THE nationalist rumblings in Hungary began last August. Vice President Istvan Csurka, a radical right-wing writer, told the parliament that the borders of Hungary ought to be reconsidered. He raised the idea that some of the 2.7 million Hungarians living uneasily in places like Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia, might best be drawn into a kind of Greater Hungary. Part of his message contained blatantly anti-Semitic elements.
To Westerners who have long considered Hungary the most progressive of the former East bloc countries, such talk was shocking, given the bloody war being fought in neighboring Yugoslavia. At the time, however, liberals in Budapest did not take Mr. Csurka very seriously. He seemed a solitary extremist. But the nationalism Csurka represents can't be overlooked any longer. At the end of January, Csurka failed in a leadership bid - but forced the governing Hungarian Democratic Forum into an alliance that put s five Csurkites into the 20-member party presidium. These politics have also forced Prime Minister Jozsef Antall, a moderate centrist, to the right - to describe himself as the "spiritual leader" of all Hungarians in the region. Such statements infuriate Romanians, Slovaks, and Serbs - and give their leaders an excuse to play a very destabilizing brand of ethnic politics.
The assertion of national identity after 50 years of communism is not surprising; it is predictable and even healthy. But in the past year, the new freedom in Hungary has given license to much that is unhealthy. Crime and local mafias continue to increase. Neo-Nazis are also on the rise. The situation is serious enough to prompt travel advisories, since Westerners have become targets.
What is unclear is how the tide toward nationalism and increased chaos will be checked. What will constitute the idea of authority in Hungary?
Since 1989, $7 billion has been invested in Hungary - half of all such East bloc funds. The current crisis shows money alone doesn't buy stability. The question is: Does the liberal idea of Europe contain enough power to check the new nationalism? The West must focus on minority rights in neighboring states and perhaps make aid conditional. It should also warn Budapest: We are watching.