The shadow of János Kádár’s happiest barrack

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.

Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project / November 2009

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project / November 2009

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.

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LwiiH
Guest

Over the last 20 years, quality, quantity and variety of goods had improved dramatically, quality of infrastructure has also improved quite a bit. Better housing is available though much of it is prices out of the reach of the average person. The reason shelves were not empty is because there was no point in having many shelves. That said, the loss has been in real wages, benefits and job/income security.

Member

Dear Eva,
Things change and people’s opinions change, as the years go by, especially, when the political and economical system is changing in a society. I cannot help but wonder, how the opinion of the people in Hungary changed since 2009 to date? I am guessing, but the attitudes and the expectations are even more negative toward the market economy, democracy, as well as the memory of the Kadar era becoming even more favorable, comparing it with the Orban dictatorship which is the most corrupt and cruel Government in Europe today.
I sincerely hope, that the EU will impose severe sanctions against the Hungarian Government and stop financing the biggest thieves and cheating liars among their members. After all, the EU is responsible, they support the Orban regime, without EU money, the Government would go broke in weeks. Then perhaps the Hungarians would wake up start looking for better people among themselves, if there are any left. I think, most of the good and competent people already left and living somewhere else.

Minusio
Guest

“János Kádár’s system continues to cast a dark shadow over today’s Hungary.”

This is also true in another way that keeps affecting Hungary to the present day: Kádár’s goulash communism was financed with a lot of international debt. So when 1989 came, Hungary was nowhere near the pole position financially. The irony is that it still attracted more foreign direct investment than its competitors. Orbán’s “unorthodox economic policy” has also killed that goose. So FDI is now at best stagnating.

spectator
Guest
“Kádár’s goulash communism was financed with a lot of international debt.” As opposed to..? Today the international debt – if anything – became even worse, while the quality of the life of the average person worsened exponentially. Unfortunately “democracy” is only a word to most, while “capitalism” equals with the possibility to became irreversibly poor. Compared with the situation of today, I dare say one felt much more free and equal then, as one could feel today. Except the “right” oriented political ideas, of course, but – in retrospective – I bet, the wast majority would happily trade the “freedom” of the late eighties for the Orbanian “democracy”. From here on I’d like to discuss the true color of the “dark shadow” of that “Kádárian” lifestyle – but rather with someone who really experienced it. I did, nearly up to its last moments (I left the place less than a year earlier of the change), so I know what i’m talking about. I’d like to call your attention that I didn’t mentioned “communism” or “socialism” at all above, so the post – as my best intention – not “politically” biased, only stating facts. Another question entirely, just why and how… Read more »
Latefor
Guest

Dearest Eva and Spectator,
May I put in my own two cents worth?
“The Opposition should NOT be there to oppose everything the government proposes. It should be there to : oppose, to PROPOSE and to accept the improvements.”
I was in Hungary a few month ago and I have seen many improvements all over the country. There are people who are complaining and there are people who are very happy, but that’s the same all over the world. Hungary is not unique!
As far as life during the Kadar regime is concerned, you can get a bit of an insite into what life was really like in Hungary during those times through the eyes of one of my characters in my recently released book: “The Gresham Symphony ” – available on Amazon.com/books. The book is a work of FICTION, but as you all know, the ideas have to come from somewhere. 🙂

googly
Guest

Yes, there have been quite a few improvements in the last 20 years, especially since 2003, but most of them have been paid for by the European Union. If more Hungarians knew that, and how close we’re getting to being kicked out of the EU and experiencing real economic devastation, I suspect that Fidesz wouldn’t be quite so popular. The Soviets were never as nice to Hungary as the EU, but of course people just don’t realize this, and the leftists are partially to blame for this ignorance.

Economic reality
Guest

Wrong, European Union caused a more deep economic trouble for Hungary. The ratio of unemployemnt grew (I do not count the state financed public workers of Orbán which were paid from taces) The current real purchasing power (if you count the inflation) is much worse than in 2004. The number of bankrupted Hungarian small and medium scale businesses are record high since 2004. So, what are you talking about?

exTor
Guest

“… you can get a bit of [insight] into what life was really like in Hungary during [the Kádár years] …”

Not sure what to make of you, Latefor, which seems to be a telling alias. Your selfness (per your sayso) is of the highest order: “inbred common sense” and “socially aware moralist”. Notwithstanding a selfperspective that might be considered over-the-top [read: delusional], you seem rather naive about the Hungary you once lived in.

