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Hungary: Brezhnev’s Blessing

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“The Czechs showed what was impossible,” a Hungarian intellectual said recently. “We are testing the possible.” Last week, as the Hungarian Communist Party held its tenth party congress in Budapest, the country got a good idea of how well it is doing in the test.

As the Czechoslovaks so painfully learned in 1968, the ultimate trial of a reform plan in the East bloc is whether it passes muster with the Kremlin. Since Hungary is embarked on an economic reform that in some respects is similar to Prague’s ill-fated experiment, Hungarians and visitors alike were eager to hear what Soviet Party Leader Leonid Brezhnev would say about the Budapest plan of instituting private-enterprise incentives within a Communist-controlled society. His verdict: thumbs up. As long as the Communist Party retains its supremacy in all aspects of the country’s life, he said, “the Hungarian party’s approach meets with the full understanding and complete sympathy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

Brezhnev’s blessing meant that Hungary could press on with its New Economic Mechanism, which other Eastern European countries are watching closely to see how far they can go in reducing direct and often stifling party controls on the economy.

Under N.E.M., the Hungarians have curtailed the dictatorial powers of the central planners and placed economic decision making in the hands of local plant managers. The plan has wrought a mini-miracle since its launching at the beginning of 1968. Next only to East Germany, Hungary runs the East bloc’s most successful economy. Industrial output has increased 33% in the past five years, and real income has risen 30%.

In a major address, Hungarian Party Leader János Kádár reassured the Russian guests that his country would remain Moscow’s loyal ally. Hungary, he said, “rejected all forms of anti-Soviet attitudes.” Kádár also has no intention of frightening the Russians by allowing, as the Czechoslovaks did, the emergence of press and artistic freedom and the growth of a political opposition. Nonetheless, he has sanctioned an easing of the political climate by encouraging nonparty members to run for office under the auspices of the Communist Party.

Hasty Summit. Just about everyone of prominence in the East bloc was present in Budapest, with one highly significant exception: East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht. He stayed in East Berlin to show his displeasure with his Communist comrades for cozying up to West Germany. Ulbricht’s truancy brought a growing rift within the East bloc into public view for the first time.

To provide a pretext for his absence, the East German news agency carried a story that he was ill. But the very next day, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko flew into East Berlin from Moscow for talks with Ulbricht, who for a 77-year-old has shown remarkable recuperative powers.

By staying away from Budapest, Ulbricht also displayed his displeasure toward 1) Kádár for the slight liberalism Hungary is enjoying, 2) Poland for concluding a treaty with West Germany, 3) Polish Party Leader Wladyslaw Gomulka for inviting West German Chancellor Willy Brandt to Warsaw to sign the treaty, and 4) the Russians for sidestepping the issue of diplomatic recognition for East Germany.

East bloc diplomats admitted that there were difficulties between Moscow and East Berlin and that they have affected the slow-moving Big Four talks about improving the status of isolated West Berlin. One stumbling block may well be that the Russians are unable to induce Ulbricht to make concessions that would guarantee access between West Berlin and West Germany. In an effort to resolve the differences, the Communist leaders will meet this week in a hastily convened summit, which probably will be held in East Berlin.

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