Europe, Hungary is coming!

Paul Hilder
10 April 2003


Malta was the first in the wave of new states to vote “Yes” to the European Union. Slovenia followed last month. In May, it’s Lithuania and Slovakia; in June, Poland and the Czech Republic; come September, Estonia and Latvia bring up the tail end. But on April 12, four days before all the accession countries sign the European treaty in Athens, it will be Hungary’s turn.

They’ve dreamed of it, expected it, been illusioned and disillusioned, watched the years tick by since their peaceful revolution of 1989. In the last few years, the passion they once felt has vanished almost completely as they watched the delay and the excuses pile up. The brooding genius of post-Soviet Hungary, Viktor Orban, has coined many sleek engaging phrases in his time; “We are always five years from accession” was one of the sleeker.

But now, it’s actually happening. Europe is at hand. And as the plum brandy burns down the back of my throat, I smell a strange ferment rising from the courtyards of Budapest.

“Hungarians are fatalistic by nature, and they had waited so long, they had given up. Europe was a fact that had shaped their economy for a decade; they would join, and yet of course the French would veto them. It was already decided, they were in, or they would never be. But suddenly, at the Copenhagen summit in December of last year, the door was opened – and all that remained was for them to choose: Yes, or No.”

“Hungarian poppy-seed cake will be banned: prissy Europeans want a continent free of bobbing red poppyheads”

So, as a barrel-shaped, shotgun-wielding English-European who’s adopted Hungary explains with a waggle of his thick eyebrows, the doubts began to boil.

Movements for Makosbeigli

Three weeks after last December’s Copenhagen summit finally closed the enlargement deal, the proportion of Hungarians thinking Europe would bring more bad than good shot up from 20% to 39%. Hungary is not one of the European Commission’s “Red Countries” where a No is possible. But the development was still significant: uncertainty is a faster virus than rejection. When they find themselves inside, what will Hungarians think - and do?

There is supposed consensus among parliamentary parties for the Yes vote, though Orban’s FIDESZ party dances a dance of reservations and Csurka’s extreme-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party is strongly against. So instead of official opposition, strange will-o’-the-wisp groups rose on the internet like mushrooms in a night forest. They are called The Movement for a Free Hungary, The Blue Ribbon Society, The Society for the Protection of Hungarian Land… “Were they planted? Who knows?” asks Shotgun, with another waggle of his eyebrows.

Their themes are grand and tiny, resonant and civic, the stuff of any vibrant town hall. French farmers will swoop on the rich soil of Hungary’s agricultural land to the south and east and pluck it for their own. The famous makosbeigli, Hungarian poppy-seed cake, will be banned: prissy Europeans, who have been laying waste to the opium-poppy fields of Afghanistan, want a continent free of bobbing red poppyheads.

Apples smaller than 5.5 cm across – or in one pumpkin-sized Chinese whisper, 55 centimetres – will be hunted down and destroyed by the Brussels police. Home slaughtering, as Hungarian as apple pie is American, will be forbidden; the family pig must be sent to new giant pumpkin-shaped slaughterhouses sprouting on the urban fringe just beyond the new glass-walled condominiums stuffed with Austrians and Brits, to return – if at all – only as a shrink-wrapped pack of pallid EuroBacon rashers.

I confess, the vision of resolute Hungarians huddling in their houses in fives and tens to feed squealing pigs into sausage-machines as they munch crab-apples and samizdat poppy-seed cake has its subversive attractions. (It was a Hungarian, exile banker George Soros, who scattered photocopy machines across Central Europe in the 1980s, aiming to release a flood of self-publishing and bring down another, less voluntary Evil Empire).

The problem is that the rumours are almost without exception wrong, as one starts to discover if one wanders across the border to sample an Austrian mohnstrudel, a rich dark cake near-indistinguishable from makosbeigli: the poppy in question is not the poppy of Afghanistan. Home slaughtering, too, will continue (though it seems stunning the pig first may take the fun away – there are dark Spanish whispers about similar EU guidelines castrating the bull-fighting corrida). And the Hungarian government has secured a seven-year “transition period” during which outside purchases of agricultural land are ruled out, with an option for a further three-year extension.

“I learnt Russian when I was a boy, and I hope I have a chance to know it again in the years to come. It’s a beautiful language”

On migration, the transition works the other way: for up to seven years, migrant labour to the EU-15 countries will be tightly controlled. A lesson from history: when Spain and Portugal joined the Union, the French and the Italians were very tough, imposing another seven-year transition. What happened? Far from the expected tide of emigration, it’s said two million of the Spanish diaspora came back to Spain, along with 400,000 other Europeans.

Most Hungarians have deep roots; it’s hard enough, economically and emotionally, for them to migrate from the poorer eastern counties where unemployment touches 20% to the prosperous counties to the west of Budapest – let alone to Germany or Ireland. Only 2.6% (200,000) even want to emigrate. Not even all of those will.

