Budapest: Screwed Left, Right and Centre

‘Unfortunately, most Hungarians expect their politicians to be on the take and that’s because many of them are. I’d love to name names, but I’m not in the mood for litigation’

Dispatches
Anti-government protesters outside the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest (Getty)

There is occasionally a happy ending, a free lunch. Europe was all set up for the war which really would have ended all wars, a war which would have made the First World War look like, well, a picnic. In Berlin, two superpowers glared at each other over a wall. People either don’t recognise or forget that it wasn’t just a debate about how to run your economy or what design your national flag should be, it was a face-off between two vast armies, nukes between their teeth. Then, in 1989, everyone got tired of it.

One of the most favoured clichés is the whimper. However, I maintain that the Soviet Empire didn’t go down with a whimper, but rather with a satisfied burp and a glass of wine.

Sopronpuszta is a tiny place unknown even to most Hungarians. It was there, on Hungary’s border with Austria on 19 August 1989, that a group of provincial politicians in the newly overt democratic movement (politicians most Hungarians had never heard of and whose names mean nothing now) held a Pan-European picnic. From Budapest, they invited Imre Pozsgay, the Hungarian communist who had become the opposition’s protector, and from Austria they invited Otto Habsburg, to enjoy an “open” day on the recently relaxed, curtain-free border.

I doubt if anyone will ever unravel the whole background. Who knew what. Who was expecting what. Pozsgay would never have attempted to create his “pet” opposition without Gorbachev in Moscow, and without the Magyar stampede to democracy, many East Germans wouldn’t have been hanging around Hungary that summer, hoping events would give them a way out.

Never exactly popular, the East Germans had been coming to Hungary, mostly to Lake Balaton, for their summer holidays for decades. This was mainly because there was almost nowhere else for them to go. The Hungarians were willing to take the Ossies’ money and use them for casual sex.

When the border was opened, the Hungarian Border Guards (ordered to be on their best behaviour) were almost trampled by hundreds of East Germans, ditching their Trabants and piling into Austria for a new life. I wasn’t there, but I remember watching the pictures in Budapest and thinking, this is the end.

Hungary and Poland had always been regarded by the Soviets as dodgy. East Germany, however, was the front line. The East Germans were largely loyal little doggies (they even joined in the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan). Only the Bulgarians could fawn harder.

In matters of opposition to Soviet rule, the Poles were the men of the match. The Poles never gave in, never stopped fighting, no matter what the cost. Solidarnosc was the Rolls-Royce of the opposition movements. However, to extend the footballing analogy, it was a sneaky last-minute tap-in that finished the Soviets, courtesy of the Hungarian communists.

If you create an organisation like the MSZMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party), a body that attracted the most ruthless freebooters, the most morally depleted individuals, the most hardened opportunists, it should be no surprise that when an opportunity for enrichment and goodies came along, they would snatch it.

By 1989, the more intelligent, younger communists were tired of ill-fitting suits and not having holidays in the Bahamas, of not being cool. Encouraged by the West, they sold out. They sold out because they had never taken communism seriously, because they genuinely didn’t understand how disliked they were and they thought they could win free elections and because they wanted the custard from the West, especially that bit of the West called Germany.

So 1989 was a year when the Hungarians were repeatedly scared by their daring. At Imre Nagy’s reburial in June, the 26-year-old Viktor Orbán famously called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Hair turned white. Women fainted. A few months later, the communists themselves were insisting on the departure. (As a footnote, Sándor Rácz, who had courageously led the Workers’ Councils after the revolution in 1956, who was jailed and generally handed a truly shitty life, also called for Soviet withdrawal that day, but because he was old, working-class and didn’t speak English, the Western media didn’t pay any attention to him.)

After Sopronpuszta, East German citizen Kurt Schulz became what is generally billed as the last victim of the Iron Curtain, when he was shot by Hungarian border guards days later. It’s all about timing. On 10 September, it was officially announced: the Ossies could leave for the West if they wanted.

It was the end for the DDR and ultimately, I would argue, for Lenin’s system. That picnic in Sopronpuszta was the day the exsanguination started. Perhaps the study of fascism had gone out of fashion in the Kremlin, otherwise they might have remembered Goebbels’s note in his 1941 diary: “One must always keep an eye on the Hungarians. They are masters of betrayal.”

Only three years earlier, on the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution, it seemed as if the Hungarian Communist Party could comfortably enjoy another 30 years of power. The “democratic opposition” issued a statement celebrating the aims of the revolution, just about the only action it had the power to carry out. The 52 signatories make interesting reading, since they were the only ones in a country of ten million willing to make a stand against dictatorship – an indication of how the MSZMP had mollified the population. One of the signatories, György Krassó, in essence the Godfather of the opposition, was by then resident in London because, as he confided to me, he thought “nothing will ever change”.

The 52 were, however, the singularity that was shortly to produce Hungary’s political big bang. Let me say now, I salute everyone who had the guts to put their names on that document. It’s very poignant, however, to review the names. A few are dead. A smattering were, frankly, misfits and nutters. Some went on to achieve insanity. Sándor Lezsák and Sándor Csoori went on to form, with Pozsgay’s blessing, the MDF, the first “new” political party. István Csurka became a figurehead for the far-Right. Árpád Göncz, János Kis, Ferenc Koszeg founded the SZDSZ, the party that was briefly the home for the old-timers of the opposition.

