“The Socialists might as well nominate Caligula’s horse for a seat in Parliament. It would still be elected,” a fellow passenger told me as we traveled by train from Vienna to Budapest shortly before the first round of the Hungarian parliamentary elections on May 8. We were at the border station between Austria and Hungary, where only a few years before soldiers carrying submachine guns would surround every train; stony-faced border guards would order you to stand up, to make sure that you were not somehow hiding a spy or a dissident, and passport control was a lengthy and carefully designed ritual of intimidation. A woman’s voice on the loudspeaker would welcome “our dear guests to the Hungarian People’s Republic.” Some years before the Communist collapse, Ihad sensed that the system was breaking down when a border guard sauntered over to the open train window to ask for a cigarette. Today there are no armed guards near the train, and a single policeman stamps your passport with scarcely a glance at the document or its owner. Watching him, I could not help wondering whether, following the electoral victory of the Socialist Party—a party largely made up of former Communists—he would not again become more vigilant.
The success in May of the MSZP, or Hungarian Socialist Party, would have been thought impossible only a few years ago, yet the Hungarian world is often turned upside down. During the last eighty years or so the country lost two major wars. It changed from a constitutional monarchy to a democratic republic in the fall of 1918 and then became, successively, a Bolshevik republic of councils in the spring of 1919; a counterrevolutionary, semi-constitutional kingdom without a king under Regent Admiral Miklós Horthy that autumn; a National Socialist terror regime in the autumn of 1944; a democratic republic in 1945; a Stalinist terror regime under Mátyás Rákosi in 1948; a somewhat less oppressive Communist system under Imre Nagy in 1953; a revolutionary democracy at the end of October 1956; a renewed Communist tyranny under János Kádár in November of the same year; a more relaxed and liberal Communist regime under the same man in the 1960s; an only formally Communist state in the second half of the 1980s; and a parliamentary republic in 1990. It is also worth recalling that Hungary lost two thirds of its territory to Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Austria in the Treaty of the Trianon imposed by the Entente Powers in 1920, and was occupied in 1944, first by the German and then by the Soviet army.
Throughout this history Hungarians have often been affected by outside forces far stronger than themselves. The democratic republic under President Count Mihály Károlyi could not resist the concerted attack of the Yugoslav, Czechoslovak, and Romanian military forces, all of which had the support of the Entente Powers, and on March 21, 1919, Károlyi ceded power to a coalition of Bolsheviks and left-wing socialists. Béla Kun, the leader of the Hungarian Bolsheviks, who had now become Hungary’s virtual dictator, promised that Lenin would come to the aid of the Hungarian proletariat. The Bolsheviks’ “internationalist struggle” had at first enthusiastic support in the country, in part because it was widely interpreted as a fight to reconquer at least some of the territories Hungary had recently lost to its neighbors. But Soviet Russia was besieged and powerless to help, and after 133 days the Hungarian Republic of Councils was swept away by the Romanian army, which was supported by France. By then, however, the Red regime, which had engaged in dogmatic revolutionary experiments, had been greatly weakened by popular counterrevolutionary movements.
During World War II, Hungarians took an active part both in Hitler’s anti-Bolshevik crusade and in carrying out the Holocaust; yet even had they all been staunch anti-Nazis and democrats, the country would not have escaped death and ruin at the end of the war. In 1945 there were widespread hopes that Hungary might have a progressive democracy, but these were dashed by the Communist dictatorship imposed by the Soviets; and the heroic revolution of 1956 was crushed by Soviet tanks.
Today Hungarians again live in a democracy, in which two free elections have already taken place. The first, in 1990, put into power a conservative government headed by József Antall, and the second, held in May 1994, returned to power a socialist party led by the reformed Communists of the 1980s. The question arises whether the Hungarians have now freely chosen a potentially authoritarian regime.
The Socialists did indeed win a remarkable victory in a field crowded with other parties. In 1990, in the first free parliamentary elections since 1945, the MDF or Hungarian Democratic Forum, a conservative nationalist party (whom Iwill call the Conservatives), received nearly one fourth of the popular vote and, because of the complex Hungarian electoral law favoring the stronger parties, won 43 percent of the parliamentary seats.1 In this year’s elections, the Socialists received one third of the popular vote, and won 54 percent of the parliamentary seats.