In any case, the Hungarians have negotiated many alcoholic concessions with the Union. The level of natural sugar-alcohol level in the fine wine grown in their hot summer climate has been accepted; their fruit brandy – palinka – has been recognised as an appellation controllée, like ouzo in Greece or grappa in Spain. Hungarians can even continue to homebrew their own palinka at reduced excise rates, provided they limit themselves to 50 litres a year.

These details are reassuring. A local paper’s headline blares: Accession with Makosbeigli.

Living in the Hungarian future

“I learnt Russian when I was a boy, and I hope I have a chance to know it again in the years, the decades to come. It’s a beautiful language.”

Gabor is a Hungarian visionary. Gangly in a rumpled suit, his eyes watery behind his glasses, he clutches pamphlets prophesying a bright new postmodern future for the “West-Pannonian” region of Hungary, stretching along the Austrian border, which he has taken on himself the nebulous responsibility of imagining into being. His talk is mostly of bright things to come, new highways and “thermal clusters” of spa resorts scattered across the forests, drawing Saxon tourists like bees to honey. Even so, like all Hungarians, the past is important to him. Only his intense generosity toward it is hard to fathom.

The Soviets shaped Gabor’s life and his parents’ life fundamentally, from the inside out. They planned people into shapes hard to escape. “It is a fact that our parents are living with us, and that is hard,” he admits. “But every transition takes time. In any case, it’s not that everyone over 50 is –” he makes a careful gesture to his left, “and everyone under 40 is” – to his right.

“There is a county architect I work with, a sort of guide and inspiration for us. He is 55, supposedly of this older generation. But I have learnt a lot from him. We wrote our first brochure with the help of some Irishmen, and took him it. He paused, and he said,

“‘Gabor, you know I like you, but this – this is rubbish. I can’t understand a word. Why not use Hungarian words, words that people can understand?’ So we changed it all. We renamed our communities working group Fountainhead, our innovation group Spark

“Hungarians wake up late. They buy their Christmas presents on Christmas Day”

“Where is the well in this village? Which is the biggest and oldest house? There are many villages in our region, but in each one, the architect can tell me where they are. Some day, I hope, I will know what he knows. We cannot lose this.”

Gabor admits he is still an anomaly in his country. “If there was a word discredited after Communism, after ’89, it was planning. Political planning, economic planning, even personal planning…” But for him, Europe has already come to Hungary. He is living in the future, in hope.

Tilting at windmills

Nadja and Attila work at the EU information centre in Budapest, where many of their drop-in visitors come from among the 2 million pensioners of Hungary, asking how their stipends will be affected, how the price of bread will change. (In general, in the accession countries people over 60 who remember the war are keener on Europe, as are men.)

Nadja: a committed, serious Hitchcock blonde. Attila: a genial, rotund, goateed computer nerd. They ride out into the country now, striving to reach the rural communities whose scepticism is higher, where the swing voters live. They can answer makosbeigli and pumpkin-apple questions with ease, but personal questions are hard, and they must start from the beginning. Nadja sighs, “Hungarians wake up late. They buy their Christmas presents on Christmas Day.”

Farmers look at them with pride and fear, and say, “Medgyessy should come to our house and explain this.” But Socialist Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy hasn’t even sent them a note. The whispers are that he and President Ferenc Madl could not agree on who was to sign the information letter sent to every household about the accession referendum, and so a bureaucrat’s scrawl stood in for them both. To the unanswerable questions, Nadja and Attila can sometimes say no more than: “Europe is our future.”

I ask Attila, “What can you say to someone who might lose out? To a grain farmer who is under threat from subsidised French agriculture?” He slides his trump card from his sleeve, and it’s a diamond. “Sometimes I say, ‘Your grandmother may be poorer, but your daughter will be better off; in the family, it will balance out.”

This is a two, not a king, of diamonds; an honest but ambivalent promise that cannot put an end to discussion or fear. Nor should it. Nadja and Attila ride back to Budapest: Sancho Panzas to Hungary’s Don Quixotes, or Quixotes to its Sancho Panzas. The people they leave behind are more likely to vote, aren’t they?

“Hungarians are praying that next spring the snow will thaw early, so they can start spilling cement everywhere”

Bosch Elektronicker Alkatresz

The toll-highways are bordered by stout slanting wire-strung posts, and they arrow out in radial arcs from the capital. This obsession with the centre dates, Gabor says, from the Peace Treaty of Trianon in 1919, when Hungary was cut off from its Austrian senior partners, from its Transylvanian and other nationals, and from rebellious subjects in Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, who missed it rather less. Sometimes there won’t be a road between two neighbouring villages; only a road from each, pointing back to Budapest. How many bridges span the broad Danube south of Budapest, a distance of almost 250 kilometres to the border? Two.

The snow is deep on the fields east of Budapest: it’s an unusually cold spring. Hungarians are praying that next spring the snow will thaw early, so they can “start spilling cement everywhere”. In May 2004, their Union membership finally becomes concrete.

There are no windmills standing up out of the snow. What I can see are advertising hoardings: “Bosch Elektronicker Alkatresz”. “Tesco”. “Mazda”. “Citreon”. “VW”. “Alfa”.

