Hungary feels torn about its achievements since 1989 | News and current affairs from Germany and around the world | DW | 09.12.2009
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Hungary feels torn about its achievements since 1989

Twenty years ago, Hungary was one of the front-runners in eastern Europe setting the pace for change. But despite the fall of the communist party, free elections and foreign investment, not all dreams have come true.

foreign ministers of Austria, Alois Mock and Hungary, Gyula Horn in 1989 cutting through the barbed wire that separated the two countries

Hungary was the first eastern European country to cut open its border to the west

Viktor Bori is what could be called "a typical Hungarian." In his mid-40s, Bori has three, rapidly growing children, he lives in the country, but works in the city.

Bori said that when he thinks about the time since the Iron Curtain fell, things have become better.

"One example would be the railway," said Bori, who commutes in from a little town some 40 miles from Budapest. "In the last few years, they've restored all the stations along the whole line, so I save 15 minutes, which is a lot, every day, one way."

The railways, the roads, the street lighting, the sewage system - Hungary certainly looks less of a dusty backwater and more like a modern country than it did 20 years ago.

Democratic change not complete

But some aspects of communist Hungary's past have been slower to change. Back in September 2006, for example, a speech by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany triggered a wave of public outrage.

Ferenc Gyurcsany

Prime Minister Gyurcsany faced a difficult political decision

"For 18 months we pretended to govern, and it almost killed me," Gyurcsany said at the time, right after his Socialist party was re-elected. "Instead, we lied morning, noon, and evening. I can't do it anymore. Either we change and I'm your man, or you carry on as before, but without me."

If someone admitted to lying to win an election, he had a moral responsibility to step down, his critics said. Not so, Gyurcsany countered. He was the first statesman to tell the truth, he said. The Hungarian people took to the streets.

Police feel above the law

After five weeks of protests, the police got tough. On October 23, 2006, the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution against Soviet rule, police opened fire in the center of Budapest with volley after volley of rubber bullets at a largely peaceful crowd. More than a hundred people were hospitalized. Several lost their eyesight.

riot police and protestors

Riot police cracked down hard on the demonstrators

"Police in Hungary are an over-centralized, over-militarized and largely independent body," said Istvan Szikinger, a constitutional lawyer in Budapest. He said police would not comply with a ministry declaration that officers have to wear their badges when handling crowds.

"It shows how independent, how mighty this police force in Hungary is, and the lack of real and substantial responsibility and accountability of the police," Szikinger said.

The street protests ended with the resignations of the police chiefs and the justice minister, as well as a string of court cases against the police, mostly won by the plaintiffs. An Independent Police Complaints Authority was also set up.

Sociologist Elemer Hankiss said he blames the ruling elite for the lack of progress. He said Hungary's politicians had not learnt that democracy is a very complex system.

"It is a kind of nuisance to be a politician in a democracy; you can't do everything you want," Hankiss said. "They have inherited this feeling from state socialism, which is a mixture of Leninist arrogance that we are the elite and we know how we can make you happy and if you don't agree, we will kill you."

Freedom, but little progress

In 1989, there were two big moments in Kiskunhalas, in central Hungary. First, the Soviet tank regiment which had been based in the town for three decades left. Then, a Levi Strauss jeans factory set up in the town.

hungarian parliament building in budapest

Hungarian politicians have had to learn democratic processes

In June this year, it closed. Local journalist Zoltan said that because of the global crisis, it is unlikely these workers will find new jobs.

"In this field of industry, there are no new jobs in this region," Zoltan said. "In our town, there are only 38 jobs and not enough for 700 people."

The closure of a Levis factory was somehow symbolic of the end of an era - and the hopes of 20 years ago. Few doubt that progress has been made and that people are in a sense more free. But freedom has failed to deliver the fruits which many dared to hope for.

"The political cultures have proved to be weaker than we expected, because we confused anti-communism and nationalism with a desire to exercise the difficult points of political democracy," said Charles Gati, a Hungarian-American writer. "This is the real issue, more than any other, that there is nostalgia for authority - not for communism, not for dictatorship, but for paternalism."

But the hope is still there. Twenty years after the changes, the spirit of the Hungarians is not broken. They just feel there ought to be more to celebrate.

Author: Nick Thorpe (sac)
Editor: Rob Turner

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