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The Morning After: Inventing Democracy in Hungary

Hungarians confront the realities of introducing democracy in a country weighed down its brutal, extremist and antisemitic past

Chain Bridge, Budapest

Chain Bridge, Royal Palace and Danube river in Budapest at sunset.

fazon 1/getty

The lobby of the Budapest Hilton is as glitzy as any other Hilton, with its crystal chandeliers and polished brass and darkly antiqued woodwork — not exactly an appropriate setting for the birth of a free labor union in a formerly Communist country. Still, when the appointed hour arrives, the Hilton’s 300 employees dutifully walk out on strike. The concierge, in a braided crimson jacket, leaves his post by the revolving doors. The receptionists, in gray pin-striped morning coats, come out from behind the front desk. The chambermaids, in their prim black and white pinafores, all disappear.

A labor strike is a new experience for Hungarians. Until recently, the only trade unions in this country were mere appendages of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ party, better known as the Communists, and the unions spoke for the one-party state, not for their members. Now that everything is changing, genuine unions are springing up in many sectors, coached by the AFL-CIO in the United States on how to organize worker power in a free-market society.

The Hilton employees, trained in luxury-hotel etiquette, hesitate self-consciously as they walk out, glancing at one another as if to confirm that this rebellious moment is actually happening. When a British tourist asks the front desk for a map, the departing clerk apologizes profusely for her inconvenience. But he also doesn’t give her the map.

The political life of Hungary produces such odd convergences these days. As a nation, Hungary is a charming museum piece, suddenly finding itself on the leading edge of global change. It is a country accustomed to centuries of foreign domination, its people used to national holidays commemorating lost wars and their conquerors’ victories. Now, quite abruptly, they are pioneers in the peaceful revolution that has swept across Eastern Europe — trying to invent democracy on the fly.

The Hilton is a splendid anachronism itself, modern but also evocative of Hungary’s dead past. It is located on Castle Hill, right in the middle of the medieval fortress town built by the Magyar kings, whose glory years ended four and a half centuries ago. Buda Castle is a few winding cobblestone streets away. Next door is Matthias Church, a Gothic cathedral from the fourteenth century, with patterned tile rooftops and an ornate profusion of gold and murals painted on the interior stonework. The intricate designs cover every wall and archway and suggest a national aesthetic — the need to elaborate complicated ideas in a small space. Now this is the political challenge as well.

The hotel is built around the ruins of a Dominican monastery from the Renaissance. The view from the Hilton lobby looks through the broken arches and columns of a long-abandoned chapel nave and then down a steep hillside to the broad gray waters of the River Danube below. It is an incredibly romantic vista.

Across the river, one sees the spires of the Parliament building. It resembles Westminster, in London, built on the British model a century ago when Hungary was again enthralled by the idea of representative democracy. They got the building right, but the idea did not take. Hungary was then under the Austrian Hapsburg emperor. Later it would be on the losing side in both world wars. Now, under much more adverse circumstances, Hungary is trying democracy again.

“Our aim,” says a declaration from the hotel employees’ fledgling union, “is to struggle against the wasting of our national property.” Their walkout, which lasts only two hours, is just a “warning strike” to get the government’s attention. But the union’s leader, Andras Korossi, the Hilton’s restaurant manager, threatens to shut down the hotel if the workers are ignored. 

The hotel is owned by the Hungarian government and managed by Hilton under contract. Its sale is being negotiated with a Korean conglomerate at a price that seems suspiciously low to the employees. Who’s pocketing the money? Why aren’t the workers getting a share of the ownership for themselves? And why does the sales contract fail to recognize the rights of the union and its members?

As Korossi explains, the Budapest Hilton charges world-class prices for its rooms, but it pays its employees miserable Hungarian wages. A cleaning woman here, for instance, earns the equivalent in Hungarian forints of $150 a month, while a cleaning woman at the Vienna Hilton, in neighboring Austria, makes $1,200 a month. Same quality, same prices, but a huge disparity in labor costs. “Who gets the difference?” Korossi asks.

