...the future is not something we merely enter. The future is something we ourselves create.
The past year has given Hungarians occasion to pause for reflection on our identity and role in Europe, our vulnerability and mutual dependence as neighbours within a region sharing aspirations on admittance to the EU.
This is not merely because we have been confronted with the harsh realities of how an environmental disaster in one country can leave a trail of devastation in its wake across several frontiers, but also because the potent symbolism of the Hungarian millennium has been visible to us all, expressed in countless events, exhibitions and celebrations reviewing our achievements of the past thousand years of our existence as a Christian state.
Throughout, we have been conscious of another anniversary: that of ten years having elapsed since the collapse of the bipolar world order.
The Central European disaster
The year has been a traumatic one for Hungarians in terms of natural and man-made disasters, with extensive flooding destroying homes, straining personal and national budgets and the entire world suddenly focusing its attention on our embittered indignation over the fate, which befell our beloved River Tisza. Although the wretched spectacle of fish floating belly up no longer confronts the stroller along the Tisza's banks, the ecosystem has still not recovered fully.
Nature tolerates a great deal of violence from humankind, yet wounds of the type inflicted take years to heal, even if the scars are not immediately apparent. If nothing else, the tragedy reminded us of the inestimable treasures we have been endowed with and the need for improved custodianship.
The regular report produced annually by the European Commission constantly makes sanctimonious pronouncements concerning the state of the environment in the countries of our region, yet, as we say in Hungarian a pénz beszél, a kutya ugat, literally, "money talks, the dog barks," or money makes the world go round. Wearied and battered from the struggle for keeping body and soul together as we are does it come as any surprise that the environment is often perceived as a less vital issue than paying off our utilities arrears?
Yes, we are in favour of the safe disposal of hazardous waste, yes we do want our childrens' children to be able to delight in the delicate dance of the mayflies rising miraculously from the waters of the Tisza, yet these concerns sometimes appear remote compared with the more pressing need to juggle non-existent income to make ends meet.
A year of scandals
Politically we have witnessed the end of an era with the departure of Árpád Göncz from the office of President of the Republic, a man of immense cultivation. I fondly recall his wit (he is a highly respected author and translator and I recall his quip about his days interred as a prisoner of the Communist regime when more winners of the Kossuth Prize, roughly equivalent to the Booker Prize for literary achievement, although it also covers other areas of artistic creativity, were gathered together in one place than at any other time—behind bars!) and the skill with which he fulfilled his role as ambassador for our country abroad, at all times exuding a warmth and humanity, a quiet dignity from within.
Our new President, Ferenc Mádl, has also been drawn from an academic background, and has thus far expended quite some effort in brokering peace between the increasingly polarised political factions in the Parliament.
Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) has had its fair share of grief caused by its coalition partner the FKGP (Party of Independent Smallholders) with ministers coming and going at an alarming rate particularly within the environmental portfolio. Scandal-mongering and baiting the opposition have become the daily bread of an ever more lurid political scene in which points scoring at the expense of the enemy counts for more than debate of substance on both sides of the ideological divide.
The accusations, which have been flying, have frequently proven resistant to empirical evidence, or the evidence to back them has not been forthcoming. The prime example is the ongoing saga of the oil scandals, whereby the findings of the now defunct Committee of Enquiry had to be voted on page by page. [Read Gusztáv Kosztolányi's ebook on the Hungarian oil scandals]
Its most controversial passages criticised the Németh, Antall and Horn administrations alike and were castigated for containing wilful distortions of the truth implying a Communist conspiracy designed to line the pockets of the Party faithful, leading to a situation in which the entire report was written off in certain quarters as a political pamphlet.
In the course of its stormy mandate the Committee had succeeded in undermining its own moral authority in the eyes of many. That its work had degenerated into the realms of farce was aptly summarised by the Chairman László Pallag (FKGP) when he commented: "I only made one single blunder, which was that I didn't call upon the services of Géza Hofi [perhaps our best-loved comedian, specialising in caustic satire directed against politicians] as an expert."
An unsatisfactory end product
Ultimately, the rewritten version of the report, which met with the unenthusiastic approval of the members of the Committee, was a disappointing and bloodless document, devoid of any real substance as it completely omitted any information concerning the links between oil-related crime, the powers-that-be and the judiciary. Instead, the draft resolution to be submitted to Parliament calls upon the National Court of Auditors to uncover the uses to which the ill-gotten proceeds were put and the Public Prosecutor to accelerate investigations into oil-related crime and present the fruit borne by these efforts to Parliament every six months.
Indeed, the proliferation of Committees of Enquiry represents one of the year's most significant developments in terms of enhancing democracy, although their deficiencies have become apparent to all. For example, the current rules of procedure allow the ruling majority to dominate the proceedings to the extent that only its views find full expression in the findings of such committees.
