Reflections after a summer vacation in Hungary

It seems that an annual summer trip to Hungary has become something of a ritual for me. Initially, now well over a decade ago, I would travel back for archival research–first for my MA thesis, then for my PhD dissertation, or for the odd conference presentation. Then as I became more involved in the country’s public discourse over the past eight years, my circle of friends and colleagues grew in Budapest. Challenging times do bring people together, creating a fate community. And of course, I have family in Hungary–some quite elderly. My great aunt, who was like a grandmother to me while growing up in the nineties in Budapest, turned 89 years old this year. She is the last of my grandmother’s generation and I visited her in the town of Pápa, as I do each year.

This year’s trip to Budapest was informative for a few reasons. Several members of my family work for large multinational companies with offices in Budapest. They are well-educated professionals who speak at least two foreign languages, travel frequently for work and live very comfortably in the Hungarian capital. Their quality of life is comparable, if not better to what they would enjoy in a similar field here in Canada.  They travel for pleasure throughout Europe and further afield, have nice homes, have the disposable income to eat out at good restaurants and enjoy the cultural richness and dynamism of Budapest–one that is outstanding even among the largest European cities.

These family members are also highly critical of the Orbán regime. While they do perform their civic obligation and vote in elections, their approach is to make themselves as independent of, and not susceptible to the whims of the System of National Cooperation as possible. They aim to inhabit a different world altogether than that controlled by the one party state. In Budapest, if you are a professional employed by a large foreign company, it is mostly possible to do this. It’s almost like living in an expat bubble.

Not everyone has the luxury of simply exiting the System of National Cooperation, whilst still choosing to live in Hungary. Journalists at HírTV and until today those working for what was left of Heti Válasz experienced this first hand. All journalists who were capable of asking questions and behaving like journalists, not propagandists, were fired from HírTV this week, as the cable news channel returned to the Fidesz fold. One should have known all along that building a free, democratic media organ on Lajos Simicska was like building a house on sand. Then this morning, we learned that Heti Válasz, which suspended print publication this spring, is now also ceasing its online publication. Dozens of conservative reporters, who until recently were staunchly supportive of the regime, are out of work. Add to this list the Mandiner news site–once a conservative forum allowing for relatively critical and open debate is increasingly just a mouthpiece of the regime. They have bills to pay and their income comes from the regime.

During chats in Hungary, I also learned that many on the right who rely on public funds for their existence and who are engaged in political discourse are fearful of a purge that seems to be well underway within Fidesz circles. There is an understanding in these circles that one can fall out of favour suddenly–all it takes is one act that calls into question’s one unquestioning loyalty. Servility is the way to not only survive, but to also prosper in Hungary. It’s the ability to give servile individuals more than just the basics, but in fact a good quality of life, that keeps them loyal. And besides: being outwardly servile does not mean that one cannot curse the bloody regime in the comfort of one’s home, or discreetly at a coffee shop, all the while remaining a beneficiary of this regime until one day, when it all passes.

I never thought that my contemporaries would draw on the survival and coping mechanisms used during the Kádár regime, but this is in fact what is happening in Hungary today. Comparatively speaking, Hungary was a livable country for most residents during the last two decades of the Kádár regime. The formula was to cede your place as a citizen in the country’s political discourse, tolerate the one party state, feign a minimum of loyalty and then let off steam in private or whilst watching the sort of political satire that the Kádár regime cleverly tolerated. The vast majority of Hungarians chose this approach. A small minority did not, and they spoke out in various ways: through socio-economic initiatives, through Samizdat publications or through protests.

It would seem that the conditions for the collapse of the regime are not present today whatsoever. People working in the foreign-owned private sector can mostly ignore the System of National Cooperation. People working in essential, low-paying jobs in both the Hungarian private and public sectors are unlikely to be dismissed for their political leanings or lack of loyalty simply as a result of an acute labour shortage. This is now so severe, that while waiting for a train at Keleti pályaudvar in Budapest, the PA system advertised the many available careers every few minutes, right along departing and arriving trains. Travel the bus, tram or metro in Budapest, and you will see the endless calls for bus and tram drivers–and promises of a good wage and benefits.

