A couple of weeks ago an article appeared on Galamus.hu written by Zoltán Fleck, head of the department of legal sociology at the Law School in Budapest. After reading it, I decided that the topic was worth investigating a little more thoroughly. Fleck's question is: "Why don't most Hungarians stand up and protest the Orbán government's clearly undemocratic measures?" Most likely there are many possible answers to this question and Fleck doesn't try to go into all of them. He gives the most obvious answer: Hungarian society's commitment to democracy is very weak. Weaker than other East European countries that received their freedom and independence after the fall of communism.
Many international sociological polls attest to this fact. The Hungarian society's value system and norms are closer to those of the former Soviet republics than to Slovenia, the Czech Republic, or Poland. Most sociologists, political scientists, and historians who have studied the problem came to the conclusion that the culprit might be the relative freedom Hungarians enjoyed, especially in the last decade of the Kádár regime. Overwhelmingly, people were more or less satisfied with their lot. They didn't feel that they were being deprived of their political rights because they didn't have political ambitions in the first place. There was an unspoken understanding between rulers and ruled: the rulers will provide an acceptable level of well being as long as the ruled don't make waves. And they didn't want to make waves. They were satisfied.
Even the creative elite didn't complain. Just yesterday I heard a well-known playwright who had a weekly column in Magyar Nemzet (then a very different paper from what it is today) say that he never felt that he couldn't write about something. Of course, it is possible that today, 20-25 years later, he no longer remembers his state of mind in those days. Perhaps his inner censor worked unnoticed even by himself. However, the fact remains that there was relative freedom with a few taboo topics, but for the average person it was a fairly pleasant existence. And the stores were more or less full. If one compares that situation with life in the much harsher regimes everywhere else in the Soviet bloc it's no wonder that Hungary was considered to be "happiest barracks" among the satellites. Today's nostalgia is most likely connected to those days of "gulyás communism." Strong leadership and security went hand in hand. In some ways, this relative prosperity and freedom is the curse of Hungary today. The dividing line between "socialism" and democracy in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania was real and dramatic. In Hungary it wasn't.
The result is rather sad. Nothing seems to wake the population to the danger that might await democratic institutions today. The nationalization of private pension funds, changing the constitution right and left, attempts to restrict free speech are taken in stride by the population because Viktor Orbán promises law and order. Because there is the promise to free them from the hard choice between alternatives and from responsibility.
Hungarian society is, according to Fleck, "a society running away from freedom." He brings up as an example TÁRKI's World Value Survey which shows a great deal of confusion as far as societal norms are concerned. In addition, Hungarian society's lack of trust in institutions and in each other is substantial. They lack self-confidence, they refuse to stand on their own two feet, and they welcome the presence of a paternalistic authority. The picture that emerged from the survey was so disappointing that the researchers considered Hungary ill suited for "the development of democracy and the market economy."
A similar picture emerged from the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes project as well. It showed that reservations about democratic institutions and the market economy have in fact grown compared to the early years of the 1990s. When asked, 73% of Hungarians considered "a strong economy" more important than democracy. In the other three Visegrád countries (Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia) only 50% of the population held that opinion. Offered a choice between a strong leader and democracy, 48% chose the strong leader and only 42% democracy. The data show the Hungarians' attitude to be closer to that of Russians, Ukrainians, and Bulgarians. The situation is the same when the question was about the acceptance of capitalism. In Hungary 42% of the population viewed the change from socialism to capitalism unfavorably while in Poland and in the Czech Republic it was only 15%. Even in Slovakia only 24% preferred the socialist economy over capitalism.
All that is pretty discouraging, but the situation is even worse if we consider another rather disappointing data point. Eurostat conducted research concerning the willingness of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 to pursue "life-long learning." The average in the member states was 42%. In Austria and Slovenia, countries close to Hungary, 80% of adults decided to learn something new. In Hungary, believe or not, only 12%! Hungary is the worst in the whole EU. Second from the bottom is Greece, with 17%. It is especially worrisome that among highly skilled white collar workers the percentage is only 10%, a third of the European average. Among people with college degrees the situation is slightly better: 17%. Yet Hungary is the very last in this group as well. The European average is 55%!
Fleck inquires at the end of his article: "What can we expect under these circumstances? Openness toward the world, toward knowledge is a prerequisite of democracy, especially in those countries where people are now learning the basics of democracy."