Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999

Csardas C S A R D A S:
Hungarian Hopes
The events of 1999 in review

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

1999 in Hungary has proved to be a year where history was made as well as commemorated and celebrated. The final 12 months of the millennium witnessed Hungary being welcomed back into the fold of Western nations with her accession to NATO, and the celebration of the end to division on the European continent with the collapse of the Communist regimes. A process in which Hungary had played a key role in the shape of the Pan-European Picnic at Sopron in 1989, which proved to be the catalyst of a swift and irreversible decline.

Euphoria at NATO membership amongst certain quarters was almost immediately tempered by the outbreak of the Kosovo crisis, which served as a salutary reminder that Hungary had taken on a new set of responsibilities as well as enjoying a new set of privileges. Mutual back-slapping on the success of the venture and recriminations concerning the delaying tactics of the opposition over membership paled into insignificance as the slaughter unfolded.

A united front, a spirit of osszetartas, of sticking together was now required, setting aside differences for the greater good. As the guns fired and the airstrikes continued, a temporary cease-fire was called amongst the political benches. Hungary was suddenly confronted with the real possibility of retaliation for having "sold out" to the enemy. Speculations were rife as to what this revenge might entail, ranging from fear of a physical breach of the country's territorial integrity (the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was adamant on the matter of NATO's mutual defence guarantee should the situation deteriorate that far), since Hungary is the only NATO member to share a border with Yugoslavia, to attacks on the Hungarian minority of the Vojvodina. In a particularly vulnerable position, the Hungarian minority could easily be the next in line for a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

NATO jitters

Common sense prevailed: after much soul-searching, Hungary opted for a passive rather than a belligerent role, authorising the use of her airspace by her Allies and rigorously fulfilling her international obligations on the ground. A policy Hungary pursued even to the detriment of her relations with Russia when Moscow objected to the way aid convoys crossing Hungarian soil had been subjected to unnecessary delays. Her contribution to the peace-keeping effort, after the crisis had subsided, allowed her to prove that, although she had not committed fighting troops, she was not indifferent to what had occurred so close to home.

Ambivalence towards the whole NATO effort was unavoidable. Doubts were expressed as to the morality of the entire exercise. Whilst finding her feet within the Organisation, Hungary had to cope with the sobering realities of what it meant to take sides. Old wounds were very publicly reopened: the bonds uniting Hungary with her lost children of the Vojvodina were more than mere constructs dreamed up by politicians in order to keep voters in their thrall. Friends, relatives and fellow-students were at risk of losing their lives just a few kilometers over the border, a divide which now took on new meanings, between progress and barbarism, right and wrong, hatred and tolerance, good and evil.

Initially, Hungarian membership of NATO was presented as a stepping stone towards joining the European Union (EU). Given that Hungary had been deemed fit for active service in the world's strongest (and most prestigious) military alliance, the EU had been stripped of any excuse it might have had to prevaricate over enlargement, at least as far as the Hungarian candidacy was concerned.

This line of argument, with its uneasy mixture of self-satisfied arrogance and consciousness of the need for the weaker partner to cajole and please, fell largely on deaf ears. The hindsight, that would only come with end of the conflict and the praise showered on Hungary by her Allies, provided the inspiration for an astute change of tactic, abandoning the element of browbeating in favour of a more objective, dispassionate appeal to reason. As Zsolt Nemeth's recent statement in the European Parliament demonstrates:

According to the Hungarian position, the crisis cannot be settled by violating the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia (the present state borders)...

Following the strategic line of our Southeast European regional policy - in accordance with our role in the region - we are ready to take an active role in the establishment of the "new Southeast Europe," encouraging the involvement of the Southeast European countries in the Euro-Atlantic processes. We take an active role in the Southeast European stabilisation and association process, in the work of the Regional Table brought to life by the Stability Pact and in the activities of the working parties. In the first half of 2000, Hungary will act as Co-Chair of the Working Party on Democratisation and Human Rights.