There are real problems in Hungary and you’re taken in by superficialities. Just because you once lived here does not necessarily imbue you with any particular knowledge outside of your own narrow existence.

To me (and I may be incorrect here) you sound like a typical exHungarian who is also a rightwinger. I get it. Lots of that type in Canada.

As for “insight into what life was like in Hungary prior to the collapse of Communism with remarkable mockery and ridicule” [per your blurb for The Gresham Symphony], that may be lacking, just as good literature may also be lacking in your opus.

I just have that feeling.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Latefor
Guest

Extor(tion) – I’m seriously considering (just for the fun of it) re-writing “The Gresham Symphony” with the use of Roget’s Thesaurus to make it appealing for people on high horses. 🙂 In my books, the characters are telling the story. Let’s say: one of the character is a nineteen year old country girl. Surely, you don’t expect her to speak a language of a “poet from another life” or do you? In the words of Hemingway: “I don’t need big words to show great emotions!”
Cheers

Latefor
Guest

Extor(tion) – and as far as my literary skills are concerned: as a “Poet from another life”, have you ever been called “genius” by your readers? Well, I have! 🙂 🙂 🙂
I must go now as I have to complete my MENZA application form!

Minusio
Guest

Genius: It’s MENSA.

Latefor
Guest

🙂

exTor
Guest

Touché, Latefor. … (–: …
I’ve never had the pleasure.
I’m only a genius in my own mind.
… \–: …

MAGYARKOZÓ

exTor
Guest

It aint exTortion [from the Latin: ‘to twist out’] to (try to) motivate another to write more thinkingly, Melanie.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Latefor
Guest

Extor – As one genius to another: Let us communicate more “thinkingly” in the near future 🙂

Economic reality
Guest

It was due to the relative well developed infrastructure in the foremer communist block. Only DDR (Eastern Germany) had higher devekioped general infratructure than Hungary. Private savings of Hungarian people in the banks had very high ratio in the foremer Eastern bock.

exTor
Guest
“It will take another ’56.” So said Marika, the wife of my mother’s first cousin, referring to the Gang of Thieves, alternately known as the Orbán Siphon Company. Marika is soft on Kádár, a feeling shared by many. Half a lifetime ago I first came to Hungary for a brief visit. A year later (1984) I returned and stayed for 11 weeks. I didn’t see any problems, at least from a products-availability perspective. After all, how many different types of toothpaste can one use at once? There seemed to be plenty of choice. My uncle, with whom I stayed, didn’t speak against Kádár. Being a child of Capitalism did not mean that I was autoimbued with an antiCommunist mentality. Big-cee Communism (a variant of which existed in Hungary) differed from little-cee communism (which existed nowhere). I got it. Being from Canada meant that I was ‘better off’. Hell, I was here bombing around on my Kawasaki 1300, so it must be so. In Hungary, most motorcycles were under 360 cc. Bike discrepancy notwithstanding, I didn’t see things that way. Life seemed okay. People weren’t starving. Food seemed plentiful at the Csepel Piac. There was a medical system. As Éva casts… Read more »
LwiiH
Guest

@extor, ‘better off’? I think ‘didn’t know any better’ is a better way of putting it. The problem is inequity of the distribution of wealth started right out of the gates as a few were able to strip state assets for pennies on the dollar instead of there being an orderly dismantlement. Everyone goes on about the engunuity of the ‘hungarian mind’ to cheat the system. However those same minds aren’t so lucky when dealing with more robust, mature legal and political systems. Forget politics, look at all the strong evidence of insider trading. Martha Stewart went to jail for far less.

Michael Shafir
Guest

“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. “. This assumption is wrong. For the third year in a row, Romanians turn out to be nostalgic about the Ceausescu regime. They believe Ceausescu was modern Romania’s best leader ( some 51 percent).