Furthermore the absence of penalties if a witness fails to turn up for questioning has hampered the work of committees to an unacceptable extent. These shortcomings urgently need to be remedied along the lines of a proposal put forward by Pál Vastagh (MSZP, Hungarian Socialist Party) according to which a summons to appear before a committee issued by its chairman or one third of its members would become binding.
Refusal to comply would lead to imposition of a fine and the witness in question could be brought before the committee by the police. Witness statements would possess the same quality as those made in a court of law in that false testimony on any important matter would be regarded as perjury. The only circumstances in which an individual would be exempted from the obligation to provide information would be if they were to end up incriminating themselves or members of their family by so doing. Obstructing the committee's enquiries would likewise entail a fine.
Some scandals provoked greater indignation than others. Tamás Deutsch's sexual peccadilloes sparked off a debate on standards in journalism rather than questioning his suitability to remain in office as Minister for Youth and Sport. Hardly a ripple was caused by his admission of having fathered a child out of wedlock (we do not suffer from the excess prudery of the Anglo-Saxon world as regards infidelity, taking the perhaps sexist attitude than any red-blooded young buck would have done the same given half a chance and Deutsch did the decent thing by recognising paternity, with all the concomitant responsibilities of providing maintenance), whereas the revelation of the mother's identity was derided as an unacceptable invasion of privacy even by the quality press hostile to Fidesz.
By contrast, the fact that László Nógrádi was forced to stand down as Minister of Transport following a reckless speeding incident, which cost the lives of two young people, when his official car ploughed into a Trabant. I have no sympathy for his behaviour, but am consoled by the knowledge that ten years ago he would not have carried the can, but would have been carefully exonerated from all blame assuming news of the accident would ever have been permitted to come to light in the first place, which is highly doubtful. All of which goes to show that we are on the right track, even if progress is excruciatingly slow.
The state's housing duties
The announcement by the Constitutional Court that housing is not a constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right sent shivers down our spines recently. In spite of the court's recognition that providing shelter for the homeless is a task for the government we could hardly stifle our feelings of insecurity, nay, panic at the prospect of mass evictions emanating from new rules on sales of council properties inhabited by tenants. According to the ruling "social security neither means a guaranteed income, nor does it mean that the standard of living attained at some stage by citizens... should not be allowed to drop" [for this and the following see HVG, 18 November].
Constitutionally the state's duty consists of operating a social insurance system and a set of social institutions with a view to ensuring that benefits and allowances exceed the bare existential
As of 1 December, even families living in flats still owned by local authorities have lost the legal protection afforded to them by the five year moratorium according to which councils could only sell on their flats to external landlords with the tenant's consent (pensioners are still covered by the old rules, however). The new owners cannot simply throw families onto the streets, but by using the method outlined above, worse-off families, whose massive rent arrears were often tolerated by local authorities, can quickly be disposed of.
In Ózd, one of the most depressed cities in all of Hungary (so much so that it has become a byword for crisis and deprivation), 90 per cent of the occupants of the 1130 council flats are in debt to the municipal property-management office, owing HUF 102 million (USD 133). 462 leases have been terminated by the Mayor's office in spite of the generous attitude adopted by the property-management office whereby tolerance is shown to debtors, who make some attempt to pay off their arrears in instalments, since what usually happens if a family is evicted is that the children are taken into care.
There are only 400 temporary shelters offering accommodation to families in the country as a whole, so fear of social disintegration in the wake of large-scale eviction is a genuine threat. Raising the minimum wage to HUF 40,000 a month will do precious little to alleviate the plight of the bulk of the population. Although various assurances have been issued by the government to calm our troubled minds, the virtues of capitalism have proven a mixed blessing to most of us, who cannot afford to shop in the glittering palaces of leisure and conspicuous consumption, which grace ever more of our outer and inner suburbs.
Waiting to be discovered
And so it is that I conclude my summary of the year in Hungary with a sense of frustration. We have made progress towards EU accession, we have seen moves towards greater democratic accountability and freedom worthy of the name, yet I am acutely aware from my many travels that we are still regarded with a certain smug suspicion as the poor relations queuing up cap in hand in front of the EU's door, which may be ajar, but whilst we stamp our numbed feet in the cold outside we can observe the feasting and feuding within, knowing all the while what potential for achievement our nation has.
We are waiting to be discovered, to be given the recognition we deserve for our merits instead of being continually reminded of our flaws. So it is with a mixture of trepidation and somewhat dulled optimism that I wish all readers of CER a Happy Celebration of the Fir Tree (what Christmas used to be known as in the days of atheistic Communist rule, the blatant hypocrisy of which we were compelled to conceal our mirth about) and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 11 December 2000
- 1999: The year in review for Hungary
- Read Gusztáv Kosztolányi's ebook on the Hungarian oil scandals
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Magyar Nemzet, 28, 29 and 30 November 2000
HVG 18 November and 9 December 2000
168 Óra, 9 November 2000