The answer, gossip assumes, is neither the Hilton chain nor the would-be buyer from Korea. The excess profits disappear into the state treasury, into the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats from the old Communist regime. These deal makers are now in the process of disassembling the state-owned economy, selling it piece by piece, to investors from the capitalist West. As with so many other nascent political issues, reliable facts on the Hilton deal are hard to come by. Democracy requires information; Hungarians are trying to dig their way out of a forty-year-old muddle of Communist secrecy and lies.

As the Hilton workers prepare for their protest, a famous politician wanders into the hotel lobby. He’s here for an interview with me. But before we start, he’s besieged by admirers and buttonholed by the hotel manager, who urges him to take up the union’s cause. Zoltan Kiraly — “Zoltan” to everyone — is a television reporter who was elected to Parliament four years ago and dared to make speeches challenging the old regime. Zoltan is not just another pretty face; at forty-one, his hair is gray, and his brown eyes and lean features seem wisely melancholy.

For speaking independently, Zoltan was expelled from the Communist party, which naturally made him wildly popular. He continued his lonely dissents in Parliament. When he attacked a major hydroelectric project as a white elephant and environmental disaster two years ago, he managed to persuade only nineteen other MPs to vote with him. Last fall, the same Parliament — now under new management – voted to kill the project.

Zoltan thinks the union should press its case with government negotiators. Like many other political figures, Zoltan is anti-Communist, but he’s not fully convinced Hungary should give itself over totally to American-style free enterprise. “A market economy is absolutely essential for Hungary,” he says. “Let’s let the market decide this question of state and private ownership. What I’m afraid of in this transition is ‘selling out the country,’ which means we would be controlled by multinational corporations and Western banks.”

While we talk, a number of people come over to congratulate Zoltan. One fan sends cognac over to our table, but Zoltan, a nondrinker, sticks with his fruit juice. He is jubilant, of course, about the breakthroughs that have occurred and optimistic about the prospects for future reform. Yet he is also weary of the general confusion in the country right now. He feels numbed by it all.

“I get thousands of letters, phone calls,” he says. “They stop me on the street. I can’t get on the tram or bus without being stopped. It’s very hard. I have hundreds of letters to answer and no secretary. I’m not an expert on issues, so I will need much more time to think and answer them correctly. This faith people have in me is a kind of burden.”

Zoltan answers the hard questions with an eloquent shrug – pursing his lips, pulling his shoulders up, then sighing expansively with a small smile. The shrug seems to be the Hungarian national gesture right now; the country at large shares Zoltan’s mood: optimistic but numb. Last year was glorious as Hungarians led the way for other Soviet-dominated nations. They took to the streets and crumpled the old ruling party. Now the long, gray nightmare of Soviet-style dictatorship is over. But so are the candlelight parades.

For Hungary, it’s already the morning after. The euphoria has dissipated, and people are awakening to the daunting tasks that history has assigned their small country. They have to create democratic institutions and values in a nation that has never really had either and, at the same time, move Hungary’s depressed economy from the paralyzing grip of state socialism into the rough-and-tumble embrace of free enterprise. How exactly will this work? Lots of small smiles and eloquent shrugs.

On the east bank of the Danube, the eight-story Hungarian White House, as it’s commonly called, looks like one more dour Commie office building — concrete blocks faced with field stone at ground level and a squat colonnade of unfinished cement pillars. Yet for two generations, this building was the most important place in Hungary. It was party headquarters when there was only one party, the center of power in a society where power was rigidly centralized.

Now there’s a new brass plaque by the front door announcing a new occupant – the Magyar Socialist party — created last fall from the ruins of the old Communist party. These are born-again Communists who’ve dropped the “Workers” from the party name, embraced principles of free elections and multiple political parties and pledged to lead the country into the new era of economic change. Their leaders were known as “reformers” under the old regime, and their presidential candidate, Imre Pozsgay, was considered a shoo-in — popular and much better known than any other emerging candidate.

But that was last fall. When membership was considered obligatory for advancing careers, the old Communist party had 750,000 card-carrying members — nearly one-tenth of the population. After the new constitution was adopted in October and the reformed Socialist party was launched, the rank and file disappeared overnight. The new Socialist party has only 50,000 members. And instead of one political party, Hungary now has forty or fifty, depending on who’s counting. New ones pop up almost daily, representing different sectors, interests and ethnic persuasions, from peasants to small-property owners to nostalgic royalists who want to make an Austrian Hapsburg president of the new Hungary.

