Economic woes and discontent with socialists fuel far right's rise


LETTER FROM HUNGARY:Nationalist feeling is stoking tension between Hungary and its neighbours and reigniting long-held historical grievances, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN

AS BUDAPEST and Lake Balaton throng with summer visitors, many will be struck by the ubiquity of the Hungarian flag, a tricolour of red, green and white that flutters from shops, pubs, offices and the windows of countless humble apartments.

The flag is no longer just a symbol of patriotic pride. It has become a political emblem for everyone from peaceable, conservative pensioners to far-right skinheads – everyone, in short, who is fed up with the Socialist government, and few Hungarians are not.

Many people here, as across the former Soviet bloc, still find the left wing inherently suspicious, and see its adherents as either Moscow’s men, communist at their core, or liberal “cosmopolitans” loyal not to Budapest but to hazy “foreign” powers like the EU, Swiss bankers or a supposed cabal of Jewish power-brokers.

For others, the disillusionment is new. After all, in 2006 the socialists and their centrist allies comfortably defeated the right-wing Fidesz party to secure re-election, a triumph that prompted prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany to declare that Hungarians, so keenly aware of the decades of Soviet domination, were no longer ashamed to call themselves socialists.

Just five months later, however, the shame was all his.

In an expletive-ridden recording of a party meeting held just weeks after the April election victory, Gyurcsany was heard admitting to “lying morning, noon and night” to the public about the dire state of the economy to win re-election.

Gyurcsany’s point was that his government – like every one, of left and right, since the end of communism in 1989 – had been too weak to tell Hungarians that painful cutbacks were vital to save the economy from disaster.

The upshot was a surge in support for the right, manifested in huge street protests in Budapest which, fuelled by passions stirred by the 50th anniversary of Hungary’s doomed revolt against Soviet domination, erupted into riots.

Through clouds of tear gas, demonstrators held aloft a sea of Hungarians flags – symbols of defiance towards the socialists and Gyurcsany – whom many Hungarians loathed as a former communist youth leader whose contacts helped him become a millionaire businessman in the 1990s – and of loyalty to the fading dream of a proud, prosperous Hungary.

Amid the Hungarian flags waved another, the red-and-white Arpad Stripes, a striking symbol of Hungarian nationalism. Its defenders point out that it was the emblem of the country’s first kings, but it is now strongly associated with the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s murderous wartime fascist regime, whose own dreaded banner closely resembled it.

Hungary’s history is fertile ground for nationalist feeling: they are an ethnically and linguistically distinct nation surrounded by Slavs, bullied for centuries by the Austrians, then stripped of some 70 per cent of their dominions by the 1920 treaty of Trianon, controlled by Moscow after 1945 and abandoned by the West in their 1956 struggle for freedom.

Now an economic crisis has forced Hungary to introduce fierce austerity measures, go cap-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund and admit how far it has fallen behind some of its neighbours, making right-wing Fidesz a near-certainty to win next year’s election.

What scares liberals in Hungary and abroad is the precipitous rise of extreme right.

The nationalist Jobbik party won three seats in the European Parliament this year and, after failing to take a seat at home in 2006, surveys suggest it could win dozens in 2010.

The leader of Jobbik is also a founder of the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary group that claims to be defending Hungarian traditions and culture, but which, with its habit of marching through Roma neighbourhoods to discourage “gypsy crime”, is accused by critics of stirring up racial hatred.

Last Saturday, police broke up a Guard meeting that was inducting 800 new members.

Economic woes and disillusionment with the socialists have powered the rise of the far right, which in turn is blamed for a spate of attacks on Hungary’s large Roma minority. Four men were charged this week over the recent murder of several gypsies.

Just as anti-Roma feeling is growing across eastern Europe, so nationalist feeling is stoking tension between Hungary and its neighbours – and reigniting long-held historical grievances.

Petrol bombs were hurled at the Slovak embassy in Budapest on Wednesday in apparent retaliation for Slovakia’s decision to bar Hungary’s president Laszlo Solyom from the country.

His visit was not appropriate on the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Bratislava said, noting that Hungarian forces had taken part in the operation.

Mr Solyom had planned to visit a mostly ethnic-Hungarian town in a part of Slovakia that used to be ruled by Budapest – to unveil a statue of a Hungarian king who ruled 1,000 years ago.