Eastern Europeans owe the Iron Lady a debt of gratitude

András Simonyi
MARGARET Thatcher’s obituaries rightly praise her contribution to the development of free market ideas and the transatlantic relationship. But equally vital was her role in ending the devastating reign of Communism over the peoples of Eastern Europe. She was one of the few European leaders to seriously care about and engage early with the “captive nations” of the region.

Thatcher was certainly a leader of strong convictions and ideals, but was in no way an idealist. Although she was willing to show resolve and greeted Soviet aggression with steadfast opposition, she didn’t refuse to engage with Communist countries.

At the height of East-West tensions, she visited Hungary in February 1984. Symbolism abounded. The Soviets desperately tried to dissuade the Hungarians from agreeing to the visit. They thought that, disguised as building bridges between East and West, Thatcher would drive a wedge between Hungary and the Soviet Union. They were right on both counts – she achieved both.

János Kárdár, the Communist leader of Hungary at the time, wanted the visit to happen, and performed his famous balancing act vis a vis Moscow. He was flattered by Thatcher, and she played her part well. She wanted Britain to play a role in easing East-West tensions, and Hungary seemed the right place to demonstrate that.

The photo she is remembered by in Hungary, however, reflects her other side – both symbolic and inspirational. She stands in the Old Market of Budapest, the pride of a once thriving Hungarian economy (good old capitalism), holding a string of dried paprika (a Hungarian symbol), and talking to the private vendor. She wanted Hungarians to know: “Here I am, a powerful woman from the West, but also a grocer’s daughter and your friend. I can relate to you and I am encouraging you.” It demonstrated her superb ability to wield soft power, even before the term was invented. For many Hungarians she represented the possibility of a new age.

Symbolically, the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov died four days after the visit, clearing the way for the ascent of Mikail Gorbachev and the tectonic changes of 1989. Thatcher became, together with US President Ronald Reagan, a champion for change in Central Europe, for the cause of freedom and democracy.

Perhaps her early impressions in Hungary laid the foundations for that. She understood that these countries, once mere satellites of the Soviet Union, needed to embark on their road to freedom. Eastern Europe owes her a great deal of sincere gratitude. Those who saw her as only the relentless, iron-fisted leader miss the point. It was her ability to match pragmatism with her core liberal values that made her unique.

Now, when the scarcest of all commodities in the world seems to be true leadership, you wonder if there is another grocer’s daughter in the Western world, a woman with a spine who can lead us out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into.

András Simonyi is managing director of the Centre for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University, and a former Hungarian ambassador to the US and NATO.