Preferred Citation: Lévesque, Jacques. The Enigma of 1989: The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

Chapter Seven Hungary An Acceptable (and Accepted) Evolution

The Soviets' New "Limits of Tolerance"

During a visit to Budapest in July 1989, Eduard Shevardnadze told the Hungarian leaders in private: "Do what you think is best to preserve the positions of the Party."[30] His Hungarian audience considered it to be especially important that he spoke of "positions," rather than "the position," or the Party's leading role. This understanding of things is reflected in Rezso Nyers' comments cited at the beginning of the chapter; they express Gorbachev's "preoccupation" that the HSWP remain "one of the essential forces" in Hungary. This implicit lowering of Soviet requirements helps us understand how Moscow was able to resign itself to the sudden slide in "the position" of the Polish Party in August. If the change was not openly expressed, it was because there was no consensus on the issue within the Soviet leadership. Only on the "freedom of choice and action of each Party" was there consensus.

In Budapest, however, the "socialist orientation" (irrespective of its content) was considered to be one of the limits of tolerance for Gorbachev and his entourage. Rezso Nyers pleaded with the opposition during their negotiations in the summer, invoking precisely the boundaries of Soviet tolerance, so that the reference to socialism finally was preserved in the preamble to the new Hungarian constitution.[31] Within his own party, Nyers had to use the same arguments so the platform to be presented to the Party congress in October would speak of a "change of models" rather than of "systems." On August 19, he finally succeeded in having the document refer to the "socialist character of the system."[32]

[29] Ibid., p. 93.

[30] Interview with Imre Szokai, Budapest, 2 May 1992.

[31] See Pierre Kende, "Hongrie: du réformisme communiste à la démocratie consolidée," in Pierre Kende and Aleksander Smolar, eds., La grande secousse: Europe de l'Est, 1989–1990 (Paris: Presses du CNRS, 1990), p. 80.

[32] See François Fejtö, La fin des démocraties populaires (Paris: Le Seuil, 1992), pp. 268–269.


The laxity of Gorbachev and other Soviet reformers concerning the Parties' leading role and the content of socialism did not extend to all aspects of relations between the USSR and Eastern Europe. On the contrary: fearing that their permissiveness on these questions might lead to an erosion of multilateral institutions in the East, they formulated very explicit and pressing demands on this issue. During his July 1989 visit to Budapest, Shevardnadze asked the Hungarian leaders to formally commit themselves that Hungary, due to its alliance obligations, would not conclude any accords with Western "integrative institutions" unless it received previous agreement from the USSR. It was as much the European Community as NATO which the Soviet leaders had in mind.[33] The Hungarian leaders interpreted these demands, which were made insistently during the negotiation of a new, bilateral Hungarian-Soviet treaty throughout the second half of 1989, as reflecting a Soviet desire to take affairs in Eastern Europe back into their own hands, after a period of neglect.

What the Soviets feared, to restate Nyers' quote cited above, was "a unilateral movement" by Hungary toward the West, which could leave the Soviet Union behind and deprive it of the benefits it intended to gain from the organized overall rapprochement negotiated under its leadership. Nyers was obliged to give Moscow assurances, not only concerning his Party's intentions, but also with respect to those of the main opposition groups. In an interview with Pravda, he declared that "they accept and respect our participation in the Warsaw Pact and CMEA."[34]

Matyas Szuros, president of the Hungarian Parliament, described the situation accurately when he told Radio Free Europe in July: "In my opinion, the Soviet Union considers the question of what type of socialism exists in a given country to be of secondary importance. Its priority is to maintain the present alliance system for as long as NATO exists."[35]

The importance which the Soviet leaders gave to the Warsaw Pact again reflects the high priority which their pan-European policy held. It should be remembered that it was the Warsaw Pact which institutionalized the USSR's place in Europe and acted as the main instrument of its European policy. It conferred upon the Soviet Union a certain parity with

[33] Interview with Peter Hardi (director of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs in 1989), Budapest, 4 May 1992.

[34] Pravda, 4 October 1989, cited by François Fejtö, La fin des démocraties populaires, p. 271.

[35] Background Report (Radio Free Europe), 127, 10 July 1989.


the United States in negotiations on disarmament and the future of Europe.

In early autumn 1989, the domestic evolution in Poland and Hungary began to surpass the pace of the construction of a new European security structure. The Vienna negotiations on a dramatic reduction of armaments in Europe, which was to be the basis for the process, were advancing slowly—despite Gorbachev's impatience and a clear American willingness to move ahead. In a memorandum sent to Gorbachev in October (that is, before the fall of the Berlin Wall), Shakhnazarov urged him to prepare a calendar to accelerate the creation of a new European security system. He recommended that Gorbachev propose the end of the century as the target date for a simultaneous dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. As an intermediate goal, he suggested that the military organizations of both alliances be dissolved in 1995, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II.[36] "It is important," he stressed, "that we hold the initiative on this matter." Detailing an idea initially expressed one year earlier, he recommended that the USSR announce a unilateral withdrawal of its troops from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. He argued that, despite their assurances to the contrary, the governments of Poland and Hungary might very soon demand such a retreat; if they were the ones to do it, the Soviet negotiating position with NATO would be weakened. Therefore, Moscow needed to take the initiative in order to achieve benefits which would initially translate into "a colossal gain in confidence." With regard to Germany, he proposed that Moscow put a separate declaration on the table, in addition to the general propositions on parallel Soviet and American reductions. In it, the USSR would state its willingness to withdraw all of its troops from the GDR, if the United States were ready to do the same from the Federal Republic.[37]

As one can see, if the Soviets strove so ardently, after the summer of 1989, to obtain new guarantees from their allies about the preservation of the Warsaw Pact, it was in order to extract maximum benefit from the exchange and dissolution—and, of course, to limit the centrifugal forces which were surfacing. In the meantime, to accommodate them, a

[36] Memorandum of 14 October 1989, reprinted in Georgii Shakhnazarov, Tsena svobody: reformatsiia Gorbacheva glazami ego pomoshchnika (The Price of Liberty: Gorbachev's Reformist Enterprise through the Eyes of His Assistant) (Moscow: Rossika Zevs, 1993), pp. 423–424.

[37] Ibid.


reform of the Pact was becoming more urgent, as had been discussed in the Soviet leadership since the beginning of the year, and the intention of which was announced at the Bucharest summit in July. The debate on this question (just like the issue of urgently reforming CMEA) became broader, without giving rise to concrete measures which would have necessitated the more immediate and sustained attention of the leaders of all interested parties.[38]

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10, and the incredible acceleration of events which followed, this lag became much greater and proved impossible to make up. Hungary, as we shall see, was to play a central role in the events which led to the dismantling of the Wall.

[38] See M. E. Bezrukov and A. V. Kortunov, "What Kind of an Alliance Do We Need?" New Times (Novoe Vremia), 41, October 1989.


Chapter Seven Hungary An Acceptable (and Accepted) Evolution

Preferred Citation: Lévesque, Jacques. The Enigma of 1989: The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.