Picture: Syrian refugees on the Serb-Hungary border
The Berlin Wall came down on 9 November 1989. For those of us old enough to vaguely remember when it was erected (1961 – I was 11) it was an amazing to see “Ossis” (Easterners) and “Wessis” (Westerners) clambering over the Wall, knocking chunks out of it and dancing in the street.
This hideous structure, this monument to everything that was vile about Stalinism and its subjugation of the people of Central and Eastern Europe, disintegrated on our TV screens, although it was well into 1990 before the whole monstrosity was finally demolished (Today very little of it remains).
Earlier in 1989, on 2 May, another key event in the unravelling of Eastern Europe, although less spectacular than the collapse of the Berlin Wall, took place on the border between Austria and Hungary. Hungarian border guards began dismantling the barbed wire fence between the two countries.
Thousands of gleeful East Germans used this opportunity to flee to Austria, dumping their, now useless, Trabant cars on the roadside. The phrase “I’m taking a holiday in Hungary” acquired a new meaning.
This was followed by a ceremonial wire cutting on 27 June as Gyula Horn (Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs) and his Austrian equivalent Alois Mock posed for the world’s press and rather clumsily hacked away at the wire to put the seal of official approval on everything.
Since those heady days, when indeed “it was bliss to be alive”, everything has changed. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, who did as much as anyone to ensure the onset of the Cold War, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, neoliberal capitalism has descended across Europe”.
In 1989 and the following year, the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Central and Eastern Europe, the Warsaw Pact was disbanded and 45 years of Stalinist misrule came to an end. Everyone expected change for the better. A new dawn was just around the corner.
The newly independent states of Central and Eastern Europe were ready and eager to embrace democracy, free and open media, human rights and the joys that unfettered free market capitalism would surely bring.
Today, the Hungarians have demagogue-in-chief Viktor Orbán. The Poles have another demagogue Jarosław Kaczyński. Latvia has lost something like 25% of its population.
In many countries the media is not free. Unemployment is widespread (although often concentrated in pockets). A minority has prospered, but the majority have not. Corruption and bribery is rife at all levels of government and industry, and gangsterism is unchecked. Demagogues continue to fan the flames of xenophobia against Jews, Roma and refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere.
How did this happen? The easy answer, and one I have always given to my Hungarian friends (I lived in Hungary from 1991 to 2000), is that they swapped one lousy, exploitative system for another – they simply exploit in different ways.
That is true at a very basic level, but it doesn’t answer the question I have posed. The Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Romanians, Bulgarians and Slovaks are not exactly the first people on the planet to have been duped by capitalism’s illusory promises. We need to go deeper.
I’ll discuss two recent attempts to address these issues. The first is a ridiculously optimistic piece in the Guardian of 26 October 2019 (This is the Golden Age: Eastern Europe’s Extraordinary Revival) by Shaun Walker. The other is a more nuanced and in-depth analysis offered by Ivan Krestev and Stephen Holmes in their book, just published, The Light that Failed, which, nevertheless, also fails in its aim.
Neither the Guardian article nor the Krestev/Holmes book deals with the crucial issue facing the people of Central and Eastern Europe: their failure to develop a democratic-socialist alternative to the economic and political neoliberalism that was foisted on them by the USA and the EU post-1989, and many enthusiastically embraced.
After a brief “honeymoon” period which became ever more fraught, there has been a serious right-wing lurch to populist xenophobia, cronyism, dogmatism and a serious erosion of civil liberties.
Although these retrograde developments can be seen, in some degree, in all countries of Central and Eastern Europe, they are most pronounced in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union has been in power continuously since 2010, and in Poland where Jarosław Kaczyński’s equally right wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) was re-elected on 13 October 2019, winning 235 seats out of 460 in the Polish Parliament (Sejm).
Now let us go back to 1989. Within a short period of time Russian troops had departed Eastern and Central Europe. The Communist Parties everywhere collapsed and either disappeared or changed their names.
