Hungary? Why, it’s only the hors d’oeuvres

By Adam Lebor, the Central Europe correspondent of The Times (THE TIMES, 21/09/06):

AUTUMN AND PEST are born of the same mother, the Hungarian writer Gyula Krudy once wrote, but there’s rather less to lyricise these days. Downtown Budapest is wreathed in smoke and teargas, while burnt-out cars litter the streets. What on earth has gone wrong? Hungary is supposed to be the region’s success story: it has a stable government, a steady flow of foreign investment and a talented population who have brought the world innumerable inventions, from the Biro to hydrogen bombs. True, the budget deficit is set to reach 10.1 per cent of GDP this year, derailing plans to join the eurozone by 2010, but that’s nothing that a little creative accounting cannot take care of. And few are more creative with cashflow than the communists-turned-capitalists running the country.

The apparent cause of the riots was the Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s revelations that the Socialist-led Government had “lied morning, evening and night”. The immediate reaction of most Hungarians was to wonder why he had left out the afternoons. But these are sensitive days as Hungary prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the uprising. In October 1956, just as on Tuesday night, Republic Square in Budapest was the scene of fighting, although rather more deadly than this week’s. Party officials and teenage conscripts in the hated police were shot dead on the spot or lynched by the rebels. The Communist Party headquarters is now the Socialist Party headquarters. But a plaque commemorating those killed by “counter-revolutionaries”, as the Communists labelled the rebels, remains, albeit covered by a curtain.

There are few better symbols of Hungary’s continuing ambiguity over 1956. For those on the Right, the plaque represents the Socialists’ shameful inability to face up to the crimes of the past. The uprising was soon crushed by Soviet tanks. But Hungarian courts sentenced freedom fighters to death and Hungarian executioners led them to the gallows. The communists are still reviled by many as traitors. Their descendants, the Socialists, argue that the Communist Party of the 1980s, when Mr Gyurcsány was an eager official in its youth movement, was very different to that of the 1950s. But not different enough to take down the plaque.

By midweek it seemed that the Government had the violence under control. But be prepared for further eruptions in Central Europe, for there is much unfinished business. It seems that once the region’s nations join the EU, and the subsidies start flowing, they have a licence to misbehave. Old enmities, battened down during the membership process, are suddenly reanimated. After all, no nation has ever been expelled from the EU.

As well as battling rioters at home, Mr Gyurcsány’s Government is also fighting a war of words with Slovakia. Perhaps soon Hungarian nationalists will demand that the country change its name back to “Felvidek”, or “Upper Countryside”, as it was known to the Hungarians during the Habsburg era. Slovakia is certainly proving troublesome. The young country is ruled by a bizarre coalition, led by the left-wing populist Robert Fico, in alliance with the far-right Slovak National Party.

The SNP’s leader, Ján Slota, has a reputation for drunken buffoonery and virulent anti-Roma outbursts. He has accused this 600,000-strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia of “oppressing” the majority. Quite how a minority can oppress a majority is one of those arcane things only Central European politicians know. He once made a drunken speech in which he threatened to advance on Budapest in tanks and flatten the city.

Either way, open borders have not fostered neighbourly feelings. Quite the opposite. This neighbourly spat, in which Brussels is now taking an increasingly worried interest, began after several Hungarian schoolteachers were arrested for giving a guided tour in Bratislava cathedral. The reason? The teachers had supposedly broken a law that says all tourist guides need an official permit. Not, in most countries, a matter for the police. But Slovakia has baggage where Hungarians are concerned.

Slovakia did not prosper under 1,000 years of Hungarian rule and now, it seems, it’s time to take revenge.

The latest Slovak-Magyar battleground is the internet. Slovak skinheads have been posting inflammatory video clips on YouTube.com of themselves burning Hungarian flags and chanting anti-Hungarian slogans to a soundtrack of heavy metal music. The best response to such silliness would be to ignore it, you might think. But the Magyars are just as prickly as their neighbours. Officials complained about one of the video clips, claiming it was “an affront to national dignity” and it duly disappeared.

The row rumbles on. Ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia complain they are being beaten and harassed for speaking Magyar. A young woman caused a furore when she alleged she had been robbed by two skinheads who wrote on her blouse “Hungarians get back across the Danube”. Slovak officials soon announced that she had made the whole episode up.

Considering the massive task of modernising the region, it is extraordinary that politicians have time for this nonsense. And there will probably be more of it soon: Romania, likely to join the EU next year, is home to about two million Hungarians. But perhaps we should not despair too much: it was only a few years ago that political disputes in eastern Europe were settled by bullets rather than the ballot box. And cyberwar by YouTube is much safer than the real thing.