Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Heap Of Stones

Almost 25 years ago, the first free election in Hungary was held after the collapse of the communist dictatorship by which the former Soviet Union controlled the country. Prior to that, the short-lived second Kingdom of Hungary (under regent Miklós Horthy) continued the also-dictatorial conditions Hungarians had been protesting against during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, during which the only other free election was held, a hundred and fifty years earler. Before that, the absolute monarchies of the noble houses of Hungary and then Austria controlled the land and the people: Árpád, Anjou (a little French influence there), Hunyadi, Zápolya, Hapsburg. Elections have been held regularly since 1990, of course, but as in most other countries the ruling parties have changed over time. In that parliamentary election on March 24, 1990, there were four parties that got the most support, according to Wikipedia. Between them, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Alliance of Free Democrats, the Independent Smallholder's Party, and the Hungarian Socialist Party received two-thirds of the votes cast and 333 of the 386 seats. The Fidesz party, then a small anti-communist group popular with students, held 21 seats, and was also a proponent of democratic, liberal ideals. Today, Fidesz is the ruling party in Hungary, but it's no longer liberal; since 1994 it has embraced conservative theories, and the original leaders have split off and formed their own group. In 1998 Viktor Orbán became the head of Fidesz, and he's been there ever since, as the party has gone more and more towards nationalism, state control, and intervention. The Orbán government has been in the news recently because of its move towards closer ties with Russia, such as a nuclear power plant deal that just got shot down by the European Commission. While a majority in Hungary want to stay in the European Union, Orbán doesn't hesitate to express his opinion that the EU is crumbling and that more authoritarian systems form a more stable society. "We are sailing under a Western flag, though an Eastern wind is blowing in the world economy," he is quoted as saying on a blog called The Orange Files: Notes on the End of Liberal Democracy in Hungary.

Orbán is not popular for many reasons, including last year's erection of a World War II monument commemorating the occupation of Hungary by Germany. I happened to walk by this monument a few weeks ago; it's at the southern end of Freedom Square (Szabadság tér), at the north end of which I had been indulging in weak coffee and forbidden pastry. Construction of the monument was actually completed in the middle of the night, as trucks brought in the statue under armed police escort, hoping to avoid the protesters. There were no protesters on the site the drizzly day I walked by, but only an increasingly large collection of stones and memorabilia highlighting the less than passive role played by the Hungarian government at the time in the matter of the Jews, the concentration camps, and deportation in general. The Orange Files has another of Orbán's quotes on the subject. "The way I see it," he said in April 2014, "we Hungarians have done everything we could do. We asked for forgiveness even though we know that the crime of collaboration with the perpetrators of genocide is unforgivable. We have given reparations even though we know that what took place is irreparable. At the same time, we will not recognize responsibility that does not apply to us." The people protesting the existence of the monument in Freedom Square say that it downplays the role that Hungary played in the Holocaust. Though you can't really see it in my picture, the statue is of a large eagle (Germany) swooping down menacingly on the defenseless Archangel Gabriel (Hungary). The then-government's part in the matter was not exactly angelic, say the protesters, who leave rocks and photographs and other bits of broken lives, representing the over 430,000 Hungarian Jews who were deported.

More active protest was on display last week, during the scheduled parades and ceremonies marking Hungarian National Day. People were marching against what they see as a corrupt regime, one with worryingly close ties to Russia instead of Western Europe. In an echo of the 1848 "12 Points" document presented to the representative of the Hapsburgs, today's revolutionaries have developed and submitted a referendum with 19 points to the National Election Office. Among other things, they want political transparency, a restoration of the public pension system, elimination of state-imposed fees on roads and tobacco, and a focus on education and culture. They are also angry at the fact that Viktor Orbán wants to move his office from the Parliament building on the east side of the river to the UNESCO World Heritage Site on the western bank, Buda Castle. It would take a great deal of money to restore all of the grounds and buildings there to habitable and modern state, but many people suspect that Orbán sees himself as an imperial-class ruler, and that he wants the regal surroundings to prove it - though it won't give him any more credibility with the Hungarian people in this respect, as the castle (palace) was built by the Hapsburgs and has no connection with the true Hungarian kings like Stephen I. Currently the National Széchényi Library and the National Art Gallery are located in the palace, two more places to visit on my "next time" list, unless it has been turned into a Kremlin-on-the-Danube, of course.

On my first visit to Budapest, I happened to be walking by the Parliament building just as the daily flag-raising ceremony started. Led by two soldiers armed with rifles, four others marched stiffly to the beat of a drum towards the flagpole, then solemnly pulled it up to flap wetly in the damp air as the trumpeter played a brief tune. The four unarmed soldiers turn around and marched quickly but formally back towards the musicians while the two armed guards took their position on either side of the flagpole, looked at each other, and simultaneously went into "parade rest" position facing the building. Formality ended for the others as they met up by the steps, and they laughed and chatted as they walked back inside.

Because I was walking around in the grey misty weather, and in a section of town with less than its fair share of architecturally-interesting buildings, I had not very optimistic first impression of Budapest. Fortunately my second visit, in bright sunshine and through some of the older parts of town, turned that around. (I'm trying to get all of my Hungary posts up before I leave for Serbia, but I don't know if I'll have time to write about that second visit until next week, though I have collected and cleaned up the photos for it.) I didn't go inside the Parliament building, but they offer English-language tours starting at 10am, and I could have seen lots of statues and paintings, and the gold-and-velvet chambers of the assembly halls. I also could have seen the coronation crown of Stephen I, and perhaps next time I will, when I have more time to explore the city and its history.

UPDATE: After I published this post yesterday, Noémi asked me what the American opinion was of Viktor Orbán, because she was curious about where I'd found the information behind what I'd written. I told her that (to my embarrassment, as I don't pay much attention to politics other than what hits the headlines) until I was surfing around looking for information on the Budapest protests and the Freedom Square monument, I didn't even know the name of the Hungarian Prime Minister, much less what people in America thought about him. She told me that in fact Orbán is very popular, that he has done a lot to protect Hungary from things the EU wants to impose, and that the older people speaking against him, especially in the media, are often ex-communists who don't like him. And that the younger people are ones who just want an easy life, to enjoy the "benefits" of Western European influences (video games, television, beer) instead of working hard, working with their hands, working the land to keep Hungary self-sufficient and not dependent on foreign imports. "Did you read my blog post?" she asked. We talked a while longer about Orbán's connections to Russia, and Noémi said that Orbán has two choices: submitting to the EU, which is a bad choice; or allying with Russia, which is a worse choice. No matter which one he makes, she says, there will be people who complain about it.

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