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24 January 2000

Plenty of mobile phones, but where’s the good life?

Neil Clark moved to Hungary in 1994, hoping for a society that would avoid the perils of both Thatch

By Neil Clark

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.

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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.

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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. It seems that the problem with the Hungarian equivalent of A-levels is that questions are so demanding that some students actually fail the exam. This would never do in Britain.

And what of Hungary’s hitherto high-level cultural life? Museums, theatres and galleries, generously funded in the “old days”, have had to sink or swim in the new economic climate. As ticket subsidies have been withdrawn, once again it is only the rich who can afford to go to the opera. Hundreds of smaller cinemas, showing mainly Hungarian- produced or art films, have been forced to close, while the big multiplexes showing all the latest Hollywood blockbusters take their place. Television, too, continues to dumb down. In 1994 most households could receive two state channels, distinguished by high- quality programming. Saturday night prime-time television usually featured poetry reading and a classical music concert. Now, on a Saturday night we can choose between nearly 20 channels, almost all of them showing either mind-numbingly inane game shows or American “action movies” resplendent with blood, gore and expletives. With Hungarian television awash with such antisocial behaviour, is it any wonder that Hungary has rapidly become such a violent society?

One of the saddest aspects of the past five years for me in Hungary has been the rapid degradation of Budapest. Mayor Gabor Demszky boasted in his re-election campaign last year that he had built a world city. If he has indeed, then the nearest example that springs to mind would be Chicago. I had to give up my city-centre flat earlier this year because, like many others, I could no longer stand the wailing of police sirens night and day. Budapest has gone from being a charming, slightly dated back-water into a brash, noisy and dangerous metropolis. The number of cars in the city has increased tenfold in the past ten years, and don’t we just know it. The famous Nagykorut (Great Boulevard) has become a testament to the ugliness and standardisation of globalisation. Western fast-food chains and foreign banks now predominate – hardly anywhere is there a sign in Hungarian to remind us which country we are in. Faced with competition from the huge shopping malls that seem to open by the week, the smaller Hungarian traders have had no option but to close down and move out. The old self-service restaurants that served substantial food at prices everyone could afford have all but disappeared, to be replaced by the ubiquitous Big Mac at twice the price and half the quality. Three cheers for “democracy”!

So far, then, a pretty bleak picture of social decline. Is there any hope of a better future? The Hungarian political elite believes that salvation lies through membership of the European Union. When Hungary is admitted as a full member, there will begin a new “golden age” in the country’s history. The prime minister Viktor Orban informs us that Hungary has in some areas already reached the EU level. In terms of the cost of petrol and telephone calls, he is probably right; but in terms of wages? If Hungarians are expected to bear near-EU price levels, then at least they should be given something like EU wages.

Yet survey after survey shows that the gap between Hungarian wages and those of other EU members keeps getting wider. The average German now earns around ten times more than his Hungarian counterpart, but pays the same amount for his petrol.

Sadly, the wage game is one that the Hungarians cannot win. The vast majority of productive capacity in the country is in the hands of foreign companies. If there is any consistent rise in the national wage level, the multinationals will move on, further east to Georgia or Kazakhstan, wherever costs will be lower and shareholder value higher. Only then will the folly of allowing important, strategic industries to fall into foreign ownership be fully appreciated.

I am now leaving Hungary. I am sorry to move on because I believe it still has, in spite of everything, a lot to offer. The women remain beautiful; the goulash and the wine taste as good as ever. But it is with a sad sense of deja vu that I see the country follow the same mistaken path that my own followed about 20 years ago.

Perhaps the relentless onward march of monopoly capitalism and all its associated social ills cannot be restrained, and one should learn to accept the crime, the fast food and the cars as unavoidable facts of modern life.

As we start the new millennium, my experience of both Britain and Hungary is that we are further away than ever from creating societies where the real needs of people come before those of the banks and multinationals.

Sir James Goldsmith, the repentant arch-capitalist, bemoaned towards the end of his life that “everywhere social cohesion is being sacrificed for economic goals”. Nowhere has this been more true in the last decade than in Hungary.

The Hungarians have gained the mobile telephone, but they have lost a whole lot more.