In November 2009 the Pew Research Center conducted a survey in nine former communist countries. Twenty years had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and researchers wanted to know how public sentiment had changed in the intervening years.
The countries selected were East Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. The results can be found on the Internet. A quick look at the interactive public opinion poll on some of the more important political questions reveals a lot about the mood of the people in these countries in 2009. The most startling finding was that Hungarians were the most dissatisfied and most disappointed people in the area. I believe that if a similar survey were conducted today, the divergence between the Hungarian figures and those of the other countries would be even greater than it was five years ago. Since then the lot of most of the neighbors has improved, while the Hungarian economic and political situation has worsened.
Here are some selected data from 2009. While in 1999 80% of Hungarians were looking forward to the coming of the market economy, by 2009 only 46% had any trust in the capitalist system. The only other country with similar results was Ukraine. Hungarian’s satisfaction with democracy was the lowest (21%), compared to Poland’s 53%, the Czech Republic’s 49%, and Slovakia’s 50%. But perhaps the most interesting finding was that it was in Hungary where most people (72%) thought they were better off during the communist period than in 2009. Compare that to 35% of the Poles, 39% of the Czechs, and 48% of the Slovaks.
Political analysts have been trying to find an explanation for this discrepancy between Hungary and her closest neighbors (the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia) in attitudes toward the regime change and what followed. Clearly, there were heightened expectations everywhere, but while, for example, in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic there was only a slight drop in the population’s positive attitude toward the market economy, in Hungary the drop was huge–from 80% to 46%.
What makes the Hungarian situation so different from that of the other countries? From repeated surveys we know that there is something in Hungarian culture that makes Hungarians consistently dissatisfied with their lot. That by itself, however, is not enough to account for the incredible disappointment reflected in these numbers. It is also unlikely that Hungarian politicians who were responsible for the introduction of democracy and a market economy in Hungary were totally unfit for their jobs. Or that they were significantly worse than their colleagues in the neighboring countries. All countries had their own political upheavals, and they also made bigger or smaller political mistakes. So, I don’t think that the key to the puzzle of Hungarians’ dissatisfaction with their political and economic situation can be found in either the national psyche or the political leadership.
There has to be some other fundamental difference between Hungary and the other countries that accounts for the huge divergence in attitudes and outlook. The answer, I believe, lies in the unique nature of the Hungarian version of the socialist system. Ironically, Hungary’s troubles today most likely stem from the fact that the Hungarian people had it too good under János Kádár. If they had had to live in the kind of dictatorship that existed in Czechoslovakia under Gustáv Husák or in Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu, today they would have a much greater appreciation of democracy. If Hungarians had had to face empty shelves in the stores as the Poles did or to suffer as much economic hardship as the Romanians, they would have a much more positive view of the market economy.
But the Kádár regime, especially in its last ten years, was a benign one-party system, what Hungarians call a “soft dictatorship.” The great majority of people wouldn’t have had any reason to complain about their limited freedom since their demands were modest in the first place. Most people were satisfied with their lot because they noticed a steady growth in their living standards year after year, almost to the very end. It’s no wonder that with the exception of a very small group of “dissidents,” really a handful of people, there was no serious opposition to the regime.
The lives of Hungarians in economic terms have not changed for the better since 1990. Yes, there are people who have become very rich, but in Hungary in 2009 77% of the people believed that “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer,” as opposed to around 50% in the neighboring countries. I’d bet that if we had a similar poll today, even more Hungarians would think that in the last five or six years the situation has deteriorated further. Today poverty is widespread. All in all, there are very good reasons for economic dissatisfaction, which cannot be counterbalanced by positive feelings about the introduction of democracy, especially since Viktor Orbán’s system is a far cry from democracy as most people understand it.
The relatively good economic situation of the population during the Kádár regime, the fact that slowly but surely people became satisfied with their lot might also be responsible for some of the failures of the new political elite. Many of the economic ills of Hungary in the last twenty-five years stemmed from a fear of moving in a direction that might lead to a severe drop in living standards, to which Hungarians, given their relative well-being under the Kádár regime, would react very negatively. Much more negatively than the populations of other post-communist countries who were accustomed to hardship and privation. Therefore, a restructuring of the economy was postponed time and again because of fear of a backlash. Over the years, governments overspent in order to satisfy economic demands only to be forced later to introduce austerity measures when the deficit spiked. No one dared to bite the bullet and make the Hungarian system a fully functioning market economy in the western sense. The irony of it all is that the economic system that more than half of Hungarians hate is not really a market economy in the classical sense. As someone rightly put it, Hungarian capitalism has all of the negative features of the market economy without any of its benefits. János Kádár’s system continues to cast a dark shadow over today’s Hungary.