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Laszlo Solyom, a Transitional President of Hungary, Dies at 81

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Laszlo Solyom, a legal scholar who helped guide Hungary in its transition to a free-market democracy after the fall of Communism in 1989, presiding over his country’s Constitutional Court and then serving as its president from 2005 to 2010, died on Oct. 8 in Budapest. He was 81.

Marton Hovanyi, a senior lecturer at Eotvos Lorand University, where Mr. Solyom once taught law, confirmed the death but did not specify the cause, saying only that it came after a long illness.

Mr. Solyom, a law professor in Budapest, was part of a generation of Central European intellectuals who, beginning in the 1980s, laid the groundwork for the transition away from Communism through the formation of nongovernmental organizations that expanded the scope of civic society.

He was a leading figure in the Danube Circle, an environmental coalition that opposed dams and other projects along his country’s main waterway — a form of protest masked as ecological activism.

He was a founding member of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which emerged after 1989 as the country’s main center-right party. And he took part in the Opposition Round Table Talks, a series of meetings to plan the political and legal frameworks for post-Communist Hungary.

By then he had developed a reputation for his astute scholarship on privacy rights, knowledge that made him an obvious choice to be one of the founding justices on Hungary’s Constitutional Court, the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. He joined it in 1989 and a year later became chief justice.

In that role he helped guide Hungary toward the rule of law and individual rights. The court struck down capital punishment, supported personal privacy protections and defended free speech.

A scholarly, reserved figure who once told an interviewer, “I don’t make friends easily,” Mr. Solyom left the court in 1998, eager to return to his academic work.

But seven years later, he was called back to public life by the Hungarian Parliament, which elected him the country’s president.

Though the presidency is, on paper, largely ceremonial, and while Mr. Solyom promised that he would be “restrained” in office, he soon asserted himself as the country’s political conscience, demonstrating and reinforcing the norms and mores that he said were necessary in a healthy democratic society.

His term coincided with a tumultuous time for the country. Its economy was growing steadily, and in 2004 Hungary joined the European Union. President George W. Bush, eager to find European allies, hailed Hungary as a shining example of a “New Europe,” in contrast to countries like Germany and France, whose leaders had rankled Mr. Bush for criticizing the invasion of Iraq.

But Mr. Solyom kept Washington at a measured distance. When Mr. Bush traveled to Budapest in 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution — an uprising against the country’s Communist leaders that was brutally suppressed by the Soviet Army — Mr. Solyom endorsed a fight against terror that was “in line with international law and to honor international human rights,” a comment that many in the news media took as an unsubtle dig at his guest.

That same year Hungary faced a period of political unrest, including rioting in the streets, after Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted that he had lied about economic forecasts to improve the chances of his party, the Socialists, in national elections.

After days of demonstrations, Mr. Solyom called for Mr. Gyurcsany to resign. He refused, and even survived a vote of no confidence in Parliament. Mr. Gyurcsany remained in office three more years.

The episode turned many Hungarians against the political establishment; in a national poll in 2006, Mr. Solyom was ranked as the country’s most trusted politician, though he earned just 23 percent approval.

Close behind him, at 19 percent, was Viktor Orban, a former prime minister whose party, Fidesz, had supported Mr. Solyom’s candidacy for president in 2005. But when it came time for re-election, in 2010, Mr. Orban threw his decisive support to another candidate, Pal Schmitt.

Mr. Orban and Fidesz, with their populist, anti-establishment message, dominated the elections that year. Mr. Orban returned as prime minister, a position he still holds. In 2011 he led the passage of a new Constitution that Mr. Solyom said eroded many of the safeguards he had spent decades building.

“The drafting process had lost its dignity by descending to the level of common parliamentary wrangling,” he wrote in Heti Valasz, a weekly newspaper. But, he added, “Hungary will stay among the European democracies even under the new Constitution.”

Laszlo Solyom was born on Jan. 3, 1942, in Pecs, a city in southern Hungary, a son of Ferenc Solyom, a lawyer, and Aranka Lelkes.

As a high school student he took part in street protests during the Hungarian Revolution, though he escaped the political reprisals that followed. Later, as president, he refused to give a state award to Gyula Horn, a former prime minister who, as a young man, had supported the Soviet invasion in 1956.

Mr. Solyom received a law degree in 1965 from the University of Pecs and a doctorate in law in 1969 from Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, East Germany. He returned to work as a researcher at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

He later taught law at Eotvos Lorand University and Peter Pazmany Catholic University, both in Budapest.

He married Erzsebet Nagy in 1966. She died in 2015. He is survived by his daughter, Beata Solyom; his son, Benedek Solyom; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

After leaving office, Mr. Solyom created a scholarship for young Hungarian researchers to study overseas. He also became a reliable critic of the Orban government but gradually withdrew from public life, especially after the death of his wife. A quietly religious man, he spent his last years translating works dealing with Roman Catholic canon law.

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