The people who are in a truly precarious state are those who work in fields of culture, research and media–all of which are heavily reliant on public funds to survive and are therefore vulnerable.

This summer, Budapest was bustling with tourists oblivious to, or uninterested in the state of democracy–probably understandable, when the Hungarian capital offers entertainment, attractions, culture and gastronomy that rivals that of any European capital. Even most Hungarians have opted to live their lives as independently of the regime as possible and for some, it is very much possible to live well in Budapest, whilst being divorced from the System of National Cooperation.

Meanwhile, the opposition (both the left and the right) is perhaps more demoralized than I have ever seen it. Full paralysis has set in. For the left, it may serve as modest consolation to know that for the moment, they are not the regime’s main target. Conservatives once fully supportive of Fidesz, but now willing to ask questions and challenge, are in the line of fire.

(Photo: When it rains, it pours. A statue in Óbuda. Source: Christopher Adam)




  1. Christopher Adam is right to point out, that the “social compact” between the Orbán regime and Hungarians is strikingly similar to the one, the Kádár autocracy engineered for itself after 1956. It’s a tried and effective formula, and has been made possible entirely by the accelerated flow of thousands of billions of EU subsidies, and by the multinationals that settled in Hungary, to exploit the country’s relatively cheap labor resources, docile unions, and proximity to markets.

    There are those, who tell us, that comparing the current “social compact” to the one imposed upon Hungary by Kádár is misleading, because the latter’s system was entirely based upon an external threat – the ever present possibility of Red Army intervention, a taste of which, Hungarians had ample experience with, when they protested in 1956. This one, we are told, is self made, and reflects the will of the Hungarian people.

    Anyone who had studied the area knows, that the stability of Kádár’s social compact with Hungarians cannot be explained exclusively by the external threat posed by Russia. Regime stability under Kádár, as well as Orbán, is the product of BOTH domestic and international forces. It is a function of the autocratic leader’s ability to exploit both of these domains in tandem, that matters .

    In short: The Orbán regime’s social compact with Hungarians is as dependent on external factors as Kádár’s autocracy was. Instead of “The Red Army” Orbán can rely on the European Commission to provide him with the critical financial lifeline to demonstrate his economic competence to Hungarian voters – more than 90% of the funding for all public investments into Hungary’s national economic development goals are financed by EU taxpayers. Orbán leverages that lifeline through a powerful coalition of Foreign Multinationals who have production facilities in Hungary and provide approx 70% of Hungary’s export earnings. With their headquarters in Europe’s capitals, these multinationals are the strongest lobbyists of Orbán, they keep the EU funds flowing through the pipeline. They are as interested in the provision of a level political playing field in Hungary, as Grandma Moses was interested in providing sex education for little black boys and girls in America. These corporations provide the jobs for Christopher’s relatives and for hundreds of thousands of Hungarians. Hand in hand with the EU Central Bank, the Commission, they keep the Hungarian autocracy alive the same way the Krupps, the Bayers, the Thiessens and others kept Nazi Germany alive till the end of WWII. Capitalism does not need freedom. It needs profits. Don’t read Catch-22. Visit Hungary instead, like our able editor, Chris Adam 🙂

    Fascism works. Mussolini made the trains run on time in Italy. It is popular, especially among white supremacist men who recoil about political correctness. Donald Trump would have gotten along as well with Hitler as he does with Kim, Chi and Putin. Just wait how he will lavish his praises on Orbán, when the latter visits the White House. Fascism is a good job provider, makes you feel proud of your nation, and spits on liberals, and a critical media. What more can we want ? It even goes well with Christianity.

  2. Free enterprise can only function and succeed in FREEDOM.

    Yes, China get very wealthy and become an industrial super power simply because of its very inexpensive labour.
    While the US economy and its high paid Union workers have become unemployed.

    So, IF Hungary does follow what Dong Xia Pin started in China back in the 70s, those fascist Hungarians have finally learned something.
    The people and the country do benefit.
    Is not that something that did not happen in the past?!

  3. Your observations match our own about the political situation. My own impression is that there were many fewer tourists than in previous years this summer. We were visiting friends in Balaton two weeks ago and although there were many visitors that number was smaller and many were Polish and Russian. Earlier in July, we noticed the same in Budapest.