Until the first parliamentary elections are held this spring, all of the parties, including the Socialists, are phantoms whose true strength is unknowable. So rivals are asking why, if Hungary has changed, these old Communist cadres are still occupying the White House and still enjoying the perks of one-party rule, including most government jobs.

Viktor Polgar, the urbane former diplomat who is now chief spokesman for the Socialists, acknowledges the skepticism. “The big question in everybody’s mind, I guess, is whether the name of the party has simply been repainted,” he says. “Is this a paint job or something else? If I had to give the answer in twenty-five words or less, I would say yes, it is a new party — not just a change from red to pink. We don’t want card-carrying members. We want votes.”

A small but militant opposition group called the October party — commemorating the Hungarian uprising of October 1956, which was crushed by Soviet tanks — recently staged a sit-in at the White House. They squatted in the presidium chambers and demanded funding and facilities for all opposition parties. In America, this would be roughly equivalent to the Libertarian party’s occupying the Oval Office and asking the Republican party to share.

The embarrassed Socialists first tried to use suasion to remove the demonstrators, then called the police. “The police told us they would rather not be involved,” Polgar says ruefully. “Finally, at about 1:30 in the morning, we said, ‘Enough is enough — out!’ Most of them walked out, but one guy we had to carry out.”

Across town, a more adroit opposition strategy is being executed by the Free Democrats (known by their Hungarian initials, SZDSZ). This is a small but sophisticated party led by the bravest dissidents from the old days — intellectuals and writers like George Konrad and Miklos Haraszti. With more wit than muscle, the Free Democrats have so far managed to outmaneuver the Socialists as well as the Magyar Democratic Forum (MDF), the other major opposition party, which is larger, more middle-class and more nationalist than the Socialist party. The MDF seems agreeable to making a deal with the Socialists after the elections and perhaps sharing power with them in a coalition government.

But the Free Democrats insist on a clean break with the past. Ideology and personalities aside, the old party apparatus still operates like a corrupt political machine, Haraszti explains, with “local mafias” at the county level controlling everything and rewarding friends.

“This country is ripe for one man, one vote,” Haraszti says. “But genuine reform cannot occur unless the Communist party and the post-Communist party are stripped of privileged positions, assets, militia and, most important, their presence in the workplace, which is the heart of their power. By this definition, we are for the extreme, but we define ourselves as a middle party.”

Miklos Haraszti used to call himself a poet but now accepts that politician would be more accurate. At forty-five, he has a pale, ascetic look, brown eyes and dark, wispy hair and dresses in a sleeveless gray sweater and rumpled corduroys. For years, as a dissident writer, he was harassed and prosecuted, punished with what he calls “Negro jobs” for his searing critiques of Communist rule. His first book, A Worker in a Worker’s State, based on his year as a milling-machine operator, was published in America but in his own country existed only as a typed manuscript passed among underground readers. As young students back in the 1960s, Haraszti and his friends had been devout Maoists, believing that Communism could be reformed and purified. By the end of the decade, they were utterly disillusioned.

“We were the last believers in Marxism in Hungary,” Haraszti says. “The party itself had long before become nothing more than a pragmatic, hypocritical political machine, supported by military force. When we lost faith, that was when Marxism died out in this country. As we began to question the system, we naturally had to examine the secret police, and the secret police educated us about the necessity of freedom for everyone.”

Early last fall, when everyone assumed the Socialist candidate would easily win the first presidential election, the Free Democrats mobilized a national referendum on whether Hungarians should first be able to elect representatives to Parliament. This would give opposition parties more time to get their act together and allow unknown, grass-roots candidates to grab for a sliver of power. Despite the Socialists’ opposition and the Magyar Democratic Forum’s urging of its members to boycott the voting, the Free Democrats won the referendum. Suddenly the paler, pink version of socialism no longer seemed like a sure thing.

