- - Tuesday, June 28, 2011

BUDAPEST — A larger-than-life (7 feet, 2 inches tall) bronze likeness of former President Ronald Reagan will stand in Freedom Square in this historic city - which he never visited, but which is the first in the former Eastern bloc to erect a statue in recognition of his role in dismantling the Soviet empire.

It will be unveiled by Prime Minister Victor Orban, leader of Hungary’s conservative government. The Hungarians, according to a recent government statement, “will always remember with gratitude the unchallengeable role played by the United States and President Reagan in bringing the Cold War to a conclusion, and for the fact that Hungary regained its sovereignty in the process.”

The powerful work by Hungarian sculptor Istvan Mate captures the president in mid-stride. Along with the issuance of Reagan commemorative stamps by the Hungarian post office, the statue marks the centennial of the 40th president’s birth. In Prague, the Czechs are naming a downtown street after him, but no statue.

The original plan had been for the statue to face Hungary’s parliament a block away. But the Hungarians turned it round, and Reagan now strides purposefully towards a 40-foot high World War II obelisk 50 yards away in the center of the square. It commemorates Soviet troops who died in Hungary fighting the Nazis.

There is symbolism in this because the Hungarians would dearly love to move the obelisk to some less prominent location in the capital, but have agreed with the Russians not to touch it.

The Reagan statue would seem bound to irritate the Russians, whom the Hungarians have a history of angering. There was the abortive uprising in 1956, of course, and after the Cold War the Hungarians and other East Europeans aroused the ire of the Russians by the alacrity with which they joined NATO, the old enemy. 

But there has been no comment on the statue out of Moscow. In an interview, Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi shrugged off the potential diplomatic fallout. “You can’t please everybody,” he said, “and besides, we have good relations with Moscow.”   

Mr. Mate, who never met Reagan, based his likeness on photos. The artist recently told the Associated Press that he had to work quickly to finish the statue in time. The commission came from the Orban government (with support from the California-based Reagan Foundation) after the center-right Fidesz party’s victory in the April 2010 election. The socialist government that had been in power for the previous eight years was hardly likely to have ordered such a tribute - particularly since there already is a bust of Reagan in Budapest, unveiled less than five years ago.

A large screen has been set up to show scenes from Reagan’s life during Wednesday’s unveiling, at which former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Edwin Meese, Reagan’s attorney general, were due to speak.

But some noted that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who famously hailed the former communist satrapies as “the New Europe” for supporting the Iraq War (as opposed to “the Old Europe,” which did not), was not on the list of U.S. guests.

The week’s schedule of events in Budapest requires a delicate choreography of U.S. high-level visitors because the day following the unveiling Ms. Rice’s successor will also be in town. In Budapest for talks with Mr. Orban, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is also expected to attend the opening Thursday of an institute of human rights named after the late Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who was born in Hungary.

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