Updated: 15-Apr-2002 NATO Review

No. 3 - Jun. 1992
Vol. 40 - pp. 7-13


Dr. Géza Jeszenszky,
Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary

Hungary has played a major role in the failure of the communist utopia - in 1956 by overthrowing it and exposing its real nature, then in 1989 by negotiating the peaceful winding up of the regime and so pushing over all the dominoes. Today, we can safely say that although the new era in world history began in 1989, the post-Second World War period only finally came to an end with the collapse of the Moscow coup last August. Thus, after 1918-1920 and 1945-1947, 1989-1991 was this century's third historic turning point, bringing about both a vertical and a horizontaldisintegration of the communist regimes, which broke up not only politically but also territorially, mostly along thelines of ethnic divisions.

The erosion of the system invented by Lenin and completed by Stalin ended in the swan-song of Gorbachev and in the take-over by the modern equivalents of Alexander the Great's successors, the diadochi - Yeltsin, Kravchuk, Nazarbayev and the others. All this was at first admired and welcomed in the West, but bliss soon gave way to doubts and fears or occasionally even to the ringing of alarm bells about the coming of Domesday: nationalist tensions and hunger revolts leading to local wars and nuclear proliferation among unstable and unreliable countries. As one of the Central and Eastern European intellectuals who were thrown into politics by their own conscience and by the need to fill a vacuum, let me share some of my reflections on these developments.

It is instructive to read again the appeal that the Hungarian Democratic Forum, then in opposition and now the leading government party, made at Christmas 1989 to the new democratic parties and movements of Central and Eastern Europe. With my political friends, I said in that manifestum democraticum: "Now in our hands, we have a greatopportunity to put an end to the conflicts that traditionally turned the peoples of this region against each other. Today, in Eastern Europe all swear by freedom of conscience, civil liberties, democracy, a free economy, the observance of human rights and self-determination... One of the cardinal pre-requisites of democracy is tolerance for those whose political beliefs, religion or language differs - for the various minorities. The practical realization of this principle is through the recognition of these groups' organization and autonomy in order to facilitate their free development. It is our hope that in the future, social integration in the new democracies will go side by side with respect for regional, national and ethnic distinctions, and that representative democracy will be based upon local self-government".

Having stated then that the various peoples living in the Eastern half of Europe were standing on the same side, on the side of democracy, self-determination and human rights for the first time in centuries, with a shared intention to join the European structures, should we today feel disappointed? Do the countless new instances of national intolerance (of which the wars in former Yugoslavia and in Nagorno-Karabakh are clearly the worst examples) refute our earlier belief that the newly independent peoples could seize the unique chance offered by history and, setting aside the memory of past conflicts, focus their attention on creating a better future? Has freedom unleashed uncontrollable, dark forces in the former communist countries?. I think it is only some ghosts of Stalinism which haunt the homes of their former victims.

Shared traditional values

No one can deny that there are serious and well-founded fears about the unfolding dangers such as national conflicts and civil wars leading to the use of armed forces which lack any proper legal and political control. But I think it must be established that no matter how serious are the problems which face the old, the reborn and the newborn democracies in the wake of the collapse of the communist system, the world has become a far safer place than it was during the Cold War. Not only has conflict between nuclear superpowers become highly unlikely, but political terror and persecution have stopped, and the police state has disappeared on a huge territory stretching from the Western frontier of the former East Germany throughout Russia all the way to the Pacific. After a short enforced detour of Marxist-Leninist ideology, we in Central Europe have returned to our shared traditional Judaeo-Christian values and our common Western political ideas going back to the Enlightenment and the great democratic revolutions.

In the economic field, an unreasonable and increasingly unmanageable system has given way to a commitment to the principles of the market. The outbursts of intolerance and violence may be widespread and may threaten many innocent people, but mankind must still feel greatly relieved because its survival is no longer so much at risk. It is an unacceptable tragedy that violence in some former communist countries has already claimed thousands of lives. But who has counted the victims killed and tormented by communism, who measured the unreported damage and suffering which was going on until the collapse of the system?