The Free Democrats, more savvy about Western ways because many had spent exiled years in America, were the most inventive in their campaign. “We bought fifteen-second ads on television,” Haraszti says, “and the spots were so effective the Socialist party and MDF accused us of American-style politicking. Now they are talking about banning political ads on TV so we won’t be able to do it again in the parliamentary elections.”

In fact, other parties are also inching toward the campaign techniques loved and loathed in American politics. The Socialists want to hire as a consultant former Robert Kennedy aide Frank Mankiewicz, now of Hill and Knowlton, the Washington public-relations giant. The opinion poll has also been introduced, though so far the results reveal nothing more than a shellshocked public — confused and apprehensive, if not apathetic. As Hungarians await their first real election, on March 25th, the number of undecided voters is rising steadily and approaches forty percent.

Ugly code words and negative campaigning are also in play, though everyone seems genuinely to regret it. During the referendum campaign, the Magyar Democratic Forum promoted its boycott of the referendum with the slogan “Those who are Hungarians, don’t go to vote.” This was widely interpreted as a veiled anti-semitic slur (which the Democratic Forum denies), aimed at Jews like Haraszti who are prominent in the Free Democrat leadership and appealing to the worst nativist prejudices from Hungary’s dark past.

The phrase real Hungarian resonates with the same malevolent overtones as good German. During World War II, Hungary was governed by home-grown fascists who were allied with Hitler and enacted their own anti-Jewish laws. In the end, 500,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps — and exterminated. Now that publishing is free of state control, antisemitic tracts are beginning to appear again, some dating back to World War I. The Jewish newspaper in Budapest, Uj Elet, has observed that under the Communists, antisemites had to use “undercover names,” like “cosmopolitans” or “petit bourgeois,” but now they are free to blame Jews directly – primitive scapegoating in a troubled country.

“This does have the scent of very bad ideologies in central Europe,” Haraszti says. “But I still wouldn’t say the MDF is antisemitic. I think it’s simply there are some people in the MDF who use this language, and the MDF will have to purify themselves of this vocabulary. It’s unacceptable, simply incompatible with the spirit of democracy.” Ultimately, he predicts, the fascist elements in Hungary will not get any more votes than their counterparts have won in France or West Germany — ten to fifteen percent.

Sandor Lezsak, a dissident playwright who is now manager of the MDF, blames the “real Hungarian” flap on misunderstandings sown by “political masochists.” “We’re not against the SZDSZ,” Lezsak says. “We don’t consider them ready as a party, and we don’t consider ourselves ready. We hope to be more deliberate. I want to drink a glass of champagne for Hungary. They want to drink champagne too, but they shook it first and caused more bubbles.”

But Hungarian history is what makes the current politics seem so fragile, and antisemitism is not the only dark stain. For centuries, the country’s governing power has shifted in extreme swings between right and left, with intolerance and harsh political repression on both sides. The Communist domination since 1948 is only the latest chapter in this brutish story. The deepest political question haunting Hungarian politics now is, will it be different this time? Will the extremists be kept out of power? Most political leaders believe so. Still, the unanswered question helps explain why so many anxious Hungarians are drawing back from all parties, declaring themselves undecided and waiting to see who gains power: genuine small-d democrats or repackaged versions of the old autocrats.

“Look,” says Viktor Polgar, “this country has no tradition of democratic changes. My father, who’s seventy-seven, has lived under nine different regimes — including the monarchy, the fascists, the Stalinist regime and the Communist reformers. It’s in our genes — these wide swings of the political pendulum — and nobody felt it more than the Jews did. But it is the task of democracy to keep extremism on the edges.”

Haraszti also believes Hungary is ripe for democracy in a way it never was before – thanks, ironically, to all the bleak years of communism. “Liberal democracy depends on the middle class,” he says. “And the Communists have made everyone in Hungary middle-class. A very low middle class, certainly, but one into which everyone is squeezed. By destroying the aristocracy, by breaking up the large estates and converting everything to state ownership, the Communists also made everyone antistatist. As a result, there is a great hunger for democracy, an enormous capacity for democracy that never existed before.”

Hungarian politicians of every stripe agree on this much: For different reasons, they’re all mad at the news media.

