The Revolution that Wasn't


About an hour from the centre of Budapest, after changing from the metro to the tram and, finally, to the bus, you reach Szobor Park. It is the graveyard of communist iconography, the place where Soviet era statues have been left to rust.


But in the new spirit of capitalism that characterises Hungary and its neighbours, someone is making a buck out of the place. There are package tours to the park with round-trip coach travel and entry costing about $25. But on this day, in the deep mid-winter, the woman in charge admitted me for just $4 and a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

I was the only one there, wandering among the monuments to Soviet-Hungarian friendship and the ‘heroic’ Soviet period and the busts of successive local Party bosses, especially from the 1980s. It seems that as the end drew nigh, Hungarian communists ratcheted up the displays of adulation, aware that they would be relegated to a muddy paddock on the outskirts of the capital.

The gift shop was rather more cheeky: t-shirts bearing the image of ‘the Three Terrors’ Lenin, Stalin and Mao with details of their tour dates, beginning with St Petersburg in 1917 and ending with Kabul in 1989.

It was fun and I wanted to linger but I had an appointment back in the city, in a cafe just opposite the magnificent Austro-Hungarian empire era Parliament House on the Danube, where a new dispensation is supposed to hold sway.

Across Eastern Europe, and especially in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, which I am currently visiting, people are asking if the revolutions of 1989 where really revolutions or coups d’état.

Yes, every adult has the vote and, until last year, no Hungarian government had been re-elected, suggesting an assertive and demanding electorate. But many also believe that the old communist nomenklatura has just been replaced by a new elite with all the same corruption and favouritism.

‘People do not necessarily feel as though there is democracy,’ says Peter Nizack, the editor of Civil Review who also runs the Soros Foundation in Budapest, as we sip cappuccinos laced with cream. ‘People are already fed up with the elite-dominated democracy we have here.’

There is no ideology left in East European politics, except for a growing nationalism. Hungary, for example, is governed by the Socialists, who are really just reconstructed communists, in coalition with the liberal Free Democrats. All mainstream Parties and perhaps especially the nominal socialists believe in neo-liberal economics, privatisation of public services and nationally owned industries, tax breaks for big corporations, and globalisation. In fact, in Hungary and Romania the ‘socialists’ were responsible for much of the economic shock treatment of the 1990s that sent unemployment soaring and incomes, especially pensions, plummeting.

Budapest, image from sxc  

‘The privatisations were very aggressive,’ Nizack tells me. ‘Everything was up for sale: banks, heavy industry, agriculture.’

Because there was very little capital in the Hungary in the early 1990s, two things happened. Either big foreign multinational corporations moved in on national icons or the old communist bosses who ran the factories and collective farms bought up the assets for a song. It was not as bad as Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s regime, but, all the same some former Hungarian communists became very rich at the expense of their fellow citizens.

Corruption and the lack of transparency remain huge problems across the old Eastern bloc, even in those countries that joined the EU as recently as 1 January. Nizack says that scandals involving the procurement of government supplies are common, especially given the close connections between politicians and business figures. In some cases, they are one and the same.

For example, a member of the Bulgarian Cabinet, in a key economic post, is thought to have major shares in a $US5O million-plus resort development on the Black Sea coast. The head of Romania’s Conservative Party, and a sitting Senator, Dan Voiculescu, owns a string of influential newspapers and TV stations an echo perhaps of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Canada’s Conrad Black (whose support for the British Tories bought him a seat in the House of Lords).

The only serious opposition to the neo-liberal economic consensus comes alarmingly, perhaps from the populist Right, with its ethnic nationalist chauvinism. ‘Magyar (Hungarian) nationalism is rising here,’ says Nizack. ‘For example, they oppose the sale of land to foreigners.’ They were also opposed to EU integration.

‘This is a common problem in the region,’ adds Nizack. ‘You have the rise of ethnic identity politics coupled with nostalgia for the communist era.’

Perhaps because the communists led the negotiations to transfer power after the 1989 ‘revolutions’ ensuring for themselves some role in the new system a genuine democratic Left, embracing a kind of Scandinavian social democracy that places a premium on ethics and honesty in government, has never really developed.

Only last September, tens of thousands of people protested in the streets of Budapest demanding the resignation of Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány who was a member of Communist Youth League in the ancien regime after he was caught on tape admitting that he lied to get re-elected last April.

The Mercedes and BMWs, with tinted windows, that cruise the streets of Sofia and Bucharest, the Bulgarian and Romanian capitals, are widely known to be ferrying local Mafia dons who are very tight with the nation’s governing class.

The European Union saw fit to admit Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary just 31 days ago and in each country the circle of yellow stars on the blue background that forms the EU flag adorn the public buildings.

But there is more to democracy than voting. The people have to be able to vote for change, for a genuine choice and that option has so far eluded them. Eighteen years after the changes that swept Eastern Europe, perhaps it is time for a new or should I say real revolution.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.