A number who took risks and made great sacrifices, such as Iván Bába and Jenö Nagy, didn’t get the recognition or thanks they deserved. Above all, there was Tibor Pákh, whose inability to refrain from fighting, after years in the Gulag and then Hungarian jails, was of a truly implausible, Polish level. Krassó might have been the trickster master of the opposition, but Pákh was the hardest.

The only names missing from the list were the students who went on to form Fidesz, Hungary’s main conservative Christian Democratic party. They were there, lurking in meetings, but were too callow, yet, to step into the light.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, things aren’t so different in Hungary. The country is being buffeted by the economic turbulence, but the mood, in a nation where melancholy and whingeing are art forms, isn’t so down. As the poet András Gerevich put it to me: “We’re quite used to being in the shit.”

The buccaneers and carpetbaggers of the MSZMP have done well for themselves. The salubrious hills of Budapest’s XII and II districts are where the rich live and curiously most of them were members of the MSZMP, their spouses or tennis partners. Rebranded as the Socialist Party, the former communists have been in government since 2002, and have a stranglehold on wealth and power. This 15 March, a national holiday on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution (another failed revolution), two people were arrested. The reason? They were carrying a banner with the slogan “Responsible government in Budapest” (word-for-word, one of the demands of 1848). Even the tame Hungarian media found this a bit much, but the police have reverted to the role of regime thugs. In October 2006, in particular, elements of the police force went berserk, attacking anti-government demonstrators and anyone unlucky enough to be out in Budapest’s streets.

Hungary has an unfortunate record in leadership. This April saw one of the most embarrassing scenes in Hungarian political life, after the Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány stepped down. Despite strong competition from the throng of swamp-things who have held office in Hungary, Gyurcsány had achieved the lowest ever approval ratings for a politician. He will be remembered for drawing the world’s attention to Hungary with his colourful speech in which he stated “we have f****d things up” and “we lied around the clock, from dawn to dusk”.

There is an interesting double standard when it comes to Hungary and the other former Eastern bloc countries. Gyurcsány was supported by Tony Blair in his campaign for re-election. Having to shake hands with unsavoury dignitaries is one of the occupational hazards of being a leader. Realpolitik stinks. But imagine the outcry if, say, a Conservative politician had gone to Europe to support a former Nazi or even someone suspected of Nazi sympathies. Yet Blair had no problem endorsing Gyurcsány, who had been a zealous member of the MSZMP, a party which after 1956 had methodically executed hundreds of Hungarians who expressed an interest in democracy and free speech. This is one of the many problems dogging Hungary – the insolubility of the past. The normal Western terms don’t mean the same in Hungary. They use Right and Left, but the “Left”, that is the former communists, are the most abject before Mammon. The “Right”, those who opposed the communists, have an outlook more akin to that of the Labour Party.

Hungary has many political parties, but a bipartisan system has edged out on the one side the Socialist Party and on the other Fidesz. The enmity between the two sides is of such ferocity that in order to find a parallel in Britain, you’d have to go back to the Civil War. And this divide splits society. If you are “right-wing”, you don’t just vote for Fidesz, you eat in a “right-wing” restaurant and you buy flowers from a “right-wing” florist.

Fidesz was founded in 1988 as an independent youth movement by its current leader Viktor Orbán and other students. It was an initiative that risked their necks. You can understand why Orbán objects to being lectured on the niceties of democracy and political etiquette by someone like Gyurscány. However, Fidesz has evolved into a modern political party and, as such, has its own quota of deadbeats, opportunists and perverts.

Widespread disenchantment with politicians is one of Hungary’s greatest banes. Corruption is the main cause. It is endemic. Even Goebbels complained about it: “Their most influential men are all corrupt as Turks.” Gordon Brown may have screwed your wallet, but whatever his shortcomings, we all know that his priority in power hasn’t been stuffing his. Unfortunately, most Hungarians expect their politicians to be on the take and that’s because many of them are. I’d love to name names, but I’m not in the mood for litigation.

Hence the joke, which can be told in a reversible way according to your political taste. A Fidesz MP and a Socialist MP start chatting in the corridor of Parliament and much to their surprise find they have a lot in common. The Fidesz MP says: “You know what? Don’t tell anyone, but why don’t you come over and have supper this Saturday?” On Saturday evening, the Socialist MP drives up to the Fidesz MP’s home in the XII district and is surprised to see that it’s a substantial villa. They eat a fantastic meal of several courses, wild salmon, foie gras with vintage French wines and the most expensive Tokaji Aszu. Afterwards they watch a film on a huge plasma screen. “Look,” says the Socialist MP, “on what we’re paid, there’s no way you could afford all this. Between the two of us, how did you manage this?”

The Fidesz MP beckons the Socialist to his window.

“You see the bridge?” he says pointing at the new bridge.

“Yes.”

“Ten per cent.”

A few weeks later, the Socialist MP returns the hospitality. The Fidesz MP discovers that the Socialist’s home is twice the size of his villa, with a tennis court and a swimming pool in the garden. While they eat beluga caviar and sip some of the rarest wines in the world, they are entertained by a chorus-line of belly dancers and one of Hungary’s most popular singers. Before he leaves the Fidesz MP asks: “How the hell did you manage this?”

The Socialist MP beckons him to the window.

“You see the bridge?”

“No, actually, I don’t.”

“One hundred per cent.”