Hungarians face up to the `dark side' of Western-style reforms

Tibor the taxi-driver was sweating. ``All I do is work,'' he says. ``During the day, my factory job. During the evenings, driving this taxi.'' Exasperated, he throws his hands up in the air and exclaims, ``I never see my family.''

Like Tibor, many Hungarians are finding there is a dark side to this country's Western-style economic reforms. Enjoying more room for private initiative than other East Europeans, they are learning that along with the potential rewards come lots of toil and, as in Tibor's case, lots of stress.

This sense of stress seems to be reflected in a number of serious social problems. Hungary has alarmingly high rates of suicide, alcoholism, mental illness, and crime. Many analysts say that the shock of moving from a coddled communist society to a more individualistic, capitalist one has been a contributing factor.

Many people here are encouraged, however, by the Hungarian government's surprising candor - compared to other communist countries - about its social problems. While East Germany and Romania, for instance, consider suicide statistics as state secrets, professors at the University of Budapest have compiled an exhaustive research project on social ills. The study, published last year, sparked much public debate, and the government is working hard to provide improved treatment.

``We have to face the facts,'' says Bela Kolozsi, the sociologist responsible for coordinating the research project. ``The figures are bad.''

Disturbing trends have emerged in recent decades. Statistics show that, since the institution of free-market economic reforms in 1968, the annual number of deaths from alcohol abuse has increased by 12 times and annual suicides have doubled. Last year, more Hungarians killed themselves than any other nationality in the world.

Mr. Kolozsi and other specialists cite increasing work pressures to explain the statistics. The economy has stagnated in recent years, and most salaries have not kept up with inflation. As many as three families in four now earn at least part of their incomes outside the state sector from second or even third jobs. In 1982, a new law permitted groups of up to 30 people to join together and work independently after working hours.

Hungarians joke that they earn 5,000 forints (the national currency) a month, spend 7,000, and bank the rest. The punch line reflects both ambition and desperation. While some Hungarians work extra hard to own BMWs and build fancy villas, most are moolighting just to make ends meet.

Take Tibor. Despite his long work hours, he lives with his wife and son in his parents' apartment. Young couples face a minimum 10-year wait for a state-owned apartment, and Tibor doesn't have the money to purchase his own apartment. ``It would cost me my entire life's salary to buy two small rooms,'' he says.

At the same time, crime is a growing problem. In Budapest, a steady increase in break-ins has been registered over the last decade, according to court official Tibor Horvath. ``Before we had nothing to steal,'' he says. ``With the new second economy and all our social pressures, we have many more burglaries.''

According to Gabor Ferencz, an official of the Communist Party youth committee, alcohol and drug abuse and crime are symptomatic of a growing malaise among demoralized teen-agers. ``Economic perspectives are bad, and we're looking for answers,'' Mr. Ferencz feels. ``Instead, we only find escapes.''

Since 1982, the number of young people seeking aid for drug addiction each year has soared from 3,000 to 30,000. According to the University of Budapest report, an estimated 120,000 adolescents are believed to be regular drug users.

For a long time, the Communist authorities neglected these problems. Their reasoning: Such ills were a product of capitalism. ``We believed that mental illness would disappear in a just society,'' explains Kolozsi.

Today, that attitude has changed. ``We are far behind in our treatment methods,'' Kolozsi says. ``We need Western advice.'' The World Health Organization and Western religious groups have responded to the change and are helping to establish centers for psychological counseling. In addition, five new government-run drug prevention institutes have been opened this year.

A long-term solution, Kolozsi says, involves making Hungarian society less stressful. And yet, he is reconciled to the fact that more risk-taking, free enterprise is needed for the economy to work more efficiently. ``It's a situation full of conflicts,'' Kolozsi admits. ``But at least the public now knows there is a problem.''

QR Code to Hungarians face up to the `dark side' of Western-style reforms
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today