Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Aftertaste of Goulash Communism

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Aftertaste of Goulash Communism

Article excerpt

It took Hungarians 20 years to find out that democracy is not something to be taken for granted.

The National Gallery at Buda Castle, once the residence of Hungarian kings, provided an apt location for the official celebration of Hungary's new constitution. The government had requested 100 artworks defining 1,000 years of Hungarian statehood "to hold our ancestors as a shield against cynicism," as Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared in his opening speech. The director of the National Gallery did not attend. He had sent in his resignation on Dec. 31, the day before the new constitution went into effect.

Several artists and politicians loyal to Mr. Orban's Fidesz Party did attend, however, and were also able to marvel at the 15 new paintings commemorating events from Hungary's recent past. The painting of World War I made a cavalry attack of Hungarian hussars look like a Sunday outing in the country rather than a bloodbath. My grandfather, an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, could tell you a treasure trove of stories about the scars and bullet holes that made his skin seem like an old map of Europe. When I try to picture history, I see my grandpa sunbathing on the veranda.

Against the backdrop of Budapest's stunning panorama, Mr. Orban announced "the re-establishment of the Hungarian state." Then the celebrating crowd proceeded to the Opera, where they were met by an equally excited crowd of tens of thousands of people calling for the prime minister to resign. One banner read: "Happy New 1984!"

Hungarians have not lost their sense of humor during the recent crisis. On the contrary, there seems to be a revival of dark witticism as the going gets rough. The protesters bombarded Mr. Orban's supporters at the Opera House with jokes of all kinds, the nature of which became more earthy as the hours passed.

The celebration of the constitution ended less festively than it began. Mr. Orban and his guests could not even leave through the front door. A police officer reportedly warned a Fidesz politician to avoid the main street, or the crowd would tear him apart.

History is the opiate of the central European people. Good citizens need their daily fix, otherwise they may start thinking about the future. But for the first time in a long while, it looks as if people couldn't care less. They are more concerned about whether the country will go bankrupt if the prime minister doesn't make a deal with the International Monetary Fund.

I couldn't have been more wrong, when, in the late 1990s, shortly after the first Fidesz government won elections, I told a friend that we were on the road to becoming a boring little welfare state like Austria. Soon after, our good neighbor went bananas with a far- right experiment and the European Union temporarily suspended ties with her. About the same time, the Hungarian economy, once a regional leader, started its long and steady dive.

To understand how my country has fallen from grace, one needs to look at the unique path she took during the Cold War. Hungary was not meant to be part of the East bloc. Stalin originally did not consider her in plans drawing up a Slavic brotherhood of satellite states. Hungarians themselves tried to correct the mistake in 1956 by staging the biggest armed conflict the Soviet Union would face in postwar Europe. Sadly, by then, revolutions were considered passe on the Continent, and America preferred the status quo to the desperate attempt of a few freedom-loving people.

After the disillusionment and years of terror, Hungary finally complied with the hard facts behind the Iron Curtain. Having produced a hundred inventions from the ballpoint pen to holography, it was bound to come up with the most successful black market economy in the East bloc, including free-market traits and a better human rights record than any other Warsaw Pact country. …

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