This is being threatened

March 23, 2012

Approaching Budapest down the Danube, having spent the previous night sleeping wild in the woods underneath the full moon, I watched the double city take shape like the cardboard scenery of a puppet theatre — domes, spires and bridges silhouetted in diminishing shades of blue. I had the impression that I wasn’t moving, but the city was reeling me in. I was happy to be reeled. Budapest is a perfect city.

Soon I will have to talk about politics. But before that, these, in no order whatsoever, are some of its perfections:

Facades of nineteenth-century apartment buildings crumbling like corroded biscuits; wrought-iron balconies overhanging courtyards, deep windowed pits that never see the sun; stairs winding inside apartment buildings, rattling lifts that look and sound like ancient mining machinery; the netted stone heads of bulls and lions embedded in porticos of stained brickwork; covered markets with fruit and vegetables garish underneath yellow bulbs, banks of iced fish and bloody choppings of meat; stalls where you stand up to drink coffee and eat fried dough-cakes smothered in sour cream; innumerable luridly-lit Szex Shops and general backstreet seediness; the Parliament building that looks like the war helmet, spiked and crowned, of a savage prince; the bridges like necklaces strung across the Danube with startling and unexpected grace; the sixteenth-century Turkish bath where rugged stone pillars support a domed ceiling from which daylight filters through coloured glass, old pink naked sagging men wallowing in clouds of steam, or sprawled asleep on stone benches, or reading crisp-dry newspapers like a scene from a railway station waiting room at seventy-two degrees; the streets less streets than hollowed-out ravines, the buildings less buildings than deposits of architectural sediment; the sudden yawning gulfs between houseblocks, bomb devastation still unrepaired, the traces of doorways and landings six storeys high on cliffs of sheer brickwork; gutted townhouses, long since abandoned, now transformed into artists’ bars, warrens of graffitied chambers cluttered with statues, salvaged furniture, orange and yellow and green coloured lights, the ceilings held up by wooden girders, the effigy of a hooved, breasted owl swooping from a courtyard wall behind scattering fuckchains of plaster rabbits, as if a great flood has washed through the building depositing the wreckage of a culture.

Chaotic, crumbling, grand, elegant, mysterious, seedy and beautiful — Budapest is everything that a city should be. It has a bohemian energy that seems very genuine, rather than the gentrified artiness attempted in many other cities. But it doesn’t take long, once you get in conversation, to hear how much this is being threatened by the government of Viktor Orbán, which came to power two years ago with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Rightwing, nationalist and anti-EU, Orbán is quite openly placing restrictions on the free presspoliticising the legal systemattacking independent cultural institutions, and has replaced the director of the new Budapest theatre with a fascist. Among the artists and musicians I’ve befriended in Budapest, there’s a sense of disbelief and shock at how far these changes have gone — extending far beyond the political sphere, deep into Hungary’s social and cultural life.

On March 15th — a national holiday to commemorate the 1848 revolution — I witnessed the pro-government demonstration, led by hussars in dark green uniforms and martial drummers in medieval clothes, supported by rightwing Polish groups specially invited by the government, cheer Mr. Orbán as he dismissed  criticism of his reforms as meddling by EU socialists trying to destroy the country. He played the crowd like a pantomime performer, producing a chorus of boos and hisses whenever he named the baddies of the drama — EU bureaucrats, left-wingers, whinging journalists, foreigners in general — invoking Hungary’s glorious past and the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon, which stripped the country of much territory after the First World War.

Elsewhere in the city there was a small but nasty demonstration by the far-right Jobbik party, dressed in fascistic black uniforms and waving flags adorned with runes. The opposing anti-government demonstration was reassuringly large, but apart from a few Hungarian tricolours and an EU banner or two, there was hardly a flag to be seen. As always, the right-wing has co-opted the flags, the costumes, the national symbols — in other words, the spectacle of power.

‘Orbán is not just stealing our present,’ I was told by one woman. ‘He is stealing our future too — laying down a foundation of something that will remain after he has gone.’ It’s a deeply troubling time for Hungary, a slide towards the kind of ‘managed democracy’ associated with Putin’s Russia. I hope that something of what I’ve discovered under the surface of this wonderful city — the energy, the creativity, the openness, the intelligence — will be resistant to these changes.

8 Responses to “This is being threatened”

  1. Christine Longman said

    I wonder if your new friends mentioned the events of 2006 under the former PM – there are people in Budapest who will live the rest of their lives without sight thanks to rubber bullets fired by his officers on demonstrators opposing his government, and yet you regard Orban as sinister:
    You might want to read this piece from the Financial Times, for a more balanced version of what is going on:

  2. Christine Longman said

    The events of that 2006 demonstration and its suppression were shockingly under-reported by the press of other countries and even that Wikipedia article barely scrapes the surface. Just to take one example (and there are many more), an entirely innocent Canadian of my acquaintance, who wasn’t taking part in the demonstration at all, came round the wrong corner and ended up in hospital for months, (his health is now permanently impaired), due to being set upon by ‘police’ working for the Gyurcsany government, their identification carefully obscured – and then the same government’s marvellous judicial system threw his claims for compensation out of court summarily; and yet it is Orban who is supposedly going to subvert the justice system outrageously.

