Gloomy Celebrations

CímGloomy Celebrations
Közlemény típusaOnline cikk / Web Article
SzerzőkHegedűs, István
Teljes szöveg

Twenty Years Later

Hungary: Gloomy Celebrations


Has Hungary lost its way since the heady time of 20 years ago, or is that just the Magyar pessimism talking?

What went wrong in Hungary? Looking at the calendar, in 2009 Hungarians celebrate five years of European Union membership and 20 years of democratic development after the collapse of a relatively “soft” communist dictatorship. Outside observers used to deem Hungary a success story. Even most Hungarians saw their country as the star pupil among the new pluralist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe that had started to attend “democracy courses” and to undergo an economic transformation as applicants to the European Union in the 1990s.


But there is little space left for euphoria. Today the country faces an economic contraction following almost three years of austerity measures, budget deficit cuts, and mostly failed or blocked institutional and market reforms. Partisanship and a bitter power struggle between major political forces have intensified since the turn of this century. The tension culminated in riots of radical right-wing groups on the streets of Budapest followed by what at first was an amateurish then later became an overly rough police reaction during the “hot fall” in 2006.


Conspiracy theorists, whose simplistic explanations can be heard in all corners of Hungary, might regard my description of the violence as naïve or biased. Entrenched partisanship makes political dialogue on such sensitive issues almost impossible. Take the case of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s speech about the country’s economic woes and the need for urgent reforms held at the meeting of the socialist parliamentary group after the general elections in 2006. It was leaked some months later – (almost) nobody knows by whom. His now infamous declaration that “We lied all day and night” can be explained from at least two clashing perspectives: as the most honest speech, unmasking cowardly political scenarios and distorted economic agendas, since the regime change, or as the address of a notorious liar finally admitting that he had tricked the people before the elections.


You can imagine what language chatterers who are emotionally invested with one of the two main political “sides” use on the Internet against each other when discussing important public affairs. For most conservative voters politics is all about the communist/anti-communist cleavage; for many left-wingers the goal is to stop the radical and nationalist right. Citizens with different partisan identification might unite for some sacred moments – to criticize all sorts of politicians for earning too much money, for instance.




“Where did we lose our way?” That question has been asked by prominent Hungarians practically since 1526, when the Ottoman Empire won a decisive battle against divided Hungarian troops. Not unique for this part of Europe, Hungarians’ general perception of their country’s past and present is full of sorrow and pessimism. I felt as early as the 1990s that beyond a broad wish to join the European Union, a cautious and ambivalent feeling of “Europessimism” had emerged among politicians, the media, and the public. You could hear this “yes, but” approach in such commonsense understatements like “There is no alternative to membership” before the referendum on joining the EU in 2003. Following accession, although Hungarians do not want to leave the union, the majority thinks that entering the EU has brought more disadvantages than advantages.


The attitudes of citizens matter a lot. In June, the country’s second European elections will be held almost exclusively in the context of national partisan competition. European issues will be aired from the narrow perspective of how much Hungary can profit from membership and how we should defend our alleged national interests. The process of Europeanization, however, might mean that European topics get some play in some segments of the media during the election campaign, and preparations for the Hungarian EU presidency in 2011 have already raised some public interest.


Perhaps all those pessimistic Hungarians have it wrong. Economic progress in the last two decades is evident, at least to visitors. And although various governments have missed the chance to introduce a second wave of necessary economic reforms since the end of the 1990s, and accumulated huge state debts, the current financial crisis and the shakiness of the forint might accelerate the introduction of the euro, assuaging the shame of being left behind on that score by Slovenia and Slovakia.


And the country’s democratic institutions have demonstrated some strength during the last turbulent years. At the end of 2008, the minority government survived the vote on the budget, and a bill introducing a compulsory budget ceiling was approved to restrain politicians from overspending. In spite of political and economic populism that prevents a final break with the legacy of socialism, provincialism, and nationalism, Hungary had taken its place pretty smoothly inside European decision-making processes as well as in the heterogeneous family of EU member states.


Still, there’s a reason that the international hit **Gloomy Sunday** was written by a Hungarian composer, Rezso Seress.