In Hungary the first parliamentary elections in 1990 gave a majority to the newly formed Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) as the main party in a tri-partite coalition. The prime minister was Jozsef Antall, a lack-lustre plodder of limited abilities. Within a short period of time it was clear that all was not going to plan.
It was in TV (MTV) and radio (MR) that this was primarily manifested. A major row – the “Media War” – exploded over control and censorship of broadcasting.
The government initially appointed two sociologists to run the TV and radio: Elemer Hankiss (MTV) and Csaba Gombar (MR). A seemingly odd choice: neither man had any experience in the media. But it appears they were acceptable to all the main parties.
The instability of the MDF coalition was soon demonstrated when the MDF right-winger and antisemite István Csurka called for Hankiss and Gomba to be replaced. To the fevered imagination of Csurka both men were closet Stalinists (they certainly weren’t) and had to go.
Here we can already see a number of themes that were to become common currency in post-’regime change” Hungary. Anyone of a liberal inclination was a Stalinist and had to be driven from office. There was a sudden conversion of ex-Stalinists to the cause of neoliberalism. Lip service paid to the West whose advice was often ignored, for example when western political representatives, media appointees and advisers roundly condemned the attacks on Hankis and Gomba.
That suggests that the role of “imitation” — Krastev and Holmes argue that after 1989 Central and East European countries attempted to imitate the west (but failed) — was not as central as sometimes thought. Frequently the governments of the region simply ignored Western overtures and advice.
The hopeless dithering and opportunism of the main body of politicians in Hungary, seen in that crisis, would become an enduring feature of the Hungarian political landscape.
Although the MDF coalition had appointed Hankiss and Gomba, that same coalition in February 1992 that demanded their expulsion for supposed “mismanagement” and “editorial anomalies which evoke bad memories for the population” (whatever the hell that was supposed to mean!).
After further attacks and slurs, both Hankiss and Gomba were suspended. They resigned in January 1993. Hankiss told the English-language Budapest Week of a “…slow decline towards less neutrality, less independence and more prejudice” while he feared that the government “…could intimidate the whole staff to become more cautiously pro-government”.
Exactly that happened. It has since been developed by Orbán into full-fledged control of the media despite the fact that, initially, Orbán and Fidesz criticised the Antall government over their handling of the Media War. It never seems to have occurred to Antall, or later to Orbán, that they were replicating, in a somewhat muted form, the former media policies of the Hungarian Communist Party. The reasoning behind their action, as far as it is possible to make out any coherent policy, is classically “statist” – having won a majority in the 1990 election, the MDF coalition thought it could do as it liked.
The media was, basically a “tool” to be used in the reconstruction of their vision of Hungary and issues such as government interference and control, democratic accountability, the right to reply etc. were seen as irrelevant and anyone who disagreed was an obstacle to be removed or, as in the case of the west, ignored. Again, Orbán later pursued this same statist vision, only pushing it to a higher level.
Although the Media War is now long gone, it serves to illustrate some key points in the development of Hungary after the regime-change. Similar things applied, in varying degree, to other countries in the region.
In 1994 I presented a talk on the Media War to a British Film Institute conference. Looking back, I find some of the analysis crude, but I suggested then that there were four main planks to political developments in post-1989 Hungary. These were:
• The underdeveloped and essentially crude nature of Hungarian conservatism
• The weakness and confusion of the forces of liberalism and the centre
• The rise of Hungarian nationalism
• The ill-defined alignment of class and social forces and the routinisation of political opposition
Although the forces of the right were strong, feeding off many years of repulsion and disenchantment with the Hungarian Communist Party, their political outlook often consisted of nothing more than support and advocacy of the free-market and anti-communist bashing.
The MDF had close ties with the British Conservative Party, but it really had no political programme worthy of the name. The Tory model (if it was ever adopted with any seriousness) provided little more than some ideological billboards for a party a bit thin on ideas and lacking a decisive, distinctive and workable political and economic strategy.
Into that vacuum stepped Hungarian nationalism. With no worked-out ideology of their own the parties of the right fell back on the politics of the inter-war period, when Hungary was governed by a series of increasingly right-wing parties, all of them fundamentally Christian-nationalist, anti-democratic, anti-working class and anti-socialist and, as the thirties progressed, more and more antisemitic.
