Ukraine’s Unintended Consequences

NAIROBI – Now that Russia has occupied the Crimea Peninsula, the blame game has begun. US President Barack Obama has allowed yet another “red line” to be crossed, critics say. And everywhere there is loose talk of a “new Cold War” and the “price” to be paid by the Russian aggressors. But, in this fraught environment, we would do well to recall two historical precedents.

Twenty-five years ago, this month, Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth traveled to Moscow to seek Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s blessing for a radical experiment. Nemeth, barely 40, had been appointed by the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party only four months earlier. He was seen as a naïve young technocrat, charged with reforming the ailing Hungarian economy. He was expected to fail. Then he and his “reforms” could be blamed for the country’s troubles.

Nemeth, however, was anything but naïve. And he had a secret aim: to take Hungary out of the Soviet bloc and steer it to the West. His weapon of choice was democracy. Within a few months, he planned to hold Hungary’s first free election. What would happen, I asked him at the time, if the communists lost? “We would step down,” Nemeth replied, “as in any other civilized democracy.”

In communist Eastern Europe, that was apostasy. And Gorbachev, hearing of the young Hungarian’s plans, was outraged. Communist leadership in Hungary was not something for the mere people to decide, he spluttered. A full, free, and fair election? It would set a terrible example for the rest of the Soviet bloc.