  4. Walk the walk
    Talk the talk
    See eye to eye
    and it will make you cry—

  5. Kadar’s reforms were NOT caused by the fear of the Soviet Army, but because Kadar realized that the socialist economy’s failure caused the uprisings.
    He borrowed US$ 33 billions from western german banks to infuse the economy.
    But any socialist planned economy do not inovate. So some of the money trickled down to improve living conditions . But all that had to be paid back with interests.

    Yes, today some western capital being invested there that helps the economy by employing the masses. Did not Gyurcsany start that ?

    Wages has to be lower than in other states or the investments go to other eastern countries where the wages are lower.
    That is how China got wealthy and powerful.
    150 years ago that is how the US industrialized too.
    That is the nature of things.

    • steve tarnay says:

      You can’t teach an old dog new trick — Especially if they have been muzzled for 45 years!

    • Bende
      “Wages has to be lower …” How much lower, like the Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian or Burmese wages ?

      Actually the Orban/Matolcsy/Parragh geniuses did a lotto keep them low and Hu found itself with minimal or no growth (above the EU subsidies) with not enough qualified workforce, but saddled with ~300k and growing unemployable simpletons. Let me tell you how to make hot water – education and added value.

      The Orban regime brought about a catastrophe – they stole and blew in the wind the largest material support in the country’s history and instead of rapidly developing Hu has been slipping down the lists in almost every area.

  6. The author In the article remarked ” those in the field of the media” are particularly in “precarious situations”.

    See how badly they need the Bill of Rights, particularly the “First Amendment” to have individual liberties, as freedom of the press, speech, assembly , etc.etc. where right are guaranteed by Constitutional restrictions on the governments right and actions.
    Not by promises and recognitions that are limited by “sarkalatos torvenyek”.
    What’s limited/controlled is not free.
    Yet they and you all fall for all that propaganda and lies.

  7. Robert Morrison says:

    @ Chris

    I am happy to read that you had a nice vacation in our beautiful homeland and returned safely to Canada. I trust that now you are ready to approve and release my comments under several articles that has been held in limbo by the “duty” editor that either ignored them or simply sabotaged the job.

    Hopefully the reader will be able to read them even if they are of course now out of the lime light due to the month long delay.

  8. So sad to hear, that the underhanded racketeer, who goes by the name of RM, has not been able to bounce his errant balls off these walls for a while. I thought he was simply taking some Robitusin, because he lost his voice during his lengthy farewell to Lovas Pisti. Now, if the steady dribble of nonsense from the bendy-goose’s leaky faucet could also be plugged, or the alternative-facts manufacturer, Peter, could also be diverted to cloud 9, this space could finally become a genuine forum for intelligent discourse. Just kidding, of course, and in conformity, as always, with accepted White House practices 🙂 🙂 Welcome back Dr. Adam !!!!!! The winter of our discontent is but a corners away.

    • Sounds to me that your ideal forum would be an echo chamber. Ironic that it is what you consider to be the ideal environment for “intelligent discourse”. Well, by the sounds of it site is already working on meeting your expectations.

    • Peter Sandor says:

      # 1. Pls. define cloud 9: is it good or bad fi mi?
      #2. Less tourists in BP. Now what are alternative facts if not this piece of… ! Tourism has been expanding by double digits in Madjaristan for years.

  9. Robert Morrison says:

    András B. Göllner on August 6, 2018 at 1:39 pm

    Bandi, you are as funny a always, that is not at all. But it I always a pleasure reading about your idea of equal treatment and free flow of ideas. Keep on being so humorous 🙂

  10. Somebody help me out please !

    Just what that strange looking statute in O-Buda, holding the umbrella suppose to represent ???

    Perhaps to protect the statute from the acid rain ?

  11. Reality Check says:

    For the last decade I have spent several months each year living in Hungary. I corroborate Christopher’s observations regarding the social compact.

  12. @ RM

    I aim to please.

    @ PS

    Cloud nine is just around the corner from Motel 6

    @ Joe

    Joe who ?