During the elections, a surprising number of experienced and personally popular politicians lost out to virtually unknown Socialists. “He is such a nice and cultivated gentleman, and yet he lost to that political nobody,” an elderly cleaning woman in Budapest complained to me, referring to Iván Petoå«å«, president of the SZDSZ or Alliance of Free Democrats (whom I will call the Liberals). According to public opinion polls, Petoå«å« is one of the most popular politicians in Hungary; still, he was wiped out in his Budapest district by an actress with no political experience except that she was running on the Socialist ticket. Another elected Socialist deputy resigned before the first session of the new parliament. As he told the press, he had allowed his name to be put on one of the regional lists of Socialist candidates only after being assured that, because of his low position on the list, there was no danger of his being elected.
The election clearly reversed the main results of the last one: in 1990, the Socialists won a little over one tenth of the popular vote and were only the fourth largest party. In 1994 the Conservatives were reduced to being the third strongest political party. The other major parties had about the same proportion of votes in both elections, with the Liberals and the Young Democrats, another liberal party, together receiving more than 30 percent of the votes in 1990 and just a little fewer than that in 1994.2
Remarkably, neither the far left, represented by the Workers’ Party, a Marxist-Leninist group, nor the far right, represented by an assortment of parties bearing such fascist-sounding names as the “Party of Hungarian Truth and Life,” came close to obtaining the 5 percent of the votes necessary to gain a parliamentary seat. B. Izabella Király, a former parliamentary deputy (from 1990 to 1994) who attracted much attention internationally by rallying skinheads for her “patriotic” campaigns, received only 3 percent of the votes in her district.
A large difference between the two elections is that in 1990 the Conservatives had to enter into a rather unhappy coalition with a clerical and a populist-peasant party in order to form a government, whereas this time the Socialists did so well they could have chosen to govern alone. But they decided against doing so. Toward the end of June, after much negotiation, they agreed to form a coalition government with the Liberals, a party with a strong position on civil rights that was organized in 1988 by such dissidents as the philosopher János Kis and the writer György Konrád. Well aware of how the Communists had bullied their coalition partners in the late 1940s, the Liberals have tried with some success to obtain a favorable deal for themselves. They have three out of fourteen cabinet posts, including the ministries of Interior and Culture, as well as high posts in several other ministries and executive and legislative offices. The Liberals also have the right to insist that all major legislative proposals be approved by a consensus of the coalition members. However, even though the Liberal minister of the interior will now control the police, matters of “national security,” including the Hungarian equivalent of the FBI, will be under a Socialist minister.
The Liberal leaders claim, privately, that they could have had more ministerial posts but refused to accept such portfolios as, for instance, that of minister of the environment, which they fear would amount to political suicide in view of Hungary’s huge pollution problems. Nor did they wish to be burdened with the unpopular job of running the secret service and spying on Hungarian citizens. The truth seems to be that the Liberals wanted a coalition government even more than the Socialists did, but many of their leaders lack the perseverance and the negotiating skill of the Socialists. In any case, nothing will change the fact that the coalition government is backed by 209 Socialist deputies and only 70 Liberals.
The election results raise further questions: Why did the Socialists win? They were very careful not to announce any controversial programs before the elections, and they nominated many unknown candidates who had no past records that would be held against them; but they had an unexpected popularity that is still hard to explain. Another question is why, having won, they were so keen on forming a coalition with the Liberals, whose support they did not need. And how significant is it that, following the pattern of Lithuania and Poland, a Hungarian party led by former Communists has been voted into power? In post-Communist Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and many other former Soviet republics, as well as in Romania, Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, and Croatia, power has consistently stayed in the hands of former Communist Party functionaries, while it is also likely that former Communists will win the Bulgarian and Slovak elections scheduled for the fall.
Finally, how important is it that most of the Socialist leaders were once functionaries of the Communist Party or the Young Communists? Is it perhaps more significant that many of them had a part in liberalizing the country during the last decade or so of the Kádár regime, and that today they officially advocate parliamentary democracy, continuing privatization, a tight monetary policy, and Hungary’s joining both NATO and the European Union?
Hungarians tend to agree among themselves that the conservative governing coalition of recent years brought disaster upon itself, and that, by voting Socialist, voters chose a party that appeared to be farthest away from the Conservatives and their coalition partners. Four years ago, even people who called themselves progressive thought the Conservatives were the best choice. They appeared on the whole to be more representative of the people than the Liberals, many of whose leaders were young intellectuals, or the Young Democrats, whom many people did not take seriously, or the Socialists, who were tainted by their Communist past. The Conservatives and especially their leader, the late József Antall, promised that they would encourage hard work, cautious economic reforms, a concern for moral standards, support for religious activity, modest restitution of property to the victims of communism, and at least some punishment for Communist crimes, especially those connected with the suppression of the revolution of 1956. The Conservatives were also committed to a vigorous defense of the interests of the over three million ethnic Hungarians who live in neighboring countries.
