Hungary: New Pot, Same Goulash

THE world has no experience in reversing a long entrenched communist regime. In Hungary, it is proving difficult, often in unexpected ways. The optimistic reports one hears about democracy in Hungary rely on the insights of Western journalists, businessmen, and academics, few of whom speak a word of Hungarian. The lively shop windows, the explosion in the number of new newspapers and books, and the open display of formerly taboo symbols such as the crowned coat of arms, impress outsiders, and encourage the belief that Hungarians are overjoyed at the decline of Communism. Yet for most ordinary Hungarians, it all looks like a new pot holding old goulash.

Contrary to gushing headlines, the Hungarian Communist party, which voted to ``dissolve'' itself in October, did not disappear. Only a fraction of the 750,000 former members picked up membership cards in the new ``Socialist Party.'' Members of the old ruling class remain in key economic, financial, and industrial positions. ``Janos six-pack'' and the old women on the street who sell flowers to survive, do not see a large change. The same elites who prospered in the recent Kadar era continue to drive West German cars and live in villas in the hills of Buda. These are the people whose past party or family connections allowed them to gain the credentials offered by foreign study. Before they were Communists; today they promote ``capitalism'' in their meetings with Westerners.

Engineers and workers complain that only the top captains of industry are sent into retirement as bankrupt state enterprises are reorganized into private firms; the old middle echelon stays on. In a process called atmentes, or ``salvaging,'' former members of the old Communist Party combine such state and party assets as office buildings and factories into new private corporations. Nobody knows for sure how much old Communist property there is. A newly elected government will have to inventory, then ``nationalize'' party property, buildings, and other assets acquired in the past 40 years. But who will the new owners be?

A trip to the provinces, and conversations in the decaying side streets or in crumbling proletarian housing blocks of Budapest, provide another reason why many Hungarians are anxious, cynical, and nervous. Survival, not politics, is now the preoccupation of ordinary citizens. Unaccustomed levels of physical hardship are expected this winter.

From the perspective of people on the street, the economy has decayed while the rhetoric has ripened. A worker with four years of experience earns 7,000 forints per month (less than $100 at black market rates) at a ball bearing plant, and an interpreter with six years of university training earns the same. For them a winter coat costs 2,500 forints, while a pound of coffee goes for about 300 forints. To manage, workers must take a second or third job. A 55-year-old boiler cleaner complains that his 8,000 forint monthly salary does not support his family. A few weeks ago he spent his savings on a used East German car to drive as a cab.

The official celebrations of Oct. 23 typify the contrast between politics and people in Hungary now. At noon the government held a rally to declare Hungary a republic. On the same spot that evening, a coalition of opposition members commemorated the victims of the fighting in the revolution of October 1956 and the Soviet-backed retribution afterwards. Some in the crowd chanted ``Russians go home!'' However, the majority of those gathered that evening stood passively observing, and exchanging nervous glances.

The common people in Hungary are still on the sidelines, unpersuaded that real change has taken place. They tell a trusted outsider that the reform parties are too numerous and unfocussed.

At the end of ceremonial luncheons and meetings with plant directors, I was approached by technicians and young managers, as well as manual laborers, who spoke from the heart in hushed tones: ``What the comrades were telling you,'' they said, ``is not true.'' That they had to ask me to tell the world of their plight and that they had to do so in whispers, epitomized for me the contrast between the happy news in the Western media and the much less happy reality.

Hungarians who suffered under ``class enemy'' policies for so long do not want to reverse the discrimination now, punishing the old rulers and their children. But surely, they believe, there should be some way to give the common people a piece of their own revolution.

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