference featured among the secondary issues on the planned agenda. However, the events soon accelerated and on 9 March, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Firyubin delivered two documents to the Hungarian leadership: the first comprised a draft memorandum, which mirrored the thus far successful practice of assessing the main problems of the international situation in terms of the Soviet bloc’s stance on NATO, the FRG, the Middle East, the Vietnam War, as well as the recent Chinese border violations. The second document contained a draft declaration calling for the staging of a European security conference and the establishment of a small organizing committee to deal with the issue. Apart from the military documents, these two drafts were the official documents to be tabled at the PCC session, which were subsequently distributed among the member states as Hungarian proposals. Firyubin arrived in Budapest on 13 March and held preparatory talks with János Kádár. Kádár stressed that the situation must be exploited and the signing of the relevant documents as regards the restructuring of the military organisation of the Warsaw Pact must be achieved. He maintained that there was a good chance for this, but considerable concessions must be given to the Romanians, since it was certain that they would not sign the original and less conciliatory foreign policy memorandum. Kádár also pointed out that in case the WP was to issue such an important declaration on European security, all participants must endorse it. Finally, this Hungarian tactical proposal constituted the basis of the compromise scheme, which led to the simultaneous signing of the military documents and the Budapest declaration, while the idea of issuing a memorandum on issues of international politics eventually had to be given up completely. All these could be perceived as the outcome of intensive, and somewhat unusual dramatic consultative processes: partly at negotiations at deputy foreign ministerial level on March 15-17, partly during the night (!) prior to the PCC session on 16 March, when Brezhnev used shuttle diplomacy by visiting the rooms of all participants at the Margaret Island Grand Hotel in an effort to extract consensus from the participants, but failed in this endeavour. The real challenge, however, involved the persuasion not of the Romanians, but the Poles and the East Germans, who were not prepared to accept that the capitulatory Romanian text should become the determinant feature in the foreign policy memorandum as regards the evaluation of the international situation. Ultimately, consensus was reached by cutting the Gordian knot: a decision was made not to publish the draft political memorandum at all. Instead, a more subtle form of the declaration on European security that primarily reflected the Romanian point of view was issued. Both Kádár and Frigyes Puja, the first deputy of the ailing Foreign Minister János Péter, played an active and decisive role all along in achieving the difficult delivery of the truly historic compromise. By contrast – in terms of historical analysis – it is surprising that the Hungarian leaders failed to recognise the real significance of the Budapest declaration in shaping world politics, even after assessing its success. They recognised the inherent potentials of the initiative only after the session, particularly when the Soviets launched a new campaign in the interest of the security conference at the end of March. At this juncture, the Hungarians realised that the declaration – in a favourable environment – could become the basis for launching a process that would lead to the staging of a European security conference. All these factors illustrated that the underlying motives behind the virtual Budapest-Bucharest axis, created at the PCC diverged: the Hungarians sought primarily to reach a compromise for the sake of the operability of the WP, the long overdue military reform, and last but not least, the success of the CMEA meeting scheduled for the following month. While the Hungarian side had a vested interest in the success of the nascent integration of the CMEA, it could succeed only if Romania assumed a constructive stance. By contrast, for Romanians the cause of the European security conference was the most important and thus they were ready to abandon their negative attitude to WP military reforms. Their position was made easier by the fact that the WP determined the military structure only for peacetime and failed to provide appropriate provisions for wartime.
From Budapest to Budapest
Following the Budapest session of the WP, the Soviet leadership conducted an intensive campaign from the end of March to propagate the cause of the European security conference. While the signing of the final document took place only in 1975, yet on the basis of the available source materials we can assert that the foundations of the process were laid during the one and half year period between two Budapest sessions – the WP PCC and the June 1970 WP foreign ministers meeting.
The issue of the security conference occupied an exceptional position as a result of a prolonged period of preparatory work at the conference held a few months later in June 1969 in Moscow by the communist and workers parties and also as a feature in the final document of the conference. In reality, however, the positive changes on the other side (the West) made it possible to implement the plan. Following the accession to office in January 1969, Richard Nixon positively spoke of a new opportunity for East-West rapprochement at the NATO Council session in April. An equally important development followed when the SPD on its own formed a government following the September 1969 elections in the FRG and announced a new Ostpolitik shortly after. Thus, the two key players, which determined the conduct of the West, namely, the United States and West-Germany shifted considerably in comparison to their earlier stance, thus enhancing the chances of the East bloc’s initiatives.
At the end of September, the Soviets signalled to their allies that they would hold a conference of the foreign ministers of the WP member states in October to discuss the key issues as regards the formulation of a consensual stance on the European security conference. During a specified period, several Soviet deputy foreign ministers visited the member countries to survey their attitude: on 26 September Ilychev held talks with Hungarian Foreign Minister János Péter in Budapest. According to Moscow’s proposal, the WP agenda would comprise two main points, namely, a declaration renouncing the use of violence and another, promoting development of economic, commercial and technological scientific interaction between European states.
The HSWP Political Committee authorised the foreign ministry to formulate the Hungarian position at its session on 7 October. The document was ready by mid-October containing several independent proposals, which – according to the ministry – endeavoured to make the ideas of the socialist countries more “attractive” and to help persuade the thus far hesitant countries. The proposals comprised the following:
In respect of the second point on the agenda the document recommended the inclusion of following addenda:
It transpires from the above that the Hungarian proposals contained very ambitious ideas about European cooperation and, in certain aspects, they targeted a level of cooperation that could be realised only after the political transition in 1989–90, or after Hungary’s accession to the European Union.
Meanwhile, during the course of preliminary negotiations the Soviets realised that it would not be easy to achieve a consensual agreement at the forthcoming foreign ministerial summit, however, this time again, it was not only because of the predictable Romanian position. Hence, on 17 October Soviet deputy foreign minister Semionov called for urgent consultations with the Hungarian side and the next day deputy foreign minister Károly Erdélyi attended bilateral consultations in Moscow. The Soviets were seriously concerned that consensus might not be reached because of the over-zealous Polish, Romanian and GDR proposals and hence, the WP would not be able to keep control of the initiative as regards the security conference even in a favourable environment. Consequently, under the pretext of a European collective security agreement the Poles demanded that the West should de jure recognize the European territorial status quo, the Odera-Neisse border and the GDR. All this was perceived by the Soviets as an attempt to transform the security conference into a peace conference and thus – unintentionally – prevent its creation right from the start. The Romanians proposed the dissolution of the military blocs, the withdrawal of foreign troops from the European countries, the elimination of foreign military bases and demanded the renunciation of the demonstration of power. From the Soviet point of view these conditions would be unacceptable to the NATO countries and hence, insisting on these would lead to the outright rejection of the conference. By contrast, the East German addendum explicitly insisted on the recognition of the GDR by the security conference, albeit no West-European country had recognised the GDR before.