Indeed, post-communist Europe looks a very sick man in need of intensive treatment. This is what the doctors gathering for many consultations are trying to provide. Poverty and social indifference were the childhood diseases of capitalism. The former communist countries are now entering or re-entering capitalism, and they show many of the symptoms England developed after the industrial revolution and Friedrich Engels so eloquently described. But we have almost two hundred years of experience behind us to learn from, and an object lesson, Yugoslavia, to remind us what may happen if passions are let loose without any police force to stop the unruly elements.

The Day After has turned out not to be a world destroyed and no longer habitable; what we see is rather A Landscape After Battle, to borrow the title of a movie by the Polish director Andrzej Wajda. Indeed, there are no visible ruins (with the exception of homes, hospitals, churches and monuments destroyed in Croatia and now also in Bosnia and Karabakh) but the actual damage is very serious nonetheless. It is invisible, largely psychological, but it may lead to paralysis.

At the end of the Second World War, it was clear for everyone all over Europe that the ruins had to be cleared and everything had to be rebuilt, and that this work had to be done by the survivors of the deluge. But there were people then well versed in political pluralism and in enterprise management, the pre-requisites of the market had been left largely intact, and eventually substantial outside help became available, at least for Western Europe. There was also a very real military and political threat coming from Stalin's empire which brought home to many countries the need for internal and international reconciliation.

What is most needed today in the former communist countries is a mental framework which has long characterized most societies in the West: a conviction that by hard work, by the acquisition of knowledge and by a capacity for compromise one is bound to be able to overcome most problems and build a decent life. Our peoples should build up their self-confidence and realize that only they can bring themselves salvation. They also need a plan of action, a reasonable amount of national consensus, capital with low interest rates as well as advisers and experts who are ready to face harsh local conditions. In the international context, it is imperative for them to be ready to put aside old grievances, national rivalries and suspicions, and be determined to use only dialogue, rational arguments and democratic methods for settling any conflict. In short, peace, common sense, hard work and also outside help are needed so that the victims of communism can climb out of the abyss.

Post communist nationalism

In the last few months, the whole world has learned a lot about national conflicts but have we understood the real nature of post-communist nationalism? It is not nationalism in the proper sense of the word, i.e. dedication to a nation's traditions and basic interests, which is to blame for the current political tensions. Neither can we blame the demands of national minorities, those ethnic groups whose mother tongues differ from that of the majority. In fact, whatever conflict may emerge, it is and will be caused by insufficient democracy, by being unwilling to grant legitimate demands, by a fear of meeting the justified aspirations of various national groups which, so far, have been unable to assert their inalienable right for self-determination, for becoming responsible for themselves, for running their own affairs.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the genuine democrats know that human rights are indivisible, that self-determination cannot be applied selectively, that the use of force, particularly military force, is unacceptable for settling political and national differences. Unfortunately, among people who, for several generations, have lived under dictatorships of various colours and who have not been exposed to the enlightened political atmosphere in the Western democracies, it is quite natural to find many who eagerly repeat the new catchwords of democracy and that of the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) process, but who want democracy at best only for their kin and cannot bring themselves to apply it to those whose political beliefs, religion, language and national consciousness are different from their own. Just as no single political party and doctrine, so no single national identity may be used as a foundation for the newborn multi-ethnic democracies in Central and Eastern Europe.

Ironically, in the later phase of communism, the party bosses often turned to extreme nationalism. Their purpose was to win some measure of popular support and to prolong their control over the people. I see no greater danger for the new Europe, for the former communist countries, than the combination of the philosophy and strategy of communist dictatorship with intolerant nationalism. There, we face a contemporary version of national socialism.

As expressed by one of Hungary's great poets, a patriot defends rights, whereas a nationalist violates rights. The nations emerging from communism are inevitably strongly patriotic, since both national independence and democratic freedoms were denied to them, and now they have to restore their citizens' self-esteem and dedication to serve the renewal of their nations. But those who try to direct the energies of a nation towards new conquests, towards asserting its rule over people who are different in culture and who do not want to be directed by alien masters, those intolerant people are violating rights, and they represent the greatest danger for their own country as well as for the whole of Europe. This is the security dimension of the mistreatment of national minorities.