In January 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the revolutions, the German carmaker Opel came, under the wing of General Motors, to the Western Hungarian city of Szentgotthárd, just a few miles across the border: ready to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice, they came even so.

The companies that arrived particularly during the early 1990s came to set up big manufacturing plants, employing around 5000 people each in industrial “export processing zones” where they were offered fat tax breaks. Now, they account for close to a third of exports and a quarter of imports. But little by little, they are picking up and going; to Romania; to China.

In a parallel world, perhaps fat cigar-chomping businessmen move from bar to bar looking for the next sex-worker to buy them a drink.

Makosbeigli and pumpkin-apples and whether we can slit the throat of Peter the pig ourselves; these aren’t the really difficult questions. Ask instead: how easy is it to set up a Hungarian front company to buy land or property here? What is happening to consumer prices? – despite government promises, the gas price has been hiked, and a family’s gas bill can be 30,000 forint in a month, while a month’s minimum wage is just 50,000 forint (204 euros).

“It’s very important that Hungarians should learn to speak a proper language”

Where are the dividends from the commercially confidential profit margins of the factories received, and where are they reinvested? Where are the entrepreneurs of Hungary? What ideas are they having? Do they own 100% of their companies? 35%? Nothing? What are they learning?

We are on the road to Eger, a town in the north-eastern county of Heves famous for its wine, where the invading Turks were stopped in 1552 – a true Hungarian legend memorialised in the book and then the film, The Stars of Eger.

In 1596, the Turks came back and conquered Eger. People talk about that less; and now, they mostly talk about foreign direct investment. But wait – is that a line of windmills now, springing up out of the snowy plain? No: just a row of giant beer bottles, five or six of them standing twenty metres high, each one blazoned with the legend Korona.

Eger Wir Kommen

We are visiting a Hungarian factory in Eger. The factory makes gearboxes with German capital. It is long and low and white. The sky is blue and bright. The snow is white.

The manager is a vice-president of the parent company. The manager is German. He has a pointing stick, and slides. He loves his 560 Hungarian workers. They can work on their machines “24 hours a day, 365 days a week”. No, a year. They can set up their own machines, they don’t need specialists. It takes five days here to build a gearbox. The average time across the group is twelve days.

At CAD – computer-aided design – the Hungarians are brilliant. Data processing costs are one-third of Western Europe. Basic education is very good. It takes half as long to train a CAD designer. He can streamline the company together with the unions, not against them.

The organisation chart has faces on it, not just names. The people working here are not just names. They have faces.

They have children too.

We see the kindergarten, the “children garden”, the crèche, through a chain-link fence across a parking lot. It has a swimming pool. Do they speak German in the kindergarten? Hungarian? No. They speak English. “This is a 100% export business, and we would like to bring this into the family already. It’s very important that Hungarians should learn to speak a proper language.”

The symbol of Eger is a stork. The kindergarten doesn’t give handouts; but it holds competitions, with really good prizes. There was an environment competition. The factory kept to EU environment standards from the beginning. The company has the TS-14001 standard. Enlargement will be no problem.

The kids in the top ten in the kindergarten competition flew to Finland for their holiday. The other 176 didn’t win, but they got a week in Lake Balaton. The factory gives its employees’ families a free swimming pass. Otherwise it supports only team sports. The factory is a team.


The symbol of Eger is a stork. One child drew a special picture for a competition once. His name was Peter Szeremi. He was eleven. The picture shows the Eger stork flying in to a white building. In its beak, it holds, not a baby, but a gearbox.

The company has printed postcards of the child’s picture.

The Hungarian factory was bought in ‘Chapter 11’ bankruptcy proceedings with German capital. It was Sovietese premodern, bricks damp, machines old.

It is a Hungarian company still, but shinier. Supported by German capital, Hungarians decide which machines to buy. The manager is outraged by the big 5000-man plants in the export processing zones set up only for the tax-break incentives. “They are unserious.” The manager sources as much as 42% of his supply chain in Hungary. The companies who take the tax-breaks source less than 10% here. These fly-by-nights will leave for China when the Hungarian factory stays.

Nor are small entrepreneurs serious. They don’t yet understand quality control. But the manager sets up five-year contracts with the best local companies. He encourages banks to lend to them. Few people have left the factory to start their own companies so far. Average staff turnover in Budapest runs at 20% a year. Here, only 3% leave.

The manager is serious. He has built up a business park around the factory, a logistics centre. He has brought in four companies to work with him on just-in-time delivery. All good companies: he has worked with them in Germany. The factory owns a bakery now in town. The manager himself owns properties. He loves Eger. “Do we have a union? I have dinner with the union representatives twice a month, and they pay. I have a holiday house and they pay for it. Does that answer your question?”

The manager was the last to get a new office. He eats the workers’ sausage, or whatever, with them in their canteen. As for Hungarian… it’s a hard language.

Wages are good here. Reported speech: “Wow! You work for the factory?” 30% of pay is performance-related for junior staff; for management, 50%. There are many benefits. One Hungarian worker changed his machine, to make it easier, and lost two fingers. He went to hospital. The manager asked for the best doctors in Europe to solve the problem of the two fingers.