Alex Kuli
Guest
Since communism ended, there was only one election in which Hungarians voted for a democratic, market-oriented future: 1990, when the MDF came out on top and the SZDSZ was top dog in the opposition kennel. Since then, the main question voters asked at election time was, “Who can best restore the Kadar system, but still allow me to travel to Italy without a visa?” By 1994, Gyula Horn’s MSZP, the legal successor to the communists, was able to win an absolute majority. Their secret: Appealing to both those who were nostalgic for communism and big-business capitalists who were angry at the Antall administration’s incompetence. In 1998, the MSZP won an absolute number of votes, but lost to Fidesz and its allies in the mandate count. Fidesz was able to make a strong showing partly because of latent anger over the Bokros package, and partly because of its “polgari Magyarorszag” campaign. The message back then was the same as now: “Let’s see if we can re-heat Kadar’s goulash. You can enjoy the benefits of being ‘European’ without having to work too hard. Good times coming, folks! Just trust us.” Then in 2002 the MSZP squeaked back into power on the appeal… Read more »
Bitstream Fractalized
Guest

Eva, I am mising the spin in your story explaining how this all is the fault of the Orban government. (Two stars out of hundred).

googly
Guest

As usual, your comment is as relevant, meaningful, and accurate as any other piece of propaganda paid for by Fidesz.

tomasek
Guest

While I agree with most of the arguments about Kádár, the timing of the poll is very important. The poll was taken in November 2009.

This means that recession which hit Hungary worse than its peers was full-blown and the Bajnai government had implemented unpopular budget cuts.

Secondly, voters just hated the Socialist-Liberal government and they couldn’t wait for April 2010 to kick out “the corrupt bloodsucking communists” out for good and welcome Fidesz, “the earnest Hungarian party of the future full of winners”.

By November 2009, three years after the 2006 Öszöd speech (after which the left-wing went on defensive and became very unpopular), people were totally fired up and unhappy with the government and the world.

Orban’s media machinery and campaign worked extremely well. One of his very successful tactics was to make people feel very discontent, which is not terribly difficult as Hungarians love to complain. But he worked hard too. (The left wing, however, has been unable to muster similarly effective campaigns, of course.).

Alex Kuli
Guest

Tomasek – I see your point. However, Hungarians started being nostalgic for the Kadar era in something like 1992. I can’t point to any scientific polls right now, but I certainly remember a lot of people telling me how they wanted the old system back. The strong vote for Gyula Horn’s MSZP in both 1994 and 1998 (both above 30% in a crowded field of parties) tells a lot, I’d say.

A lot of the time, people’s nostalgia has nothing to do with the politics or economics. When people say “Things were better under communism,” they might actually be saying, “My father died in 1990, and I miss him a lot.”

However, it is clear that both Orban and the MSZP are competing for the “nostalgic” voter bloc, and Orban is winning. This isn’t Orban’s “fault,” it is simply a regrettable social trend that he is translating into votes.

Guest
Re: …’having it too good’ in the Kadar years… You know if indeed modern day Hungarians have a great reverie for that past idyllic life they are apparently only looking at one aspect of those ‘glory days’. After Kadar dumped Nagy to his depressing fate I’d say Kadar was shrewd enough to know that to justify his role in going over to the Soviet side he had to know that his image wouldn’t hold at all in the eyes of public opinion. Thus his coursing run into ‘goulash Communism’ which I believe everyone here knows all about. That soup/stew of his paid off the population. Kadar then made reforms but really it only affected the material well- being of Hungarians. It fed the idea for amassing ‘things’ but not putting emphasis on other perhaps more important and far-reaching issues like rights and freedoms in the country especially after the revolution’s compounding and devastating assault on the nation. So under Kadar it was like ok we’ll get the shoes and clothes and cars to you but shut up on the political end, eh? The current affectation with those Kadar years would seem to indicate that Hungary must fear a virus called… Read more »
Alex Kuli
Guest

“The current affectation with those Kadar years would seem to indicate that Hungary must fear a virus called ‘democracy’. They just don’t seem to be able to get a hold of it or understand it. Perhaps it’s not something like things you can hold and feel and touch. Democracy unfortunately is an ‘idea’ that doesn’t get too much time in the ‘shopping’ day. Too much to think about. A drag on the mind.”