Being the only NATO allied state having a common inland border with Yugoslavia, Hungary has proved its commitment towards the Alliance in practice. Taking an active part in the rigorous and consistent observance of the sanctions against Yugoslavia, Hungary has also testified to its ability to identify itself with the EU's common foreign and defence policy. Taking part in this process, the Hungarian economy has incurred heavy losses. Thus, to some extent, we are aggrieved that opportunities for us to take part in the process of reconstruction have been considerably out of proportion with the work we have been doing to promote the stability of the region.

The message is clear: Hungary showed fortitude and maturity in her reaction to the crisis and the challenges that faced her. The spectre of revisionism had been finally laid to rest. Calls for the restoration of Vojvodinian autonomy within the Yugoslav Federation were indeed made in Hungary by the MIEP - Justice and Life Party - but they were successfully written off as rantings of the extreme right on the periphery of respectable political debate, the Foreign Minister, Janos Martonyi, fended off such awkward questions in Parliament with great tact and alacrity. Had this issue been allowed to get out of hand, it would have been more than a matter of embarrassment to the Government, but would have cast doubts on its policy towards the Hungarian minorities as a whole.

Difficult feats

Hungary was able to show to the world that she is a responsible and equal partner, who can be relied upon to discharge her duty no matter what the cost. Although the aim - that of using her track record in NATO as a bargaining chip or an instrument of moral blackmail to batter open the gates of Fortress Europe to admit her, giving her the recognition that she feels is her entitlement - is the same, the arguments advanced have become subtler.

Within the region as a whole, Hungary has a difficult balancing act to perform, and here the minorities complicate matters further. The Government has been painstaking in its efforts to emphasise its inclusive approach to the issue of enlargement, that, if Hungarian accession were to take place sooner than that of neighbouring countries, Hungary would use the advantages of being able to participate in the Institutions as an insider to the mutual benefit of all. NATO has been a useful forum for matching her words with deeds in this respect. Once again, political attention has focused on ensuring that Hungary's intentions are properly understood. As Zsolt Nemeth expressed it:

I consider it important to underline that Hungarian national minorities living in Central and Eastern Europe represent a stabilising factor [the prevailing fear within the EU, exacerbated by events in Kosovo, is that they might end up being precisely the opposite, namely a cause of friction and dispute]. Thus, the change in their fortunes is closely linked with the stability of the region and indirectly of Europe as a whole. In Hungary, the current government has undertaken a constitutional obligation to take account of the situation of the Hungarian nation as a whole, affording it legal protection and bolstering the effectiveness of the rights it enjoys by means both of bilateral relations and multilateral diplomacy. Our integration efforts cannot run counter to this constitutional commitment, so we intend to create accession conditions which do not lead to discrimination against the Hungarian minorities living beyond our borders, but which are at the same time acceptable to the European Union and its Member States.

Far from being an obstacle to accession, the Hungarian minorities can, from the official vantage point, act as a bridgehead, fostering mutual understanding and co-operation, the most tangible and literal symbol of which is the reconstruction of the Maria Valeria Bridge between Esztergom and Sturovo (Parkany) in Slovakia. With the help of EU resources from the PHARE Program, the bridge will stimulate trade and boost prosperity as well as functioning as the highly visible embodiment of a spirit of reconciliation.

Picnic praise

Celebrations of the Pan-European Picnic and the subsequent opening of the frontier with Austria which allowed thousands of GDR citizens to cross to freedom a decade ago, culminated in an official visit by the German and Austrian Chancellors to pay homage to Hungary's contribution both to the demise of Communism and the reunification of Germany. A series of eminent guests, including Hans Dietrich Genscher, the then FRG Foreign Minister, expressed in no uncertain terms their debt of gratitude to the Hungarian Republic. Once again, the country's leaders were given an opportunity to wax lyrical about how Hungary has always gravitated towards a West that rewarded her loyalty with ingratitude (1956 being a case in point). The long period of exile, of ostracisation had come to a joyful end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the process of reintegration would not be complete until Hungary becomes a fully-fledged member state of the EU.