“I have dinner with the union representatives twice a month, and they pay. I have a holiday house and they pay for it”

There is no direct domestic market for his product, sure. And salaries are rising. Companies nearby are crazy, doubling their salaries. He holds his salaries for management, marketing and controllers already at the German level, but there are exchange rate risks – unless the Euro comes. Meanwhile, what if he loses his specialist Hungarians to the EU-15 countries? Then too, in five years, it will be like Germany here, with all the regulations. The machines will be limited to run 60% of the time, not 24-7-365. The unions may change their thinking. Working Saturdays and Sundays will change.

In the next two years, the manager knows he must make changes too. “Restructure, radically.” He is looking at Romania: things have to go that way. But this is hard. Stability must be considered. Customers keep asking why he doesn’t move to China. He’s had a plant in China: he knows the problems. The Hungarian factory with German capital has competitive advantages. The designers and machine operators are fast; the machines are still new. The bakery, perhaps, is good.

Leave that for now. An easier question: Will he, perhaps, move his supply chain to Romania over the coming years, to keep the Eger stork and factory team together? “Yes – for the supply chain, we are looking to Transylvania. They are Hungarians, speak Hungarian; it’s easy to set up relationships, costs are lower…”

We walk through the shopfloor together. The manager waves, shakes the workers’ hands. They are happy to see him, less sure about us. Some of them smile back. Some of them do not. Banners hang from the ceiling. Legy a legjobb – “Simply the Best.” “We Just Do It” – Nike’s “Just Do It”, team-adapted. “Go for It”: Hungary’s version of Italy’s Forza. On the side of a computer-driven box grinding gears with stunning precision, a worker has pinned a torn-out picture of a topless girl.

There are no cash machines in Eger. Instead, there is an anti-war gathering coming together slowly, with the rhythm of a sleepy market town. “Diamonds are Forever” rolls in a leisurely way from a PA system in a little square. People gather in twos and fives. Three youths plant oil-burners in the snow on the corner, then change their minds and disappear. One in three people is carrying, not a banner chanting “Blood is Thicker than Oil”, but a Hungarian flag. Here, it is the right – FIDESZ – against war without the UN.

On the wall of the manager’s meeting room, there is another framed kindergarten picture. It is puzzling, avant-garde, resembling nothing so much as a buxom Zeppelin in the shape of an artificial insemination syringe. It is titled Eger Wir Kommen. The caption helps only a little: The Ecolitis and their breeder feel very comfortable in the Eastern part of the country.

The Ecolitis? Their breeder? No one can explain exactly.

Tina Turner sings to you when you are on hold in the factory’s phone system:

You’re simply the best
Better than all the rest
Better than anyone
Anyone I’ve ever met
I’m stuck on your heart
I hang on every word you say
Never tear us apart
Oh, I would rather be dead…

Perhaps one day the kindergarten children, when they have grown up, when the factory is long-closed, will hold an exhibition. Perhaps the exhibition will be in the Louvre, or the Bilbao Guggenheim, or the London Saatchi Gallery. Perhaps it will be in Eger town hall.

Will they still be drawing gearboxes and syringes? What will their gearboxes or syringes look like?

Laszlo Letenyei leads a double life

“Figyelo’s advertisement campaign shows a young businessman on a scooter, flying confidently through the blurry steel and glass of a financial district”

“Laszlo Letenyei leads a double life. Working as an assistant professor of sociology at Budapest Economics and Public Administration University, Letenyei, 32, produces anthropological and documentary programmes, aiming to discover unknown cultures and peoples of the world.

“Meanwhile, as owner and managing director of market research firm TETT Consulting Kft, Letenyei makes the main chunk of his living from pioneering two business services that are little-known in Hungary: network consulting and cognitive mapping.

“‘I spend the money earned from TETT Consulting on my anthropological research,’ he says. ‘I think science should fund itself.’”

Anita Benko’s story leaps from the pages of Budapest Business Journal: it tells a wider truth. There are hundreds, if not thousands of Letenyeis in Budapest. As my cosmopolitan lecturer friends Tibor and Ildiko tell me, everyone is an entrepreneur with their own little company, the receipts are claimed against profits, that’s how it works… a lifestyle, an attitude, a statement of independence, a Hungarian micro-climate of micro-entrepreneurialism, always a swagger, a signature, a parting joke.

If Vilaggazdasag is Hungary’s Economist, Figyelo is its Business Week. Figyelo’s current advertisement campaign shows a young businessman on a scooter, flying confidently through the blurry steel and glass of a financial district, talking authoritatively at his mobile phone. Seeing these billboards is unnerving for a Western European, like time travelling back to the late nineties. Since The Crash, the scooting dot-commer has been replaced by the hardnosed or corrupt asset-stripper in our public imaginations. But this slightly pudgy Hungarian menedzser, symbol of waist-expanding 4.5% growth and above, scoots blithely on into the future.