Even under the old regime, the news media enjoyed an atmosphere of greater tolerance than did their brethren in neighboring countries. During the last two years reporters and editors took advantage of the openings to ventilate, prod and feed the bonfire of popular discontent. In some ways, Miklos Haraszti observes, the media in Hungary filled the same role that the Solidarity labor union played in Poland.

Now the press is completely free of state control — that is, anyone can start a newspaper or magazine. The result is a noisy symphony of democratic dissonance: exposés and accusations, satirical slanders and heavy-handed punditry. Porno magazines that look like Hustler knockoffs, sensational tabloids inspired by Brit scandal sheets, obscure sectarian journals — all are available at the newsstand kiosks, alongside the national newspapers struggling to report the news honestly, now that they are in a position to do so.

To get a sampling of this chaos, I buy a stack of different papers at a neighborhood shop and ask my translator, a savvy young journalist named Katalin Avar, to browse through them for me. Of course, since I don’t read Magyar, I have no idea what I’ve purchased. It turns out that to a large extent she doesn’t either. Many of these voices are new to her too, and it takes close study to figure out who they are and where they stand on the political spectrum.

En Lapom, or “My paper” (its slogan: “Should Be Your Paper Too”) is only four pages of small print, no pictures. It includes a turgid essay skeptically appraising the new Socialist party and demanding more nyilvanossag, or “public openness.” On page 2, a small box instructs readers: “If you have any kind of ideas, send it to us. If you want to manufacture a product, or if you have inventions that need legal protection, contact us.” From this, Avar concludes En Lapom is published by lawyers looking for clients.

Datum, which describes itself as “a free-thinking political paper,” has an exposé on a military training base that is ruining an adjoining national park in eastern Hungary. “We don’t even know which army is using this base,” the article says. “All we hear is the buzzing of motors and tanks — Russian and Hungarian commands — the sound of shooting right next to the national park.”

Ring, a “free-thinking weekly,” is snazzier, with its green borders and clever picture layouts. “All the little illusions of democracy have left us now,” it laments. “The big debate has turned the two major opposition parties against each other, and so now there’s no chance for a coalition between them.” Ring carries an exposé on how Communist-party bosses have built lavish vacation homes for themselves. The account quotes anonymous whistle-blowers — the bricklayers who’d been ordered to build the houses.

For American readers, most of this would seem quite mild and even cautious in tone. In Hungary, where two generations learned to read between the lines and communicate real facts in private, the effect is jarring and disorienting. When only official truth existed and everyone knew it was a lie, at least there was a common reference point for forming opinions. Now facts — tenyek — are everywhere, but whose facts are believable? And who are all these people publishing them?

“It is probably inevitable,” says Zoltan Kiraly, the TV reporter in Parliament, “that after such rigid control you will have a very wild, open media. We don’t have any tradition of political debate, and it’s the same in the press. We don’t have a culture of doing good journalism. We have to learn journalism all over again.”

Other politicians are not so charitable toward the media. Viktor Polgar, the Socialist spokesman, remarks: “My friends in the press will hate me for saying this, but we are in the stages of cannibalism in the free press. The system of managing the press has broken down, and nothing has yet replaced it.”

The Magyar Democratic Forum also resents the “mudslinging and name-calling,” as Sandor Lezsak calls it. “The role of the free press is extremely important, but at the moment there is maybe a bit too much freedom in the press,” he says. “Name-calling is not political dialogue.”

In America, I suggested to some of these politicians, when every political party is mad at the news media, it probably means the media are doing their job. They just looked at me blankly. This is an alien concept they are not yet prepared to grasp.

The Free Democrats, more familiar with Western societies, have a different gripe with the Hungarian news media. They claim that reporters and editors are too timid, too anxious to avoid offending influential parties. “A new self-censorship is being imposed,” Haraszti says. “The TV was at our news conference today, but they will not give us any coverage unless they can find something similar from the other parties. They are so terrified of being called partial, they are afraid to cover the news.”