Most Conservative leaders had been neither active Communists nor active dissidents. In 1990, this worked in their favor, for most other Hungarians were in the same situation: they had not become seriously involved with theCommunist Party and their main resistance to it consisted of grumbling and of occasional visits to an officially tolerated political cabaret, where they could listen to mild jokes about the regime. Within a year of taking office the Conservatives or, rather, the right-wingers among them, worked out a new political philosophy based on not having been involved either with the Communist Party or with any dissident movement. They said that their political independence and genuine resistance were expressed under the Communists by quietly cultivating old-fashioned Christian “Hungarian” family and ethnic values. The next step of the right-wing Conservatives was to claim that the mainly young liberal dissidents (whose protests had caused a great deal of trouble to the Communist regime during the 1970s and 1980s) had always enjoyed immunity from prosecution because their parents were Communists. Moreover, the right-wingers continued, the liberal dissidents had always acted with the tacit encouragement of their Communist elders, and the outspoken opposition of Konrád and other intellectuals had been nothing but an attempt on the part of the Jewish social and political elite in Hungary to hold on to its influence following the inevitable collapse of communism.
No doubt, the saner leaders of the Conservatives did not accept this line of argument, which was made most vocally by the clever playwright and newly minted right-wing ideologue István Csurka. But Csurka had many followers in the party. The Conservative leaders feared that by expelling Csurka and his associates under left-wing pressure they would fall into the trap that the progressive non-Communists of the late 1940s fell into. As the Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi boasted later, by applying “salami tactics,” he had forced his coalition partners to drop, one by one, their fellow non-Communists, who the Communists said were not sufficiently democratic and progressive. Therefore, the Conservative leaders hesitated for a long time before getting rid of the extremists; but by then the Conservatives had acquired a not entirely justified reputation for populist demagogy and anti-Semitism.
One of the great surprises of the elections in May was the debacle of the far right, symbolized but certainly not represented exclusively by István Csurka. In recent years, the Western, and especially the American, press had reported on little else about Hungary except the doings of the far right and the growth of popular anti-Semitism. No doubt, Csurka and his friends did their best to attract press attention by claiming that the state-owned Hungarian Radio and TV were in the hands of Communist Jews, and by calling the American philanthropist George Soros—from whose fellowships some of the right-wingers had earlier benefited—the leader of an international Jewish conspiracy. They accused Arpád Göncz, the president of the Republic—and a distinguished translator and man of letters—of taking his orders from New York, Tel Aviv, and the freemasons in Paris. In truth, Göncz, a former member of the Liberal Party, is exactly what Csurka and his colleagues are not: a genuine democrat, who resisted both the Nazis and the Communists, and who spent six years in prison after the 1956 revolution was suppressed. As for Csurka, he admitted to having been, at least for a while, a Communist police informer.
By his reluctance to take a firm position against the far right in his party, Prime Minister József Antall did a disservice to himself and his cause. As the recent elections have shown, the Hungarian public has little patience for any kind of extremism. Many people also became irritated by the Conservatives’ tendency to call their opposition “enemies of the nation” and “traitors,” a practice the party inherited from its totalitarian predecessor. Both Antall and commentators in the American press were wrong to hold the Hungarian public in such low regard. Remembering the popular anti-Semitism of the prewar years and the indifference or even hostility of a large part of the public toward the Jews during the Hungarian Holocaust in 1944, Antall, who was personally not an anti-Semite, apparently feared he would become unpopular if he were to criticize the anti-Semites in his party. What he, his party, and Western commentators failed to realize, however, was the changes brought about by forty years of Communist rule. If nothing else, it had taught the public to think mainly of its own economic interest.
More Jews survived the Holocaust in Hungary—numerically, but not proportionally—than in any other country in Hitler’s Europe, except perhaps Romania. Most of them left after the war but there are still well over 100,000 people of Jewish or partly Jewish origin in Hungary, although the number of practicing Jews does not exceed 15,000. In contrast to other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, whether in Poland, Romania, or Lithuania, where Jewish assimilation was never quite successful, Hungarian Jews were integrated before the Holocaust into the highest levels of culture, journalism, and business. This continues to be true. The descendants of Jewish survivors are prominent today even in national politics. Criticism of Jewish intellectuals mainly comes from other intellectuals, above all from the “populist” and “conservative nationalist” writers, who, when they refer to “the Jewish question,” mean the numbers and influence of liberal Jewish intellectuals in Hungary. The populists are opposed by the “urbanists”: the liberal, often Jewish intellectuals.
