New Internationalist

Hungarian soufflé

Issue 366

The communist system in Hungary was not overthrown. It simply imploded. Alex Bandy now sees a country uneasy about its past and uncertain about its future.

Argus / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com (top), Mark Henley / Panos / www.panos.co.uk (bottom)
Out with the old, in with the new – Soviet troops exit to the east and transnational corporations enter from the west. Argus / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com (top), Mark Henley / Panos / www.panos.co.uk (bottom)

WHY did people put up with this?’ asked a friend’s teenage son after his dad reeled off Hungary’s post-war history of deportations, political kidnappings, show trials, murders and secret police. In a real sense, his incomprehension is the best news about Hungary today. With the rule of law and political pluralism firmly in place, those under 30 cannot comprehend what their parents and grandparents went through.

But going back to the boy’s question – older Hungarians would argue that, indeed, they did not tolerate the worst aspects of Hungarian communism for long. After all, they rose (unsuccessfully) in armed revolt in 1956. The victory cost the Soviet Union a great deal – not just in money and lives but also in prestige and global infl uence. It was largely Hungarian defiance that led their communist rulers to make concessions by the mid-1960s and earn Hungary the bittersweet title of ‘the happiest barracks in the camp’.

Janos Kadar – put in power by the Kremlin after the 1956 revolt – went from being the most hated man in the country to a genuinely popular politician. ‘Those who are not against us are for us’ sums up his position, meaning that if people leave politics alone, politics will leave them alone. His popularity increased when he allowed some private ownership of property including household plots of land and some family businesses. People started enjoying a standard of living previously unknown with job security, full employment, subsidized vacations, free medical (and dental) care and no inflation. Consumer fraud, media manipulation (different from transparent communist propaganda), political corruption, organized crime, pyramid schemes and the like were simply unknown. But restricted travel was allowed to hard-currency countries where Hungarian tourists were exposed to streets full of private cars and glittering shop windows. A belief took hold that if only the communists would leave, Hungary would in a short time be just like Austria. Then came Mikhail Gorbachev and the rebirth of hope that genuine change was possible. By 1988 a broad range of grassroots organizations were starting up. Eduard Shevardnadze (then Soviet foreign minister) warned his Eastern European colleagues that they could not count on Moscow to help keep them in power. Their days were numbered.

In globalism’s grasp

The changes came fast and furious. Czechoslovakia had its ‘Velvet Revolution’ while in Hungary it was the ‘Soufflé Revolution’ – communist rule simply collapsed like a soufflé gone wrong. There was no bloodshed. The huge Communist Party (700,000 members in a country of 10 million) simply imploded. There were round-table negotiations of various new political groupings, followed by elections. Red army units exited to the east and transnationals entered from the west.

The shops filled with fancy imports but wages remained at the same level and inflation started to erode purchasing power. Factories at first tried to stay afloat by cutting everything deemed inessential. Workers’ hostels went on to the market to be quickly snapped up by Western investors and turned into hotels. The workers who lived there could not afford sublets – much less a hotel room – and ended up back in their villages collecting meagre unemployment benefits. Even today some villages in eastern Hungary have unemployment rates of 70 to 80 per cent: even 100 per cent is not unknown. The big losers in the changes have been the Roma people: in 1990 about 30 per cent lived under the poverty line while today it is closer to 70 per cent.

Soon the vast fire-sale known as privatization began and everything that belonged to the ‘people’ was sold to those with the most money – or the best contacts. Communist Party apparatchiks, state industry managers and administration officials used their Rolodexes as their capital to become highly paid consultants, managers, entrepreneurs.

In dollar terms as well as in the local currency (the forint) some of these ‘access capitalists’ became millionaires – among them the current Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy and his Minister of Youth and Sport Ferenc Gyurcsany. ‘ I was in the right place at the right time,’ retorted Gyurcsany when the Opposition attacked him for his acquisitions during the great rip-off. After decades of price stability, hardpressed Hungarians are learning to hunt for bargains and new words like ‘lobby’ (influence peddling) and ‘offshore’ – words for which there are no Hungarian equivalents – are now commonplace in the daily press. An inadequate social safety net was cobbled together in haste while the near bankrupt country groaned under debt-servicing payments. There are many shocks, but no absorbers.

