The symbolism with which this year is imbued, as the one thousandth anniversary of the founding of the Hungarian state and the two thousandth year of Christianity, did not escape the Hungarian Prime Minister's attention in his annual state of the nation address delivered in the Vigadó concert hall in the centre of Pest. The speech was broadcast live on Duna Television, to Hungarians beyond the borders as well.
Consistently deploying imagery derived from everyday experience throughout his speech as a subtle means of demonstrating that he is not a remote figure out of touch with the concerns of the citizens of his country, he likened the twofold Millennium celebrations to a birthday, an occasion inspiring us to pause for reflection about how others think and what their concerns are. That when we commemorate the birthdays of our parents and grandparents, the wish to understand more clearly the dreams and desires of those who went before us suddenly becomes urgent, more keenly felt. Gaining greater insights into the past in this way allows us to put our own lives into perspective.
The mere concept of a thousand year time span sparks feelings of strangeness, insurmountable distance, yet in the course of the year whilst awarding Millennium Flags the Prime Minister had met elderly people, whose memories of their own great grandparents were still fresh and that the latter could look back on the greats of the era of reform during the 19th century. Contemplating the millennium in this way could bring it closer to all of us, making it more relevant as a shared, cohesive event. At last Hungary could shake the dust of the tragic 20th century off its sandals and move forward into the "century of hope" with all its potential.
Mary CelesteBefore reviewing his government's achievements of the last twelve months more tangibly, Orbán drew a comparison between the Hungary of a decade ago and the Hungary of today in a somewhat laboured maritime metaphor:
Dear friends, if we reflect on an appropriate image to describe the state of our country ten years ago, then perhaps the picture of a storm-tossed, battered, dilapidated and rotting ship gradually falling apart at the seams and drifting with the currents might also spring to your minds, a ship, which pitched and tossed helplessly on the waves. A ship, whose crew cannot comprehend what has happened to it, because they have done their duty honestly right up to that very day exactly as they had done over the past thirty or forty years. A ship, from whose bridge everyone had disappeared.
The helm turned unmanned and they hunted high and low for the ship's cash-box in vain as it was nowhere to be found. To make matters worse, the ship had been pawned down to the last plank and nobody knew what had become of the loans taken out on it.
The crew were faced with the unenviable task of repairing the stricken vessel using their own resources, swapping parts hitherto deemed seaworthy but now revealed as obsolete and this Herculean labour had to be performed on the open seas in the middle of fresh storms. Ten years on, the parts had been successfully replaced, there were no visible leaks and the hull could withstand even a severe pounding from hostile waters. Officers had returned to the bridge, the charts had been unfolded and the compass had been found. Although the cash-box had never been recovered, a new one had been opened jointly and the ship redeemed from the merciless clutches of its creditors.
Three factors had contributed to this success: the spirit of enterprise, work and courage. Bringing about the change had cost more than could have been foreseen with job losses, shrinking pensions, families breaking up and cherished beliefs being undermined in a world where there was nothing left to cling on to. In such circumstances, those who had continued carrying out their work undaunted for a fraction of the wages paid in the European Union as a matter of course, yet matching the high standards it expected, had shown true courage. The Hungarian ship was no longer at the mercy of the waves and the real question now was whether the occupants of the bridge really grasped that the sea could only be mastered by officers and crew pulling their weight together.
In an effort to lend greater objectivity to his statements, Orbán was careful to quote from the foreign press and independent scientific studies, in assessing the progress made and the current state of play, the unarticulated implication being that these sources are authoritative due to their lack of partisan, party-political bias. Cataloguing the tribulations of the severe floods, the rise in oil prices and the weakness of the euro (to which the forint is pegged), the Prime Minister noted with satisfaction that Hungary had come out on top.
Although inflation had not dropped to the extent originally hoped for, Hungary nevertheless remained the only country in Europe where it had fallen. Indeed, the year 2000 had proven to be Hungary's most successful year so far economically, with GNP rising above five per cent, exports reaching a value of 30 billion euros and debt servicing plunging to below 20 per cent compared to the 60 per cent figure at the beginning of the 1990s.
A few symptoms
Anxious not to bandy about meaningless statistics to which ordinary citizens could not relate as they failed to reflect the problems encountered in the course of their daily lives, Orbán did not attempt to conceal the problem of the ever more widely gaping divide perceived between the rich and the poor. Instead, he pointed to evidence gleaned from research, suggesting that the disparities had not become more pronounced since the launch of his new economic policy in 1998 and that child poverty had been on the decrease.
Nowadays, one in five children was born into poverty in contrast to the one in three of previous years. The ranks of the poor were not swelling and their income did not lag hopelessly behind the national average any longer. The annual income of families with three children in which both parents worked had gone up by 40 per cent.
All was not rosy in the health care sector, but Orbán expressed his conviction that the modernising reforms, which had been introduced, would eventually lead to discernable signs of improvement.
Describing the government's relationship with its citizens in terms of a contract, the Prime Minister established a direct link between economic policy and everyday life by acknowledging that sound economic policy leads to improvements in the quality of life both of individuals and families. The worst part of the work was over, although there was a long way to go yet. It was not time for Hungary to rest on its laurels.