Many of the Conservative Party members recalled with some nostalgia the interwar Horthy regime, to whose elite they or their parents had belonged. They wished to re-create its political atmosphere or even that of the years before World War I. Some were drawn to the moderately conservative politics of these periods, others to their proto-fascism. As one of several professional historians in the cabinet, Prime Minister Antall tried to revive for the corrupted Hungarian nation the lasting values of the gentlemanly, somewhat feudal world, of which his father, a conservative politician, had been one of the most attractive representatives.3 József Antall, Sr., had been a brave anti-Nazi whom the Germans arrested in 1944.
The prime minister and other history professors in the government lectured the public tirelessly on Hungarian and world history, public morality, the tragic fate of the former Hungarian elite under the Communists, and the need to protect the Hungarian minorities in Romania, Milos?eviå«c’s Yugoslavia, and Slovakia. Moreover, just as their Communist predecessors once did, they kept assuring the public that things were always getting better. Yet what the public wanted to hear was not their moralizing about the past or their self-praise but an honest discussion of unemployment, inflation, taxes, the lack of adequate health care and education, and the chances for economic improvement.
The governing coalition lost the elections in May because of the public’s dissatisfaction with its antiquated rhetoric and its general antipathy to demands for modernizing Hungarian life. Added to this was the wholesale corruption, that perhaps inevitably, accompanies privatization and the decline in living standards. I often heard, moreover, that the voters turned away from the Conservatives because of their efforts to re-create the genteel middle class of the prewar period and to reduce the power of the descendants of peasants and workers who are to be found in the administration, the officer corps, and the boards of industry and banking. A glance at the biographies of the deputies in parliament, of no matter which party, shows how varied in social origin and occupation the elite in Hungary has become and how mistaken would be any effort to limit it to descendants of the pre-Communist middle class and gentry. Among the salaried functionaries of the Communist Party, for instance, only 10 percent had a university education in 1955. In 1989, the rate was 57 percent. 4 Finally, the public turned away from the governing coalition because it had failed to project an image of experience and professionalism.
No doubt Hungary could use more administrative and business expertise, not to mention foreign aid. Substantial assistance from the West, about which many people had inflated hopes in 1989, has failed to materialize. But the specialists I talked to disagree violently among themselves on how the country is doing and what is to be done. Only some basic facts are clear. Hungary’s GNP declined by 9 percent in 1991 when the COMECON collapsed, by 4.5 percent in 1992, and by 2 percent in 1993. According to current projections, it will not decline at all in 1994. This makes Hungary’s economic record among the best of all of the nations in East Central Europe, to say nothing of the terrible situation in the former Soviet Union. Only in Poland has the cumulative decline in GNP been even smaller.5 The same applies to the annual Hungarian inflation rate of between 23 and 25 percent, and the 12 percent unemployment rate:in both cases only the Czech Republic can show more encouraging statistics. (The lower unemployment rates in the former Soviet Union mean huge unemployment inside the factories, with worse consequences for the economy.)
What distinguishes the Hungarian economy from that of some of its neighbors is its enormous foreign debt, estimated at over 23 billion dollars, and amounting to $2,300 for every Hungarian citizen. The money was borrowed mainly by the former Communist regime and it was used principally to pay interest on earlier debts and to subsidize consumer goods. If the Czech Republic has better immediate economic prospects, one reason is that it has inherited relatively little foreign debt from its Communist predecessor. (Not that a debt-free condition always helps—as is shown by the misery in debt-free Romania, for instance.) Hungary’s debt burden is somewhat counterbalanced, however, by impressive personal savings, amounting to $2.6 billion, and the country’s hard currency reserves of $7 billion. Hungarian state bonds, moreover, are always oversubscribed by investors in Germany and Japan; and Hungary is very successful in attracting direct investments from abroad (a total of $5 billion since 1972 and $1.4 billion in 1992 alone), in its growing number of joint ventures (almost 20,000 in 1992), and in the tremendous increase in small and medium private enterprises.Nearly one half of the GNP today originates from the private sector. Yet indirect subsidies to state-owned enterprises are still huge, as are payments to 2.5 million pensioners (one fourth of the total population), the result being an annual budget deficit of three billion US dollars.
Whereas the prospects for industry and services seem promising, agriculture is in bad trouble because of declining production, productivity, and sales. Yet agriculture, based on collectivized farms but allowing for much private initiative and profit, used to be the pride of the Kádár regime. The proof of its success was visible in the many newly built houses in the villages, private cars, and opulent peasant weddings. Critics of the present situation cite as causes of the decline the Conservatives’ surrender to the peasant party in the government coalition, and the consequent political and administrative attacks on collective and co-operative farms. Yet the smaller farms are often less productive. There are, however, many other reasons why agricultural production has been so low, especially the collapse of the Soviet market. The new government will have to do something about the agricultural crisis, if only because Hungarian peasants have learned from their French counterparts how to demonstrate. It is some consolation, however, that, in contrast to the last few years, the harvest of 1994 promises to be good—although this in turn evokes the specter of surplus grain.