Workers’ wayside

Most people coped. They showed they could hold their place under highly competitive circumstances. They started small businesses and if they failed they tried again. Representatives of major transnationals praised the quality of skilled labour they found and expressed satisfaction off-the-record with the weakness (or total absence) of trade unions.

But in the past couple of years, globalism has caught up with Hungary. Several manufacturers have shifted production to Romania, the Baltics or China for cheaper labour after the minimum wage was raised. When a Newsweek feature on globalism led with a lengthy quote from the Communist Manifesto, locals raised on Marx and Engels (and who had not believed a word of it) now found out at their own expense that at least some of it was not that off-the-wall.

The daily treadmill just to make ends meet meant that high politics remained a drama from which most were excluded. Back on 7 October 1989 the Communist Party – officially known as Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party – split, and the bigger faction dropped ‘Workers’ from its name. The top floor of the building where the official Congress took place was empty and in semi-darkness when I unexpectedly came across the then Deputy Premier and Central Committee member, Peter Medgyessy. He was deep in thought when I approached him to ask which faction he intended to join. ‘I will never ever again join any political party,’ he said with surprising emotion in his voice.

When I heard in 2002 that he had in fact been a Communist counter-intelligence officer, I wondered whether it was reprisals that he feared back in 1989. The newly opened files of the secret police allowed some Hungarians to figure out who turned them in – often a once-trusted friend.

Medgyessy became a banker and steered clear of politics until late 2001 when the Socialist Party tapped him as their Prime Ministerial candidate. He accepted on condition that he didn’t have to join the Party and went on to lead the Socialists to victory in the 2002 election. But by November 2003 he was trailing in the polls as the economy slumped and Government was hard-pressed to come up with new euphemisms for belt-tightening.

Follow the leaders

Over the past 13 years Hungarians have given all the major parties a chance to govern and have been repeatedly disappointed. As people struggle to make ends meet, opinion surveys reflect a growing nostalgia for the period of ‘soft dictatorship’ – and it’s not just among the poor either. But this nostalgia has not translated into political support: the Communists remain shut out of Parliament (although they have some voice in municipal affairs).

The political scene is dominated by two major parties – the Hungarian Socialist Party and the conservative centre-right party, the Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Alliance. The Alliance is led by Victor Orban, a man of proven political skills, but who has a disconcerting tendency to play to far Right groups and sentiments. His followers – who are urged to study Orban’s speeches conscientiously – often act as a kind of flash mob either to cheer him or boo opponents. Unlike socialists and liberals, whom they deem ‘alien-hearted’ (a literal translation of the Hungarian word) they wear the national tricolour ‘to show which side they are on’. With his populist style and avowed support for an anti-Semitic weekly, Orban is often seen as a throwback to the 1930s. Yet he would have won national elections had they been held at the end of last year.

The civil sector remains woefully weak, reflecting the way in which four decades of dictatorship successfully atomizes society. The overly partisan media is failing to act as a public watchdog. Political scandals have rocked all the major parties and politicians seem oblivious to how this erodes the public trust in democracy. Voter apathy is high. And while people are free there is little sense of liberation.

Membership in the European Union (EU) is looming after the referendum for EU accession was ‘sold’ to Hungarians with TV ads as if it were detergent. Serious discussion of issues never entered the debate. Well after the vote, Deputy Minister of Agriculture Tibor Szanyi commented: ‘One of the most important aims of the [EU’s] negotiating strategy was the weakening of Hungary’s agricultural performance’ – something citizens should have been told before the vote!

By May Hungary will be a full EU member. It became a NATO member only two weeks before finding itself a front-line state in the war against Yugoslavia. This was certainly not what Hungarians had bargained for, especially with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians living across the Yugoslav frontier. Little wonder people are apprehensive about what the next new ‘club’ membership will bring.

Alex Bandy worked for over a decade as Budapest bureau chief of a major international press agency.

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