The Washington Diplomat / November 2006
By Larry Luxner
On a cold, dreary November day in 1956, four-year-old András Simonyi and his older brother stood on the balcony of their family's Budapest apartment, staring in shock as huge, menacing Soviet tanks rumbled down their street.
"For a kid, it was exciting," Simonyi told us. "I remember it all very clearly, and what I remember most vividly was my mother screaming 'get back!' Only recently did I realize that she was probably afraid of the sharpshooters taking us down."
Like millions of his countrymen, Simonyi — today Hungary's ambassador to the United States — grew up in the shadow of the 1956 uprising, a historical event whose 50th anniversary this month is being commemorated in dozens of countries around the world as a victory of the human spirit over totalitarianism.
But that anniversary has been marred by massive anti-government rioting that has left hundreds injured and rocked Budapest over the past two months. The uproar began in September when hundreds of protesters demanded the resignation of current Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany after a tape revealed that he had lied about the state of the economy to win re-election in April.
More recent clashes took place in October coinciding with the 50th anniversary celebrations. At one point protesters even hijacked a Soviet-era tank that was part of an exhibit on the uprising and drove it toward police, who quickly quelled the rioting with rubber bullets, water cannon and teargas to disperse the crowd, bringing a tenuous calm back to Budapest.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian government has pledged to stand by the embattled prime minister, who blamed the rioting on his opposition.
The embassy could not be reached for comment on the latest round of rioting, but it is clear that Simonyi does not want the recent political turbulence to overshadow the larger picture of Hungary’s tremendous democratic gains.
"Fifty years ago, the Hungarians rose up against Soviet domination. It was short-lived but very intense," he explained. "It started out as a peaceful demonstration in support of Polish workers who had demanded liberalization, and it very quickly turned into a revolution against communism, and a fight for freedom and democracy. It was the first real effort by any country in the Eastern bloc to rid itself of Soviet domination."
The first protest erupted on Oct. 23, 1956, and within days, millions of Hungarians joined the revolution to fight the hated Stalinist regime and its supporters. Although Soviet troops finally crushed rebel armies on Nov. 4, those 12 days were immortalized as a brief period of freedom and glory.
The uprising claimed the lives of 2,500 Hungarians; in the months and years that followed, hundreds more were executed by the Marxist regime reinstated by Moscow. In its aftermath, more than 200,000 Hungarians fled into neighboring countries, many finding their way to the United States.
The uprising failed, of course, and communism endured in Hungary for another 33 years. But the seeds of democracy had already been planted, and there was no turning back.
"Almost immediately after that, Hungary embarked on a slow liberalization of the system, with setbacks along the way," said Simonyi, interviewed for an hour and a half last month at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. "But in the end, there was a reason why Hungary broke the mold. And the reason is that the communists were never able to introduce a tough regime like the one they had before 1956. In a way, 1956 was our protection by the time 1989 came along."
The most remarkable thing about András Simonyi (pronounced Shimoni) is that he doesn't seem like a typical ambassador at all.
At 54, he looks, talks and acts like a rock star in his 30s. Maybe that's because music has played such an important part in his life. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain, the young Simonyi would up late at night, listening to the latest hits on Radio Free Europe and Radio Luxembourg. He even started his own band.
"In the 1960s and early 70s, I built myself a world around rock and roll. For me, when I was listening to music and playing electric guitar, I was in the West. This was my way of bridging this horrible barrier. Rock and roll was to me what the Internet is today for young people."
Although rock music was considered subversive, he explained, "by the late '60s, the authorities realized there was not much they could do about it. In the 70s, they tried to figure out a peaceful coexistence with rock music, but they basically failed because this music made us more Western. Even so, it was never freely accessible until the very late '80s."
One of the most memorable days in Simonyi's life was July 7, 1968 —the day the young rocker met Steve Wynwood.
Steve didn't know how he got to Hungary. He had never been there before, and never came again," said Simonyi, who by coincidence reconnected with Wynwood for lunch the day before our interview. "That was my world. I really hated the system. Until I met my wife Nada, I always that that what I was doing was preparing to get out of this whole mess."
Granted, Simonyi was among the lucky ones. His father was a textile engineer with extensive ties to the West. The young man grew up reading English-language comic books and hanging out with the American children in Copenhagen (This explains his impeccable, unaccented English, not to mention Hungarian, Danish, French, German, Dutch and Serbo-Croatian).
"My idea was to eventually settle in the West, specifically Denmark," he recalled. "In 1973, I was standing on the train station in Copenhagen. I called my mom and told her I wasn't coming home. She said, 'OK, don't come home, but you won't see us for another 15 years.' If you wanted a career or wanted to travel, you had to join the Communist Party or leave the country. And leaving was not an option for me because if I did, my father and siblings would lose their jobs."
Tormented by such a choice, Simonyi did the unthinkable — he joined the Party.
"At first, the Party didn't want to have me," he said. "I came into the establishment pretty late in the '80s, but the establishment saw itself as part of the change. Like many other liberals, I was a member of the Communist Party. But was I a communist? Never. But we saw the importance of loosening the system from within. Was I a hero? Of course not, because there were hundreds and hundreds of others. I never had a guarantee that this would be a success."
In the end, he said, three factors were essential in bringing down communism in Hungary.
The first was support from foreign leaders, most importantly Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
"In 1989, Bush came to Budapest and he felt something in the air. His presence meant that this time around, the United States would not just watch," he said. "By that time, Hungary had opened to the world. It had also built very strong economic ties to the West."
