Plenty of Mobile Phones, but Where's the Good Life

Article excerpt

Neil Clark moved to Hungary in 1994, hoping for a society that would avoid the perils of both Thatcherism and communism. But his adopted country has taken on the worst, not the best, aspects of the west

I arrived in Hungary on a dark, snowy day in December 1994. I had planned to stay just five months, but more than five years on I am still here. What was it that made me stay? A woman? The goulash? The King of Wines? Yes, all of these, but what really made Hungary seem worthwhile in those long-gone days of 1994 was that it was still sufficiently different from back home.

Different in a refreshing way. Hungarian society seemed to me to be more cohesive and the general educational level much higher than what I had left behind in post-Thatcher Britain. People seemed infinitely better read and more cultured, less boastful and less brash than the average "new Briton". "Loadsamoney" had yet to arrive in Budapest.

Saturday nights out in the Hungarian capital were certainly different from nights out in any large British city. I did not miss the policemen on horseback, the incessant wailing of sirens or the ever-present undercurrent of aggression. One could make eye contact with someone on a Budapest street and not end up on crutches the following day. "Mugging" and "glassing" had not yet entered the Magyar vocabulary.

In 1994, there still seemed to be a hope that the solid social achievements of "the old system" could be preserved, and for this very reason the electorate had voted back into power the socialists (ex-communists) in May of that year.

Sadly, the hopes that somehow Hungary could be protected from the destabilising effects of the global economy soon evaporated. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank merely increased the pressure and, instead of much-needed investment in jobs, schools and hospitals, we got the Bokros package, a programme of cuts in public spending so severe even Margaret Thatcher would have thought twice before implementing it.

The Socialist leader Gyula Horn, elected on a nostalgic, left-wing programme, did the dirty on the workers, privatised half the country and received glowing praise from "business leaders" for doing so.

Now, five years on, what do we have?

Politicians regale us with almost daily news of economic improvement. Inflation is down, the national debt has been reduced and we are told that Hungary has one of the highest growth rates in the region. But why then, in spite of all this apparent good news, does one sense no feeling of national contentment or general well-being?

Is this typical Hungarian negativity? Perhaps, but surely a much more convincing reason is the visibly unequal distribution of wealth in the country. Yes, there has been economic growth these past five years, but for whom? For the pensioners having to sell flowers at underground stations to make ends meet? For the unemployed miner in Tatabanya with a wife and three children to feed? For the single mother in Miskolc having to pay 10,000 forints for her son's school textbooks, when her monthly salary is only Ft30,000?

We are told by our political masters that we must all be patient and the new wealth will "trickle down" from a few Buda suburbs to the rest of us. But how long must we wait, with fuel and heating bills set to rise yet again this winter?

In the meantime, Hungarian society, sacrificed at the altar of monetarist orthodoxy, disintegrates before one's very eyes. Burglaries, virtually unheard of in Hungary 20 years ago, have reached record levels and car-crime rates in Budapest are among the highest in the world. Drug use, previously confined to a few Budapest bohemians smoking dope, has become widespread, with amphetamines freely circulating in schools and colleges.

The Hungarian health service lurches from crisis to crisis, with its staff demoralised and underpaid. Education, too, is suffering, with politicians seemingly hell-bent on changing a tried-and-tested system to the flawed Anglo-American model. …