There is a most serious question lurking beneath these complaints: When the turmoil settles down, who will control the news media? In time, Hungarians will presumably get used to the clamor and name-calling of a free press. But the retreat of communism will also require new ground rules on who owns and supervises the major media. The state TV and radio will now be supervised by a supposedly neutral committee appointed by the government. Broadcast journalists, including Zoltan Kiraly, are alarmed. This new committee looks like a setup for political manipulation by whichever party wins the elections. If the next president of the country has discretionary power to change anchormen whenever he’s unhappy with the evening news, Hungary will be stuck far short of democracy.

For newspapers and magazines, the ownership issue is much simpler. Many publications are already going private out of economic necessity, seeking foreign investors to make up for being cut loose from state subsidy. The Fleet Street press barons Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell are both buying into Hungarian newspapers. This may not elevate the political dialogue, but it should fortify journalistic independence.

Magyar Nemzet, the leading independent daily and an important voice in the emergent political debate, is getting an American benefactor. He is financier George Soros, a native Hungarian who’s agreed to invest fresh capital for modernization and expansion. Since the paper’s title means “Hungarian nation,” there is some grumbling about the Wall Street banker who is negotiating to buy a chunk of the “nation.” But the staff is delighted, confident that Soros will strengthen the paper’s independence and quality. A year ago, when the government withdrew subsidies from the press and newspapers were compelled to raise their newsstand prices, Magyar Nemzet was the only publication that gained readers instead of losing them.

Before he will invest his millions, however, Soros has insisted on one condition: The paper’s old editor, who’d been installed by the Communist party, had to resign; the staff itself would elect the new editor. The reporters and editors enthusiastically complied, and Jozsef Martin, the foreign editor, was voted in as editor in chief.

The wrangling over control continues, but Magyar Nemzet is one instance, at least, in which democratic Hungary has leapt beyond democratic America. The innovation an American capitalist imposed upon a Hungarian newspaper would be, of course, utterly alien in the United States. Back home, publishers would regard the idea of reporters’ electing their own editors as, well, socialist.

Along the busy downtown boulevards here, the hot item for Christmas shoppers is books. People crowd around the dozens of temporary stalls that line the sidewalks, gravely studying the new titles. Bibles are very big, but so are glossy volumes of porn. Fiction ranges from Herman Wouk to Mark Helprin, nonfiction from The Magyar Holocaust to Elvis and Me. The freedom to choose once-forbidden books is a tangible blessing of the season, and Hungarians are taking this new luxury very seriously.

Even so, nothing compares to the rush of buyers I see converging on an unlicensed huckster peddling books from the trunk of his car. Many of those who see what he is selling reach for their forints, some buying two or three copies. The object of their interest is a slender blue paperback called Agyi-Kontroll (“Mind control”). Written by Jose Silva, a well-known talk-show guest on European television, the book, the seller explains, tells readers how to develop not only better memory but also mental health. Why is this book so popular? “People are waiting for a kind of miracle,” the peddler says with a grin. “This book is it, actually. It works.”

“The lines you see outside drugstores,” a doctor tells me later, “are people buying miraculous cancer cures. We have three or four miraculous treatments against cancer on the market now. If we are fortunate, they are not dangerous.”

Hungarians are into miracles, not because religious freedom has been restored, but because economic prospects are so bleak. They have been ground down by ten years of decline that in Western economies would probably be defined as a depression. For years, Hungary has pursued a more liberal economic strategy than its Communist neighbors, engaging in hundreds of joint ventures and substantial trading with the West, but the country was still undermined by the same rigidity that ruined the economies of the Soviets and their other ex-satellites. Budapest is positively buoyant with commerce compared with the grim, gray capitals of some Soviet-bloc nations, but people here are still hurting.

And now comes the hard part — transforming the state-owned companies into private companies. Many are doomed, as everyone knows, because they lack the quality and efficiency to compete in the global marketplace, or because no one in the West will want to infuse new capital. As steel mills and shoe factories close, a new economic phenomenon will be introduced in modern Hungary — unemployment. One joke I heard was this: “In the capitalist countries, the unemployed are out in the streets, protesting and demanding jobs. In Hungary, they are in the factories, collecting their pay.”

The harsh prospects are so widely understood that the subject is already a political cliché: the “bitter medicine is unavoidable” line in every politician’s speech. Meanwhile, however, Hungary still has only 20,000 unemployed, less than one percent of the work force. “The figure is too good,” admits Andras Koves, deputy general manager of the Institute for Economic and Market Research and Informatics. “It means the process of restructuring has not really started yet.”

