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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Gyula Horn: "I'm an atheist, but I still pray each ... night there will never again be ... [a 1995]"

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

"I was told to talk seriously, and talk openly to you. So, let's do that." Former PM Gyula Horn speaks to the Hungarian International Press Assocn, 14 December, 2005 - Part 2

Photo: Gyula Horn, wearing a head-kneck brace after a car accident when campaigning for the elections in Spring, 1994. I can't remember exactly, but this is probably at a post-election press conference, when Horn, as leader of the Socialist Party, was swept back into power, in alliance with the Free Democrats.

Gyula Horn was born in Budapest on 5 July, 1932, so would have celebrated his 89th birthday tomorrow were he alive.

The interest in my first post of Gyula Horn's meeting with HIPA in December, 2005, was so great, particularly from Hungarians, that for the sake of historians I've decided to publish the entire text of this meeting, instead of a cut-down version, as originally planned. (Except it takes a lot of time to transcribe and 'repair' the language.)

This entire section of about 20 mins is in answer to a second question from Dutch journalist Henk Hirs. Horn sometimes jumps from one subject to another

without a break, putting the interpreter under pressure, and it's not always easy to be 100% sure what he's getting at. Nontheless, I think this text, while not as dramatic as that published on June 19, is still of value, giving, as it does, an indication of his anguish as a result of applying the "Bokros Package" of austerity measures passed in 1995 and a nuanced assessment of János Kádár's 32-year reign as Hungary's communist leader from November 1956 to May 1988.

I should also mention that I'd forgotten (indeed, if I ever really knew) the 'reasoning' behind the Soviet Union boycotting the 1984 Olympic Games, which comes up early in this section. According to Wikipedia:

The USSR announced its intentions to boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics on May 8, 1984,[3] citing security concerns and "chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States."[3] A US official said the country had ignored suggestive comments by the Soviet Union in the weeks building up to the announcement and that, in spite of all the indications, the United States was "absolutely dumbfounded" when the official announcement arrived.[4]

Of the countries within the Warsaw Pact, only Romania defied the Soviet call.

Now, the HIPA meeting.

Henk Hirs: When I talked to people like [communst reformers] Imre Pozsgay and Rezső Nyers, I got the impression that even up to late in 1989, their idea was still to create some sort of democratic socialist system – something between capitalism and communism, and even at that time, they too were surprised by the things that were being driven forward [by events] and suddenly they found themselves in a multi-party democracy which they hadn't expected even half a year before.

​​Gyula Horn: As I said when prime minister, the change of system had, as it's most important element, [the principle] of self determination, the opportunity for us to decide on what political system we'd like to live in. We were the ones who could decide where we belong.

In 1990, when the first free elections were held, … these had a huge psychological effect on the population, because self-determination virtually fell into our laps, something that our ancestors had been fighting for over several centuries. All this [struggle] ended in May, 1990. But on the issue of economic reform, let me ask: How was the capitalist order built up? It was built from below, with the simultaneous development of the state. I believe that these developments, over several centuries, had fundamental human norms and requirements which played a decisive role [in the outcome]. <Editorial note - I think here he means that capitalism has developed organically, built on certain natural needs and norms, unlike socialism which he felt was somehow an artificially-driven process.> How has the state played in CEE – starting with the top and going down to the bottom. It was [Prime Minister] Miklós Németh's government which worked out the laws, a package of laws, enabling us to have the judicial conditions for the establishment of a multi-party system. It was this work that enabled the freedom of economic entrepreneurship, and the safeguarding of human rights. This was the focus of discussions and negotiations. And Miklós Németh was given no support whatsoever, except from his own party. [Imre] Pozsgay, [Rezső] Nyers and Németh all played very significant roles.

But if there is a point that I'd have to highlight, I'd say that [their most important merit was that] they allowed these things to happen.