Figyelo’s advertisements can be seen even on the outskirts of Eger. Zoltan, our guide, writes for them. We talk about our walk through the factory shopfloor, joking, “Is this what a weapons inspector feels like?” Zoltan was a little shocked by the banners: “This reminds me a bit of Communism, you know. Of course, the banners would have said something different then.”

An expert on Europe, an entrepreneur of words, Zoltan has spent plenty of time in Brussels; he is a Hungarian-European through and through. He meets his old army buddy again after almost two decades, and they embrace and drink palinka. He wants to be everyone’s friend. Through a sceptic’s eyes, he knows this factory, the best factory in Hungary perhaps, is not perfect; but also, that it is better than what came before.

And he hopes the people of Eger are storing up what they are learning in the factory; because although it is sunny today, the clouds are gathering. As to whether they can, or should, follow in Laszlo Letenyei’s footsteps… Their wild boar and wine are marvellous to taste. “Come back with your family and visit us”: only Palestinians have said this more often to me. They want to be everybody’s friend. They do not want to be forgotten.

Putting the past to work

Peter Medgyessy, a former “spy”, is Hungary’s Socialist Prime Minister. The scandal of his career under communism loses some, not all, of its force if one adds that he worked in counter-espionage, protecting Hungary’s goulash communism against its more feral neighbours, guarding its bid from behind the Iron Curtain to join the IMF.

“The Terror House museum splits Hungarian society in two”

Hungary is still a world where meanings pile up in historical strata. Its archaeologists are politicians, digging through and shattering one decade’s records to excavate what came before. Friday’s Socialists are Thursday’s reform communists are Wednesday’s Stalinists are Tuesday’s Arrow Cross Nazis. Friday’s FIDESZ civic nationalists are Thursday’s FIDESZ teen dissidents are Tuesday’s Arrow Cross Nazis are Monday’s soft-fascist Admiral Horthy are nineteenth-century civic nationalists. A Turkish guide in Eger explains how the invading Turks were in fact very kind.

The Terror House has been created inside the skin of 60 Andrassy Street, the headquarters of the Nazi Arrow Cross secret police and then of the Communist secret police. It is a multimedia journey after the model of the Holocaust Museum in New York, designed by the same man, but curated by Maria Schmidt, a former adviser of right-wing leader Viktor Orban. Orban opened the Terror House the spring before he almost became the first post-communist Hungarian prime minister to win re-election.

The Terror House museum splits Hungarian society in two. It engages with history, takes it in hand, puts it to work; shines a remorseless light on Soviet terror, slides over questions of complicity in Nazi terror. It ends with a gallery of faces entitled “Victimisers”. Several of those who appear in the exhibition are still alive.

There are subtle angles here, almost invisible to the outsider. International visitors are trapped in audio-guide, outside the Magyarul language. One man, shown again and again shamed and recanting his dissidence before a kangaroo court, put Viktor Orban on the stage in 1989. Orban’s speech, where he called for the Russians to leave Hungary, for an end to “communist dictatorship”, is shown at the end of the exhibit alongside footage of train-carriages laden with impotent tanks and a slow-motion room papered with projections of people in the streets, marching, overjoyed.

The verbal commentaries given by young national guides to countryside parties, a Free Democrat whispers, bend and turn the substance. Since the change of administration, Schmidt and the Socialist-Free Democrat government have been locked in arguments over the agenda, the board composition, and government funding. Meanwhile, groups from the nation and the world queue round the block for this hugely successful exhibit: a living, rotting black beast of a building.

“There was a good article a couple of weeks ago about Budapest: sprawling, rotting, an urbanist’s nightmare”

Ildiko is cosmopolitan, conspiratorial and expansive at once. She feels there is still a secret-police mentality in Hungary: who do I bribe? What can I say here? She regrets the lack of a truth and reconciliation process in Hungary, where historical truth gets parcelled up in pieces instead.

The slicing of history stretches back further than the treaty of Trianon cutting off Transylvanian and other Hungarians: to the 1848 Austrian conquest, in memory of which tragedy most Hungarians refrain from clinking glasses to this day; to the Turkish conquest…

“Budapest starts exposing its darker side two weeks in,” says Tibor after lunch. “There was a good article a couple of weeks ago about it: sprawling, rotting, an urbanist’s nightmare.” Perhaps the author was looking for the job of fixing things? Making his excuses to go do his tax return, tucking copies of the right-wing Magyar Nemzet and ex-communist Nepszabadszag newspapers under his arm, Tibor is dishevelled and at home in his city. One of the main roads bears his name, after all.

Forza Orban

“You have to understand the cleverness of this man, of this word of his. ‘Civic’ means at least three things. It means the Hungarian Bourgeois, the middle class burger. It means the Citizen, the citoyen, the democratic subject in his own society. And it means the Anti-Communist, today as Hungarian as fish soup.”

The writer and former Free Democrat deputy Miklos Haraszti was an old ally of Viktor Orban. Now they are enemies. Orban’s “Young Democrats”, FIDESZ, worked together with the older dissidents in the heady days of the ’89 revolution.