The tone adopted was no coincidence, with the Government leaving no stone unturned when it comes to championing Hungary's cause within the political arena of the EU: let us not lose sight of the fact that the Government in power when accession takes place can bask in the afterglow of success regardless of whether it actually did the groundwork or not. The domestic implications of EU accession cannot be left out of the equation.

The Hungarian preoccupation with having been neglected, overlooked and misunderstood by the West has been coupled with anxieties about the detrimental effects of globalisation on the sense of national identity and purpose. A process of attrition or erosion that may even be accelerated once Hungary joins the EU. In order to counteract this, the Government has attempted to address the problem of Hungarianness and its meaning in practical terms in the context of changed international parameters. An undertaking which might well appear more than a tad irrelevant to the jeans-garbed, hamburger-munching generation.

At the beginning of December, in the dying embers of the year, the Prime Minister addressed an audience of worthies on precisely this topic at a specially convened conference. History would grant no reprieve, the time had come to define and determine what the components of national identity should be, and if Hungarians were to prove unequal to the task, others would step into the breach. The Hungarian self-image had varied widely depending on the constraints of the era in question, and the collapse of Communism had necessitated a rethink of Hungary's role.

Although a more positive picture of Hungary had emerged in the outside world, this was far from enough. Hungary would be doing herself a disservice were she to fail to anchor her self-perception in her past whilst looking ahead to the future with confidence. Orban, however, did not propose that the Government should be charged with the task of inventing a new national image (wisely, since this would smack of the dark days of dictatorship), leaving this to the experts, but that it would confine its activities to ensuring that harmony rather than cacophony results.

Crowning acheivements

Stocktaking exercises of this type are not uncommon given the approach of the millennium, but navel-gazing on a subject even as seemingly innocuous as Hungarian identity can spark off political controversy and bitter disputes. Identification with glorious forebears, pangs of nostalgia and the most potent symbol of Hungarian state unity combine in the shape of the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen, which has recently hit the headlines once again in conjunction with the bill on "the immortalisation of the founding of the Hungarian state by Saint Stephen and of its commemoration and on the Holy Crown".

This is a can of worms if ever there was one. The Government would like this to be the first piece of legislation adopted in the new millennium, but the Crown has negative as well as positive associations. On the one hand, it embodies the Hungarian state, the true arrival of the Hungarian nation on the European scene, the days of Hungarian unity and splendour, the root of self-awareness. On the other, it is tainted by Austrian domination (or, to put it slightly differently, Hapsburg rule), the Horthy regime and its paroxysms of national pride and the nationalist excesses that forever sullied its reputation (and which the Communists never permitted anyone to forget) of imperialism and oppression and all the social sins of inequality with which a lack of true democracy are linked.

Apart from the more rarefied constitutional ramifications of the bill, the restoration of the Crown as a political symbol of unity would usurp the role currently played by the President of the Republic. Because of this, there is more to rehousing the Crown, sword, sceptre and orb in the Parliament (it is currently on display at the National Museum) than meets the eye.

According to the original proposals made by the Ministry of Justice, the Crown was to be mentioned in the preamble of the new constitution of the Republic. When the two thirds majority required to bring this about was not achieved, the Ministry dug in its heels, proposing that it feature in the Millennium Law (stipulating, as its name suggests, how the occasion of the Millennium should be marked) instead, which would still entail its being moved to Parliament. As late as October, however, this was still subject to dispute within the Government itself, with the Prime Minister announcing that the Crown would be put alongside the other national symbols in the Buda Castle as of 20 August 2001. Clearly, the Minister of Justice's views prevailed. For on 20 August of this year, the paradoxical sight of new officers in the Hungarian army being sworn in front of a copy of the Crown was broadcast live on national television.