All the right-wing parties drew their support mainly from the countryside where these values found most resonance and a strong legacy.
Unable or unwilling to articulate any other ideology (such as the Hungarian equivalent of “one-nation Conservatism”), the right began to increasingly sound and act like their Christian-nationalist brethren from the 1920s and 30s, even going so far as to call for the revision of the Trianon Treaty of 1920 in which Hungary had lost two thirds of its territory after World War 2.
The same”vision” was ultimately embraced by Orbán and Fidesz.
The forces of what might have become a liberal alternative had little to offer except “let’s be like the west” and a resort to what might be called “constitutionalism” and parliamentary oppositional tactics. Neither was effective in any way. No matter how much Hungarian youngsters listened to western music (during my time in Hungary, Queen were very popular) and wore western fashions, the west was never really trusted except in the very early years of Hungary’s transition. Westerners soon came to be viewed as rather arrogant, foisting their values on Hungarian society and treating the country and the population with patronising disdain.
The “shock tactics” of social and industrial change, encouraged by western “advisers” who could be seen everywhere and were easily spotted in their “Ivy League” or “Tory-boy” suits and adopted by the newly aspiring Hungarian elite, left many workers unemployed. Retirees saw their pensions slashed, inflation was rampant, bribery and corruption were on the increase, and gangsterism started to make its first appearance.
It was often former members of the Communist Party who benefited from these brutal changes, turning from arch-Stalinist one day to arch neoliberal capitalist the next – and making a mint in the process.
Not only ex-Stalinists were “on the make”. I remember talking to a lecturer at a university where I worked. He was proud of his record in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution when he fought the Stalinists. As we spoke, he pointed to the upstairs window of a nearby shop from which he had fired at Russian troops. He was captured and imprisoned.
Yet he was the biggest crook I ever met in Hungary. His specialism was purchasing expensive medical texts for the Department of Medicine (which didn’t exist) and then flogging them, at grossly inflated prices, to universities and hospitals in Bosnia and elsewhere. He once asked me to write his son’s graduation thesis, which I refused to do.
Sometimes it seemed as if the entire country had lost its moral compass. There were many good people in Hungary, but they often appeared cowed and beaten down. They needed a voice, somewhere to focus their grievances, discontent, and anger, but there was nothing.
Trade unions were fragmented and ineffective. I tried to join the Hungarian teaching union, but nobody could decide what to do with me – I was left in limbo and eventually gave this up. I mention this only because it demonstrates what a mess they were in – as if having a foreigner as a member of a trade union is such a big deal!
Opposition parties were weak. The Socialist Party (which included former members of the Communist Party), which actually won the 1994 election, was just as Thatcherite as any other party, and within a few years became embroiled in the most scandalous corruption and bribery allegations in the whole of Hungarian post-1989 history.
Utter disgust at the Socialist Party and particularly its leading figure, Ferenc Gyurcsány (an admirer of Tony Blair) was to contribute to the propulsion of Orbán to government.
The Socialist party was elected in 2004 with Gyurcsány as PM. What happened next convulsed Hungary. At a Party meeting in September 2006 the Prime Minister was secretly recorded saying the Socialist Party had been lying continuously, admitting “…we have fucked up” and adding that, “I’ve almost killed myself the last one and a half years having to pretend that we were governing. Instead we’ve been lying morning, noon and night”.
To Orbán this was a gift. He was quick to capitalise. At the next election in 2010 Fidesz romped home, and it has been in power ever since.
The success of Orbán it is at least due in part to the crass opportunism, deceit and corruption of the opposition. The “Socialists” (their party is “socialist” in name only) destroyed whatever support it might have had in the working class with a programme of swingeing cuts to welfare, and pensions.
The left in Hungary, such as it was, had only limited traction and appeal. There was a left wing in the Socialist Party (the Left Platform) which attempted to push through certain changes to the Party’s programme. But they were isolated and met with only limited success.