But times moved on. The older, more cosmopolitan Budapest dissidents, the Free Democrats, joined the ex-communist Socialists in government. Province-rooted Orban transformed his Young Democrats into the Hungarian ‘Civic’ Party, swallowed up most of the conservative parties, and forged Hungarian politics into two grand blocs.

Light the blue touch paper and stand well back: we argued the toss on openDemocracy last year, when Orban stepped down as Prime Minister after narrowly losing the election to the Socialist-Free Democrat coalition. Haraszti took on Orban’s old teacher Roger Scruton and Johnathan Sunley, a Brit involved with a Budapest foundation close to FIDESZ. It was acrimonious, involved.

Whatever you think of him, Viktor Orban is a political inventor: his laboratory is Hungary, and when he’s mixing, smoke pours from the windows. One national motto in particular captures his promise: “THREE KIDS, FOUR WHEELS, FIVE RINGS.”

THREE KIDS: let us build our Christian Hungarian nation through our strong, fertile families.

FOUR WHEELS: all will share in the growth of our economy. Everyone gets, not a Trabant, a real car!

FIVE RINGS: The Olympics: Just Do It. Aspire to this climax of international culture and physical strength. Let us be in the world, and take our families, cars, nation with us. Perhaps even vault over Europe: “There is life outside the EU.”

“Coining the term 'Brusselites', Orban draws a shimmering comparison between the EU and the hated 'Moscovites'”

Can you beat these invocations? Spin-doctors, take heed of this titan of the centre-right, diving well beyond triangulation strategies and into the deep blue political imaginary.

There is a double room in Maria Schmidt’s Terror House exhibition, papered with the horrors of Soviet life captured in sober black and white. At first, bright posters are dotted only here and there, covering only a few of the photographs. But gradually, as you move through the room, these naïve 50s/60s images, full of rosy-cheeked comrades buxom and brawny, shiny proletariat tractors and coffee-machines and red stars, cover up the black-and-white reality. These are Communist advertisements. “Propaganda”.

In office from 1998-2002, Orban negotiated many of the enlargement accession criteria (as well as relying, only once or twice, on votes from Csurka’s far right party, ejected by the voters in 2002). In opposition, he said of last December’s Copenhagen deal, “We have to pay 100% and we get 25%”. Coining the term “Brusselites”, he draws a shimmering comparison between the EU bureaucracy and the hated old “Moscovites”.

(The analogy inspires. When the Movement for a Free Hungary put up its posters they showed two hands clasping each other, fellow-tyranny explained with a swastika and a red star; another hand, an EU sign on its sleeve, waits to join in. In early April, the Hungarian police removed the posters and arrested the leaders of the Movement for using proscribed symbols – the same symbols displayed prominently on the top of the Terror House.)

In the first year of Hungary’s EU membership, it will get only a quarter of the agricultural grants it would receive were it a ‘full’ member-state, and its receipts will rise only over nine years to the full level. Yes, this is a shameful compromise to prevent France, in particular, from vetoing enlargement to protect its farmers. Yes, Poland negotiated more ruthlessly than Hungary.

But none of the accession countries have to pay 100% of their EU budget contribution in the first year – only two-thirds. And agriculture is only a part of the picture. On balance, Hungary looks set to receive 1389 million Euros net from the European Union from 2004 to 2006.

Yes, the new accession countries will receive budget transfers of a tiny 0.1% of EU GDP, far less than during the last wave of enlargement; and they have further to catch up than Greece or Portugal. Orban is right to point to this, and to the fact that poor Hungary will receive €48 per capita from the EU; Ireland got €418 in 2000. Still, “We pay 66.7% and we get 25%” doesn’t make such a good slogan.

Istvan Hagerduis was a member of Parliament for FIDESZ when FIDESZ meant Young Democrat. Now, he is a pony-tailed analyst and pro-European organiser; reserved, subtle, generous, tough. He left the party when Orban turned radical into radical-national-conservative, and he explains an extraordinary fact. When Orban began this transformation in 1993, the Young Democrats were polling 30% of the vote; after the transition, in the 1994 elections, the successor Hungarian Civic Party collapsed to only 7%. But over the following four years, its support grew and grew. Orban had played a long game.

Istvan thinks people simplify Orban. For him, his former leader’s calculations come partly from a political opportunism – “there is an advantage to be had, an opening in the political landscape” – but also from a set of national-conservative-civic-radical principles. Opportunism and values intertwine.

“The people thought we were pure young angels. But you can’t be a pure angel in politics”

F is in his twenties, close to but not inside FIDESZ, full of national feeling and sharp analysis. He talks about the threat of EU quotas to Hungarian agriculture, media bias, international companies, the blowing-up of a bridge after Orban was not re-elected; the way the price of petrol is higher in Hungary than over the border in Austria. He talks about a Washington seminar with a neo-conservative thinker, where he proposed his own theory: that America aimed to extend its empire fast, because it knew it only had twenty years before China rose to balance it. The neo-con agreed.