A year from now, economists expect, unemployment will reach 100,000, still very low by Western standards. And it might go much higher, because no one really knows how abrupt or brutal this transformation is going to be. Alongside joblessness, there will also be soaring prices, as state controls on food and other basic necessities are removed. The scarcity of housing, already severe, will limit everyone’s ability to cope with these changes, because it restricts mobility. A steelworker in Ozd, the Hungarian Rustbelt, can’t easily move to a new town when he loses his job, because he won’t be able to sell his old home or find a new one someplace else.

Hungary, having developed more trade with the West, is better positioned than its neighbors to endure these shifts. Nevertheless, right now the Hungarian economy is trapped between two trading systems and experiencing the worst of both. It sells finished goods — buses, machinery and pharmaceuticals — to the Russians but gets paid in rubles, which can’t be spent anywhere but in the Soviet bloc. While Hungary has accumulated a huge, worthless supply of rubles, it has also gone deeply in debt to Western banks, borrowing dollars by the billions to stay afloat. Now the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which polices debtor nations for capitalist bankers, is insisting that the Hungarian government adopt austerity measures to correct the national balance sheet.

“It is meaningless and counterproductive to insist on austerity so the population will feel the pain of reforms,” Koves protests. “Austerity has been with us for more than ten years and, of course, will remain. But if the reforming process is to succeed, limits to the suffering should be defined, and a social safety net must be created for those who are displaced.”

Political leaders make the same point in different ways. They are committed to free-market economics, but, coming out of communism, Hungary does not have the welfare-state mechanisms of Western Europe that cushion economic pain for the dislocated and less productive citizens. The Free Democrats, the most ardent advocates of free markets, are widely accused of being “Hungarian Reaganites.” Miklos Haraszti denies it. “We are not socialists,” he says, “but we also don’t intend to install an American-style carelessness about social conditions.”

Officials of other parties talk vaguely of establishing a mixed economy — private and public ownership, along with a well-developed welfare state, perhaps along the lines of Sweden. But this may be wishful thinking on their part. Hungary is broke and must negotiate with its bankers for new capital and more loans. The bankers are not likely to tolerate big spending on social programs.

The ominous possibility, in other words, is that Hungary will experience a collision between political and economic reforms as it tries to accomplish both at once. An angry backlash to liberal democracy could develop when people discover that free enterprise means new suffering for many of them. In the long run, everyone should benefit. Some workers, like the employees at the Hilton, may enjoy rising incomes right away. But large chunks of the population are bound to lose ground. The narrow range of incomes that communism imposed on wage earners is going to become a much wider gap — more like the income inequalities of the United States.

“We have a very significant minority, perhaps thirty percent of the population, that is very weak and has suffered already for the last ten years,” Koves says. “If the segment grows, this would mean social conflicts that we wouldn’t be able to manage in a democratic way.”

If Americans genuinely want to foster democracy in Eastern Europe, they will have to provide much more than the aid earmarked by Congress for Hungary — the pitiable sum of $30 million a year. The IMF and the bankers must also be persuaded to show more patience and goodwill in this transition period. Getting democracy off to the right start is a historic objective, much more important than settling old debts. Individual Americans can help, too, by bringing their tourist dollars to Budapest next summer. It’s a cheap and charming place to visit, and young Hungarians are enthralled by “the American feeling,” as their hit pop song calls it.

Meanwhile, Hungarian politics is going to be messy. It may take several elections before the country can come up with leaders strong enough to truly govern. Despite all the rhetoric, most politicians seem skittish about starting down the road of economic change. This winter, the interim Socialist government, under pressure from the IMF, announced that its new budget would phase out housing subsidies. This sounded like a plan for social disaster, and every major party quickly denounced the proposal, including the Socialists, whose own leader had proposed it. Heading into the parliamentary elections this spring, nobody wants to be the bad guy who votes to raise everyone’s rent. Nevertheless, after denouncing the plan, the politicians approved it.

“Just like American congressmen,” Viktor Polgar says, “Hungarian members of Parliament love to vote on both sides of the issue.”

In Debrecen, a city of 200,000 in eastern Hungary, the debates of the Budapest politicians sound like a meaningless buzz. Just as in the United States, people who are distant from the capital tend to be deeply skeptical about the pronouncements of pols. A young radio journalist tells me the current political joke around town: “They have new girls at the brothel — but, hey, it’s still a brothel.”

I travel to Debrecen, a three-hour train ride across the dark fields of Hungary’s central plain, to meet Dr. Gabor Szabo. A distinguished geneticist who has done research sabbaticals in New York and Washington, Dr. Szabo teaches at the local medical school and was formerly its dean. He is sixty-two years old, with steely white hair and dark brows — a precise, gentle-spoken man erudite in three languages.

Dr. Szabo is kinfolk — sort of — because he and my brother-in-law, Julius Gluck, are cousins. Fifty years ago, they grew up together, as close as brothers, in Sarospatak, a small town near the Czech border. Szabo’s father was a doctor and prominent landowner, a decorated officer in the Hungarian army during World War I. “Very middle-class, very Hungarian,” his son recalls.

In March 1944, the two cousins, then teenagers, were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, along with hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews. Both boys survived, but both lost parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and uncounted childhood friends. Afterward, Gluck came to America, and today he is an engineer living in non-Communist Connecticut. Meanwhile, Szabo stayed in Hungary and became a doctor, like his father. As with many Jews who endured the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, he also became a Communist.

His logic was partly idealistic. Socialism, he believed, might eventually end world wars by eradicating the feudal inequalities of European societies and the capitalist competition for resources and markets. But his choice was mainly a question of practical politics. Without the Communists’ governing Hungary, he decided, the fascists would come back.

“I thought I had to choose, not between communism and democracy, but between red and green — the color of Hungarian fascism,” he tells me. “This is the reason so many Jews in this country joined the Communist party.

“Perhaps it was a mistake on my part,” he continues. “If the Communist party had not won at that time, maybe the society could have evolved in a positive way. But what I really don’t know is whether these deep changes that have occurred in Hungary, which was feudalistic, could ever have happened without communism.”

Like so many others, Greider Szabo remained a party member long after he’d become disillusioned by the injustices and brutalities of the one-party state. He chose instead to work for change inside the system. “I thought of myself as a reform Communist,” he says. “I thought we would be able to change the system from above.”

As a scientist, he managed to keep genetics in Hungary uncontaminated by the Soviet Union’s politicized version. As a teacher, he used his biology lectures to teach his students how to question authority. When the old Communist party collapsed and came back in different form last year, Dr. Szabo was among the 700,000 members who simply dropped out.

“The changes came so fast,” he says. “I think I am not clever enough to know what the right things are now, not clever enough to give advice.”

On the one hand, he believes Hungarians really have changed and can adapt to self-government and political tolerance. On the other hand, he worries about the political vacuum that exists and who will fill it. He listens carefully to the various political parties but doesn’t hear anything that sounds like a genuine program for governing. He thinks Hungary must save itself by adopting the competitive economics of the West. Yet he worries too that old furies might be unleashed if this transition proves to be too harsh.

“I am not anxious about myself,” Szabo says, “but I have seen two or three pogroms in my lifetime — people looking for scapegoats for their problems — and they end up going after the Jews. If 10,000 people are unemployed in Debrecen and they are looking for people to blame, who will stop them? The police? I don’t think so. The army? I doubt it.”

The central social challenge facing his country, Dr. Szabo believes, is that for the first time in their history, Hungarians must learn to be honest about their own past. “This country is once again being told to deny its past,” he says, “and I’m afraid we will again have a heavy psychological burden, a guilty conscience because we have not told the truth. One of every ten Hungarians was a member of the Communist party, and perhaps half the country had some kind of intimate relationship with the party. Now, with this abrupt change, people are not telling the truth. We are told that everyone was in the opposition.

“After World War I, we denied the past because we were on the losing side. In World War II, we denied the truth because Hungary killed Jews. Now we are denying the last forty years. It is hard for a country to go forward if its people are not telling the truth about themselves.” 

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