Some of that left grouping were also active in the Baloldali Alternativa (Left Alternative), which held a number of international conferences and, to their enormous credit, tried hard to keep the flame of socialism alive in difficult circumstances. Their impact was very limited.
To even try to talk about the basic ideas of socialism was often a forlorn task. Very few people were listening. Anything to do with the left was tainted by the experience between 1945 and 1989. There was a general air of despondency.
Talking to a group of miners at the Balinka pit in Northern Hungary in 1992, I was particularly struck by their resignation at the news that the mine was to close. It was the “gazdag piac” (market economy) and you could do nothing about it.
Amongst workers and other sectors of the population, betrayed by the past regime and its fake “unions” and now feeling equally betrayed by the west, disillusion and alienation was rife. If the working class in Central and Eastern Europe ever turned cartwheels in the street at the coming of neoliberal capitalism, that feeling didn’t last very long.
Fidesz was ready to exploit the situation. Quickly dropping their “young liberal” image, they moved rapidly to the right.
In other parts of Eastern and Central Europe the story was, like Hungary, one of continuing instability with governments of the centre and right coming and going as the electoral mood swung this way and that.
Nationalism increased in many countries, first manifested in the 1993 low-key split in Czechoslovakia as the Slovaks insisted on going their own way. In Slovakia, the government of Vladimir Meciar, first elected in 1992 as a regional government, was unable to deal with the economic problems facing the country.
Slovakia’s economic mainstay was heavy industry particularly arms manufacture. But it almost exclusively supplied the Soviet Union. With that customer dead and gone, the economy bombed.
Meciar’s government, unlike others in the region, tended to resist outside investment from the west. The economy was handled so badly and bribery and corruption was so rife that the country quickly became something of a basket case, not helped by Meciar’s thuggish approach to questions of electoral law, basic human rights and particularly the rights of the Hungarian minority.
Despite Meciar’s stance on limiting outside investment and privatisation, by the time he was booted out of office in 1998, 82% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Slovakia came from the private sector. Unemployment hovered around 12-14% till the late 90s. Inflation was 25% in 1993 and only slowly declined towards the end of the 90s. Slovakia joined the EU in 2004, but in 2010 the unemployment rate still stood at 15%.
In the region, only the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) had higher rates.
The unemployment rate is now down to 5%, the first time it has been in single figures for years.
The smaller countries of the region were especially vulnerable to political and financial pressures from outside their borders, Latvia, to take one example, suffered particularly badly.
The Latvian economy was almost totally controlled by the so-called “Georgetown gang”, a group of graduates from Georgetown University in Washington DC dedicated to a hardline neoliberal approach to economic matters and headed by a Latvian-American, Juris Viksnins. Many of this cabal of grabbers and carpet-baggers occupied positions of influence in the Latvian financial and government sector (e.g. the Head of the Central Bank, various positions in the Ministry of Finance).
The measures taken by the Latvian government in the wake of the 2008 financial crash were so drastic – wage cuts, slashing of pensions and welfare provision, raising taxes etc. – that approximately 25% of the population, the vast majority of them young, qualified and active, decamped to the west to find work.
Shaun Walker in his Guardian article claims that this phenomenon is short term. The 25% will return. It is really all down to EU accession and cheap Ryanair flights.
But the flight of the 25% is clearly a result of the economic plight of the country, brought about by the disastrous policies adopted by a government totally in thrall to an ideology which is designed to destroy the livelihoods of the many for the privilege of the few. In surveys throughout the region the vast majority, when asked why they would consider migrating, cite “economic reasons” as the main cause.
25% of a country’s population don’t just wake up one morning and, while having breakfast, suddenly think “I’ll jump on a cheap Ryanair flight and go to London/Paris/Berlin and become a taxi driver or a bricklayer – that’ll be a nice change”.
Latvia now has one of the highest suicide rates in the EU and 60% of all deaths of Latvians in the UK are suicides.
Almost all the countries in the region have suffered population losses by internal EU migration, although not on quite the same scale as Latvia. Since Romania joined the EU in 2007, 3.4m have left, 17% of the population, prompting a crisis in the number of nurses and other medics within the country.