    @ Bendy goose

    The statue represents a person holding an umbrella.

    • Robert Morrison says:

      I am so sad, because I expected you to be a pleaser. Or at least a thinker rather than a bully. I guess the lengthy time spent in unchallenged power position corrupted you as it does to all in power. 🙁

  13. Would Mr.Adam be nice enough to let us know what , or whom ,that statute in O-Buda suppose to represent ?

  14. StrandedinSopron says:

    Through a mixture of fear but mainly apathy, the regime is rock solid. I would agree that a large element of the professional class has basically opted out continuing to enjoy a very good standard of life whilst in private making jokes about Orban’s ever=expanding waistline and the Fidesz loyalist space cadets presently operating in much of the media.

    In the age group 20-30, statistics consistently show a large percentage wishing to become economic immigrants elsewhere in the EU, Oz, US etc. Once they go, very few come back.

    Even the public sector workers, as long as they keep their opinions to themselves and not caught voting the “wrong way” are in a fairly secure positions (if not from a salary point of view).

    So, yes, the “intellectual” class working in the NGOs, universities “culture” and media are at a real risk but they are not the type of people who are going to be throwing petrol bombs at Fidesz HQ anytime soon are they?

    It’s Orban’s to lose.

  15. @ StrandedinSopron

    You are correct in your assessment.

    What we have not touched upon is the price Hungarian society, and future generations will have to pay for the criminally irresponsible manner, Hungary’s Fidesz leadership neglected the modernization of Hungary’s educational sector, while it had the resources from the EU to do so. This regime has squandered away the the future welfare of its people, and the chances of this country to embark on the path of sustainable economic development. Thousand of billions of forints have landed in the pockets of cronies, crooked oligarchs, who are parking much of the money offshore. Huge sums have been spent on unproductive sports ventures – stadiums, swimming pools, street lights to promote national pride without enhancing Hungary’s economic competitiveness. The debt to GDP ratio is the same as it was when Fidesz took over, her economic competitiveness worse than it was 10 years ago. Hungary’s economic structure is the same as it was before Orbán was given an opportunity to correct it with billions of EU funds. Hungary’s economy is based on cheap labor, assembly line work, that will be severely tested during the transfer to AI.

    Instead of preparing the way to the new Info-tech era, via education, Orbán has created a situation whereby anyone who follows after him, will face a disaster. He and Lőrinc Mészáros, the man he helped to become the richest Hungarian, will retire to a Caribbean Island to drink Margueritas with Andy Vajna, the other criminal, who played a leading role in destroying Hungary’s political cultural backbone. Hungary’s energy sector has been placed into an utterly one sided dependency on the Russian mobster, her secret services military intelligence, ditto. Those who suck up the fraud, thrive, those who can’t stomach it leave. The sour grapes will come, when a new generation has to deal with the mess, that Orbán’s generation has left them with. Given past practices, there will once again be plenty of scapegoats, and another replay of that broken record – the Hungarian Rhapsody.

  16. Gollner B. Andras views on Hungary’s economic future.

    Nice to bring up Hungary’s “sustainable economic development”, but you forgot, Hungary has no resources other than the ability and ambition of the population.
    Ability need to be acquired ,but they lost the zill for ambition.
    All they have left is to depend on foreign investment that can capitalize on the less expensive labor costs than western states.
    That is what made Japan,South Korea, China wealthy.
    Just why not use what’s available ?

    A nation that lived in the “box” for so long, is almost impossible to accept the idea of individual initiatives, opportunity, freedom and individual achievement.
    The “csorda” mentality has deep set roots. Only the “all mighty government” is always their answer.
    That all what yourself are preaching always.
    Have nothing stock on you all these years in the west ?
    Bitching about the unreachable is useless.

    No, they could not think to learn from the Swiss, or from any free society. They have to repeat their mistakes always. That’s their way of life.

    • steve tarnay says:

      I think you are on the right track. If 56 revolution would of succeeded , Hungary would have recovered and would be Hungary today. It is a museum today with Russians trying to speak Hungarian. See editorian “Elation turns to sorrow back home in rootless Hungary”.
      editorial budapest times. steve tarnay

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