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Hungary Index

In the late 1980s, numerous signs pointed to an enlivening of cultural and intellectual life. The bounds of permissible expression became wider as authorities eased restrictions on artistic, intellectual, and political expression.

Until the mid-1980s, outright opposition to the regime and its social, political, and cultural policies was undertaken primarily by intellectuals. However, the relative success of the economy after 1968 made it difficult for dissidents to attract broad followings. The working class was politically quiescent, being the beneficiary of full employment and generous welfare provisions. The government's response to its critics was to acknowledge their existence but also to stress their small numbers and irrelevance. Few official punitive actions such as arrests or trials took place, but the authorities did use lowlevel police harassment, surveillance, and other forms of indirect pressure. Prominent individuals found their movements watched and occasionally hindered by the police. Less eminent people sometimes received threats to their jobs and careers. Authorities denied some individuals permission to travel abroad or, at the other extreme, urged them to emigrate. The police conducted occasional house searches and levied fines for illicit printing or distribution of unauthorized publications (samizdat). Most dissidents faced only sporadic repression but also minimal public response.

In addition to the continuing efforts of dissident intellectuals, several groups of protesters pursued specific social or political goals in the early 1980s. The law did not recognize conscientious objection and prescribed up to five years' imprisonment as punishment for refusal to perform military service. Beginning in 1977, however, members of certain small Christian sects, such as the Nazarenes, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists, were allowed to perform unarmed military service (see Conscientious Objection , ch. 5). This privilege was not available to Roman Catholics and members of larger Protestant denominations, whose church hierarchies had a history of supporting the establishment. As of 1986, Amnesty International reported that as many as 150 Hungarian conscientious objectors were in prison, most of them Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to perform even the alternative military service available to them. In the early 1980s, an independent peace movement of significant proportions developed (called Peace Group for Dialogue, or Dialogus), made up primarily of university students and recent university graduates. Facing official hostility and unable to initiate a dialogue with the authorities, the organization disbanded in 1983. Its members and other persons formed other smaller groups and engaged in small-scale independent activity. Under pressure from the authorities, some of these small groups eventually merged with the officially recognized National Peace Council.

In the mid-1980s, the ecology, or "Green," movement was the largest independent movement. Its supporters opposed the joint project of the Czechoslovak and Hungarian governments, financed partially by the Austrian government, to build the GabcikovoNagymaros Dam at the border where the Danube River crosses from Czechoslovakia to Hungary (see Relations with Other Communist Neighbors , ch. 4). Demonstrations attracted as many as 20,000 people. Several smaller environmental organizations also engaged in small-scale public awareness campaigns. The environmental groups often sought to maintain distance between themselves and dissident political groups, both to legitimize their viewpoint vis-a-vis the government and to attract wider support. Environmentalists were very cautious in their response to the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl' nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union, which was a politically sensitive issue. The government criticized independent environmental groups, accusing activists of pandering to nationalist sentiments and permitting foreign agitators to intrude. The official press generally ignored the activities and statements of the environmentalists. Occasionally, the police harassed their leaders. Nevertheless, environmental issues appeared to be of great interest to the public, many of whom signed protest petitions and attended meetings in significant numbers.

In the late 1980s, opportunities for self-expression expanded greatly and abruptly. The party itself was planning to establish a limited multiparty political system in the country (see Amendments of 1972 , ch. 4). Increasingly, party members acknowledged public criticism of conditions in society and responded to them. And in the late 1980s, for the first time in decades, the authorities occasionally permitted demonstrations calling for changes in policy. However, signals sent by the government to the public were somewhat mixed; occasional arrests and mistreatment of dissidents continued, and police broke up some demonstrations. In the late 1980s, individuals began testing the limits of the government's less restrictive approach. The system of informal self-censorship, which had operated since the 1960s, appeared to be foundering (see Mass Media , ch. 4). Historians called for archival sources on the nation's recent history to be opened and freely examined by impartial scholars. A variety of independent publishers and periodicals appeared, dealing with sensitive issues or publishing the works of authors previously considered taboo. The official press and occasionally even television journalism were becoming more outspoken on virtually all issues, possibly in response to growing competition for the public's attention.

As freedom of association became more extensive (a more permissive law was officially adopted in 1989), a number of groups emerged with interests spanning the entire range of social and political life. The focus of many new associations revealed a growing popular interest in public affairs. The groups ranged in outlook from the neo-Stalinist Ferenc Munnich Society, founded in 1988, to the "Openness Club," also founded in 1988, which sought to promote complete freedom of the press, television, and radio.

Some groups with definite political leanings hoped eventually to function as viable political parties. Others sought merely to represent and publicize the viewpoints of members. Several of the latter received particular attention throughout the country. In September 1987, a group of about 150 intellectuals, including some party members, formed the Hungarian Democratic Forum to sponsor public debates on social and political policy. At first the regime seemed to welcome the Forum, apparently hoping to reap the support of previously disaffected intellectuals. However, the Forum's status later became less clear, as some of the participating party members were expelled from the party. In 1988 a group of students established a new national organization called the Federation of Young Democrats. A politically radical group, it aimed to establish a democratic Hungary, but its leaders denied any plans to form a political party. In 1989, together with five other organizations, the Hungarian Democratic Forum and the Federation of Young Democrats formed what became known as the Opposition Roundtable to discuss a variety of social and political policy options.

In the late 1980s, more than at any time in the previous four decades, the Hungarian people lacked a consensus on the proper social goals of the country. Some observers, both within the country and abroad, feared that if economic conditions worsened as predicted, latent conflicts among social groups would destabilize the country, especially in the absence of strong state and party influence, which was no longer considered legitimate in the eyes of the populace. However, other observers stressed the opportunities for the emergence of new, fresh ideas and the vigorous, healthy debates that were occurring throughout Hungarian society. The latter assessment gave genuine grounds for optimism.

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For a retrospective view of aspects of society's development, Zsuzsa Ferge's A Society in the Making is helpful. Both Hungarian and Western ethnographers have shown special interest in Hungarian rural life and its modern evolution. Two valuable studies are Edit Fel and Tamas Hofer's Proper Peasants and Peter D. Bell's Peasants in Socialist Transition. Hungarian Ethnography and Folklore by Hungarian ethnographers Ivan Balassa and Gyula Ortutay contains a wealth of detail as well as illustrations of traditional Hungarian folkways. For the current urban perspective, Peter A. Toma's Socialist Authority provides a readable, somewhat journalistic overview. The Hungarian government's Central Statistical Office publishes statistical yearbooks in English that incorporate much information concerning past and present social structure. The Foreign Broadcast Information Service's Daily Report: East Europe offers current reporting of major social developments as depicted in the Hungarian media. The reports published by Radio Free Europe contain valuable information and analyses as well. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of September 1989

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