Consequently, before the meeting of the foreign ministers the Soviets asked the Hungarian leadership to help invalidate these proposals, which – in the given situation – jeopardised the staging of the security conference. According to the Moscow leadership, the key to success was entailed in gradualism and consequently, the negotiations would have to focus on the above mentioned two points on the agenda since these issues had been favourably received by the West. At the same time they asked the Hungarian side to refrain from tabling its own proposals – although the Soviet side agreed with these – since at this juncture they would not lead to consensual agreement. Meanwhile, they ensured the Hungarians that these proposals could be tabled at a later stage. As we have seen, the Hungarian draft indeed, comprised a medium-and long-term “package” rather than a limited programme to satisfy the tactical requirements of the initial phase.
As a result, on 21 October the HSWP Political Committee simultaneously discussed the finalised foreign ministerial proposal and the outcome of Károly Erdélyi’s consultations in Moscow. János Kádár was rather indignant about the procedure and insisted that instead of formulating a final position at the foreign ministerial meeting, proposals raised there should be presented to the respective party leaderships for debate and endorsement. Finally, after some debate the PC – as so often before – accepted the situation and authorised the foreign minister to assume a “constructive” position at the foreign ministers meeting to comply with the Soviet requests.
A vigorous debate erupted at the WP foreign ministers conference held in Prague on 30-31 October 1969. At the preceding deputy foreign ministers meeting, discussing the various options pertaining to the security conference, the Polish, Romanian and East German delegates staunchly defended their own interests. Finally however, the pre-prepared Soviet-Hungarian gambit triumphed and at the end of the meeting consensus was reached along the lines of the Soviet-Hungarian position. Two documents were endorsed at the session: 1. An open declaration and 2. a Memorandum, which was handed to the respective Western governments. The latter document also contained the draft final document (!) of the planned security conference, which mirrored considerable optimism, however, today we may argue that it was only a misguided naivety. The leaders of the East bloc were similarly optimistic as regards the possible timing of the conference: thereafter at practically all meetings they insisted that the conference could be called within a period of six months or one year later at the most.
One of the most significant outcomes of the foreign ministers meeting entailed the concrete identification of the security conference’s agenda: the WP member states declared that they want to consult over two issues:
Apart from these issues, the conference endorsed numerous Hungarian proposals that were not included in the respective documents, but which later became determining elements in shaping the policy of the Soviet bloc concerning the security conference: 1. The security conference should not be a singular event, but should be followed up by a series of conferences. 2. The establishment of a permanent organisation responsible for issues related to the European security conference. 3. The creation of a body comprising economic experts within the Soviet bloc to formulate European economic partnership concepts. The proposal principally aimed to eliminate Western economic discrimination against and the isolation of the East European countries. The Hungarian foreign ministry was authorised to coordinate theses activities.
Another major achievement of the Prague conference included the subsequent launching of a series of intensive bilateral East-West dialogues with the active participation of the East Central European countries. Until June 1970, Hungary held consultations at foreign ministerial level with Belgium, Sweden, Netherlands, Norway and Italy, as well as at deputy foreign ministerial and departmental chief level with the British, French, West German, Austrian and Turkish foreign ministries as regards the security conference.
The CSCE process entered its intensive phase at this time, which became a milestone not only in respect of specific developments in Hungary’s Western political relations, but also as regards the impact it had on Hungarian-Soviet relations. Namely, as of 1969, a special Soviet-Hungarian partnership mechanism evolved: the Hungarian leadership proved to be an ideal partner for the Soviets in this extremely complex process, since convincing the allies was often ostensibly more difficult than persuading the other side. While the Hungarian leadership was innovative and ready to take the initiative and had good international standing already, it remained a responsive, loyal, flexible and accommodating partner prepared to accommodate perpetual Soviet tactical requirements to the maximum. (However, this flexibility could not be said of the East German. Polish or the Romanian partners.) This specific type of cooperation had antecedents: during the course of the protracted preparations for the June 1969 Moscow conference of the communist and workers parties, the Hungarian and Soviet leaderships established an equally effective system of cooperation, which might be construed as the ultimate test for the partnership that prevailed during the Helsinki process.
Subsequently, a qualitative shift occurred in the transformation of Hungarian foreign policy: the old model remained unchanged formally: notably, every important issue at the decision-making level remained in the hands of the HSWP Political Committee. Major qualitative changes were, however, introduced in the sphere of preliminary decision-making, implementation, initiation, proposals and auxiliary diplomatic work: the role of the foreign ministry apparatus increased significantly, the intensity of multi-faceted and multi-directional negotiations simply escaped the stronghold of the PC and in some aspects assumed an independent role. Ostensibly, this became the starting point for the emancipation process as regards Hungarian foreign political activity. While this had a narrative between 1963 and 1969 too, the real qualitative change for Hungarian diplomacy entailed the active and intensive role it assumed during the CSCE process.
By the end of 1969 it transpired that the changes in the FRG also produced a real breakthrough as regards the question of European security. The radical change in the West German position produced a qualitative change in comparison to the previous situation and foreshadowed the possibility of the – from the European security point of view all-important – settlement of the German question. Soviet-FRG negotiations commenced on 8 December and resulted in an agreement to hold consultations before long between the FRG and Poland over the recognition of the Oder-Neisse border. With the participation of the WP member-states’ party leaders, a summit was held in Moscow between 3 and 4 December to assess the policies of the FRG and to form a consensual stance within the Soviet bloc. The GDR leaders initiated the staging of the meeting in order to circumvent the signing of an agreement with the FRG behind its back and moreover, they also vehemently opposed the planned Polish-West German negotiations. However, a virtual Polish-Hungarian-Romanian “axis” emerged during the meeting to explore the situation, which the Soviets also supported in essence: thus, according to majority opinion, the significant changes in the FRG’s policies offered good hope for settling the German question in concordance with the interests of the Soviet bloc. The summit resulted in working out a compromise: no drastic changes were allowed in the WP member states’ relations with West Germany, but they could start negotiations on bilateral relations with Bonn. However, diplomatic relations could not be established until the FRG recognised the GDR in terms of international law.
From this time on the fate of the European security conference became a burning issue for the Hungarian leadership, intensely pursuing economic opportunities vis-a-vis the West since the mid-nineteen-sixties. For besides Romania, Hungary could expect the most from the successful outcome of the process, or from its positive effects on the evolution of East-West relations.
