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December 28, 2011


As much as I hate to say it, and as much as I hate to see my late nan's homeland go to hell in a handbasket the way it has, it's been much worse in living memory.

When my grandmother left as a refugee, the Soviets had failed once in suppressing a grassroots uprising with the young conscripts who had fought alongside the Hungarians during the war... they replaced them with hardened soldiers from Siberia and the Eastern Front, who had absolutely no qualms about mowing down thousands in the streets (which they did). And the threat from the secret police was very, very real: nobody said anything or trusted anybody, lest they disappear into the gulag. Like Syria now, in 1956, the repression was so pervasive, brutal and severe, the whole of society revolted. My Grandmother herself was scarred for life: she kept thinking in later years that the people from the dole office were spying on her through her TV set. Crazy -- but that's the mindset they cultivated over there.

The response from the Russians was absolutely brutal, but it resulted in a massive change in the attitude of the authorities -- it went from the most repressive Soviet-bloc country to the least repressive. You could, in theory buy a shit car (10 years' salary for a Trabant) or get the phone on (took my great-grandma six years to get the phone on). Thus, Hungary was known as the 'happiest barracks' in the eastern bloc, and because they got to learn from the gigantic fuckup of 'shock therapy' in Russia, the change of the political and economic system came much easier when it did happen. The Budapest that Grandma saw in 1989, and the one I saw in 2005 were as different as night and day.

That said, you make a fantastic and salient point: institutions matter, and representative democracy is necessary, but not sufficient to build a truly open society. My family and I have known for a better part of a decade, just how unpleasant Victor Orbán and his cronies are, but the real test of what happens, is how Hungarian society responds in the next few weeks and months. The Hungarians are a sophisticated and cultured people, and despite their recent setbacks, particularly a massive hangover from a CHF-denominated credit binge, they may yet be able to set themselves on the right course and build what they lack. You rightly point out that they have little experience of running a society governed by institutions and the rule of law -- the test of whether or not they can GET that experience is yet to come. They have fought tyranny long and hard for many centuries, and I don't doubt they can do it again.

There is a nasty undercurrent of virulent, barely disguised racism in eastern europe -- easily some of the most offensive and overt I've ever seen. Jobbik are no different from a cross between the BNP and the EDL in this respect, with the exception that they've built their street army with very little opposition. They are not nice people at all, and have murdered people in the past.

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