Silenced under Communism

As a result of wars, migrations and the introduction of new settlers, there are no ethnically homogeneous states in Central and Eastern Europe. The simmering problems of national minorities had not been evident before the democratic earthquake in Europe took place, because in the communist countries everybody except the ruling elite was politically suppressed. At the same time, those who did not belong to the dominant national community of the state suffered from dictatorship twice: once as every citizen did, but in addition, as members of the ethnic community whose identity was seriously threatened, who were powerless to prevent large numbers of newly arriving colonists to settle among them (as happened all over Eastern Europe), and whose language was steadily removed from the schools and from administration, from public life, even from the streets.

Their superiors, those holding leading positions in local communities, were increasingly drawn from the dominant national group, and who usually could not speak the language of the local majority. The slogan to cover up the oppression was internationalism, a new supranational identity, which was best described by the term Soviet Man. That, and more recently the term homogenization, meant assimilation: the dominance of one group, the wiping out of the language and culture of the minority. The oppression of whole nations and small ethnic minorities proceeded almost unnoticed by the outside world. They could not speak out, could not demonstrate. The nation-killers reduced them to silence.

Now, with communist dictatorship discredited and overthrown, the oppressed nations and minorities all want to assert themselves, and take their fate into their own hands. In the case of ethnically more or less homogeneous and/or historically definable entities, especially those which used to have an independent state existence, the aim is independence and national sovereignty, as has happened throughout the former Soviet Union. In the case of national groups which cannot claim independence because of their smaller size orbecause they live intermingled with another, larger national community, the demand is not independence but autonomy and/or collective rights. They are the national minorities. Not long ago, few people knew about them, they were seldom mentioned in the media, and certainly nothing was taught about them in the schools.

In Central and Eastern Europe these national minorities are not newcomers. They are not immigrants seeking jobs. They have centuries of tradition behind them in their native lands. Very often they became minorities only in the course of history, when wars and the subsequent reduction of their number were followed by the arrival of new peoples, settlers speaking different languages and having a different culture. Then, later, the frontiers changed and some groups became cut off from their own compatriots (that is the case with the 3.5 million Hungarians who live in the states around Hungary.)

What the Central and East European minorities want is not separation or a change in borders, but the right to keep their language and culture, to have their children educated in the language of their ancestors, to have local officials from mayors to policemen from their own ranks, who speak and think like everybody in the village or the town, and they want also the right to elect their own representatives to local and national assemblies and parliaments. Autonomy and collective rights mean neither more nor less.

The issue of national minorities underlies the problem in the Balkan region. The Serbs made up 36 per cent of the population of the former Yugoslavia with one third of them living outside the Serbian Republic. In Croatia, their number is about 600,000, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, close to 1.5 million. That is one of the major reasons why Serbia did not want to accept the secession of these republics. On the other hand, Serbia has full control over two formerly autonomous provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo. In the latter, about 90 per cent of the inhabitants are ethnic Albanians, while in the former there is a 400,000-strong Hungarian minority, but also 150,000 Croats as well as a sizeable number of Slovaks and Rusyns. In fact, in all the Southern Slav republics there are ethnic enclaves and/or ethnically mixed areas.

The same pattern can be seen in the former Soviet Union. There are millions of non-Russians living in it. In the new independent states hardly anywhere can one find an ethnically homogeneous population. With the drive towards separation and independence, many claims and counter-claims can be made for changes in the existing frontiers, and all the national minorities may face attempts to curtail their meagre linguistic rights and educational facilities.

Code of conduct

Before one raises one's hands in exasperation, it must be pointed out that autonomy in the form of local and regional self-government (functioning extremely well in the Swiss cantons) along the lines I have mentioned, offers a solution to all problems relating to the existence of national and ethnic minorities. Democracy prevails if all central and local authorities show bona fide respect for human rights in general and for the rights of ethnic communities in particular.