You nailed it.

spectator
Guest

And just how Hungarians may could embrace the idea of “democracy” during the Orbanian times?
The “majority rules” rule has precious little to do with democracy, this is the rule of bolshevism!

Ans this is what’s going on today in Hungary.

Remember, Hungary never have had democracy during the history before the nineties, there is nothing to fall back to in case of doubts.

And doubts they have, plenty of it.

When even the most basic values get a second and even third meanings, when even the biblical terms has Orbanian versions – then isn’t simple choice to choose “democracy” in the true and original meaning.

That’s how I see it, anyway.

Guest

Re: ‘My uncle, with whom I stayed, didn’t speak against Kadar’

So he indeed spoke with you about it, eh?

I was in Magyarorszag twice during the Kadar years. On my first visit my grandfather kind of discreetly hinted to me to keep politics out of conversations. I got the message. Never did know where anybody stood when I jaunted around visiting homes. Never discussed it.

The only ‘politics’ I guess I came into was to get approval at the police stations to visit the places of my relatives. All I heard on that was ‘ut level ut level’. I got to know that pretty quick. Eventually I got inured to it but in a way I didn’t like to have my passport taken from me for awhile. For a Westerner and a US one at that getting the ‘ambiance’ of a communistic country all I can say it was a bit of a disjunct.

István
Guest
I visited Hungary as a child in 1962 and I went to an Nemzeti Bajnokság League football game and visited relatives, one of whom was near death in what is now again called Vaszary Kolos Hospital in Esztergom, but then as I recall had some sort of a generic communist title. But my extended family continued to use the Catholic name. I was struck even as a child how bare the facility was, extremely clean, but totally minimalist. I visited Hungary again in the late 1970s and I was by then an officer in the US Army reserves who had completed a training program with NATO forces in Europe and secured a visa. As I related in eariler posts this visit became the cause of an investigation of me following the Zoltan Szabo spy affair in the US Army. The quality of life changes by the 1970s seemed amazing to me and I can see very much Eva’s point. I would indicate that maybe because of the New Economic mechanism under Kadar many Hungarian people in the 1970s thought they understood capitalism. I think they had a serous misunderstanding of the odds of becomińg a wealthy person in the free… Read more »
Guest

There is/was another important dimension to “Communism”:

The spying of everyone on everybody – at least that’s how it was in East Germany where there were more than a hundred thousand “inofficial members of the secret police (IMs).
How was the situation in Hungary?
I’ve read that until today the archives of the secret police have not been opened – unlike in Germany where my friend could read pages of reports that his neighbours and “friends” had written on him …

PS and not too much OT:
I only went to (or rather though …) East Germany once and my first wife went to Bulgaria once on holiday once with a daughter – after those experiences and the way we (as paying visitors …) were treated by the police we swore that we’d never ever set foot again in one of the Eastern Bloc countries!

The only exception was Yugoslavia where we had regular holidays because the police left you alone – at least on the beach …

spectator
Guest

Wolfi, what do you think is going on today?

Just because you don’t get stopped by the police in every corner – I wouldn’t know, if it regularly happened in the Kádárian times with foreigners, I’ve been stopped on those corners (early seventies) because of my foot long hair and beard – but something for sure, the Orbanian State Security doing it’s best to ensure, the Great Leader stay in control ad infinitum, whatever it takes.

Hungary was a way different in this respect from the DDR or Rumania, particularly during the last decade of the so called “socialism”. For comparison: I was in Bulgaria on holiday, I guess it was in ’75 or thereabout, I haven’t seen one single policeman on two weeks.
However, I have seen in Varna, that in front of the Party headquarters workers manually polished the marble plates of a whole square, because of some Party congress, as we learned…

I hope, that the Kossuth square polished by the help of more up to date technology – but the essence didn’t changed a bit, as much as I see it.