In politics, a number of institutional changes were implemented. Two new units were created within the Prime Minister's Office, the Strategy Development Task Force dealing with medium-term analysis and forward planning and the division in charge of portfolios. The latter is responsible for passing on initiatives to the various Ministries and thereby acting as a liaison between the Strategy Development Task Force and the Ministries, for monitoring the activities of the Ministries and the implementation of government decisions.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs was also set up, and the Ministry of Youth and Sport began to function as of 1 January 1999.

The rhythm of parliamentary debate was also changed with plenary sessions now being held every three weeks. Though the justification for this, in a situation where the quality of contributions degenerated to the level of a sterile ritual in which the opposition and the Government concentrated on scoring points off each other rather than tackling real matters of substance, was open to doubt. One incident, where a speaker was cut off in his prime but not his mike, led to his displeasure, expressed in a number of choice expletives, being broadcast ad nauseam on the commercial stations and for light relief on the news bulletins.

Sanctimonious musings on the conduct of political procedure followed, although, throughout the year, a more serious examination of the role and remit of parties in opposition had been held. The coalition was accused of authoritarianism and the opposition of obstructionism in the interests of selfish vote-catching, but the basic concept of the proper relationship between opposing factions in a Parliament had clearly taken root. Especially compared with the ongoing problems encountered by certain other countries in the region confusing opposition with disloyalty or even treason.

Musical chairs

The cabinet reshuffle of 7 December was hailed as a further milestone in political development, since it was not motivated by either discontent or scandal. The Government's hand had not been forced when the Minister for Econmoic Affairs, Attila Chikan, and Minister for Culture, Jozsef Hamori, were replaced by Gyorgy Matolcsy and Zoltan Rockenbauer respectively. Chikan will continue in an important post as an economic adviser and Hamori will fulfil a similar function as scientific adviser to the Prime Minister.

According to the Government's spokesman, Gabor Borokai, a new era has begun, an era in which everyone can expect to notice a slight improvement in his circumstances from year to year. This gives rise to fresh challenges, hence the need for change. As Orban himself later confirmed, the motive for bringing in Matolcsy was to reflect the shift in emphasis from reshaping economic policy thinking in Hungary towards the notion that growth and state investments are not mutually exclusive concepts (a task that required the skills and qualifications of a professor such as Chikan) to one of putting the theory into practice.

Some structural changes were also announced: in future, the Foreign Minister will be exclusively responsible for directing foreign trade and the Orszagos Muszaki Fejlesztesi Bizottsag (National Commission for Technical Development) will be subject to the Ministry of Education instead of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The post of the head of the Fidesz Party President and that of the Prime Minister may also be separated as of the beginning of next year, depending on the outcome of the vote on this matter at the forthcoming Party Congress. Jozsef Szajer, head of the Fidesz group in the Parliament, pointed out that the chief aim of separating the two would be to provide a clear distinction between the functions to be carried out by the Party and those to be carried out by the Government. In Szajer's opinion, the move would strengthen the Party in the longer term. In the meeting of the Fidesz Presidency, a vote was taken on the issue of separating the posts, and was adopted with one abstention by the Minister for Education, Zoltan Pokorni. Orban supports the idea.

In the run up to Helsinki, optimism was the order of the day, when, on 7 December, the second Foreign Minister level meeting provisionally closed negotiations on EMU and the chapter on the Environment was opened with Hungary applying for nine so-called "derogations". Martonyi expressed his satisfaction with the pace of the negotiations as well as his hope that momentum could be maintained in the future. Indeed, as he stressed, Hungary would warmly advocate the first round of accessions taking place on 1 January 2003, following the completion of the process of internal reform within the EU.

Tuesday's meeting doubled as the Association Council with Hungary, where problems could be aired. One issue that featured on the agenda was the freedom of establishment for companies where delays had crept in and individual entrepreneurs had been adversely effected.