This drain of people is not sustainable, particularly for societies that are already under enormous social and economic strain. You hardly need to be a specialist in demographics to see how damaging this can be for the well-being of the people left behind (declining medical services, an ageing population, a lack of particular skills in the job market etc.).
Two key events since 1989 have had a major effect on the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Those were the accession to the EU (most of the region joined in 2004) and the economic crash of 2008.
Membership of the EU meant accepting the neoliberal rules laid down by Brussels as part and parcel of joining. Both the Single Market and monetary union were central dimensions of the European neoliberal project. The Single Market aimed to increase Europe’s global competitiveness and entailed the so-called “liberalisation” of utilities and services, in other words flogging off services, water, gas, electricity, railways etc. to private interests.
Monetary union eased the conditions for cross-border transactions but was also part and parcel of a program for forcing punitive financial measures on member states. The former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis’s book And the Weak Suffer what they Must is a good analysis of what can happen: destitution for whole sectors of the population, depleted hospitals, severely diminished welfare provision, and rampant unemployment.
The process has created a “core-periphery” situation in which the countries of the Central and Eastern Europe have joined Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland as victims of the big players, notably France and Germany, which push loans on those countries and then charge impossibly high interest rates on the debt repayments.
Supposedly to help attract foreign investment and in any case to bow to pressure from the fiscal overlords in Brussels and Washington, the peripheral and Eastern and Central European countries have adopted increasingly lax labour regulations, with attacks on workers’ rights and benefits, anti-trade union legislation, and taxation policies which are extremely favourable to outside capital.
For German capital this has meant the creation of a “tax haven” on its own doorstep.
The thought of joining the EU raised, again, a certain feeling of euphoria, but overall there has been a repeat of the post-1989 let down. Some Hungarians were distinctly sceptical about the whole process, including the well-known film director István Szabó whose “EU” film Meeting Venus (1991) portrayed a Paris opera production as a rather tangled metaphor for a Europe riddled with contradictions and conflicts, into which steps a rather innocent Hungarian music conductor. (It’s not that great a film, but worth watching).
In Hungary, contrary to first appearances Orbán’s Fidesz has not romped home in every election. Orbán has lost four elections, three of them to the Socialist Party (in 1994, 2002 and 2006). Fidesz won their first election in 1998, but had to form a coalition with the Independent Smallholders Party and the MDF. They lost the next election, in 2002.
However, in 2010 Fidesz defeated Gyurcsány’s Socialist Party and has been in office ever since.
Orbán was once a student activist who famously called for the withdrawal of Russian troops at the June 1989 re-burial of Imre Nagy, executed leader of the 1956 Provisional Government? His Fidesz party was often referred to in the western media as the “Young Liberals”.
If that was ever true, it was an image they soon shed. Whatever posturing Orbán may have adopted in his younger days (jeans and a beard and some vaguely liberal slogans), he was, in fact an opportunist. People who knew him when he was a student say that he showed little appetite for politics and was only interested in football.
In the very first election (1990) Fidesz collected only 8.95% of the national vote. Perhaps that rang alarm bells with Orbán – better to ditch the jeans for a suit and have a shave.
From that time on the political trajectory of Fidesz has been marked by a steady shift to the right, a certain adroitness at forming coalitions, increasing attacks on the liberals, and a verbal dexterity which has employed and resurrected the tropes and clichés of Hungarian Christian-Nationalism between the wars. Since 2004 the EU and the west, in general, have come under attack.
The EU, in particular has become Orbán’s bête noir, even though Hungary (and Orbán personally) have benefited from certain EU policies, and Hungary shows no sign of leaving the EU.
There were probably four main factors leading to Orbán’s victory in 2010:
• the utter bankruptcy of the Socialist Party, and its failure even to transform itself into something remotely resembling a social democratic party
• the stagnation of the liberals, who were simply unable to do anything
• the failure of the Socialists to adequately deal with the financial crisis of 2008
• the desertion of disappointed and angry voters from the poorer sections of society and those in the countryside
They voted for Orbán in their thousands. And many voted for the far right as represented by the fascist Jobbik Party, which won 47 seats.