By highlighting his credentials as the leader of a party—which attaches the utmost importance to the family and the central social role it plays—Orbán sought to take the sting out of the accusations flung at him by his detractors, according to whom he panders to the whims and serves the interests of the middle-class, the mainstay of his support at the polls, callously throwing the poorest sections of the populace to the wolves. In particular he felt the need to respond to criticisms of the changes his government has made to the benefits and allowances paid out to families, whereby the most underprivileged have been penalised since greater emphasis has been placed on tax breaks dependent on the number of children.
Given that the worst off families are those forced to survive on income from benefits that fall below the eligibility threshold for the tax breaks, the argument is perfectly justified. He distinguishes between two categories of families. The first have managed to ensure a reasonable standard of living and, when considering whether to extend their family further, are forced to weigh up if an addition would ruin the quality of life they have painstakingly built up. This group is best assisted by the tax breaks.
The second category (into which the majority of the Roma falls) consists of families where babies are born regardless of the standard of living enjoyed. For these families, the problem is that the children cannot be provided for decently, because the parents are out of work or because they cannot afford to give their offspring a proper education.
Orbán's recipe is not to hand out more money in benefits, because new additions will appear regardless, but to provide the parents with jobs and the children an opportunity to attend good schools. In stressing the need to tailor-make the system to suit the requirements of the family concerned, Orbán neatly body-swerves the pitfall of stigmatising one group or of meting out preferential treatment to the better off.
Work is elevated to a panacea, the cornerstone of the new system. However, Hungary would have to rely on its own strength and not fall prey to illusions that some knight in shining armour would come galloping along on a pristine white steed to whisk the Hungarian damsel in distress out of danger. As he more prosaically put it, Hungary has no Western neighbour who would take the country under its wing as was the case with the Germans, that there are no benefactors in Brussels or American uncles to bail Hungary out from the goodness of their hearts.
The new rules on unemployment benefit would put an end to recipients drawing dole money and working illegally on the side. Only those who take part in the public or community work offered to them are now eligible for benefits. At the same time, the minimum wage had been boosted to HUF 40,000 (140 USD) a month, which would be topped up by a further HUF 10,000 (USD 39) next year. As Orbán rightly argues, the various changes have been designed to bring the Hungarian welfare system in line with those of its EU neighbours, an undertaking, which to his mind is an essential concomitant of integrating into the more developed world and of our becoming citizens of Europe.
Having completed his review of the past twelve months, Orbán then began looking ahead to the future, promising a reform of land ownership by introducing a law similar to that of Denmark or France, whilst taking the specific circumstances and needs of Hungary into account.
Picking up on the most fashionable concepts in the EU within the educational sphere, Orbán praised the virtues of life-long learning and of ensuring that everyone is given the opportunity to acquire a firm grounding in school with the ultimate goal being to encourage every second young person to obtain a qualification in higher education. In this context he singles out the Roma for special mention, reiterating his philosophy that the best way to improve their situation is to provide them with a decent education and with jobs.
In 1998, the number of Roma children benefiting from a scholarship was below 300, whereas the current figure is over 8000. No child would have a scholarship application turned down and be prevented from learning for that reason. In a veiled reference to the Zámoly Roma, he voiced his hope that the good results obtained by these 8000 children would set an example showing that it is better to stay at home than seek one's fortunes abroad.
Taking the EU as an example of how a sense of national belonging has not become an anachronism within a globalised context, the Prime Minister argued that respect for national culture and languages has become stronger within the EU member states. The binding, cohesive force within the EU was not to be found in frontiers but in culture, language and spiritual affinities. To Orbán's mind, the time is now ripe for Hungary to implement the programme of national reunification spanning across territorial borders and for Hungarians to cease looking upon the Hungarian minorities scattered throughout the surrounding countries as a burden, sapping Hungary of vitality and resources as in reality the opposite was the case.
The Hungarian minorities were an asset and Orbán therefore urged all parties to seize the opportunity afforded by the fashionable spirit of the age and adopt the law on Hungarian minorities more colloquially dubbed as the Status Law.
The ship's engine
Echoing his earlier seafaring imagery, the Prime Minister went on to label the Széchenyi Plan as the ship's powerful engine worthy of bearing the esteemed name of the greatest Hungarian. The seven primary areas covered by the plan (offering support to set up companies, build homes, develop tourism, R and D, create an information society, construct roads and boost economic development in the regions) would alter the lives of many ordinary citizens for the better.
The 60 per cent increase in budgetary resources spread over two years in the R and D sector would further enhance the country's reputation as the home of a highly skilled and qualified labour force overflowing with talent (which I cannot help but interpret as an aside intended for EU consumption allaying fears about a mass exodus of unskilled workers from Hungary once the go-ahead is given for freedom of movement).
Orbán's speech represents a more muted exercise in assessing his government's performance than most, resisting the temptation to snipe at the opposition or to feign ignorance of shortcomings and troubles ahead. The question as to whether its positive features will be remembered in the midst of strife within his coalition partner, the Party of Independent Smallholders with József Torgyán's resignation from his post as minister of agriculture, remains to be seen.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 9 February 2001
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