The Socialist-Liberal coalition will also have a difficult time dealing with welfare. The Socialist Party promised to improve conditions for poor people, yet even the conservative government spent far more than it had planned in payments to the less well-off. While according to government statistics the GNP has declined by 22 percent since 1990, net incomes have been allowed to decline by only 12 percent during the same period. Further economies are necessary, but no one knows how much more belt-tightening can be risked. Some Socialists agree with the Liberals that the austerity measures demanded by the IMF are necessary; other Socialists argue that the closing down of antiquated and unproductive industries would lead to even more unemployment, at greater cost to the state and the taxpayer.
According to the Hungarian sociologist Zsuzsa Ferge, real net wages have declined by one quarter since the more prosperous days of the Communist regime; the gap between higher and lower incomes has increased significantly, and the proportion of those living below the official subsistence level has grown from 10 percent during the 1980s to 27 percent in 1992. The hardest hit have been the unemployed, families with many children, single parents, agricultural workers, and many pensioners. In 1992, one third of the pensioners got less than 7,000 Forints per month, about ninety dollars, calculated at the official dollar exchange rate, and far below the official subsistence level of 8,200 Forints per month. The situation has been exacerbated by the withdrawal of practically all price subsidies, and the fact that the minimum wage laws are not enforced.6
Still, while there are many homeless people in Hungary, their presence is certainly less conspicuous than in American cities. Violent crime seems to be growing daily (as it is in most other Eastern European countries) and it is one reason why the Socialists won the elections, although there is, again, far less of it than in the US. Since checks are not customary, the postman carries pensions and other cash payments from building to building in an open leather pouch, but I have yet to hear of any being attacked. Nonetheless, the mostly Russian mafia is active throughout Eastern Europe, and the proportion of cars stolen in Hungary (largely to be resold in the former USSR) approaches that of New York City.
A large part of the petty theft as well as of violent crime is attributed to the Gypsies, of whom there are said to be anywhere between 300,000 and 800,000 in a Hungarian population of about 10 million. These Gypsies generally speak Hungarian, and thus they are not identifiable by language; nor are they identifiable by religion. Moreover, many of them do not call themselves Gypsies, and brownish skin color as well as certain East Indian facial characteristics, said to be typical of Gypsies, are not typical of all of them. Therefore, their Gypsiness lies mostly in the eyes of the beholder. To much of the Hungarian public they are poor people, very often alcoholics, who are inclined to crime. The Communist regime tried to settle the Gypsies and other nomads in villages and the new industrial cities and to give them jobs, mostly unskilled, but these have now largely vanished. Neither the growing number of ethnically and politically conscious Gypsy intellectuals nor the authorities see a solution to the Gypsy problem, partly because no one knows how exactly to define it. At least no one in Hungary has proposed to imitate the recent Czech citizenship law which deprived some 75,000 Gypsies of their claim to citizenship with the excuse that they have no fixed addresses. (Most of those Gypsies were from Slovakia, whose non-Gypsy citizens residing in the Czech lands were freely granted citizenship in the democratic Czech Republic.)
No one knows precisely how Hungarians (or Czechs, or Poles, or Romanians) exist on monthly incomes between $100 and $500—and few Hungarians report monthly salaries higher than $500. Second and third jobs were the answer in Communist times, but now with higher unemployment, the explanation is even harder to find. Unreported incomes and other black-market activities must account for at least a part of the mystery. Hungarians—and other Central and East Europeans—like to say:”If only we could afford to live as well as we do.” In any case, Budapest is choking in the exhaust fumes of nearly half a million private cars, which are parked on its sidewalks, on the grass, and everywhere else, even though the public transport system is better than in the United States.
Most households have a color TV set and a VCR, while computers and computer games are the current rage. The pages of the financial magazines, which only recently started to appear on heavy, glossy paper, carry advertisements for inexpensive vacations in such places as Hong Kong as well as for highly sophisticated computers and cameras. Most of the announcements for the better jobs are in English and German, for fluency in these and other languages is increasing. Russian, once a compulsory language for all students, has almost totally disappeared from all aspects of life and business.
The telephone service, a nightmare only a few years ago, is improving, but the housing shortage, or rather the shortage of affordable housing continues. Splendid houses for the rich are being constructed on the hills of Budapest; Western hotel chains are establishing themselves throughout the country, and there is feverish construction of superhighways, public buildings, and other large projects.