An all-European code of conduct safeguarding the rights of minorities should be adopted, to supplement existing conventions guarant eeing human rights, the rights of children, the rights of combatants, etc. Much work has already been done for such a charter. Elements of it can be found in the Charter of Paris of November 1990 (1). The CSCE Conference on the human dimension, held in Copenhagen, has already broken much ground (2), and the conference in Moscow went a little further. The Council of Europe and its experts have also made serious studies and come up with some excellent ideas. There are even some historical precedents to build upon: the protection of the minorities under the League of Nations, which was based upon special treaties signed with countries having national minorities. Governments should not be reluctant to work for such an arrangement and should not be hesitant to sign it. This would be a good preventive measure and its strict application and observance would pre-empt other crises likely to emerge along the lines we have had to observe in Yugoslavia. That is the only way to make the former communist countries safe for democracy.

One can only welcome the sober and responsible attitude which the CSCE countries have gradually adopted in the course of their deliberations about the Southern Slav crisis. While strongly condemning the gross and clear violations of relevant commitments by the Serbian authorities waging a war aimed at the destabilization and forcible disintegration of Bosnia-Herzegovina, they are equally resolute at expressing their displeasure with the Belgrade government's actions in Kosovo, which led to "one of the worst human rights problems in Europe".

However, democracy should also have a solid psychological foundation. In this context, I have referred to the mental damage we all suffered from in the former communist countries. Nazism, Fascism, and the other totalitarian and militaristic regimes of the 1930s and 1940s did similar damage, although their impact lasted for a far shorter period. After 1945, massive educational campaigns were very successful in making the population of these states aware of the crimes committed by the former dictatorships. As a result, not only did people learn the slogans of democracy, not only did they adopt well-written constitutions, but they really endorsed democracy. A similar campaign is badly needed now to tell the people of these countries what happened to them, who was responsible for their present plight, which way leads to moral renewal, to the understanding and adoption of pluralistic democracy.

A readiness to respect both neighbours and national, cultural and political minorities has to be developed. In addition to this political learning process, there should also be educational programmes concentrating on economic and social attitudes. The egalitarian ideology, never fulfilled in reality, must give way to the acceptance of competition, success and substantial diversity. All that must take place against the background of poverty, heavy pollution and the proximity of wealthy, prosperous nations, whose affluence is being brought into the homes of these unfortunate peoples on their television screens every day. This human conversion is an immense task, incomparably more difficult than the conversion of military hardware and production. The armies, first and foremost their officers and scientists, require special programmes for such a human conversion with the aim of not only retraining them for new jobs, but also making use of their considerable skills for peaceful purposes.

History has started a new course, but we can still determine not only its direction but also many of the details. By taking the right steps in the countries concerned and in the Western democracies, the present time of troubles can be over relatively soon. The historic moment has come when the Eastern half of the continent can follow the path our Western European friends embarked upon more than four decades ago, the one leading towards reconciliation among the nations, the abolition of customs barriers and the establishment of regional integration.

In the economic field, the task appears to be even more difficult. But let us not forget that possibilities for making use of the immensely rich resources of the former communist countries are very real. The whole world suffered when the Soviet Union ceased to be part of the world market. Now its return can become a source of new prosperity, as these people badly need all the commodities of the developed countries which are so hard to sell to an otherwise saturated market. Having won the Wild West, the new frontier is moving eastward. The emerging new world order will neither be a Pax Germanica, nor a Pax Americana. It can be a Pax Democratica, if all of us not only want it but are ready to make some sacrifice for it. NATO has won the Cold War and thus averted the Third World War, but it has yet to win the peace. If you in the West fail, all of us may become losers.


(1) The Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Text in NATO Review, No. 6, December 1990.

(2) See the Copenhagen meeting on the human dimension of the CSCE, Uffe Elleman-Jensen, NATO Review, No. 4, August 1990, p. 9.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1992.