The second factor was a growing opposition movement within Hungary. Weirdly enough, he said, this opposition grew out of the peace movement, which in 1983 bravely declared that there was no difference between U.S. missiles and Soviet missiles. "Up until then, the officially accepted logic was that Western missiles were bad, and Russian missiles were good," he said.
The third and perhaps most important factor is what Simonyi calls a "fermentation" within Hungary's communist establishment.
"I'm proud that I was part of that fermentation," he said. "I had never in my life imagined I would be a member of the Communist Party. But life under a dictatorship is more complicated than most people think. Life takes precedence if you seriously want to preserve the integrity of your family. You cannot blame anyone for trying to get the best out of a lousy system. But at the same time, we had our beliefs. Underneath the surface, we lived our Western lives."
As a very junior desk officer in Hungary's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Simonyi in 1983 started an exchange program between his country and the American Council of Young Political Leaders.
"People don't realize how important these exchanges are," he said. "Once you open the world to communications, it really makes a difference."
In 1986, he and his colleagues were responsible for pushing Hungary to adopt the UN Declaration of Human Rights. His department, which he called "the most radical in the ministry," also single-handedly established diplomatic ties with Israel and South Korea — a daring move considering Soviet antipathy towards both of those countries.
"By 1987, some independent organizations were established, and these organizations were the nucleus of later democratic parties. By that time, Hungary had opened to the world, and had also built very strong economic ties to the West," he said.
"You could have stopped Hungary from becoming a real democracy only if the Russians had rolled in, and in 1989, we were not sure if the Russians would come or not. They could have thrown Gorbachev out at any time, and it would have been a great pretext to protect the interests of socialism. Our only guarantee was that we were moving fast. In critical times, you need to show courage, and that you stand by certain principles, and I think that's what happened in 1989."
That's the year Hungary opened its border to thousands of fleeing East Germans, in an event that marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. But Simonyi says no one should be surprised that Hungary started the ball rolling.
"We're not Slavic, we're Western," he said. "While I have a great deal of respect for Russian culture, the Soviet domination was so alien, so weird. Culturally, we had no relationship with Russia whatsoever. We were the most liberal of all Eastern bloc countries, without any doubt. This liberalism is what led to the pioneering work we did."
In October 1989, Hungary's Communist Party convened its final congress and re-established itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party. Over a four-day period, the parliament adopted legislation calling for multi-party elections and a direct presidential election.
That triggered a wave of discontent in East Germany, where tens of thousands of people escaped to the West via Hungary's border with Austria. On Oct. 23, 1989 — exactly 33 years after the 1956 revolution began — Hungary was declared a democratic republic.
In the spring of 1990, free electrions were held for the first time in 45 years. Simonyi, meanwhile, immediately began promoting Hungarian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
"At that time, the idea was still rejected by the West," he said. "Their view was that these countries should remain outside NATO. I was the first Hungarian diplomat to work full-time on the issue of NATO membership. In 1992, we moved to Brussels and stayed there for nine years."
In Brussels, Simonyi served first as Hungary's deputy chief of mission before the European Community and NATO, and then as head of Hungary's NATO Liaison Office.
Hungary was finally admitted to NATO in 1999, and Simonyi was appointed Hungary's first permanent representative on the NATO council — a job he held until September 2002, when he was officially named Hungary's ambassador to the United States.
Perhaps the most important milestone, however, took place on May 1, 2004, when Hungary and nine other countries officially joined the European Union.
"The prospect of NATO and EU membership has forced upon us a certain economic, institutional and political discipline, and I think the Hungarian transition was successful," he said. "We created democratic institutions fairly quickly. We also created a pretty solid economy."
Hungary's 10 million people today enjoy a per-capita income of about $14,000 — more than 60% of the EU average. That puts it in the same league as the Czech Republic, still behind Portugal and Greece, but far ahead of Poland.
"In just 10 years, we have moved from a manufacturing economy to a service economy," he said. "This is really thanks to a total change in ownership laws, privatization and foreign investment."
At the same time, said Simonyi, "we have a great responsibility to make sure the terrorist threat is fought not only by the United States but by all Europe, including Hungary.
"We're allies, and our security is still pretty much dependent upon our cooperation with the United States. We want to be a good ally, and I think NATO is a core institution of the transatlantic relationship. Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, even people who oppose the war in Iraq still stay it was good that Hungary stuck with the United States in time of trouble."
Although Hungary no longer has troops in Iraq, it does have a few hundred soldiers in Afghanistan, and is "very much engaged" in the Balkans — specifically Kosovo, an autonomous district populated by Muslim Albanians but controlled by Serbia.
One country democratic Hungary might help at some point is Cuba, which is one of only four communist-ruled nations left in the world (the others are China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam).
Simonyi traveled to Cuba 28 years ago as a delegate to a youth festival. Given his political views, he clearly would not be welcome there today.
"The Hungarians chartered a Pan Am aircraft. I really thought that was a sign of the times," he said. "Don't forget that in 1978, for such a thing to happen, you needed authoriziations on the very highest levels. We could have chartered a Czech plane or a Soviet plane, but we flew into Havana on an American plane. That was a strong statement."
So, does this 54-year-old rocker-turned-diplomat have any advice for fledgling young democracies?
Yes, he says, "but we have to be honest about the problems and difficulties of transition."
"Don't have illusions," he cautioned. "It's not easy, but it's rewarding. In Hungary, there have been more winners than losers, by far. Hungary's most important resource is its talent and creativity, and these do not go well with dictatorships. Talent and creativity can only flourish in an atmosphere of freedom and independence."
Simonyi added: " I do not believe you can impose change entirely from the outside. That is against the logic of a society. But others can help, and I think it's our responsibility to do so."