Moreover, CMEA integration remained another major goal: while Hungary had a big stake in this, Romania did not. Hence, a virtual “deal” became a real possibility: Hungary might support the cause of the security conference if Romania would act constructively as regards CMEA integration. The Hungarian leadership assumed correctly that these objectives must be pursued within the framework of a very divided Warsaw Pact. Hence, they deduced that for the sake of success, more than before, a more effective and more systematic coordination of foreign policy was necessary within the Soviet bloc. In this respect, the establishment of the Council of Foreign Ministers – proposed by the Hungarian leadership on several occasions since 1958 – might have served as a suitable platform. Clearly there was an awareness that Romania opposed the establishment of the organisation, nevertheless they hoped that Leninist gradualism would still prevail in this respect too: i.e. one of the two proposed versions would be a “simplified” one: not the creation of an official body, namely the Council of Foreign Ministers, but a regular platform of foreign ministers. During a visit to Moscow in December 1969, Foreign Minister János Péter mentioned the above proposal to Gromyko, which the Soviets promptly adopted and authorised the Hungarians to start preparations for the required bilateral consultative negotiations. In January 1970, Deputy Foreign Minister Frigyes Puja paid a visit to Bucharest to discuss the plan, but the mission failed. The Romanians consented to the creation of the Council of Foreign Minister only in 1974 and under different conditions, and the body was finally established in 1976.
At the beginning of 1970 new favourable developments in international politics signalled that the chances of staging a security conference improved significantly. In a speech to the Congress on 18 February, President Nixon declared that the United States recognised the Soviet Union’s legitimate security interests in Eastern Europe, as well as stressed the willingness of the American government to negotiate in the interest of reducing international tension and promoting rapprochement. While the resolution adopted by NATO at the 26-27 May 1970 meeting in Rome also contained numerous new and positive elements, notably, the declaration mentioned the security conference in concrete terms and considered the staging of multilateral negotiations under certain conditions. It was also a promising sign that the issue of troop reduction in Europe was not linked to the question of the CSCE.
Following these developments, the real turning point came about at the June 1970 meeting of the WP foreign ministers in Budapest, convened on a Hungarian initiative. This event marked the end of exploratory negotiations and the beginning of the period as regards direct East-West dialogue over the staging of an European security conference. A dynamic debate ensued among the participants at the meeting, as well as at the preceding deputy foreign ministers session and the Hungarian hosts played at least as intensive mediating role as they did during the formulation of the Budapest declaration.
The conference became a turning point, primarily because the countries of the Soviet bloc adopted two conditions demanded by the Western side, without which the minimum consensus needed for the commencement of preparatory negotiations would not have been achieved: 1. The declaration of the conference recognised the right of the United States and Canada to participate in the conference as full members, 2. Apart from the two points on the agenda proposed by the WP a third point should be included, i.e. the issue of cultural relations and the investigation of the human environment. While earlier the Soviets and the WP member states were well-aware of the fact that the staging of the conference would not be possible without the United States and Canada, yet – for tactical reasons – they flouted this eventuality until they managed to secure the participation of the GDR in exchange. The topic of cultural relations was adopted on a Hungarian initiative, which meant no less than the incorporation of the “third basket” – as it was named in a later phase of the preliminary dialogue – in the structure of the multilateral talks. It is well-known that the question of the third basket played a key role at a later stage, since this basket contained those components that mirrored basic Western interests during the great European settlement. This factor served as a foundation for the evolution of the human rights campaign of the post-Helsinki period, which eventually played a major role in the disintegration of the East Central European communist systems at the end of the nineteen-eighties.
A decision was also reached at the foreign ministers meeting in Budapest as regards the establishment of a permanent body that would assume responsibility for issues related to European security and cooperation, with the principle task of assessing various options for the reduction of the armed forces. The Soviet Union agreed to hold talks on the reduction of European armed forces parallel with the negotiations on European security, which was an explicitly confidence-inspiring step, though it primarily aimed to deflate the significance of a NATO proposal of similar content formulated at the time. Furthermore, the foreign ministers sent a draft document to Western governments outlining economic, technological-scientific and cultural cooperation. Helsinki was accepted as the venue for the conference and thereafter the procedure empowering accredited ambassadors to carry out preparatory work in the Finnish capital became an official proposition.
Last but not least, the WP foreign ministers reiterated at their meeting in Budapest that the convening of an European security conference had no preconditions. This was highly significant since the Polish, East German and Czechoslovak sides – as we have seen before – unswervingly insisted during the post-Budapest declaration period that the Soviet bloc would stress that the settlement of the German question should be a specific precondition. In other words, the WP theoretically could have backtracked tactically as a result of internal pressure, which would have seriously hindered and delayed the process. However, the specific close cooperation between Soviet and Hungarian diplomacy, coupled with the virtual support of the Romanian side, succeeded in circumventing this eventuality. There was a long road from Budapest to Helsinki, where, in November 1972 official multilateral preparatory talks started on the European security conference but the foundations were laid down at the WP foreign ministers’ meeting in Budapest, thus the way was open to conducting concrete negotiations on crucial issues like the Soviet–West German and Polish–West German treaties, the four power treaty on Berlin and the treaty between the FRG and the GDR – all important elements of the settlement of the German question that was in fact the main precondition for the European security conference.
During the period that led to the signing of the Helsinki Agreement in August 1975, Hungarian diplomacy played an exceptionally active, leading and moderating role within the Soviet bloc. While Romania played an equally significant and very spectacular part in this process, Hungary – in close strategic-tactical cooperation with the Soviets – performed behind the scenes for the most part. Hungary also conducted similar activities vis-a-vis the West to promote the security conference: the main target countries comprised Austria, Belgium, Finland, Italy, Sweden and Turkey. After Helsinki, ostensibly Hungary benefited the most from the security conference, as well as from the period of rapprochement that evolved in the meantime. Namely, that the success of the Helsinki process provided an excellent opportunity for the country to pursue the uninterrupted development of relations with the West, which became one of the most burning issues as regards the country’s economic survival. By contrast, the post-Helsinki human rights campaign initiated by the West affected Hungary the least and moreover, the continual appraisal by the West led to an upgrading of the conditions in Hungary. Hungarian diplomacy was quick to take advantage of the situation: in 1976 – alone from the Soviet bloc – a “package” of proposals was dispatched to 19 Western countries, including the United States, which proposed the intensive development of bilateral, political, economic and cultural cooperation in the given relationship. Consequently, the country’s Western relations evolved dynamically and from the second half of the seventies, a series of visits on the highest level followed: in 1977 János Kádár visited Bonn and Rome, in 1978 he went to Paris and in 1977 French Prime Minister Raymond Barre and, subsequently in 1979 West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt paid visits to Hungary.
