New Hungarian clubs push limits of reform

The spectator stood up and asked a blunt question. ``Why should a taxi driver have to pass a competence test and not the leaders of the country?''

The speaker on stage did not flinch.

``You are right,'' he answered. He outlined some ideas for independent associations, independent courts, and contested elections. ``We must have a new system which controls the power.''

This week's discussion in the Jurta Theatre marked one important step toward that ambitious goal.

It was organized by the Embankment Club, a discussion group that resumed activity this February after being banned for two years.

``The government refused to recognize us, so we just recognized ourselves,'' says club leader Zoltan Bogardi. ``We are free and independent.''

At the club, nothing is off limits. Some provocative examples of lecture titles include ``Nationalism in East Europe,'' ``Hungary, a Country With Empty Pockets,'' and this week's ``Constitution and Democracy.''

In recent weeks, all sorts of similar clubs have sprouted.

Pacifists are pressing for the right to conscientious objection. Ecologists are urging an end to the construction of a dam over the Danube. Feminists are fighting for their rights, as are homosexuals and lesbians.

``It's a new phenomenon,'' says Mihaly Horvath, another Embankment Club leader. ``People just get together and say they are [a] club.''

Communist officials are divided on how to respond.

Hard-liners want to crack down, and police recently interrogated organizers of an independent student group.

Reformers encourage the process, saying that the clubs raise important issues which must be dealt with.

The dispute about clubs is sure to be at the center of today's Party Conference. One of the key reforms in the resolution before the conference is for a new law on Independent Associations.

If passed, the Embankment Club and others like it would become legal. Whatever happens, the Embankment activists are vowing not to give up.

``They can come here and close us up,'' says Mr. Bogardi. ``We'll just start again next week in a new meeting place.''

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