Like the party he admires, F is far from hawkishness on Iraq. How will this Middle East American empire help Hungary today? He is scathing about the Free Democrats: “They just want to globalise, they have no national feeling.” The Civic Party’s transition from the Young Democrats, meanwhile, was painful but necessary. “The people thought we were pure young angels. But you can’t be a pure angel in politics.”

“FIDESZ is Orban”. The back seat he took after his narrow defeat is only temporary. He has been working behind the scenes over the last year, setting up mysterious “civic circles” – social frameworks to ground a new political revival. This experiment can’t be defined simply as conservative: it undermines the ideas of Czech civic nationalist Vaclav Klaus, a savage critic of notions of “civil society” and the importance of NGOs. Orban weaves together forward-looking radical and backward-looking conservative.

F, with his access to higher echelons, is agnostic about the civic circles. “They are for the older people,” he says, “People who feel like they cannot speak their minds in this environment, with this government, with the left-wing media.” Orban appears as the keynote speaker on folk festival posters across the capital. At the same time, he makes joint declarations with former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar, a brilliant historian and e-democrat, about the need for the accession countries to look to the Future of Europe debate and shape it according to their national priorities.

My liberal-conservative friend Ildiko admires FIDESZ yet. She sees herself in the smallest circle of all among the intellectuals of Budapest: the circle that still wants the Free Democrats to break away from the Socialists and link up again with Orban. Like Serb Dejan Djokic, she thinks the future requires national and democratic, conservative and liberal to pull together.

Viktor Orban is preparing a new political vehicle: a Hungarian Christian Democrat party, bringing the national, conservative, civic forces even further together, widening its social base. He is willing to be its president. He began a tradition of State of the Nation addresses while he was Prime Minister, and he saw no reason to stop when he lost an election.

Some say Silvio Berlusconi’s success in Italy in forging a charismatic centre-right bloc coalescing past and future together has inspired Orban’s new vision. Some even say the new party’s name will be not so far from Forza Hungaria.

“May you live in interesting times”: Confucius’s words, pointed at European populism by Hungarian intellectual Tibor Dessewffy last year in Sicily, under a pale sun, amid bright blossoms and orange trees.

The Schools of the Past

“An erect old man starts to hum Beethoven very softly, and the children take it up and hum along in perfect harmony”

Smallholders: The little villages with the little homesteads clinging to the hills or resting in the valleys, each built to a different plan with gabled roofs and small back gardens scattered with apple trees, vines, chickens, pig-houses… “Hungary is a very rural country, the only accession country that has an agricultural surplus with the EU”, says a bureaucrat. Numbers tell you only so much. Only 6% of the people are employed in agriculture, but small-holding is part of the imagination here; part of family.

Bureaucrats: Choosing slow revolution, Hungary chose continuity as well as change. Walking into modern high-atriumed government buildings, you feel a chill down the back of your neck. The top civil servants you talk to here are subtle brick walls. The best of the younger bureaucrats are uneasy in their own skins. They have found senior colleagues in the descending weight of Brussels: for a period, a parallel Euro-bureaucracy prevented funds from flowing. One civil servant mutters, “We sent them our development plan for Hungary and they sent us back theirs. As for responding to regional variations: Brussels has a single development plan for Central and Eastern Europe, and its regions are our countries.”

Cosmopolitans: Sneaking into the Liszt Music Academy in central Budapest, you are captivated by 19th-century fugues drifting down the corridors, by walls of art nouveau frescos and the children hurrying and giggling through the corridors, bent under their instruments. In the soaring gold auditorium at the heart of the Academy, on a stage scattered with instruments before a tremendous wall of a pipe-organ, an erect old man starts to hum Beethoven very softly, his voice carrying through the hall, and the auditorium quarter-full with children takes up the air and hums along in perfect harmony.

The Pashas of the Present


Throbbing basslines. Arcing lights. Pressing, sweaty bodies. Fixed smiles. The Budapest super-club experience: a no-place like, and not quite like, everywhere else. Here, the club elite holding slow menacing court on soft chairs on the top floor balcony are shaven-headed, their suits bulging with the same steroidal muscles whether they’re fifty or twenty. Their women have a 2003 Dior look: baggy three-quarter trousers over spiked boots.

“Some of the most famous global porn models were discovered or invented here”

Sometimes the Big Men surge to their feet and stand motionless, their thick necks turning as girls eddy around them, flicking glances. The others who have paid 6000 forints to party all night (24? Euros, almost an eighth of a month’s minimum wage), students, Euro-cosmopolitans, dreaming shop-workers, steer clear of the Big Men. Instead they fix on Euro-hedonism, occasionally gaping at the near-naked girl and boy pushing pelvises on a stage below.

Pasha, one of the many ‘ultimate Ibiza super-clubs’, certainly one of the first, is spreading over Europe like another virus. Here, it has mutated; transactions are taking place even inside the heads of those who dance alone. Maybe the Big Men have shares in this branch or others; their kind of networks provide protection, and other commodities, Europe-wide. But nothing’s clear, and they won’t talk. The corners are shadowy.