The Soviet Union, János Kádár, and his “ little lousy country”
Since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis the intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979 was the first and singular event when the Soviet Union – with an unexpected step in a serious international crisis situation – confronted its allies with a fait accompli situation.
Over and above the sense of betrayal, Hungary – as a member of the “closely cooperating group of socialist countries” – had no other choice but accept the Soviet move and follow the main trends of the bloc in the field of propaganda. To begin with, this did not seem to create any particular problems, since in this case – as opposed to the 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia – Hungary was not implicated directly as an aggressor in the international crisis that resulted from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. According to the officially formulated Hungarian position, the Soviet support for the revolutionary Afghan forces was not an affair of the Warsaw Pact, but the internal affairs of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The Hungarian leadership failed to perceive at the time that the Afghan crisis might seriously jeopardise the country’s vital East-West economic relations. The continuation of the main objectives of Hungarian foreign policy – i.e. that Hungary could still preserve and develop its stable political and economic relations with the West and in particular with Western Europe that evolved in the mid-seventies – did not seem impossible even in the crisis situation. Hence, the Hungarian leadership’s original reactions to the crisis were somewhat enervated.
The HSWP Political Committee was the first official forum the political leadership chose to discuss the situation on 8 January 1980, some two weeks after (!) the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and even then only as a miscellaneous item. Furthermore, János Kádár was on vacation at the time and did not return to his office on receiving the news of the event and Prime Minister György Lázár did not attend the meeting either. Hence, they did not perceive the situation as being detrimental from Hungary’s point of view. By contrast, some participants at the meeting critically assessed the developments already and voiced concerns as regards the dire effects the mishandling of the situation might have on the evolution of East-West relations. At the end of the debate the only concrete task, which remained for the Political Committee for the time being, comprised the endorsement of an open government declaration. The members of the body agreed that the document should express Hungary’s solidarity with the new Afghan government, but refrain as much as possible from referring to the Soviet intervention. By contrast, the final statement of the declaration expressed the Hungarian leadership’s unrelenting determination to preserve the results of détente and this was much more than an obligatory reference in the post-Helsinki international discourse. This might be construed as the most important message of the declaration, but the exponents did not leave its delivery to chance.
At the time of the Political Committee meeting, Gyula Horn, deputy head of the HSWP CC International Department was already in Washington, where he reiterated this Hungarian position to his negotiating partners. The visits to America and Canada between 7 and 20 January 1980 took place in quasi incognito: officially he visited the Hungarian diplomatic missions in Washington, New York and Ottawa as a “diplomatic courier” to take part in the meetings of local party organisations preparing for the impending HSWP congress. The partners, ad hoc informed about the presence of the Hungarian “diplomat” welcomed the possibility of direct consultations and both countries received him at the deputy foreign ministerial level. The leaders of the State Department pointed out that by 1979 the power relations have already shifted in Moscow’s favour in the arms race between the two superpowers and hence, the Soviet Union’s military intervention in Afghanistan had created a qualitative change in the field of East-West relations. Consequently, the United States would have to take the necessary military steps, “which would provide for the protection of its fundamental interests.” Thus, these could have retarded considerably the détente process.
As regards bilateral relations, the leaders of foreign affairs stressed: the US continued to apply a differentiated approach to its politics vis-a-vis the East Central European countries. They insisted that during the forthcoming difficult period – when considerable and lasting deterioration was expected in Soviet-American relations – these countries should play an important role and secure continuity in the preservation of the détente process. They warned the Hungarian leadership that the development of Hungarian-American economic relations and the Most Favoured Nation status awarded in 1978 as a result of years-long unrelenting work, would depend on Hungary’s attitude to the United States. They markedly stressed that Hungary should not backtrack in bilateral relations and hence, they perceived the forthcoming visit to the United States of a parliamentary delegation led by Antal Apró as a meaningful event.
The Horn-mission also reinforced the Hungarian leadership’s perceptions that superpower estrangement did not necessarily lead to the narrowing of the country’s Western relations. In fact it seemed that besides Poland, Hungary had the best opportunity in the given situation to exploit the situation to its own advantage.
Hence, the Hungarian leadership received a real shock when at the end of January the Soviets – without prior warning – suddenly and pointedly “requested” that Hungary immediately freeze its high-level Western relations. Moscow’s changed attitude to the international crisis motivated this unexpected Soviet move. Albeit, the Soviets originally counted on Western reactions condemning their intervention in Afghanistan, they still hoped that Western criticism would primarily manifest at the propaganda level as it had after the 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia. On the whole, they construed that within a short time the world would accept the fait accompli and the preservation of the fruits of détente – being decisive factors – would soon downgrade the Afghan question.
The West in general, and the United States in particular, reacted differently this time. From their point of view, quite justifiably, the Soviet Union – for the first time since 1945 – attacked a country militarily that did not belong to the Soviet sphere of interest that had been tacitly endorsed by the West. While the Western powers rationally accepted the right of the Soviets to restore order within its empire during the 1953, 1956 and 1968 East European crises, they viewed this latest infringement as a unilateral and aggressive expansion of the Soviet sphere of interests. They interpreted this as Moscow’s blatant violation of the tacit agreement founded on the well-functioning status quo established after the end of World War II. Bearing in mind the geostrategic location of Afghanistan however, the territorial conquest only violated potential Western interests thus the intensity of the international crisis, which emerged from the Soviet aggression, did not approach the level of the Berlin and Cuban crises of the early nineteen-sixties.
The implementation of counter-measures by America at the beginning of January 1980 (restrictions on the sale of fodder grain to the Soviet Union, a moratorium on cultural and economic relations and the transfer of modern technology) did not cause a great deal of concern in the ranks of Soviet leaders. Nor did the decision by the UN Security Council to place the Afghan question on the agenda on 5 January 1980 and its condemnation of the Soviet move at a subsequent emergency session. While the possibility that the UN would keep the “Afghan question” on the agenda permanently could have contributed to the reinforcement of the confrontational faction within the Soviet leadership later on, Brezhnev’s speech on 16 January still stressed the need for cooperation. By contrast, on January 20, President Carter called on the whole world to boycott the Olympic games to be staged in Moscow in the summer. Since this would have been the first time for the Olympics to be held in a socialist country – from the point of prestige – it had a great impact on the Eastern bloc. At the end of January the situation had taken a new turn. While it became apparent that the majority of West European countries did not support unanimously the American campaign to “punish” the Soviet Union, the issue of European security nonetheless appeared in a different light because of the intervention in Afghanistan. Based on the double resolution passed by NATO at the beginning of December 1979, a chance still existed to defer the potential deployment of the so-called “Euro-missiles” in case of a successful East-West dialogue. However, in the new situation it became more and more ostensible that the NATO member countries could not be dissuaded from the deployment of the missiles aimed at the strengthening of their security and moreover, they did not have to face social resistance either, which had been a significant factor earlier in a number of countries.
Hence, the Soviet leadership decided to introduce “retaliatory” measures. They started a counter-campaign and issued an ultimatum-style order to Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the GDR to cancel prospective plans to hold high-level talks with Western politicians in the near future. As a result of the changes at the end of the seventies, the respective countries – though differently – resolved to sustain and enhance their relations with Western Europe in general, and the FRG in particular. Hence, the Soviet move created a serious clash of interests between the Soviet Union and its East Central European allies.
As regards Hungary, the Soviets “requested” that Foreign Minister Frigyes Puja should cancel his visit to Bonn, which would have taken place a week later, and to postpone the visit of a parliamentary delegation to the United States. In respect of the future of East-West relations, the initial American reaction – as we have seen – caused concern within the ranks of some Hungarian leaders. By contrast, statements issued by West European politicians, as well as by Soviet leaders – expressing their strong mutual commitment to preserving the achievements of détente – remained an encouraging factor.
One of the most dramatic internal debates took place in the history of the HSWP Political Committee at its session on 29 January 1980. For the first time since 1956 the Hungarian leadership came close to passing a resolution that overtly challenged Soviet rule. In view of the exceptionally short time available and the country’s economic interests, several proposals were made during the heated debate whether to ignore the Soviet request. It seemed at the end of the debate that the decisive majority – including less than liberal leaders like Antal Apró, Dezső Nemes and Károly Németh – supported this position. The spectacular intervention of János Kádár prevented the Political Committee from reaching an “irresponsible” decision as regards the Soviet request. Ostensibly, for the first time since 1956, the first secretary of the HSWP challenged the position of the highest operative leading body of the party in respect of an issue construed as the all-decisive and pervasive factor in relations with the Soviet Union. Moreover, Kádár who always aimed to play a center role now had to defend the only ostensibly realistic policy by acting – to all intents and purposes – as a “leftist” as regards the precarious situation that evolved during the debate. The decades-long strategy he applied successfully during previous Political Committee sessions – where he listened to the members of the body patiently, then summarized the essence and announced the resolution at the end of the session – backfired this time. In his speech – ridden with swearwords and confused utterances and testifying to a disturbed disposition – Kádár argued thus: “we are facing a situation again that confronts us with two bad options”. The conclusion might be astonishing, but the speech delivered at the time by an ostensibly self-confident and sound Kádár strangely resembled the last, and since famous speech, delivered by the demented Kádár in April 1989 at the session of the HSWP Central Committee. As a foregone conclusion he promptly announced that the high-level visits to Bonn and Washington would have to be cancelled. He opined that in reality Hungary would have nothing to lose by obeying Moscow and at most he, Kádár, would be called “Soviet lackey” in the West. “Some presumed advantage may only be hoped for, the negative effect is immediate" – – the experienced party leader warned members of the body, noting that the country would lose a great deal by forfeiting the confidence of the Kremlin’s leaders. Subsequently, Kádár outlined the basically determined character of Hungarian foreign policy: "At present Hungary has a certain reputation concerning her international policy,[…] this started […] by our boycott by NATO, and we have reached a certain position, recognition with much effort, but at the same time never permitting to question that we were the allies of the Soviet Union. This is how we achieved this, and this is the long-term interest of the nation. By another type of prestige we could obtain only short-term, sham advantages, eventually our people would be losers, believe me." Finally, to enlighten those still nurturing illusions about the nature of the Soviet request, he added: “what do you think, how long will they be polite to us? Why with us, …excuse me for the phrase, with our little lousy life and country, …. how long will they behave politely towards us?”
This desperate declaration – during the whole period hallmarked by his name – might be construed as Kádár’s most sincere and, at the same time, the most drastic revelation about the real character of the relationship between the Soviet Union and its allies.
It seemed during the course of the debate that members of the Political Committee did not really grasp the nature of the drastic changes in the political situation and hence they stuck to their attitude formulated at the beginning of January and emphasised the paramount importance of cooperating with the West. However, after Kádár’s spectacular contribution, more and more members admitted that if this were the case then nothing could be done. By contrast, Ferenc Havasi explicitly pointed out that the planned move would result in economic hardship for the country, since it would need a $1.7 million Western loan to fulfil the 1980-plan. Hence, the two countries concerned, namely, the United States and the FRG might create difficulties for Hungary in the world of credits. Furthermore, he drew attention to another – from the view of realpolitik – important factor, notably, that “we cannot survive one or one and a half years with these bankers […] trifling with us.” In other words, the preservation of uninterrupted interaction with the West was vital for Hungary by this time.
However, following Kádár’s dramatic intervention, the Political Committee had no time to explore alternatives as regards finding a solution to the concrete issue and thus, it finally decided to postpone both visits. At the same time – as a confidence-building measure towards the West – they requested the Soviets to postpone to a later date the joint Soviet–Hungarian military exercise that was to be held according to the earlier agreed plan in the Western part of the country between 11–16 February.
In some respects, this Political Committee session marked the beginning of Kádár’s political decline. Albeit, the party leader enforced his will, yet as the saying goes, he won the battle, but lost the war. This conflict – and the country’s increasing vulnerability in the particular double noose – led to a situation a few years later when even his closest collaborators did not want to keep him at the party’s helm any longer.
Successful crisis management: a “Hungarian” decision in the Kremlin
The Hungarian manoeuvring tactic was not without avail. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, coupled with the humiliation Kádár had to endure in consequence paradoxically resulted in a considerable improvement in the country’s international standing. Notably, the 29 January session of the Political Committee also passed a resolution calling on Moscow to urgently organise a multilateral conference to discuss the impact of the Afghan crisis on East-West relations. The HSWP CC secretary for international affairs, András Gyenes was dispatched to Moscow for urgent personal consultations and János Kádár wrote a letter to Brezhnev. The letter outlined the Hungarian position: in the current situation the allies must hold regular consultations about the Soviet bloc’s joint stand as regards international questions and the achievements of détente must be preserved unconditionally. However, this would be possible only if the East Central European countries would be able to maintain and foster their relations with Western Europe for the purpose of containing American influence in the name of mutual and sound interests.
By this time, however, Brezhnev was permanently ill and hence, infighting between the various lobbies within the Soviet leadership intensified. The Hungarian request for urgent consultations reached Moscow in this environment. Foreign Minister Gromyko reacted nervously to the proposal, since he could not comprehend the nature of the matters the Hungarians wanted to discuss. Finally, the CC secretaries for international affairs of the closely cooperating socialist countries were called on to attend a meeting in Moscow on 26 February. The foreign secretary of the CPSU CC, Boris Ponomaryev adopted the astutely argued Hungarian position and incorporated its main theses into the topical report on CPSU-directives. In this context, the document stressed that “the socialist countries should take maximum advantage of the possibilities entailed in their current relations with West European states to counterbalance the foreign political objectives of the United States.”
This was a great victory for Hungarian diplomacy since Hungary gained a free hand to foster and develop its key relations with the West that was so vital for the country’s economy. The Hungarian move was even more significant as regards developments in the entire Eastern bloc, as well as in East-West relations. Namely, that during the internal debates within the ranks of the Soviet leadership, Kádár’s personal intervention undeniably contributed to the final victory of the liberal forces advocating cooperation and which were dominant mainly in the CPSU CC apparatus over the confrontational trend represented by Gromyko and the foreign ministry. While the resolute Hungarian move played a significant role in averting the general deterioration of East-West relations after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Soviet-American relations reached the depths that lasted for years. This partly explains why a “second Cold War” did not erupt in Europe – as several historians referred to this period. After Helsinki, the intervention in Afghanistan paradoxically reinforced the gradually evolving process as regards the birth of a common virtual European identity to replace bloc consciousness. In response to Kádár’s personal message, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt formulated the historical tasks facing the European states: now it is up to us “whether or not we allow ourselves to be forced into a cold war instigated by the two superpowers! Neither the FRG nor any other West-or East European country would be able to resist alone. It is possible only through a united effort.” At the beginning of the eighties Hungary had no other choice but join the European system of cooperation.
During the period between the occupation of Afghanistan and Gorbachev’s ascent to power in 1985, Hungary achieved a unique dynamic progression in the country’s international relations. While it joined the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1982, from 1981 onwards it conducted exploratory talks with the European Economic Community in respect of the establishment of formal bilateral relations. Highest-and high level interactions with Western countries intensified considerably. Kádár visited Bonn in 1982 and London in 1985. French President François Mitterrand was received in Hungary in 1982, US Vice President George Bush in 1983 and in 1984 Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi also visited the country.
In an atypical way other factors, too, contributed to the positive evolution of relations, namely, Poland’s loss of international popularity due the introduction of Marshall Law in 1981 and Romania’s negative evaluation because of its oppressive policies. Thus, during the years of transition following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Hungary assumed a special role in influencing international relations. Hungary, as the most propitious Eastern bloc country became a favourite of the West and hence, played an outstanding role in promoting dialogue between the two camps and preserving the achievements of détente. This situation changed after Gorbachev’s rise to power when the new Soviet leadership became the chief proponent of East-West dialogue. While Hungary still retained an initiating and moderating character, it could only play second string to the Soviet Union.
Hungarian foreign policy assumed a specific and a relatively independent character already at the end of the nineteen-seventies. In this context, Hungary intensified economic and political relations with Western countries in the years when East-West relations slumped to an unprecedented all-time low since the Cuban missile crisis, which in part, stemmed from the rift that endured as of the mid-seventies and in part, from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. However, the Hungarian leadership did not pursue this line in spite of the Moscow leadership, but with its explicit knowledge and approval. Kádár managed to persuade Brezhnev and his successors on more than one occasion that the stability of the political system in Hungary – because of the deteriorating economy – depended solely on the use of such mechanisms. The increased exploitation of foreign credits seemed a good solution to Moscow too, since it indirectly alleviated the problems of the Soviet economy on the one hand, while Kádár’s person guaranteed unconditional political loyalty to Moscow, on the other.
Qualitative changes in foreign policy and the domestic situation alike became ostensible in 1988. However, these were not due János Kádár’s dismissal at the extraordinary party conference in May or the conference itself, but the momentous positive changes in the international political arena following Gorbachev’s ascent to power. At this time – in the evolving new world order built on cooperation – the silhouette of a concept envisaging Hungary as a bridge-maker between East and West started to take shape. While this concept still stipulated the continued existence of the given alliance frameworks (Warsaw Pact, CMEA) it also expected the major democratic transformation of these organizations and hence, that these would not hinder Hungary further in establishing relations with any country or institutions worldwide to serve Hungary’s national interests.
The earlier foreign policy doctrine implemented from the end of the seventies still relied on relative independence, which simply stipulated that what is not forbidden, is allowed. By contrast, the new concept meant – to borrow the terms of the “rules of the road” – that if a policeman tells you to stop, don’t lose heart but rather try to convince him to let you through. Indeed, if you feel it to be justified, you can even run the risk of later admonition by ignoring the policeman and simply driving through the intersection. This new, dynamic, and proactive foreign policy was in practice aimed at accomplishing a kind of quasi-neutrality, although this thesis was never articulated in explicit form for either the public or confidential use. Today, however, we may conclude that this comprised the essence of Hungarian ambitions from 1988 until the general elections in 1990.
The Moscow-Warsaw-Budapest triangle
The character of Hungarian-Soviet relations involved a particular duality as regards the question of perestroika, glasnost and reforms in general. Hungary simultaneously played the role of the best pupil and the master. Not surprisingly, Gorbachev’s policies evoked the greatest reverberation in Hungary, since they were perceived as a posterior vindication of Hungarian reforms, which ensued from the end of the sixties against the “Eastern” headwind. At the same time, the Soviets explicitly invoked the Hungarian experiences when implementing reforms: the reorganisation of agriculture, the partial acceptance of the role of the market, as well as the system of multiple candidatures at parliamentary elections. Based on a similar method adopted a few moths earlier by the HSWP, various committees of the CPSU CC were created in the autumn of 1988, including the International Committee led by Yakovlev.
During the course of 1988-1989, a virtual Moscow-Warsaw-Budapest triangle was created among the three reformer countries, which contemporary documents still mark as being a “closely cooperating” category, albeit earlier, namely, from the mid-sixties, this referred to the interacting “six” states that frequently coordinated their policies without Romania. The leaders of the three countries endeavoured to synchronise their ideas at bilateral negotiations as regards economic and political reforms and – since they were in the minority in both the Warsaw Pact and the CMEA – aimed to represent a united front to exercise pressure on the conservative-led countries. This “special relationship” most likely contributed to the toleration – by the Soviet side – of the frequently pioneering-type Hungarian initiatives in respect of the spheres of internal transformation and foreign affairs.
However, this close cooperation did not always entail advantages. The joint approach often implied that the Soviet leadership – on the basis of the “partnership” – frequently requested support for positions, which were more progressive than those of the conservative camp, yet served the more developed Hungarian objectives only partially or not at all. The Hungarian leadership had to make concessions also during the course of 1988 as regards the handling of the manifest Hungarian-Romanian conflict. While Gorbachev told Károly Grósz during his visit to Moscow in July 1988 that the Soviet leadership definitely supported the Hungarians in the dispute, he could not officially represent this view, since such an eventuality – due to the evolving separatist movements and ethnic conflicts in several districts of the empire – would have generated unforeseeable consequences as regards the Soviet Union’s internal stability. While Gorbachev was right in his assumption in this respect, he was wrong in persuading the very reluctant Hungarian party leader on a “friendly basis” to take the initiative and meet Ceausescu in Arad. This misguided move drastically eroded the prestige of Károly Grósz’s leadership, as well as considerably damaged the HSWP’s position. Namely, the meeting that was perceived by the general public as a betrayal of national interests had to be presented as a “naturally” independent Hungarian decision. This essentially boorish intervention by Gorbachev in Hungarian domestic affairs might be explained by only one consideration: the Soviet leader was concerned not only about the unfavourable consequences of overtly supporting the Hungarian position, but perceived the fact of the Hungarian-Romanian conflict per se as a source of danger that could further undermine the already shaky internal cohesion of the Warsaw Pact and moreover: all these could indirectly lead to the reinforcement of the centrifugal forces in the multinational Soviet Union itself that would be fatal for the country. Only this conjecture may provide an explanation for Gorbachev’s reasons for forcing one of his closest allies to accept such an ill-fated compromise towards a Romanian leadership that had condemned the Soviet Union as being a traitor to socialism and which the Soviet party leader, too, personally vilified. In reality, this entailed nothing less than the survival of the imperial centre, which transcended all other considerations.
Whereas many people expected the political intervention of the Soviet leadership at two significant junctures during the period of Hungary’s political transition, intervention failed to materialise. In the spring of 1988 the reformers of the HSWP perceived that they could legitimately rely on Soviet support as regards the removal of János Kádár in order to accelerate the changes. By contrast – in the eyes of the West – Kádár was the most respected and revered leader in the Eastern bloc after Gorbachev. While this was not a great achievement in the given field of contest, it had a considerable bearing for the Soviet leadership seeking to improve East-West relations. Furthermore, the Hungarian transition – despite the stagnation under Kádár’s last years in power – surpassed the Soviet reforms by far and hence, Gorbachev was not interested in accelerating the processes in Hungary. By contrast, when Károly Grósz and his associates eventually resolved the problems at the May 1988 party conference without outside help, the Soviets accepted the outcome.
The first major development during the course of the Hungarian transition, which occurred without consulting the Soviets, entailed an interview with Imre Pozsgay on 28 January 1989 and the re-evaluation of the 1956 October events as a people’s uprising, respectively. Moreover, the significance of this announcement increased even more since the new interpretation implied that the Soviet Union crushed a democratic process and not a counterrevolution in Hungary on 4 November 1956 and hence, it was perceived as the first “anti-Soviet” move by the Hungarian leadership. This stipulation was so remote to the Soviet mindset that – while it subsequently condemned the 1968 intervention in December 1989 – this never happened during the lifespan of the Soviet Union as regards 1956. Consequently, it should have been more than logical to ostracise the Hungarian leadership. Today we know that a draft letter was promptly prepared in this respect, but never dispatched to Budapest on Gorbachev’s explicit orders. While he clearly understood that this genie could not be ordered back into the bottle and he also hoped that the position of the HSWP would be reinforced considerably if the party itself adopted the cause of 1956 and would not provide an opportunity for the opposition to forge political capital thereof. Accordingly, with the appropriate “dialectical” handling of the problem, the emphasis on the Soviet Union’s direct responsibility might be avoided. Accordingly, while the declaration issued after the 10-11 February 1989 session of the HSWP CC satisfied this formal condition since it insisted that a people’s uprising erupted on 23 October 1956, it also foreshadowed the inevitable end when it was declared that counterrevolutionary tendencies had escalated by the end of October.
All these fitted precisely into the radical changes in the Soviet Union’s East Central European policies that led to the substitution in the first months of 1989 of the four-decades-long Soviet manual leadership by an automatism that comprised the “floating” of the Brezhnev doctrine as its central component, as well as the perpetual maintenance of the resulting insecurity factor. However, those involved failed to recognise this twist for some time to come; and this was the aim. A comparison between two contemporary statements by Gyula Horn provides the subtlest insight as regards the perceptibly irresolvable dilemma that confronted the Hungarian leadership in handling this fundamental problem. At the 20-21 February 1989 meeting of the Central Committee, Gyula Horn (still secretary of state for foreign affairs at the time), stated the following: “ today there is no question within the Warsaw Pact – the Brezhnev doctrine is outdated for ever – that they would interfere in any domestic issue, for instance, our position as regards the multiparty system was our sovereign decision.” However, four months later at the end of June, Horn as foreign minister, cautioned the members of the Central Committee about unrealistic illusions:”…no one should confuse our situation with any other country that has a democratic regime. There is no rotation mechanism as regards politics in Hungary. […] If the HSWP – as the governing party – were to fall, it would be the same as a change of regime. I don’t know whether the alliance system would tolerate this. I don’t believe it would,” – prophesised the Hungarian politician probably the best-informed about Soviet intentions – following the victory of Polish Solidarity at the June elections. An internal evaluation prepared a few weeks earlier offered a dramatic account: “present provisions do not exclude the possibility that in case of a retreat to the old system [in the Soviet Union] a unilateral or multilateral military action would not take place in defence of socialism. The success of the Soviet tactics is illustrated thus: ten years after the event, Rezső Nyers pinpointed July 1989 and Imre Pozsgay pinpointed November of that year as the dates when they realised that the Soviets would not intervene in Hungary even if the transition was to lead to the demise of socialism.
Transformation of the Warsaw Pact and the Question of Neutrality
After his ascent to power, Gorbachev promised to revise relations with the East Central European allies, as well as urged the modernisation of the Warsaw Pact’s cooperative mechanism right from the start. Hence, already in October 1985, he suggested the establishment of a permanent political body to take responsibility for the improvement of coordination. However, nothing changed significantly as regards the structure of the WP during the ensuing period until its dissolution in 1991. The outcome of the spontaneous democratisation inspired by the new Soviet policy of emphasizing the importance of partnership was, among others, that in addition to the traditional dissenter Romania other member countries sought to assert their particular national interests increasingly. For instance, the Hungarian leadership, which cooperated closely with the Soviet Union all along, endorsed the above-mentioned proposal – which might have become an instrument for reinforcing coordination, as well as centralisation – only in July 1988.
Paradoxically, a radical proposal tabled by Romania – urging the dissolution of the Political Consultative Committee as well as the transformation of the organisation into an exclusively military alliance – launched a comprehensive debate as regards reforming the WP. A body of experts was established at the Warsaw meeting of the WP PCC in July 1988 to study and coordinate the transformation process and – based on its findings – the Hungarian leadership formulated its position by March 1989.
Meanwhile, as a result of the internal political changes in the country, the issue pertaining to relations with the alliance system was removed from the exclusive competence of the HSWP. In the spring of 1989 there was a de facto multiparty system in Hungary and moreover, under the Assembly Act adopted in January, the mushrooming opposition parties were allowed to function legally. At the beginning of the year the Alliance of Free Democrats proposed that Hungary – following the “French model”– should request a special status in the Warsaw Pact and should not participate in the military alliance any more. By contrast, the declaration of the AFD presidium issued on 16 April insisted that the Hungarian government should declare the country’s neutrality.
The legacy of 1956 – at least at the level of political rhetoric – became an important point of reference to all opposition organisations. Moreover, the reality of neutrality declared on 1 November 1956 and valid for three days influenced the foreign political programme of a number of emerging parties for some time to come. Furthermore, the sole joint declaration issued during the course of the political transition on the question of foreign policy orientation and signed by every opposition organisation, comprised the 12 points of the Manifesto titled “What does the Hungarian nation want”, which was read at the demonstration held by the opposition on the 15 March 1989 national holiday. Incidentally, this document defined the attainment of neutrality as its target. While this demand was more of an emotionally formulated symbolic point of view than a mature and unified oppositional position, it still caused a justifiable concern for the HSWP leadership. Notably, that the historical parties with which the ruling party wanted to form a coalition after the elections also signed the declaration. While the Hungarian leadership too, entertained the idea of neutrality in the long-term and after the dissolution of the two military-political blocs, in the short-term it perceived this objective as unrealistic and moreover, stipulated that this demand would jeopardise the peaceful transition. This concern was not without foundation, since the leadership received warnings from the Soviet Union and moreover, the Western partners that supported the Hungarian transition, repeatedly cautioned that such endeavours would not gain support in the international political arena.
During Károly Grósz’ visit to Moscow at the end of March 1989 Gorbachev emphasised that “in the situation today the modernisation of the WP is the only realistic target and not neutrality.” The deputy leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction, Volker Rühe also explained to his Hungarian negotiating partners in April 1989 that in some instances “there are great illusions in Hungarian society, including neutrality and Hungary’s quick withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and prompt integration with the West.” As a member of the SPD Presidium Egon Bahr cautioned: “today the Soviet Union recognised the sovereignty of its allies, as well as allowed them to choose the course of their domestic evolution. As regards the Soviet Union the limits stipulate that the search for a specific direction would not jeopardise the unity of the Warsaw Pact. Hence, it is important that all parties in Hungary reach a consensual agreement that nobody would attempt to cross this limit.”
Consequently, the Hungarian leadership – taking heed of these signals – assumed a fundamentally pragmatic stance on issues as regards the Warsaw Pact. It calculated that while the WP – more precisely the Soviet nuclear shield – still protected the country’s security, the positive Soviet attitude facilitated the conclusion of the peaceful transition and hence, Hungarian diplomacy should aim to attain the highest possible form of sovereignty within the given framework. Hence, in the formulation of the Hungarian position in respect of the transformation of the WP, the leadership treated the preservation of the benevolent attitude of the Soviet Union as a top priority, albeit the Soviet visions were to some extent already in synchrony with the Hungarian proposals. Hungarian strategy sought to create an effective front comprising the “three” reformer countries against the “four” conservatives. Hence, they supported not only those proposals, which sought to enhance the organisation’s political character, increase the effectual cooperative trend, strengthen the democratization of its decision-making process, including the rejection of the the principle of mandatory consensus,, but – against their better judgement – also some others, namely, the creation of a permanent political body or the improvement of inter-parliamentary interaction among the member states.
This policy based on compromise occasionally demanded specific sacrifices. At the Warsaw meeting of the WP PCC in July 1988, the Hungarian side proposed the establishment of a permanent committee on a deputy ministerial level in the field of human rights and humanitarian issues, which – according to the plan – would have continually assessed and discussed the situation of national minorities. However, when it transpired that while the Soviet Union was prepared to obstruct the Romanian proposal to discuss separately the dangers presented to socialism by the Polish and Hungarian developments at the Bucharest meeting scheduled for July 1989, it also signalled that the draft proposal for the establishment of a human rights commission would not enjoy support from the Soviet side (either), the Hungarian leadership abandoned this thus far all-pervasive initiative.
Crossing the Rubicon: Hungary and the East German refugee crisis
Undoubtedly, the most spectacular and historically most significant independent move of Hungarian foreign policy comprised the decision that led to the opening of Hungary’s borders to Austria on 11 September 1989 and thus enabling thousands of East German refugees to flee to the FRG.
The Hungarian-GDR conflict that ensued was indirectly caused by Hungary – in line with its rapprochement policy towards the West – by starting to dismantle the electric warning system and the barbed-wire fence or “Iron Curtain” along the Hungarian-Austrian border at the beginning of May 1989. Subsequently, tens of thousands of East German tourists travelled to Hungary in the hope of crossing the “open” green zone into Austria and flee to the FRG from there. Although a few hundred people succeeded in doing so, it soon transpired that the problem could be resolved only by political means. The GDR leadership demanded that Hungary should honour the bilateral treaty signed in 1969, which declared that captured border-violators must be repatriated to their country of origin. The Hungarian leadership was not willing to comply and hoped for a while that the two German states would reach an agreement as regards solving the crisis. However, as this did not materialise and the Hungarian-East German consultations also failed, Prime Minister Miklós Németh and Foreign Minister Gyula Horn held discussions with Chancellor Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher at Gymnich Castle on 25 August 1989 as regards the plans of Hungarian diplomacy pertaining to the Hungarian government’s measures to facilitate the departure of for GDR citizens from the country at the beginning of September. As regards Hungarian foreign policy, this was in some respects equal to crossing the Rubicon since – in the serious crisis situation within the Eastern bloc – such a crucial decision with unpredictable consequences – could only have taken place with prior consultation with the Soviet Union – in accordance with the decades-long practice.
In August-September 1989 however, – as agreed at the National Roundtable talks – Hungary was already a member of the Soviet bloc only formally: and with the creation of constitutional conditions for free elections, the country was ready to embark on the long journey – back to Europe.
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