Following the 2010 electoral victory Orbán resolutely pursued the policy he now calls “illiberal democracy”, managing to keep Jobbik at arms length and, in effect, letting them do the “dirty stuff” for him.
The 2018 elections witnessed a further racheting-up of the right-wing rhetoric. Orbán attacked the investor George Soros for meddling in Hungarian affairs, using thinly veiled antisemitic language, and launched a veritable propaganda war against migrants, particularly if they were Muslims.
Central to his thinking is a kind of nationalist resentment against the European Union (which he sees as anti-nation), and against Hungarian liberalism and its compromises. Liberals are identified as the people who have encouraged (or turned a blind eye to) migrants, and pandered to Brussels and other westerners.
The refugee crisis resulting from the civil war in Syria brought much of that to a head. The refugees approaching Hungary’s borders were seen as little more than an invading horde of savages. Angela Merkel’s gesture to allow them into Germany was depicted as a betrayal of Christian values but even more so of Hungary.
Orbán now seems to believe that Hungary is once again playing the role of antemurale (“defender of the gate”) – the last bastion against the invasion of Europe by Asiatic hordes, as in the 15th and 16th century at the battles of Nándorfehérvar and Mohacs when the Hungarian army confronted the Ottoman empire (victory at the former, crushing defeat at the latter).
He thus transforms Hungary into the European country defending the continent for Christianity, while all the rest (Merkel, the EU), liberal-degenerates that they are, sell out to the Muslim infidels. In a speech of 20 March 2016 Orbán linked this murky pot of prejudice to the Trianon agreement of 1920 when Hungary lost two thirds of its territory as part of the Versailles settlement after World War I:
“The situation, dear friends is that there are now those who want to take our country from us. Not with the stroke of a pen, as happened one hundred years ago at Trianon; now they want us to voluntarily hand our country over to others, over a period of a few decades.
“They want us to hand it over to foreigners coming from other continents, who do not speak our language, and who do not respect our culture, our laws or our way of life; people who want to replace what is ours with what is theirs”.
2020 is the 100th anniversary of the Trianon Treaty and it seems likely that Orbán will use the anniversary to further stoke the fires of Hungarian nationalism. He may possibly even to call for a revision of the Treaty. That would spark enormous tensions in the region with Hungary’s neighbours, particularly Romania.
Similar trends can be seen in other Central and Eastern European countries but, always, with key differences. In Poland, nationalism and enmity towards the west is fuelled not so much by the failures of the free market but by the way the right has latched on to issues such as gay marriage and abortion (hot issues in Catholic Poland and zealously pursued by the Church).
To accept the liberal values of the EU on these issues is seen as an act of betrayal, and the “threat” of migrants arriving in Poland is often portrayed as some plot hatched in Brussels. The “threat” is entirely imaginary – as in Hungary – refugees have not “targeted” Poland as a destination and their actual number is very small. Kaczsińsky and the President Andrzej Duda have compared the European Union to an occupying force, evoking parallels between Brussels and Poland’s historical occupiers: Prussia, Russia and Austria. (Until the end of the First World Poland was divided up between those three powers).
In that ludicrous perspective, national sovereignty and Poland’s Catholic heritage are linked together and equally threatened by the godless foreigners in Brussels and the non-existent hordes of migrants gathering at the Polish borders.
What is to be done? Throughout this article I have stressed the devastating effects of neoliberal politics and economics on the region and the weakness of the liberal response to the growing nationalism and authoritarianism in Central and Eastern Europe. I have also mentioned the lack of a democratic-socialist alternative. At best there are only a few small groups here and there.
It is easy to throw slogans at this situation or spout clichés about “when the masses move…”. It will do nothing to alter the unpleasant truth that the forces fighting for democratic socialism are miniscule, in Poland, Hungary or elsewhere.