There are two characteristics that I consider are the biggest possible praise for a politician. First, to be able to seize the opportunities [of the time]. Added to this, he or she must also help the development of the respective conditions. And there is another pre-condition, namely to make use of the opportunity without delay to bring about the changes, and not allow themselves to be diverted from the path. I know of two such people who did that, although in history there may have been others. [West German Chancellor] Helmut Kohl and [West German Foreign Minister] Hans-Dietrich Genscher, to whom not only Germany, but the whole of Europe, owe a lot. Those were the two men who grasped the opportunity, who were able to harness normal forces, and were able to develop a set of relations with us, helping them to turn possibilities and desires into reality. I am a regular visitor to Germany, and there are conferences where speakers regularly remind the audience how [Oskar] Lafontaine and Gerhard Schröder opposed the re-unification [of Germany] in 1989-90. In fact, they were not opposed to it, they simply failed to recognise the opportunities, whereas Kohl, for one, did. Just in parenthesis, the Austrians also played a very significant role in all this. And I would like to stress this, as Austria is not a country famous for coming to the rescue. Austria always waits for things to develop, and then it decides on whether to get involved or stand off. But Austrian foreign policy, headed then by Alois Mock, did a magnificent job. [And at home], people like Pozsgay also did a magnificent job. [You must understand] there was no written recipe for this at the time Has there ever been a situation anywhere in the world before where such a massive, large-scale privatisation has been undertaken as in Hungary [in the 90s]? I can tell you, we do not get only praise for this. Very often I go to see ordinary people, and of course, I'm still getting recognised, [but] whenever I speak about privatisation, people start to hate me on the spot And another word which they loathe with all their hearts is 'reform', If we, as a party or government, mention “reform” people immediately start wondering, they are suspicious that something fishy is going on. Still, we did it. And the fact that we carried it out was vital in the sense that we started with reforms, put the country in order after this wave of distributions. This was all back in 1994, and the income from this, which amounted to USD 5-6 billion at the time, we used this to reduce our foreign debt. I'd like to stress, in that context we were swimming against the tide, because it was said that putting things in order would lead to a standstill in the economy. But we said that our primary objective was to maintain the solvency of the country. And we succeeded in bringing about a situation - I won't enter into details, as this is a separate matter - about how to come to terms with foreign debts. In order to allow people to live with such debt, there was a need for two things. First, for the economy to grow, and then for inflation to be reduced to below 10%. This led us to the situation we have today; there have been no such restrictive austerity measures in the past few years in Hungary because life has not forced this upon us. I'm an atheist, but I still pray each and every night that there will never again be such a situation, so as to lead a peaceful life of co-existence with the economy and with inflation. Last year, 2004, we did an analysis where we looked at the GDP in comparison to the situation in 1989. Real GDP was 25% higher under comparative price conditions, real wages were 15% higher and pensions were 7% more than in 1989 And yet, when talking to people, their question is: tell me Gyula, has all this been worth it? We did all this for such a small result? These people are not opposed to a market economy, but they say: 'Now we are living in a democracy, the economy is developing and performing well, but when will we finally be able to live better than we used to do?"

<Editorial note – I think he's trying to say that the perception of many people is that they are worse off than in the late 1980s, but the statistics prove otherwise.> This is why there is so much nostalgia for the Kádár regime, which was a paternalistic system, but at the same time it was anti-democratic and anti-performance driven as well. We had realised this by 1989. History is always restarting itself, and I must say, I consider this as a popular disease that we invariably have to start it all over again. < Editorial note – I think he's saying "we never seem to learn from history." > This is very typical of us Hungarians. Of course, the ladies are beautiful, we've achieved a lot, we're a talented people. We have the highest per capita number of Nobel prize winners. We have a huge list of Hungarian inventions looking back over several centuries, but we are still not able to overcome these things, we are unable to meet our desires, our expectations. This has been an omnipresent element of our development, although I can tell you that in the last year, since we've been a member of the EU, there has been some movement on this point. We are still not able to assess the possible consequences, but we have said that now the time has come for us to present and show that democracy of itself does not create well-being and prosperity, certainly not automatically. One has to work damned hard for it. Now we have reached the situation where we can take steps that might turn into a process, a trend in terms of [improving] living conditions for the population. This is all we can do, and I'm absolutely sure that in this respect the Hungarian example is once again a pioneer, just like in many other instances. It's only in this circle that I dare to praise ourselves, and scold ourselves at the same time. I was told to talk seriously, and talk openly to you. So, let's do that.

Kester Eddy: Mr Horn, you've opened a Pandora's Box of modern economic-politics now, I don't know what might happen!

[With special thanks to SN for language clarification.]

<To Be Continued>

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