BUDAPEST — Hundreds of Hungarians gathered at Liberty Square on Wednesday to witness the unveiling of a statue of Ronald Reagan and celebrate the man they credit with ending communist rule in their country.
At a ceremony in the square, home to the U.S. Embassy, Prime Minister Viktor Orban praised the 40th president as a man who changed Central Europe.
"Today, we are erecting here a statue to the man, to the leader, who changed, who renewed, this world and created in it a new world for us in Central Europe - a man who believed in freedom, who believed in the moral strength of freed people and that walls that stand in the way of freedom can be brought down," Mr. Orban said.
Mr. Reagan left office after two terms in January 1989, a few months before communist governments began collapsing in Europe.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who chaired a visiting congressional delegation at the ceremony, noted that Mr. Reagan's statue would look out at a nearby World War I monument to fallen Soviet soldiers - Budapest's last tribute to communism.
"To me, it brings up that he's going to trust but verify," the California Republican quipped, referring to a famous Reagan line about dealing with the Soviet Union.
Nancy Reagan, Mr. Reagan's 89-year-old widow, could not attend the event, but she sent former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as her emissary.
Miss Rice said she hoped the Reagan statue in Liberty Square will remind people that "there are still men, women and children who live in tyranny."
"Whenever we stand in this square and look at this statue, let us pledge that their cause is not helpless. They are not alone. We will stand with them," said Miss Rice, who helped forge alliances with Hungary and other former communist countries as a National Security Council aide under President George H.W. Bush, who was Mr. Reagan's vice president and successor.
The Budapest celebration occurred during a week of similar Reagan commemorations in London and Prague, and in Krakow, Poland - all part of a year of Reagan Foundation events in honor of the centennial of the 40th president's birth.
Missouri's recently retired Republican senator, Christopher S. Bond, whose wife Linda organized the four-nation string of events, said he was touched so many countries were honoring Mr. Reagan. He also took a veiled swipe at President Obama.
"When [Polish anti-communist leader] Lech Walesa spoke on May 24, he said, 'When Ronald Reagan was there. America led the world in the push for freedom,' " Mr. Bond told The Washington Times. "I guess now somebody in the European Union is going to have to take it over."
Following Wednesday's unveiling, local residents and tourists alike posed for photographs beside Mr. Reagan's statue, with the Hungarian parliament building's crimson cupola in the background.
Budapest native Kornelia Budai, 76, said that the day reminded her of friends who died in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which was crushed by Soviet forces.
She recalled that, as a young teenager after World War II, the communist government shut down her Catholic school and sent her to a new academy where Russian-language classes were mandatory.
"Ronald Reagan was a symbol of freedom for the peoples of Eastern Europe," Ms. Budai said. "We loved him not just as a president, but as a man."
Christopher Ball, an economics professors at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University, said he and his Hungarian-born wife reshuffled their travel plans so they could take their eight-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son to see the new statue.
"Reagan clearly put the U.S. in many ways back on the map. He gave us a lot of pride again in our own country," Mr. Ball said, adding that he thought Mr. Reagan's advocacy of freedom made Liberty Square an apt home for his statue.
Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen said Wednesday that, while there are strong differences of opinion among the people of Eastern Europe, "when it comes to respecting the legacy of Ronald Reagan, we are indeed united."
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