Same shit, different name, believe me.

Alex Kuli
Guest

Wolfi — See my previous comments on “nostalgia.” We have an interior minister, Sandor “Shady” Pinter, who is not only a former member of the MSZMP, but also has unexplained connections with organized crime. His state secretary for public order, Laszlo Tasnadi, spied on Hungarians as a member of III/2.

Yet Budapesters simply cannot get enough of the street surveillance cameras. Tomorrow, my house is having an owner’s meeting in which the majority is set to approve a police camera surveillance system in our hallways. (There has been practically no crime in the 9 years I’ve lived here, save a homeless guy who relieved himself on our stairs and a couple of bicycles stolen from people who were too stupid to lock them up.) Yet they want the cops (and by extension, their unreconstructed commie bosses) to know about our comings and goings.

Fidesz’s Mate Koscsis won overwhelming reelection as District 8 mayor, in part, because he carpeted his entire jurisdiction with surveillance cameras.

You asked for it, you got it.

Guest

@Alex:
But don’t Hungarians want to know who spied on them?
I don’t get it …

Btw in the West German university town where I live we always had a very strong communist party – there always was at least one representative in the town council …
After 1989 however when the Stasi archives were opened one of those DKP guys was found out to have been a spy for east Germany – he left town very quickly, never returned …

spectator
Guest
“But don’t Hungarians want to know who spied on them?” What good would it do? I am positive aware that at least two of the guys of my surrounding have been blackmailed into reporting, (one of them was gay, the other caught breaking into a car but have been released within days) and at least another two been cajoled in, due to their parent’s position (just Like Viktor Orbán, who’s father was a ranked party member) – and I don’t ever interested to face with them, or even look up their reports. There is a folder on me, I was aware of it from the late seventies – someone actually told me even then, and later on a couple of times have been referred to. At the last part of the regimes rule I was associated with quite a few of the “samizdat” people – even if I wasn’t involved – so there must be quite a bit of reading. And I don’t care. There is nothing what would effect on my life today, and the fact that I’ve been denied quite a few things at the time – probably due to this, you’ll never know – wouldn’t make any… Read more »
Alex Kuli
Guest

Wolfi – They certainly do want to know who spied on them. But when the local mayor says, “I’ll let the III/2 state secretary have 24/7 access to your hallway because it will stop swarthy-skinned illegal immigrants from crapping on your stairway,” they don’t care about the implications.

Finding out who committed moral crimes, especially against you, is a crucial ingredient in any truth and reconciliation process. Hungary never had such a process, partly because those in power would have been implicated. In 2002, would Hungarians have voted for the MSZP in such great numbers had they known Medgyessy was Mr. D-209? Would I have bought airline tickets at Vista had I known about the owner’s connection with the state security services? (He says his role was only a “formal” one, yet he was the SZDSZ press chief in the late 1980s). Saying you don’t want to know who ratted you out is your own choice. Most people want to know whom they can trust, simply because they may be ratting you out today. It’s similar to wanting to know whether your husband is cheating on you.

Webber
Guest

I couldn’t agree more with Alex, though I’d be perfectly satisfied if files were opened – automatically – only on people who are holding or wanted to hold public office or certain vital positions (to be set by law). If the electorate knows that a politician was a secret police informer or even officer, but still wants to vote for the guy – that’s okay by me. The information should be released about the high and mighty. Afterwards, let people as individuals decide in elections.
Files about little people who don’t want to be involved in politics or power now? I don’t care so much. But sure, open them too – why not?

Guest

Re: ‘Finding out who committed moral crimes, especially against you, is a crucial ingredient in any truth’

You know I’m just trying to get a hold on that concept. Kind of like getting the country to ‘release the Magyar Krakon’ who apparently is still caged in the murky and slimy deeps.

I’d say it is probably tremendous for getting the lights shining on those ‘moral crimes’ but I’m not to sure the country is psychologically strong to handle it. I don’t think they can deal with the poisons. I think there’s a lot of hate, spitefulness and recriminations floating around in the Magyar political and social atmosphere. Just my take.

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