But first of all we – socialists in the west – need to do all we can to help our friends and comrades in Central and Eastern Europe by inviting them to meet with us here in the UK (and helping them financially in doing this), and going over there to do what we can to help.
This will also entail us arguing, once again, for internationalism within the British labour movement and the left – something which is a bit thin on the ground at the moment.
Small groups can grow — through discussions, through interventions, however limited, in trade union and democratic struggles. Principled alliances with Greens and pro-democracy groupings can play a part, however temporary they may be, and that can only be assessed on the ground by an analysis of the conditions prevailing at the time.
Translations of key texts into the appropriate languages is necessary.
The western European left needs to understand the history of the region and remember that in Central and Eastern Europe things are different. Terminology can be different for example, “left” doesn’t always mean “left” in the way that we know it, and so on.
A regular publication, a newspaper or a bulletin, however small, is absolutely essential with a stress on the democratic aspect of the democratic socialism we all stand for. This has so often been ignored and there needs to be a sustained fight against this particularly disastrous legacy of Stalinism within Central and Eastern Europe.
30 years after the Wall came down the road ahead is still long and difficult but the heart of Europe needs to be won over to democratic socialism.
Note to reader:
I have mentioned the Guardian article “This is the golden age: Eastern Europe’s extraordinary revival” (26 October 2019) by Shaun Walker. Ivan Krestov and Stephen Holmes’s book The Light that Failed (London: Allen Lane, 2019) is also referred to. A worthy book I consulted is Paul Lendvai’s Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism (London: Hurst, 2012). Also worth a read is Tamás Krausz’s article “The New Far Right and the Authoritarian Turn” in Transform no. 6. Much of the information on Slovakia comes from Stanislav Kirschbaum’s A History of Slovakia (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005). The collection edited by Gareth Dale, First the Transition then the Crash (London: Pluto Press, 2011), is very good and the best compliment I can pay to the authors is that it needs updating. Readers will be devastated to know that my paper to the British Film Institute on the Hungarian Media War is not available in print; but I can supply a xerox copy. The István Szabo film Meeting Venus is discussed in my book, The Cinema of István Szabo: Visions of Europe (London: Wallflower Press, 2014)
A knock on the door
I arrived in Hungary in August 1991 and settled in the small, beautiful lakeside town of Keszthely. My wife and I had a flat arranged for us by the language school for whom we worked.
We started to learn Hungarian (no easy task I might add!) and began teaching. After about three months there was a knock on the door and a man stood there holding a magazine of some description. His English was almost non-existent, and after only a short time in the country my Hungarian was only a little bit better. We struggled and eventually we understood each other.
There was an advertisement in the magazine inviting people to set up a small business selling necklaces made of beads. You paid a lump sum for the raw materials, made the necklaces and then sent the finished product back to the people in the advertisement (there was a US address), who would then sell them and pass on a percentage of the proceeds.
I explained to the man that this was not to be trusted. It was, almost certainly a scam and what would happen was that the raw materials would be bought, the necklaces made and sent off and that was the last he would ever hear from them. “But it’s American” he protested, “I want to become a business man”.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t dissuade him from his course of action. He departed apparently determined to go through with this stupid scheme. I never heard from him again.
A small incident, in itself utterly unimportant, but not untypical of a certain attitude to the “west” and “business” prevalent in Hungary in those very early days. The free market was to be their “saviour”. I’ll spare you the story of the man who also called on me to discuss a patent for his newly invented cleaning mop. □
Glimmers of hope
Orbán has tried to make Hungary a haven for investors by keeping wages down and workers’ rights to a minimum. However, this did not stop workers at the “showcase” Audi factory in the north west town of Györ going on strike when they heard that Audi workers in next door Slovakia were being paid 28% more than they were.
Only five constituencies in Poland didn’t give Kaczyńsky’s PiS a majority in the recent election: Szczecin, Poznan, Gdánsk, Warsaw 1 and Łodz. All of them centres of working class resistance rallying to the cause of Solidarnosc and its struggle against Stalinism in the 1980s.
Fidesz have lost the recent election of the mayor of Budapest.