The life span of Hungarians, especially of men, is still abnormally short. They work too hard, eat heavy food, drink and smoke, and take little exercise; heart disease kills nearly one half of them. Health care is officially free, and despite rumors to the contrary, one can still get conscientious service without bribing the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, and the rest of the hospital staff. While the hospitals desperately need modern equipment and qualified nurses, the doctors get excellent training, and many patients come from Eastern Europe to overcrowded Hungarian hospitals for treatment.
Good schools are Hungary’s greatest strength, and seem the best guarantee of its future. Primary and high school education in the sciences is superior not only to that in the United States, which is not saying much, but also to that in Germany and Austria. The six universities in Hungary are badly short of money as well as being old-fashioned and weighed down by too many professors kept on from the old regime. But some interesting changes are being made:among other things, hundreds of Americans are now studying in Hungary, mostly in joint programs with American universities. A new university, in the rundown industrial city of Miskolc, was created almost entirely by efforts of the municipal leaders. George Soros’s new Central European University, with an international faculty and student body, has its largest campus in Budapest. The Collegium Budapest, set up by the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, is the first institute of advanced study in Eastern Europe, and it has already proven it can attract first-rate scholars. But most teachers are paid extremely low salaries, and many of the most talented young people are turning down fellowships for better paid positions in business.
Intellectuals used to think that the end of communism might also mean the collapse of publishing, theater, and other arts, all of which were heavily subsidized by the Party-state. At first, their worst predictions seemed justified; a wave of “how-to” and sex books seemed to threaten to replace even moderately good literature. The great state-owned publishing houses sharply cut back their staff and new private publishing houses went out of business. Today, however, there seem to be more new books than ever; a recent Book Week in Budapest was a great success, and the public again stands in line for such Hungarian specialities as mass editions of classical and avant-garde poetry or translations from even the most esoteric foreign languages.
Naturally, publication figures are smaller today now that books are produced for the open market. In 1983, the Hungarian version of one of my books on history appeared in an edition of 20,000 copies; the hardbound book cost the equivalent of a little over a dollar, and the edition sold out in a few weeks. In 1993, the Hungarian version of another of my books was printed in a hardcover edition of 2,000 copies and cost the equivalent of six dollars.
There are many more daily papers in Budapest than in New York City, and dozens of cultural journals of reasonably high quality, virtually all in need of financial support, which they obtain either from the Soros Foundation or from one of the many new domestic foundations, some of which are backed by private banks and industries—further proof that the days of Father State are coming to an end. The theaters are also in great financial difficulty, but in the quality of their acting and imaginativeness of their productions they may never have been better. Altogether there are forty theaters in Hungary with a permanent repertory. The József Katona Theater in Budapest has an excellent troupe with forty dedicated actors whose basic monthly salaries range from $150 to $500.
Culture is flourishing in small country towns as much as in Budapest, and some directors work in places like Kaposvár and Gyoå«å«r; the best ballet companies also come from small towns and often return to perform in them. Because of the shortage of hotel rooms in Budapest, international conferences are increasingly held in the countryside. This, too, is a remarkable development, for until recently everything happened in Budapest, a capital of two million inhabitants in a country of ten million.
Clearly, the picture has some bright sides. While the Socialist-Liberal coalition faces particularly difficult problems of budget and trade deficit, foreign debts, agriculture, and welfare, there is a sense that the country can now move forward. The voters gave the Socialists an absolute majority in parliament mostly because of the impression they created, through their newspaper articles and parliamentary criticisms, of professionalism and expertise and because of nostalgia for the job security, the extensive welfare system, and less inflated prices of the defunct Kádár era.
The Conservatives under Antall failed to control crime and to otherwise maintain law and order, something to which people had become accustomed during Kádár’s Communist regime. The populist wing of the Conservative Party particularly frightened voters with its demagogy about redistribution of wealth. The Liberals, too, appeared to many voters as much too ready to undertake social and economic experiments. Thus, ultimately, in May 1994 the voters who turned to the Socialist Party were hoping for a sort of conservative continuity.
Gyula Horn, the leader of the Socialists and the new prime minister, became popular in the West in 1989, when he was foreign minister, for dismantling the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria, and for thus allowing large numbers of East German “tourists” to escape through Austria to West Germany. This was the first decisive step toward the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East European communism. Horn is an experienced party functionary with a reputation for being brilliant at political maneuvering while having only moderate knowledge of economic affairs. He and his colleagues in the party decided on a coalition with the Liberals for three main reasons: according to public opinion polls, some 77 percent of the voters wanted a coalition; the party leaders did not want to seem to be restoring the one-party state; and the more moderate Socialists said they would take part only in a coalition government. The Liberals, for their part, besides being afraid of being left out, entered the coalition hoping to strengthen the more social-democratic types in the Socialist Party against its left wing (although “corporatist conservative wing” would be a more proper description).
The Socialists are divided on many issues. The left wing is supported by older Party functionaries, and the Communist Party faithful who still hold power in the state and trade-union bureaucracies. They feel that the electoral victory was their doing, and they may find a natural leader in Sándor Nagy, a labor boss from the days of compulsory trade unionism. Gyula Horn, who dominates the center of the party, temporarily wore a halo-like steel contraption around his head, the result of a car accident last spring, and this created all the more sympathy for him among the voters. A liberal or moderate wing tends to follow the lead of László Békesi, the new minister of finance (he was Communist Hungary’s last minister of finance in 1989 and 1990), whose austerity program frightens even some Liberals.
The Liberals are somewhat less fragmented, although a few founding members will probably drop out of the party so as to avoid collaborating with the former Communists. Since 1988 the Liberals have changed from an amateurish movement of mainly Jewish Budapest intellectuals to a well-financed and well-organized party supported by young entrepreneurs, petty bourgeois, farmers, and workers, particularly from the more prosperous regions near the Austrian border. The intellectuals in the party were the only active opponents of the Kádár regime. Now they wisely have chosen to support as the party’s leader Gábor Kuncze, the new deputy prime minister and minister of interior. Looking, with his bristling mustaches, like the quintessential Hungarian rustic (although he is of German origin), Kuncze is a practical and experienced business manager. While he is the first to say he is not a genius and that he does not speak foreign languages (Horn speaks Russian and some Serbian), he has shown a fine sense of humor, a strong will, and much self-control when attacked and he seems quite capable of dealing effectively with the Socialists.
Among the more intransigent problems facing the Socialist-Liberal coalition will be those of compensating owners for property taken by the Nazis and the Communists, and of retribution for the more flagrant state crimes of killing, torture, and deprivation of liberty. Redeemable vouchers for small sums are gradually being given to those whose houses and businesses have been nationalized. Expropriation began toward the end of World War IIwith the confiscation of Jewish property; it continued under the Communists with the step-by-step takeover of the property of almost everybody who owned anything. Clearly it is impossible to compensate everyone for his or her losses. Thousands of people live surrounded by stolen property, which they may or may not have inherited or have bought in good faith. Nor is the situation much clearer concerning punishment for past political crimes. The Antall government talked about indicting the sociologist András Hegedüs, who as prime minister in October 1956 signed the letter to the Soviet armed forces requesting that they suppress the revolution in Hungary. The Conservatives hoped also to be able to try some of the police and military commanders who were responsible for shooting innocent people during and after the revolution. But nothing has come of these plans, and it is more than likely that the new regime will not continue the investigations.
It will on the other hand probably try to assert control over state-owned radio and television. In March, for purely political reasons, the Antall government fired 129 of the most competent employees of the state radio station; the independent president of the state television, the distinguished sociologist Elemér Hankiss, had already been fired in 1993. Such attempts by rightists to push programming in a nationalist direction, and particularly to report favorably on the Antall government, undoubtedly contributed to the defeat of the Conservatives. Now the 129 fired employees will probably be called back, and some of the right-wing ideologues who sponsored the purge have already been purged themselves. In the early days of the Antall regime, radio and television stations maintained some genuine independence even though the government and the political parties had the power to control them. Whether the stations can regain their real independence now is a large question.
In foreign affairs the Antall government was not successful in establishing normal relations with Romania, Slovakia, and Serb-controlled Yugoslavia, although it is doubtful whether any other government would have been more adept in dealing with countries whose leaders are mostly either nationalist Communists or ex-Communist nationalists. The new government will undoubtedly tone down the patriotic propaganda campaigns of the Antall government, but it would also like to see autonomous territories set up for the more than three million ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries, a proposal absolutely unacceptable to the neighbors themselves. In general, the prospects of coming to some understanding with Slovakia—particularly since the demagogic Vladimír Me?ciar has been displaced as prime minister of Slovakia—are better than with Romania and with Romania better than with Milos?eviå«c’s Yugoslavia. It may well be, however, that all three governments need a Hungary to fear.
In any case, refugees from many countries keep arriving in Hungary, and there is tense public debate over the question of whether ethnic Hungarians should be treated better than other refugees. Curiously, Hungary is also becoming a haven for thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. Hungarian police estimates of the number of illegal residents vary from 100,000 to 600,000.
The possible disagreements between the two coalition partners are as numerous as disagreements within each party. The Socialists predictably favor centralization of bureaucratic control in Budapest, and the Liberals decentralization, whether in education or local government. At the moment, they all agree on the necessity of a modest devaluation of the Hungarian currency, the Forint, and then for allowing strong price increases. Whether the experiment succeeds in improving the trade balance or in badly increasing inflation will affect this November’s municipal elections.
One doesn’t know how the Socialists will behave during the next four years. The anxious find ample proof that the old arrogance of the Communist functionaries is reappearing, and cite such cases as that of a former Communist law professor who said to a candidate, a spokesman for the Young Democrats:”Do not imagine that now you will be able to pass your bar exam,” or of the office supervisor, an old Communist bureaucrat, who wrote on the vacation application of an employee who was involved in Conservative politics:”I do not authorize her travel abroad.” Others argue that all the political parties are being transformed and the Socialists are likely to divide into Social Democrats and a left wing whose members might join other radicals on the left. It seems to me important that Liberals in the political center maintain their strength, while favoring protection of individual rights and resistance to the re-imposition of state controls; for Hungary needs a strong Liberal Party as much as the Western European countries do, if not more so.
The Conservatives, for their part, are expected to split into a far right that would join the other extremists on the right, and a moderate faction that, perhaps together with the Young Democrats, would create a real conservative or Tory party. If genuine Social Democrats, Liberals, and Conservatives do indeed emerge, Hungary would then resemble Western Europe the more closely. With the economic situation improving, the logical next step would be to join the European Union.
But the logic of European politics could easily be confounded. It is not a good omen that even the relatively successful countries in Eastern Europe are quite divided among themselves, as has always been the case in critical times. Of the so-called Visegrád four—Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary—the Czechs are definitely going their own way. Prime Minister Václav Klaus wishes to have nothing to do with the rest of the region for, as he keeps telling his people, the Czech Republic has overcome the economic problems that the other countries of the region have barely begun to tackle. Klaus sees his state as already a part of Western Europe. I don’t believe that he is right, but in any case such divisiveness has always been harmful to the region. Some Western commentators are also adding to the problem by insisting, in order to excuse Western inaction, that ethnic hatreds have been a permanent feature of Eastern European societies. This is entirely untrue, however, even for the territory of the former Yugoslavia. No less harmful is the excessive and sensational attention still being given to the threat of fascist anti-Semitism.
Hungary has a spirited national culture and it may be on the way to having a resilient civil society. The political decline of the intellectuals is another sign of a more normal public life. The people have learned, or rather have re-learned, to play the parliamentary game on the basis of the centuries’ old customs of a socially and economically backward society which has, nevertheless, a well-developed and self-conscious political class. In the May election, for the first time since 1905, the Hungarian peoplewere able freely to vote an already freely elected government out of office. I have the impression that they have elected a competent regime in which the forces of democracy have a good chance.
—July 14, 1994
August 11, 1994
The Hungarian electoral system, adopted in 1990, attempts to combine the advantages of the single district and proportional representations. The goal is to strengthen the more popular parties and politicians, thus enabling them to govern. All parties that do not receive at least 5 percent of the national vote are excluded from Parliament. ↩
The FIDESZ or Alliance of Young Democrats once had a rule that its members and political representatives could not be “over thirty-five.” Handsome young people in short skirts and blue jeans, the Young Democrats enchanted the Hungarian public and foreign journalists with their brilliant political analyses and their arguments for the free market. They did far less well at the recent elections than their enormous popularity a year or two earlier had led them to expect, proving that political parties that rely on youthfulness for their appeal have no future. ↩
Prime Minister József Antall died in December 1993. Other professional historians in his cabinet included the foreign minister, the minister of defense, the president of the Hungarian parliament, and several ambassadors as well as deputy ministers. Antall’s successor, Prime Minister Péter Boross, is a former business manager who showed great political talent in winning followers but did not have enough time to save his party from defeat. ↩
Iam grateful to Professor György Péteri of the Institute of EconomicHistory at Uppsala University inSweden for providing me with thisinformation. ↩
Black market production is estimated at 30 percent of the regular GNP. When calculating the gross national product, Hungarian statisticians regularly include in their data a part but not all of this estimated underground production. If all the irregular production were added to the legal production, it would make the Hungarian GNP much greater than it appears from the statistics, but it must also be kept in mind that the black market results in the loss of about 1.5 billion dollars in taxes and social security by the government each year. ↩
Zsuzsa Ferge, “Winners and Losers After the Collapse of State Socialism,” Social Policy Review, Number 5 (1993), pp. 270-287. Some Hungarian experts dispute what they consider Ferge’s pessimistic statistics. ↩