    The alarm shown by the outside world about Orban is misplaced and it was shocking to see how absent any comment from the EU or foreign commentators was when it was actually needed – when the country was being systematically ruined by the former government. During that period your analogy with Putin’s Russia actually had some validity.

    Complex politics cannot be understood after three or four days in a country, without an ability to read or speak the language (I presume?) and with information derived only from one group of people. To think that your new acquaintances, however charming, are giving you the full picture is a bit like relying on a taxi driver’s version of British politics. One thing I suppose you might want to think about is this: why would two-thirds of the population of a country which is not people by lunatics or idiots have exercised their democratic right and chosen the Orban government in the first place?

  3. caroline hunt said

    This is very good Nick, the best of your writing. And all so familiar, specially the lifts, one of Budapest’s most specialist features, apart from the brush shop in Dob which I notice you didn’t mention? So really sad and worrying that the Hungarians have to go through another political shinnanigans, as if they haven’t had enough of being buggered around by politics, but at least they are aware and alive to political danger which is better than out apathetic attitude.
    Thanks for this, it made me feel for the city.

  4. nickhuntscrutiny said

    Thanks for your comments, Christine. Yes, I do regard Orban as sinister, which is not to say I approve of what the previous government did, or the violence the police inflicted on demonstrators in 2006. Orban was voted in, to a large extent, as a reaction against that previous government’s corruption. Having talked to a range of people (including Orban supporters), I don’t think that the alarm displayed by the outside world is at all misplaced. Some very basic democratic principles are being undermined in Hungary, freedom of the press being the most obvious example, and this slide towards authoritarianism, blended with nationalism and the paranoid sense of victimhood Orban is whipping up, is deeply disturbing. Obviously Orban does have support, especially outside Budapest, and was voted in democratically by rational people. But having a two thirds majority in Parliament does not mean that two thirds of the population voted for him. And I can think of plenty of examples of popular politicians who have done terrible things, often to their own country.

    • christine longman said

      from your “especially outside Budapest” remark i take it that you have not even done enough basic research to learn that only two of budapest’s districts are not fidesz controlled.And as to whether they won two thirds of the vote or two thirds of the potential vote, all i can say is, if someone chooses not to exercise their right to vote, they cannot then complain about the outcome. Your lack of any real interest in the earlier injustices, utterly ignored by the EU, is very troubling.

  5. Ynas Midgard said

    I don’t believe in democracy, nor do I think that the current government is worse than any other in the last two decades. Deeds of this scope can only be judged and seen in their “true” form after time has passed. Besides, the government is not the sole reason of our miseries.

    Anyway, the paragraph describing your impressions of Budapest is very evocative; it is a vibrant city indeed.


  6. nickhuntscrutiny said

    One of the Orban supporters I talked to at the pro-government rally on the 15th said the same thing: ‘I don’t believe in democracy.’ He said that Hungary, with only a short history of democracy compared to countries in Western Europe, needs a strong leader. I’ve heard people saying similar things in relation to Russia and other former Eastern Bloc countries. While I agree that it takes time for democratic institutions and civil society to evolve in any country – and while democracy as an effective system is flawed in many ways – I still find this attitude worrying. Because what exactly is the alternative. Having a strong leader is fine in itself… it depends on what they actually do with their power.

    Anyway, you’re right in saying that government is not the sole reason for miseries. Governments come, governments go, and for the most part people get on with their lives and treat one another with decency and kindness… this is really what matters, in the end.

  7. Eszter said

    Press and media are ALWAYS censored. If not by laws, MONEY.
    It’s very easy to make somebody antipathetic if you say they’re fascists, racists, anti-semites. It might not be true, but always works.
    EU…since we joined, our agriculture and factories have been literally destroyed. Why is it beneficial for us? This country has very good capabilities for agriculture. Why do farmers get more money for leaving their lands on waste than for cultivating them? Whose benefit is this?
    Who let all this happen? Surely not the ones elected by the two-third. Rather the ones who were before them. Leaving the ruins for somebody else to clean up and giving their incredibly witty advices, notes and complaints from the opposition. Easy from there.
    I don’t have any illusions, though. I’m gonna make my life work on my own. I don’t expect any politicians to do wonders, ever.
    I don’t say Viktor Orbán is our saviour. But trust me, he is not the worst man to govern this country, not at all. His attitude of separateness is disliked by many in the West, of course, how come we wanting to do what we want? (Sorry, if this sentence is incorrect.)

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