The Helsinki conclusions proved something of an anticlimax, if not disappointment. The timetable for accession did not become considerably clearer, despite the triumphalist rhetoric of Commissioner Guenter Verheugen about the final disappearance of the Iron Curtain (it had the appearance of a sop). The EU has set itself a deadline for internal reform, rather than a deadline for the conclusion of the negotiation and ratification processes that form the prelude to enlargement. An inter-governmental conference (IGC) is to be launched and the ratification to the modifications to the Treaties is to be completed by the end of 2002, which means that, to all practical intents and purposes, accession will be more likely to occur in 2004.

The existing member states were not exactly forthcoming about giving a precise indication of when the negotiations with the most advanced countries might conclude. Skirting about the issue, there was much talk of the fact that the most difficult chapters were only now beginning to be discussed, and that it would be impossible to predict how protracted these discussions might become. Verheugen said that the Commission would come up with a clearer scenario by the end of 2000.

Subsuming all efforts to the ambition of EU membership does have some positive spin-off for ordinary citizens, improving their lot by introducing higher standards of consumer and environmental protection, to cite but two examples. Many of these benefits, however, remain a dead letter in terms of the impact they have on day to day practice. Under Communism, Hungary had liberal laws on the statute books, but the public put little faith in such paragraphs and clauses. This is one area where more progress has to be made, but old habits die hard.

The government coalition has, in parallel with its continued drift to the right, clamped down on crime in all its manifestations, though sometimes in the last twelve months, they were felt to be out of touch. Corruption is still a widespread phenomenon, recent scandals on police taking bribes does nothing to dispel the pessimistic view that justice depends more on a good network of connections and a bulging wallet rather than on impartiality. Attila Ambrus, Hungary's most notorious criminal, was finally brought to justice. His transformation from villain to unlikely hero highlighted the many ambiguities that riddle Hungarian society. He embodies the get rich quick mentality and stands in the eyes of some for the defiance or revenge of the ordinary man against the predations and rapaciousness of the big banks.

Usury shocks

One of the major social controversies, families being forced out of their homes due to usurial rates on mortgages crippling them with debt, both to the banks and to the utilities, has finally been tackled by Parliament with the adoption, on 7 December, of a support scheme for families. Married couples under the age of 35, families with three children, or families who decide to have a third child will now be eligible for loans comprising a maximum of HUF eight million (USD 32,000) at an eight per cent rate of interest and with a running time of ten years. In the near future, every citizen will be entitled to an interest rate subsidy (in the form of a loan) of three per cent from the state for building a new home. Although the value of the home may not exceed HUF 30 million (USD 120,000), the home-builder may claim separately if more than one dwelling is being constructed. The running time of the loan in this case is 15 to 35 years. Extending a house is also covered by the new arrangements.

As is appropriate at this time of year, we are indulging in a period of reflection on the past and the future as well as engaging in a spending spree. Standing on the escalator of the latest addition to Budapest's palaces of conspicuous consumption, the Westend City Centre, I felt an involuntary shiver go down my spine in the well-heated premises decked out with the stock glittering kitsch of huge bells and stars. In spite of the proliferation of such establishments, the malls are doing a roaring trade. Perhaps we collectively try to quell our fear of mortality and decay in these pristine and luxuriant temples that persuade us that gratification lies within our reach, that our every whim and fancy may be catered for. Perhaps our feverish purchases are a sign of our confidence in the future, an investment we expect to be around to enjoy, I do not know.

Yet here we are, on the brink of a new century, having sloughed off oppression and given ourselves over to a new set of values (though not uncritically or completely without regret). We have a long way to go, yet we are in a stronger position to continue consolidating the positive changes that have taken place. On that (perhaps, for a Hungarian, characteristically cautious) note of optimism, I conclude my brief review of the year in Hungary and wish all readers of Central Europe Review a happy holiday season and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 12 December 1999

Archive of Gusztav Kosztolanyi's Csardas series of articles on Hungary

Sources used in the writing of this article:

HVG 27 November 1999

Magyar Nemzet 3 and 8 December 1999

Nepszabadsag 11 December 1999



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