Budapest is now the capital of the American sex film industry. Some of the most famous global porn models, abused dramatically 24-7 on screens worldwide, were discovered or invented here. The girl pouting and thrusting her thong on the stage is on her way to Hollywood.

The Samurai of the Future

Once I worked in a regional development agency, wrestled with many of the same concerns as Gabor. But there, I never wrote sentences like this: “The Hungarian regions, from a certain aspect, exist only in the future tense – as a possibility. They are the germs of yet unknown future regional beings. Within the tied, hierarchical public administrative domain our regional institutions fulfil a dynamic, innovative role, trying bold changes, having a ‘levitating, path-finder’ role.”

Gabor came to Scotland in the 1980s. He worked in a care home to survive. You can see him being good at it. Now, watching him bursting with futures, I think I start to understand his generosity. He wants the past to become part of the future, all of it; a big, generous future, where Hungarians can talk to Russians in Russian but as equals, with open hearts on both sides.

Some say the Hungarians’ linguistic isolation distantly linking them only to the Finns, makes them a friendless people. But as David Hayes, a Scottish student of the Hungarian inner life for many years, adds, “Being friendless is not so far from being friends with everyone: a Hungarian universal humanism.”

In this moment, just before Europe comes to Hungary, Gabor is strangely suspended: he may be planning transnational highways and community-building, but the government has all the money, and he can only plead and dream. To take decisions, local people like he have to go to Budapest, cap in hand to the central government ministries, once or twice a week.

He fixes me with a piercing gaze, and says, “Because they were not Hungarian”

Tina Turner sings in Eger:

You bring a lifetime of promises
And a world of dreams
You speak the language of love
Like you know what it means

And it can’t be wrong

Majda tells me she lives on Gellert Hill, overlooking the sweep of the Danube; but out of all Europe, she loves Italian food most. She has her own small business, a daughter with an absent father. Amidst laughter and pain, European fears emerge. What will happen to prices? She won’t be allowed to work in Germany, earn money there, bring it home to buy a house. Even if she could leave the country to work, she fears she would return to find Budapest prices on a par with Berlin. But to have, like other Europeans, a little house, a little car, a family…

She is a student of tai chi: not the flabby variety half-practised in Western European health clubs, but joyful, serious, sword-wielding tai chi. She surprises me: “I think things were better under communism, you know. But I think we can make it work, under capitalism or communism. I think we can make it work.”

Forgive, forget?

Leaving the blackness of the Terror House at 60 Andrassy Street, you see two old men on a small television screen, victims of Soviet torture in the very building you have just been led through, sobbing to one another:

“You can forgive but you can’t forget.”

“No, this you can’t forgive.”

“But you have to forgive, don’t you?”

The day after, in the sun outside the massive-spired Parliament modelled after London’s Westminster, I ask one young Hungarian why the Terror House memorialises the 300,000 Hungarians who were sent to the gulags and never came back, but slides over the deaths of more than 450,000 Magyars of the Jewish faith in the terrifyingly-fast Hungarian Holocaust that began under Admiral Horthy in 1944, and accelerated under the Arrow Cross. He fixes me with a piercing gaze, and says, “Because they were not Hungarian.”

“He who has health, has hope, has life, has everything”

Everyone’s Invited

We’re out of Budapest in no time, leaving “Kaiser’s Supermarket” behind us. Dual-carriagewayed and thrumming at 100 kilometres per hour, we swing up onto an overpass that bridges a sprawling industrial park on the outskirts of Budapest, and the advertising hoardings multiply like a giant’s pack of playing cards strewn across the landscape, each one landing on its side, some trumpeting their wares in Magyarul, most in International English.

A huge lozenge of a green pill is captioned, “He who has health, has hope, has life, has everything” - “ICN Pharmaceuticals”.


“Ford” / “Nescafé” / “Lexus” / “Nike” / “Tesco”.

“Phantom of the Opera, by Andrew Lloyd Webber”.

We whiz past low-slung buildings, half-hidden in the snow, white on white; the ivory hull of a massive landlocked ship fades into the dazzling whiteness also. Before we hit the airport there’s one final hoarding, for a mobile phone, a woman laughing into it. “Samsung Digitall – Everyone’s Invited”; according to giant lettering, Samsung are proud to be “Worldwide Sponsors of the Olympics”.

Three kids. Four wheels. Five rings.

Twelve yellow stars?

Why we're suing over the £23m NHS data deal with 'spy tech' firm Palantir

Right as the NHS battles 'vaccine hesitancy', why is the government giving a CIA-backed firm – whose spyware has been accused of creating ‘racist’ feedback loops in US policing – a major, long-term role in handling our personal health information, and in England's cherished NHS?

Get the inside story from the journalists and lawyers battling to force transparency from the government on what they're doing with public money – and our health records.

Join us for this free event on 4 March at 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Cori Crider Lawyer, investigator and co-founder of Foxglove, a non-profit that seeks to make the use of technology fair for everyone

Caroline Molloy Editor ourNHS and openDemocracyUK

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData