Country Profile: Hungary

Susanna Lada - TCS Reporter 29 October 2009

A country in Eastern Europe, renowned for its wine and world-famous baths and spas, Hungary has seen troubling economic and political times over the last two years. This is in contrast with the situation twenty years ago, when the country was declared an independent democratic republic on 23 October 1989, finally free from the shackles of Communism.

Hungary suffered at the hands of foreign oppressors on more than one occasion throughout its turbulent history. The Hungarian people would revolt against such subjugation every century or so. Though such revolutions were suppressed in 1606, 1711, 1848 and 1956, oppression generally eased in the wake of the revolutions, with living conditions becoming more acceptable.

It is a Hungarian peculiarity that despite the fact that such risings were crushed, they could still be interpreted as victories of sorts. Hungary was widely referred to as the ‘happiest barrack’ within the Soviet bloc, doing better economically and having to endure less stringent restrictions within the private sphere in comparison to other Soviet satellite states.

The Soviets feared more independence movements and sought to mollify the revolting nation by granting Hungary concessions. But some negative ramifications of this so-called Kadar era lingered on after the fall of Communism. A curious political culture had been fashioned, with a population that continued to look to the state whenever a problem arose. People became overly dependent on the state welfare payments, while also engaging in tax evasion and using loopholes for their own ends. This in turn triggered rigorous regulations, corruption and a cumbersome bureaucratic system. It also led to the shocking figure of a budget deficit of over 9 per cent of GDP by as late as 2006.

Matters hardly look rosier on the political scene. Hungary’s now former Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany of the Socialist party, made front-line news after the leaking of a tape at a secret party conference in 2006. In vulgar language Mr. Gyurcsany admitted to lying about the state of the economy in order to win the 2006 general election. This resulted in public riots with thousands of demonstrators calling on the Prime Minister to resign, in the first violent protests since 1989.

He did not immediately comply with the crowd’s wishes, however. In March 2009 Mr Gyurcsany resigned and handed the reins over to Gordon Bajnai, a relatively unknown figure, who called for harsh economic policies against the recession. Mr Bajnai has ruled out running for the premiership in next year’s general election, which is almost certainly going to be won by the main opposition centre-right Fidesz party. Indeed, the ruling Socialists have now completely lost legitimacy to the degree that the Conservative Fidesz’s primary concern is over whether they can secure a two-thirds majority or only a single majority at the ballot box.

Those who are disappointed in the newly democratic Hungary do not turn towards the left, but instead the far right. The extreme right’s ideology encompasses anti-globalisation, a virulent nationalism, anti-Semitism and an anti-Roma agenda. Some still hanker after the revision of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which left a quarter of Hungarians outside Hungary’s borders. The problem of the excessive measures against Hungarian minorities by Romania and Slovakia for instance should be recognised and solved, but one could very well question whether the regaining of lost territories almost 100 years later would be justifiable. In spite of rational arguments, however, the emotional facet of the issue continues to excite heated debates today.

Most worryingly, the far right’s anti-Roma rhetoric fared best in counties with substantial Roma minorities, and surveys show that the radical Jobbik party is definitely a new force to be reckoned with.

In conclusion, there’s a less-than-shiny record for the country that provided the first cracks in the Berlin Wall by opening its borders with Austria in 1989. After the fall of Communism Hungary was praised for its smooth economic transition, but recent economic and political affairs leave a blemish on the image of a nation capable of so much more.

Susanna Lada – TCS Reporter