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The Day Budapest Shut Down

The last week of October began in Budapest with a three-day celebration honoring the 1956 uprising against Soviet occupation. It ended with three days of angry confrontation between a union of taxi drivers and the government over an official decree raising gas prices by 76 percent. Moscow had shut off the pipeline that carries oil from the USSR to Hungary. With the government forced to buy oil on the market at higher prices, so the economic officials said, in order to make up the difference gas in Hungary would now be raised to about $3.90 per gallon at the current exchange rate, more expensive than in Austria.

After delaying too long, the government announced its move on Thursday, October 25, just after the celebration of national independence, apparently hoping to benefit from the euphoria of the preceding days. Unexpectedly, however, thousands of taxi drivers organized a coordinated protest within five hours and, beginning on Thursday evening, they used their cabs to block roads and bridges and shut down traffic on the bridges across the Danube between Buda and Pest. Streetcars were stalled at the bridges, adding to the blockade. In effect the taxi drivers controlled the main streets in and out of the city. Supplies of milk and bread began to run low. Tourists and Western executives from international corporations sat on their luggage while they fretted about getting to the airport. The border between Hungary and Austria was closed to motorists. The underground train linking Buda and Pest carried home the few workers who were still able to reach their jobs. Blockades by both taxi drivers and owners of private cars sprang up throughout the country to protest the rise in gas prices.

By the second day, Saturday, the mood of the people crossing the centrally located “Freedom Bridge” between Buda and Pest became almost festive. Pedestrians, baby carriages, and bicycles moved from the sidewalks into the roads. The air was less polluted than usual. Few pedestrians looked angry, and many seemed sympathetic to the drivers. The government, in their view, was inept—few Hungarians need to be convinced of this—and therefore the drivers deserved sympathy. A demonstration organized by the Forum party against the drivers attracted little support. The leaders of the Free Democrat opposition party issued a plea for a peaceful solution. The police chief said that if the government ordered direct intervention, he would resign. There was much talk of the events of 1956, and of the bad impression that a breakdown of public order would give to potential foreign investors. No one wanted another violent showdown in the streets of Budapest.

Strikes are a new phenomenon in Eastern Europe and there is no agreement on how they should be handled. (Recently, the employees of the Budapest Railroad Station threatened a strike to call attention to the rising number of homeless people who were taking refuge there.) Very few Hungarians I spoke to thought that shutting down the bridges in this case was a violation of citizens’ rights. Few people seemed to believe that tolerating coercive labor tactics would undermine the long-run interest of a democratic society. As one worker said to me, “In this country, this is the only thing that will work.”

However crude its politics, the government had sound arguments for trying to adjust domestic prices to market conditions following the invasion of Kuwait. Yet the mentality of the market is difficult to reconcile with the longstanding traditions of a planned economy and price subsidies. When asked why they should not pay the market price for gas, Hungarians simply say that their wages are too low. Before the strike, a taxi ride rarely cost more than $2.00. Why, I asked, wasn’t it reasonable for taxi drivers to raise the rates on their meters? If they did, I was told, most Hungarians could not afford to take cabs.

The taxi drivers, for their part, wanted to cause widespread inconvenience to the public so that people would blame the government. I first thought the “park-in” on the bridges resembled the antiwar sit-ins in Western countries during the early 1970s, some of which were intended to show that “business as usual” should stop; but such a comparison is misleading. The strike began and ended as a protest over prices. It had nothing to do with ideology or even with patriotism.

What had taken place was a labor dispute of a kind that will probably occur more frequently in Eastern Europe. Hungarian workers still think of themselves as employed by a corporate state. Since their wages are low (averaging less than $130 a month) they feel that they are entitled to cheap gas. They forget the link between subsidies that keep prices down and the nature of the regime that supplied them, the regime that they rejected last spring.

Talking in the abstract, the Hungarians I’ve met with in recent weeks agree that Hungary needs a coherent rule of law; that all citizens have rights and these rights, including the right to use roads and bridges, should prevail notwithstanding the political and economic grievances of one group or another. But when the government is still the primary entrepreneur and the sole supplier of gas, and citizens think of themselves as dependent on the state for their well-being, the rule of law can quickly give way to labor-negotiating tactics that bring the life of the city to a stop.

On Sunday, October 28, the spokesmen for the government and the taxi drivers engaged in a “round-table” discussion of their opposing positions. After hours of argument and speech-making, most of it shown on television, they reached a compromise. The tariff for a liter of gas was raised by 50 forints rather than 62 forints, a saving of about twenty cents per gallon. The government promised it would not prosecute the strike leaders, although the chief prosecutor later implied that the government exceeded its powers in doing so. Everyone seemed relieved by the settlement, and traffic immediately started rolling across the bridges. But the precedent of seizing bridges and closing down the city had been set, and some wondered when it would happen again. György Bence, a former dissident and one of Hungary’s leading philosophers, told me: “The strike represents a downgrading of the power of the political parties and an upgrading of the power of the labor unions. The debate on Sunday was like a discharge of all the old political rhetoric, which has yet to be replaced.”

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